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The Politics of Tookie

Dec
12
2005

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was faced with a no-win decision this week as he took on one of the toughest tasks any elected official has to make: Determining the life-or-death fate of another human being.
Fortunately for Schwarzenegger, he was able to make his decision not to grant clemency without regard to the political implications—as neither option was good politically.
Had he commuted the sentence, and Schwarzenegger risked facing the wrath of the right-wing of his own party who have grown wary of his moves to appease the center and left of California’s political spectrum since the unmitigated disaster that was November’s Special Election.
Deny clemency, as he did, and Schwarzenegger risks getting stuck with the label of being George Bush-lite. This is not what the Governor needs as he tries to remind voters of the more moderate image which got him elected in 2003.
The only way for Schwarzenegger to have come to a decision on Williams’ fate without angering one loud constituency or another would be to clearly articulate a policy on the death penalty and demonstrate how he applied it in this case. It will take a few days to see whether this was the case and if the public understands that as the media will focus on Arnold’s decision–not how he reached it.
The case of Tookie Williams has been a special one for many reasons. The crime he committed was heinous (so bad you may not want to click through that link), but it pales in comparison with the damage Williams inflicted on California as a founder of the Crips street gang. Add to that the fact that Williams shows no remorse and you’d think this would be the last case where Schwarzenegger would grant clemency.
But Tookie Williams has also been a special case for other reasons. Williams became a cause celèbre for Hollywood glitterati from Jamie Foxx to Snoop. Their presence focused the media attention on Tookie’s plight in an unprecedented manner—which means that this time around, the Governor’s decision has been brought into the media circus as well.
Even if the glitterati’s wish had been granted, intellectually honest opponents of the death penalty should ask, “how many celebrities does it take to save one man’s life?”
Schwarzenegger needs to set a death penalty policy because the activity on California’s death row is preparing to increase dramatically.
Tookie Williams is the first of six executions scheduled between the November 2005 Special Election and Arnold’s re-election in 2006 and will be the one which defines the direction of the debate in next year’s General Election—and the Governor needs a clearly-outlined position on the issue before his opponents make the death penalty a political football and simply label him, “The Terminator.”

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