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Could three-strikes case help governor make up ground with Latinos?

Could the governor’s loose lips spring a man from prison? The National
Latino Congreso held in Los Angeles last week may have laid out a blueprint
for how Arnold Schwarzenegger could recoup some of his lost ground with
Latino voters. On Thursday, the day before the Los Angeles Times reported
racially questionable comments by the governor, Congreso participants
unanimously approved a resolution calling on Schwarzenegger to free a Latino
prisoner imprisoned under California’s three-strikes law for cheating on a
Department of Motor Vehicles exam.

The city of Richmond and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors also have
passed resolutions calling on Schwarzenegger to free Santos Reyes, who has
spent the last six years in Folsom prison. As governor, Schwarzenegger has
the authority to commute sentences and issue pardons.

On Wednesday, Reyes’ supporters rallied outside of the U.S. District Court
house in Los Angeles. The court is reviewing Reyes’ case upon orders from
the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which ruled last year that the sentence
may have violated Reyes’ Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual
punishment. Reyes’ supporters are hoping these resolutions and rallies may
convince the governor that freeing Reyes would be a good public relations
move.

Schwarzenegger’s troubles began on Friday when the Los Angeles Times
published taped comments he had made earlier this year in a private meeting
that included chief of staff Susan Kennedy and head speechwriter Gary
Delsohn. On the tape, Schwarzenegger and Kennedy are heard making
unflattering comments about two members of the Republican legislative
leadership.

But the focus of the criticism against the governor stems from comments made
about Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City. Schwarzenegger
speculates about the ethnicity of the New York Puerto Rican Garcia, then
refers to her as a “hot-blooded Latina.” In a pair of press conferences
later on Friday, Garcia said that she was not offended by the comments.

She also called on Angelides to apologize–and may have been validated, given
that the tape was obtained by Angelides campaign workers who accessed
Schwarzenegger’s Web site. However, Schwarzenegger’s problems with Latino
voters preceded “hot blooded Latinagate.” An August Field Poll found Latinos
favored Democrat Phil Angelides over Schwarzenegger 39 percent to 25
percent, though this gap had narrowed from the previous poll. Schwarzenegger
received 31 percent of the Latino vote in the 2003 recall election.

The movement to free Reyes has become a focus of two other hot-blooded–or at
least highly outspoken–Latinos, Green Party politicians Matt Gonzalez and
Peter Camejo. Gonzalez, who lost a closely fought San Francisco mayor’s race
against Gavin Newsom in 2003, is legal counsel to the Free Santos Reyes
organization.

Camejo, who is making his third run as the Green Party candidate for
governor, is serving as a spokesman for the organization. He said the Reyes
case represents a key opportunity for Schwarzenegger because the injustice
of his sentence is closely tied to Reyes’ ethnicity and legal status. For
instance, Camejo said that Reyes had been living and working productively in
the United States for two decades, but could not get a driver’s license. He
had a roofing business with a cousin who could not read English. The pair
decided to have Reyes take the written exam so the cousin could drive the
truck they used.

“Like millions of the undocumented, he had to have a driver’s license
because if he gets stopped, he loses the car,” Camejo said.

The Reyes’ case has drawn the attention of anti-three-strikes activists
because his supporters say it is a prime example of the law being used to
give long sentences to offenders who pose no public threat.

Donna Warren, Green Party candidate for lieutenant governor and a board
member of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS), said that
when three-strikes opponents were looking for a case to use to illustrate
problems with the law, Reyes’ quickly filtered to the top. For starters, she
said, then L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti chose to take what normally
would have been a misdemeanor with a six-month maximum sentence and instead
pursued a felony perjury charge in order to get a third strike on Reyes.
Garcetti, Warren charges, was prosecuting “every black and brown person they
could get their hands on” under three strikes.

Reyes first strike consisted of stealing a boom box out of a house in 1981
when he was 17. His second strike came five years later when he was
convicted of robbery. Prosecutors said Reyes threatened someone with a
roofing knife during that crime, something Reyes has denied. He then had no
offenses for the next 11 years, a period in which he worked steadily, got
married and fathered two children. At no time, his supporters note, did he
ever actually attack anyone.

Numerous polls have shown that the California’s three-strikes law has lower
support among Latinos than whites or Asians, though African-Americans
consistently have been the least supportive of the law. The most outspoken
three-strikes reformer in the California Legislature has been a Latina, Sen.
Gloria Romero. In late July, Romero said that she and Los Angeles District
Attorney Steve Cooley likely would push try to qualify a three-strikes
reform initiative in 2008.

How supportive Schwarzenegger will be–or can afford to be–remains to be
seen. In 2004, he came out against a three-strikes reform, Proposition 66.

This initiative was widely criticized as being badly written; Cooley and
several other noted three-strikes reformers also opposed it. However, Warren
said that Schwarzenegger cited what she claims is a bogus statistic created
by the District Attorney’s Association (DAA): that Proposition 66 would free
26,000 violent criminals. The DAA has been one of the major opponents of
three-strikes reform.

But Camejo believes this may be a case where a Republican could have more
leeway than a Democrat.

“Republicans don’t have to worry about seeming soft on crime,” Camejo said.
A spokesperson for the governor’s re-election campaign declined to comment
for this story.


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