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Crime -- California may use ballot box to find an answer

Can the state which sparked a taxpayer revolt still reverberating across the country trigger a second ballot-box revolution, this one against crime? California Republican leaders think the answer to that may be yes. Only this time, they're beating the voters to the punch by proposing the initiative themselves -- and trying to force Democrats to toe a hard law-and-order line in the process.

Republicans leaders, trying to muscle the Democratic-controlled legislature into passing a tough, 10-part anticrime package, promised April 22 to take the issue to the people in the form of a "stop crime" ballot initiative if the 10 bills are not enacted.

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"Our list of bills is what we believe the people want," State Senate minority leader William Campbell says. "We've tried for years to get tough crime bills through a Democratic-controlled legislature, just as we tried for years to get some form of property tax relief.

"Well," he says, "we lost the [tax reform] issue from a party standpoint. We don't want it to happen again with crime."

The Republican challenge, immediately criticized as "grandstanding" and "partisan demagoguery" by Assembly Democrats, marks the state GOP's most aggressive bid for the anticrime spotlight since Democrats startled many political observers by taking the offensive early in February with a list of their own anticrime bills.

Among the 10 issues the Republicans have focused their concern on are bail and exclusionary rules reform. Other areas include reform already proposed by Democrats -- such as tightening restrictions or penalties on plea bargaining, drunk driving, and sex offenders --"watered-down versions" of the tough legislation they say needs to be enacted. (The GOP package, however, does include two bills proposed by Democrats with a reputation for being tough on crime.)

This year's political free-for-all on crime --are fond of saying -- has resulted in the introduction of more than 100 crime bills, an almost-daily storm of press releases, and a good deal of factional sniping. Until the Republican broadside, both parties had paid at least lip service to the notion of bipartisan cooperation.

But with elections looming on next year's horizon -- including all 80 Assembly seats, several Senate seats, all statewide offices, and a US Senate seat -- the political stakes are high. And both parties are fighting hard for the upper hand.

California pollster Mervyn Field predicts crime will be 1982's "make or break issue." Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. only half-jokingly told reporters recently that "every Democratic member of the Assembly may have to go out and personally arrest a mugger" to convince voters that Democrats are tough on crime.

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Republicans have disdainfully labeled Democrats as "born again" law-and-order advocates. "They moved because they saw the public moving," says Senator Campbell. "Now they want to get on the bandwagon. But let me tell you, the band's not playing their tune.

"Crime is not a partisan issue," retorts Democratic Assemblyman Terry Goddin, chairman of the Assembly's Criminal Justice Committee, which until this year was known as the graveyard for most crime bills. "That's a myth advanced by the Republican s recently because they think we're stealing their issue.

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