Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would abolish the death penalty in California, faces long odds at the polls. But it has a major advantage over the opposing campaign -- wealthy donors, from Silicon Valley executives to Hollywood actors, willing to write fat checks.
With less than two months to go before the election, Proposition 34's campaign has amassed more than $5.4 million to persuade California voters to get rid of capital punishment, dwarfing the paltry $208,000 gathered by a pro-death-penalty coalition of law enforcement and victims' rights groups.
From Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to actor Ed Asner and rocker Jackson Browne, the Proposition 34 campaign has a glittering roster of the rich and famous putting money behind the first vote on whether to retain the death penalty in California since it was reinstated in 1978.
If approved, Proposition 34 would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole and clear the state's death row, which now exceeds 720 condemned killers. The measure's supporters say the death penalty system is too flawed, slow and expensive to retain, while opponents insist the cost concerns are exaggerated and that California should keep the ultimate punishment for heinous murderers.
Natasha Minsker, Proposition 34's campaign manager, said the successful fundraising effort is particularly important in this election, when the ballot is crowded
But anti-Proposition 34 forces say there is enough entrenched sentiment for the death penalty that they don't need as much to get the message out, as long as voters hear from police, prosecutors and victims' families.
"We know we are going to be out-raised because we don't have Hollywood celebrities and liberal do-gooders on our side," said McGregor Scott, a former Sacramento U.S. attorney heading the campaign against the measure. "Ours will be an old-fashioned, word-of-mouth, grass-roots" campaign.
Historically, Californians have strongly favored the death penalty, but that support has diminished somewhat in recent years. And voters have indicated in past polls that they might be willing to replace the death penalty as long as the worst of the worst get life without parole.
Pundits say that with an issue such as the death penalty, it's hard to evaluate whether the "money talks" advantage in most political campaigns applies.
"Normally you see something like that and say it's a slam dunk," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political-science professor. "But in this case, it's such an emotional issue for people that I don't think they need a campaign against it. And it's always harder to get a 'yes' vote on something than a 'no' vote."
Others agree, but say that the substantial money difference could tip the scales if the polls show a tight race as the Nov. 6 election approaches. Indeed, the Proposition 34 campaign has plans to run statewide television ads in the final weeks before the election.
"If law enforcement opposes this and nobody knows, that would be a disadvantage," said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political-science professor. "If you look at the general literature on propositions, especially in California, money matters on both sides."
Experts caution that it's still early and money could flow into the opposition campaign, citing the 2004 battle over a measure that sought to revise California's Three Strikes Law. Proposition 66 was leading handily until then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enlisted the backing of billionaire Henry Nicholas, who poured $3 million into a late push that defeated the measure.
Proposition 36, another measure to reform the Three Strikes Law on this fall's ballot, is again leading in the polls, as well as enjoying a substantial edge in fundraising.
Michael Rushford, executive director of the pro-death-penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, concedes that his side will not overcome the Proposition 34 campaign's money advantage. "The anti-death penalty effort has always been far more organized and funded than its opposition," he said.
That is certainly the case in the current election.
The two biggest donors to Proposition 34 so far are Nicholas Pritzker, CEO of the Hyatt hotels chain, and the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, a New York-based philanthropy established by billionaire Charles Feeney. Both have chipped in $1 million.
Silicon Valley's wealthy are also well-represented. They include Hastings, the Netflix CEO, who donated $250,000, and the Emerson Collective, a nonprofit headed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple's Steve Jobs. Emerson contributed $150,000.
For his part, Hastings believes the main argument in favor of Proposition 34 -- that the death penalty is a waste of money -- is a good reason to back it.
"In California, we will save tens of millions of dollars every year if we change from the death penalty to life in prison without chance of parole," Hastings told this newspaper in an email exchange. "That money would be better spent on educating kids instead."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz. Bay Area News Group researcher Leigh Poitinger contributed to this report.
Nicholas Pritzker, CEO of Hyatt hotels chain: $1 million
The Atlantic Advocacy Fund, New York-based philanthropy headed by billionaire Charles Feeney: $1 million
Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO: $250,000
M. Quinn Delaney, major Democratic Party fundraiser and former ACLU director: $250,000
Farfalla Trust trustee Denise Foderaro, wife of Silicon Valley investment banker Frank Quattrone: $250,000
ACLU of Northern California: $232,882
Nick McKeown, Stanford University computer science and electrical engineering professor: $187,500
Emerson Collective, Silicon Valley philanthropy headed by Laurene Powell Jobs: $150,000
ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties: $135,997
Robert Alan Eustace, Google executive: $125,000
Source: Bay Area News Group research