Gavin Newsom tried to jeopardize democracy in California by killing changes to criminal justice reform

By Susan Shelley

Californians have had constitutional powers of direct democracy since 1911, a signature accomplishment of the progressive movement and Gov. Hiram Johnson.

Today, with Gov. Gavin Newsom slipping “save democracy” into every interview as he positions himself for the presidency, you’d think democracy is in pretty good shape in the Golden State.

You’d be wrong. Instead of protecting democracy, Newsom engaged in a brazen effort to manipulate what voters see on their ballots.

He successfully sued to have a taxpayer protection initiative removed before the election.

Then he tried to kill a citizens’ initiative that would make changes to Proposition 47, the criminal justice reform measure adopted by voters in 2014.

Prop 47 was sold to voters as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.”

It reduced some felony theft and drug crimes to misdemeanors.

Supporters of Prop 47 hotly deny that the measure is responsible for the surge in retail theft, car break-ins and smash-and-grab robberies.

“Nothing in Proposition 47 prevents local and state law enforcement from responding appropriately to the kind of retail theft that voters are concerned about,” explained Lenore Anderson, who co-authored the 2014 measure.

That may be so, but the other co-author of the measure was George Gascón, now Los Angeles County district attorney.

He was elected in 2020 and promptly issued a stack of directives that certainly did prevent law enforcement from responding appropriately.

Gascón faced a rebellion from prosecutors in his office, was nearly recalled, and now is struggling in his effort to win a second term after garnering barely 25% of the vote in a crowded primary.

Last fall, a coalition of law enforcement groups backed by retailers wrote an initiative that makes changes to Prop 47.

They called it the Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act.

More than 900,000 California voters signed petitions to qualify it for the November ballot.

The initiative changes the law to get tougher on repeat offenders while offering an option of drug and mental health treatment to avoid incarceration.

It also gives judges more discretion to sentence individuals to state prison instead of county jail.

That last part, state prison, may be what triggered Newsom.

He has made it a legacy goal to close as many California prisons as possible.

He immediately began to quarterback an effort to get the initiative off the ballot.

Emails leaked to CBS News showed that Newsom’s chief of staff, Dana Williamson, met on June 12 with the initiative’s proponents to try to persuade them to withdraw their measure in exchange for the governor’s signature on a package of anti-theft legislation.

When no agreement was reached, Williamson offered “all the necessary bells and whistles” to get the Prop 47 reform initiative passed, if the coalition would agree to withdraw it now and wait until 2026.

They would not.

Next, Newsom and his allies leaned on members of the Legislature to accept “inoperability” amendments to their package of anti-theft bills.

The amendments would cause the automatic repeal of the anti-theft laws if voters passed the Prop 47 reform initiative.


That would have allowed Attorney General Rob Bonta to write a misleading ballot title and summary for the initiative, something like: “This measure repeals laws that increased penalties for crimes such as car break-ins and retail theft.”

Too clever.

Even many Democrats were appalled.

The amendments were removed.

The next plan from Newsom was a competing “lookalike” ballot measure that was much weaker and didn’t allow judges to sentence anyone to state prison.

His allies in the Legislature arranged to give it the prime position at the top of the list of propositions voters will see on their ballots, with the real Prop. 47 reform near the bottom.

But late Tuesday night, Newsom withdrew his measure.

He cited the need for “amendments” that couldn’t be made in time to meet the ballot deadline.

In California, bills must be published online in their “final form” for 72 hours before the final vote. That rule is in the state constitution thanks to direct democracy.

It was Proposition 54 in 2016, sponsored by Charles Munger, Jr.

On Wednesday, Newsom flew off to Washington to help President Biden “save democracy.”

Manipulating the ballot is not democracy.

The only thing Newsom is trying to save is his own political career.

Susan Shelley is a columnist and editorial writer for the Southern California News Group and VP of Communications for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. On X: @Susan_Shelley