Newsom Shocks California Politics by Scrapping Crime Measure

(Bloomberg) -- California Governor Gavin Newsom abruptly abandoned a carefully negotiated ballot measure designed to tackle property crime and the fentanyl crisis, stunning the state’s political establishment a day after his office trumpeted the proposal.

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The last-minute reversal dashed Newsom’s effort to forge a compromise among Democratic factions in the legislature, where his party has a supermajority, to revamp Proposition 47. The decade-old law reclassified some nonviolent drug and property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies, and has drawn fire from critics who say it has exacerbated drug abuse and retail theft.

The governor sided with pro-business moderates who advocated for tightening penalties for crimes including repeat shoplifting, while pitting him against progressives who raised concerns about racial disparities in arrests and prosecutions. The failure of the Democratic compromise means that only a tougher crackdown backed by the California District Attorneys Association will appear before voters on the November ballot.

The Democrats were “unable to meet the ballot deadline to secure necessary amendments to ensure this measure’s success,” Newsom said in a statement late Tuesday. Conceding to political realities, he said the initiative would be withdrawn.

Party leaders had hashed out the initiative over the weekend after trying unsuccessfully to block the district attorneys’ measure. Still, Newsom said he would “soon sign a robust public safety package that expands criminal penalties, bolsters police and prosecutor tools, and cracks down on retail theft.”

He faulted the district attorneys association for backing a measure “that would revive policies from the era of mass incarceration and the failed War on Drugs.”

Greg Totten, the head of the district attorneys group, took a victory lap after Newsom’s decision to withdraw the proposal negotiated by Democrats.

“We are pleased the governor and legislature have dropped their countermeasure and welcome them to join our campaign to responsibly amend Proposition 47 to deal with retail theft, the fentanyl crisis and homelessness,” Totten said.

Biden Meeting

Newsom abandoned the ballot initiative as he prepared to join a meeting of Democratic governors with President Joe Biden, who’s reeling from his disastrous performance in last week’s debate with former President Donald Trump. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz are also heading to Washington, with Pritzker urging Biden to communicate with Americans as he slides in the polls.

As the top elected official in the nation’s most populous state, Newsom has long been spoken of as a presidential candidate. But the governor, a prominent Biden surrogate, continues to back the president following the rocky debate.

“All this other talk... it’s unhelpful and unnecessary,” Newsom wrote in a fundraising email the day after the debate. “We aren’t going to turn our backs because of one performance. What kind of party does that?”

Newsom’s abrupt departure for Washington comes as California is facing a deadly heat wave and wildfires. A fire burning near the town of Oroville, California, has forced the evacuation of about 13,000 residents, according to a spokesperson for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. The fire forced power lines in the area to be shut down and forced the closure of a hydroelectric power plant at Oroville Dam.

In addition, there’s a midnight deadline Wednesday for bills passed in the legislature to be included on the November ballot. California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who normally acts in Newsom’s absence, is also out of the state on for a previously scheduled trip. That leaves state Senate leader Mike McGuire as acting governor, a spokesperson for Newsom confirmed.

“The Governor’s been in around the clock conversations with the legislature, briefings, emergency management with wildfires and heat, reviewing paroles, reviewing memos, on calls, and in regular meetings” his spokesman said Wednesday before Newsom left for the Democratic governors’ meeting with Biden.

--With assistance from Mark Chediak.

(Updates with context in second paragraph.)

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