AP Interview: Three – Strikes Fight Was ‘Wake – Up call’ for Mogul

By BEN FOX, Associated Press Writer

(Updated Saturday, November 13, 2004, 9:40 AM)

IRVINE, Calif. (AP) – Henry Nicholas was preoccupied. The billionaire co–founder of chip maker Broadcom was helping the company he used to run find a new chief executive officer. He was reacquainting himself with his family after years as a busy high–tech entrepreneur.

Frankly, he wasn’t that political anyway.

But a late–night phone call from a former California governor less than 10 days before the November election was his political awakening.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson was seeking help to defeat a ballot measure that would have weakened the state’s three–strikes sentencing law. Nicholas, whose sister was murdered 20 years ago by her boyfriend, was horrified to learn that polls showed Proposition 66 would pass by a wide margin.

“I thought ‘You’ve got to be kidding. How does this get seven days away from the election?” Nicholas said. “This is going to pass and criminals are going to get out. It’s ridiculous.”

Nicholas, who says he had never before given to a political campaign, shelled out nearly $4 million for a barrage of political ads, most featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the final week of the campaign. Proposition 66 lost in one of the most stunning reversals in state history.

One lesson Nicholas said he got from the experience is that he can no longer afford to ignore politics, and he says he’s now willing to spend some of his fortune, estimated at $2 billion, to influence public policy. Previously, he has donated only to charities.

“I think we saved California,” he said in an interview at the University of California, Irvine, in an engineering hall named for his Broadcom partner Henry Samueli. “My faith in politics has been somewhat renewed by this.”

Exactly how he plans to become politically active remains unclear. Nicholas, in the rambling style that made him one of the more eccentric moguls of the tech boom, won’t give specifics but says his principal interests are education, technology and the rights of crime victims.

Nicholas, who says he does not plan to run for any office, describes himself as “mostly Republican,” but came out of the Proposition 66 fight as a fan of Schwarzenegger – a rising GOP star who he believes risked political capital on a potentially losing battle – and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who alienated liberal allies by opposing the effort to water down the three–strikes law.

Brown, a former governor who is preparing to run for state attorney general, said he had never met Nicholas before the campaign against Proposition 66. But he praised the businessman for playing a key role in defeating a “huge get–out–of–jail free card,” for thousands of inmates.

“He felt strongly about it and he had the means to do something about it. Without Nicholas’ money and Schwarzenegger, it would never have happened,” Brown said of the measure’s defeat.

The state’s three–strikes law, adopted in 1994 largely in response to the murder of 12–year–old Polly Klaas, calls for a 25–years–to–life prison term for a felony offender who has two previous serious or violent felony convictions.

Proposition 66 would have required the third felony to be either serious or violent and would have eliminated provisions of the law that classified crimes such as burglary or arson under those categories. Opponents claimed the ballot measure would release 26,000 prisoners while supporters, who feel that three–strikes is unduly harsh, said it would only be about 4,000.

In any case, voters had at first seemed inclined to change the law. A Field Poll in early October showed Proposition 66 passing with 65 percent of the vote. That began to change in the final three days of the race with a burst of television and radio ads funded primarily by Schwarzenegger and Nicholas. The measure lost, winning only 47 percent of the vote.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “We’ve seen turnarounds extend over a number of weeks but 1.5 million California voters changed their minds in the week before the election.”

Nicholas’ money helped, but it wasn’t the deciding factor, says DiCamillo, who attributes the result mainly to Schwarzenegger’s ability to persuade the public to take a harder look at Proposition 66. “This guy happened to latch on to a cause that had a powerful message and a powerful messenger,” he said.

For Nicholas, the primary motivation was his passion for the rights of crime victims, which comes from personal experience. He won’t discuss his sister’s murder except to point out that the man who killed her would not have been released by Proposition 66.

He said he would accept some minor modifications to the three–strikes law such as allowing a judge more discretion to not impose 25–years–to–life on someone who has many years since their previous crimes and whose third strike is a drug offense. But otherwise, he believes the overall concept of the law is solid.

“At some point in time, the punishment should fit the criminal,” he said. “There has to be a vehicle for putting a person away forever because he can’t be rehabilitated.”

Because Proposition 66 garnered as many votes as it did, many expect the issue will return, perhaps as another ballot measure. Nicholas says this time he will pay more attention. “I’ll start earlier and I’ll crush them,” he said.