12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

5 Guilty Governors Fight Prop. 5

Say you've got a huge prison crisis in your state. Who you gonna call?

In California, you might call the five living governors together. And Thursday, someone did.

Alas, they were united not to solve the prison overcrowding crisis, but to try to defeat the only viable solution - Proposition 5. (See my post the other day describing Prop. 5 in more detail, and here for Arianna's take.)

As campaign manager for Prop. 5, it was my job to shuttle over to the downtown LA courts building where the governors had gathered, so I could respond after they spoke. One by one, a parade of California's former CEOs came to the mic, each offering two to three sentences of canned No on 5 blather.

None of them copped to their own roles in letting California's prisons reach such an extreme level of overcrowding, disrepair and dysfunction that we now pay $10 billion per year for a system that simply doesn't work.

And no one mentioned the state's deep-pocketed prison guards' union, the elephant in the room, which was paying for the mic. The guards have put almost $2 million into the No on 5 effort, as our new Yes on 5 TV ad explains. No, why speak of inconvenient things at a time like this?

Since the late 1980s, during George Deukmejian's tenure, until today, under Arnold, the California prison population increased from 76,000 to over 170,000 - nearly three times faster than the growth of the general adult population. In the 1990s, California built 21 new prisons and just one university. Prison spending is projected to reach $15 billion per year by 2011, and the state is getting ready to build $8 billion in new penal facilities, unless Prop. 5 passes.

Those are big problems with big pricetags. But there was a lot I didn't hear Thursday from all these governors.

Pete Wilson did not mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he took as governor from the state's prison guards' union, the prison-building orgy he oversaw, or the way he cynically pushed the "three strikes" ballot initiative to get himself re-elected in 1994.

Gray Davis did not talk about the millions he took from the prison guards, either. Nor did he discuss the lavish contracts he "negotiated" with them that allow some guards to earn $120,000 per year or more with overtime, and which allow the union to effectively manage the prisons in spite of the fig leaf of state agency control.

Now Jerry Brown, who also spoke Thursday, is cozying up to the prison guards. He has been endorsed for governor (2010) by the guards' union and is currently benefiting from $800,000 of TV time they donated to air commercials that he stars in. Jerry didn't even say "thank you."

Before the ex-governors brought in Arnold to complete their show, they had a surprise guest: Meg Whitman. She's the former eBay exec and McCain financial advisor who has now begun her run for governor of California early. (So much for replacing Henry Paulson.)

Whitman gave $250,000 to the No on 5 campaign last week and won the lavish praise of the law enforcement community as a result. Today, she got camera time, too. (I wondered what Jerry Brown was thinking right about then.)

Then along came Arnold.

You may not believe this, but as sponsors of Prop. 5, we once entertained the possibility that Arnold Schwarzenegger would support the initiative - or at least not oppose it. Here's why: He knows better than most how urgent this crisis is, and how resistant to change the prison system really is - particularly the guards' union. A change coming from outside, via a voter initiative, might be something he would welcome.

Arnold knows that he may be the last governor of California to have any control over our state prisons for many years, if, as is widely expected, federal judges take over the system later this year.

He has tried to steer away from the edge of the cliff. Arnold declared a "state of emergency" in 2006 due to prison overcrowding, along with a special session of the Legislature to try to get ahead of the problem. Nothing happened.

This year he proposed two prison reforms far more radical than anything in Prop. 5 - the mass release of 22,000 nonviolent inmates, and a new paper-only parole status for nonviolent inmates after release from prison which he called "summary parole," which would entail no active supervision. (Prop. 5 requires up to one year of active supervision for most nonviolent parolees.)

Last year Arnold also tried other, modest parole reforms that were shot down by local cops and district attorneys, the folks who like everything the way it is.

At this point, Arnold and many others in state government seem to regard a federal takeover of the prisons as inevitable, and perhaps preferable to the hard work of trying to solve these problems in our poisoned political climate. If so, Prop. 5 really is the last chance for Californians to have a say in what happens.

Arnold threw some outlandish charges at Prop. 5 today, including a claim that Prop. 5 "was written by those who care more about the rights of criminals." Them's lazy fightin' words, Arnold, but I guess you've been hearing that enough in the blowback from law enforcement against your own limp efforts at reform. Now you're projecting.

The rhetoric on either side won't solve this problem. If Prop. 5 doesn't pass, California will pass the problem along to someone else - another federal bailout. After that, all the press conferences and angry words in the world won't make a difference. We'll have to take whatever the judges give us. That's something else I didn't hear today.