By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - Two of the most powerful politicians in California are advancing the same basic gun control agenda – yet they are at loggerheads in a political duel that could preview an ugly race to replace the state’s popular Democratic governor, Jerry Brown.
The spat among ambitious Democrats took a serious turn this week, as Senate leader Kevin de Leon aggressively moved to push a package of gun control bills through the legislature that, if passed, would largely render irrelevant a firearms referendum by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom aimed at the November ballot.
"They both want tougher gun laws in California and they both want credit for it," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now heads the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Both efforts would prohibit possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines, require greater scrutiny of ammunition purchasers and seek to better keep guns out of the hands of violent felons. The legislative package, which passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday and will go before the full body on Thursday, also seeks to eliminate a loophole in an existing law prohibiting weapons with detachable ammunition magazines.
Newsom, who is running to replace Brown in the 2018 gubernatorial election, is expected to make the gun control measure a centerpiece of his campaign, along with a proposed ballot initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
But de Leon has not endorsed him. Last year, shortly after Newsom announced his gun control referendum, de Leon reduced the number of legislative staff working in the lieutenant governor's office. De Leon, who represents Los Angeles, is close to possible Newsom rivals in the governor's race, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
He has asked Newsom to agree to withdraw his ballot measure if the Senate package passes, but Newsom has refused.
"The initiative process is a blunt instrument and should always be the last resort - not the first," de Leon said in an email on Monday. "It would be preferable to achieve policymaking on such a complex issue as gun control through the legislative process."
De Leon is also concerned that the ballot campaign would be expensive, drawing political contributions from pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association and potentially causing Democrats in moderate and conservative districts to lose elections, a source close to him said.
But Newsom said in a letter to de Leon shared with Reuters that his initiative was more comprehensive than the Senate package, tackling topics that had stalled repeatedly in the legislature.
Dan Newman, Newsom's campaign strategist, said concerns about gun violence, not politics, motivated the lieutenant governor.
"He will get plenty of exposure this fall via his support for the marijuana initiative and Hillary for President," Newman said. "Being relentlessly attacked by the NRA isn't something he needs for his personal ambition."
Backing a ballot initiative on a controversial topic like gun control will likely raise Newsom's profile with voters, Schnur said. But it could also backfire and alienate de Leon.
"It doesn't do his campaign for governor a lot of good to be going up against the most powerful Democrat in the legislature," Schnur said.
Gun rights supporters say both men are being opportunistic.
"Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is no stranger to trying to hijack high-profile issues in order to get his name out there," said Craig Deluz, a lobbyist for the Calgun Foundation. "And Senate Pro Tem de Leon doesn't want the Lieutenant Governor to steal his thunder."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Leslie Adler)