How did a shoplifting bill get through California’s liberal Assembly with most Democrats opposed?


Assemblymember Ash Kalra did something exceptional last week. 

He was the only legislator to vote “no” on a controversial piece of legislation while nearly half of the 80 members in the state Assembly – and a majority of the Democrats – did not vote.

The bill, which would make it easier to arrest shoplifters, is a recent example of a pattern CalMatters revealed in April with legislators dodging votes to avoid offending the bill’s supporters or to eliminate a record of their opposition on controversial topics.

Assembly Bill 1990 passed the Assembly 44-1 last week with 35 lawmakers not casting a vote including 32 of the 62 Democrats and the Assembly speaker, Robert Rivas. Some of those not voting had excused absences, but the Legislature’s online record does not distinguish between an absence, an abstention or not voting. 

The bill would allow police to make an arrest for shoplifting without a warrant, even if they did not witness the crime. Los Angeles Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo, who authored the bill with five Democratic and two Republican coauthors, said it is “in response to the alarming escalation of organized retail theft,” which has become a hot-button political issue

But progressive Democrats, leery of increasing incarceration rates for minor offenses, were uncomfortable with the bill.

“Let’s be clear: AB 1990 will not stop retail theft,” Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a Democrat from Inglewood, told her colleagues. “AB 1990 will increase the unnecessary harassment, detention, arrest and mass incarceration of Black and brown Californians.”

She concluded her speech: “I am asking all of you to please vote ‘no’ on AB 1990.”

McKinnor, however, did not vote on the bill.

Her office did not respond to CalMatters’ request for an explanation about why she did not vote despite her clear opposition. 

Kalra, of San Jose, also did not respond to a request from CalMatters to explain why he cast the lone “no” vote. 

But Kalra has been a longtime champion of progressive causes. He’s a former deputy public defender and the former chair of the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus. He has advocated for legislation that seeks to end systematic racism in the justice system.

For a time, it seemed that Kalra wasn’t going to be the lone Democrat “no” vote on AB 1990.

Fellow Democratic Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur of Los Angeles also was listed as voting “no,” according to video of the voting roll call captured by CalMatters’ Digital Democracy database.

But Zbur, who chairs the Assembly Democratic Caucus, changed his vote after the bill passed so that he would be formally listed as not voting. In the Assembly, members can change their vote on a bill after a hearing has concluded, as long as it doesn’t change the final outcome. 

Asked to explain why he changed his vote, his spokesperson, Vienna Montague, said in an email that Zbur “does not have a comment at this time.”

While AB 1990 survived to advance to the Senate, despite so many lawmakers not voting, other bills haven’t fared as well.

Last year, at least 15 bills died due to lack of votes instead of lawmakers voting “no” on them. So far this year, the Digital Democracy database indicates at least 17 bills have died because lawmakers declined to vote. 

Meanwhile, Senate and Assembly leaders have repeatedly refused to answer CalMatters’ questions about whether the Legislature’s voting rules should change.

Politicians may think not voting helps their political career in the long-run since they believe it’ll be more difficult for someone to use a controversial “no” vote against them in a campaign ad, said Thad Kousser, a former California legislative staffer who’s now a political science professor at UC San Diego. But he says that’s shortsighted. He said any savvy political operative can just as easily say they “failed to support this bill” in an ad.

Kousser said if lawmakers really do have strong feelings against a bill, they’re better off voting “no.” 

“Politicians’ political interests are probably best served by taking a stand that best fits their values and explaining that to voters,” Kousser said. 

Not voting, he said, is “just another way of saying, ‘I didn’t represent you on this bill.’ ”


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