In early March, before the pandemic closed the state Capitol to visitors, Esteban Núñez led former prisoners through the regal building where his father was once one of California’s most powerful politicians.
He exuded know-how, his shiny loafers clicking across marble floors as they moved toward an elevator. Down a hallway. Into the office of a lawmaker they hoped to convince to grant voting rights to Californians released from prison, but still on parole.
Not long ago, Núñez himself had been one of them.
“As you know, I’m personally impacted,” Núñez told a legislative aide, inviting others to share their rehabilitation stories.
Núñez didn’t say much more about himself at that meeting. He didn’t have to.
The 31-year-old son of Fabian Núñez, a former Democratic Assembly speaker, Esteban Núñez is well-known by insiders as the beneficiary of one of California’s most notorious acts of clemency. His father’s bipartisan friendship with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger helped Núñez win early release after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his role in a 2008 knife fight that injured two men and killed Luis Santos, a 22-year-old college student.
On Schwarzenegger’s last night in office in 2011, he announced cutting Núñez’s 16-year prison sentence to seven years, saying the term was excessive because Núñez did not inflict the fatal stab. Schwarzenegger later acknowledged he had also acted to help a friend. The Republican governor’s decision infuriated the victim’s parents and led the California Republican Party to formally rebuke Schwarzenegger for sending the wrong message “to potential criminals with connections to those in power.”
The younger Núñez was released from prison in 2016 and is now a regular at the statehouse where, in tailored suits and sleek black hair, he resembles a taller version of his father. Soft-spoken and quick to acknowledge “the damage that I personally caused,” Núñez combines an inmate’s understanding of prison with a politician’s understanding of the Capitol. As a policy director for the criminal justice nonprofit program Cut50, Núñez is part of the tide pushing California’s penal system from tough-on-crime laws toward giving criminals a second chance.
His focus this year, as the pandemic replaced in-person lobbying with Zoom meetings: voting rights for Californians on parole, a period of government supervision for criminal offenders that typically lasts about three years. A measure asking voters to do that cleared the Assembly and faces final votes in the Senate this week — if approved, it will land on the November ballot.
Núñez’s transition underscores California’s increasingly liberal shift on criminal justice — he credits the leader of a prison rehabilitation program with inspiring him to pursue an advocacy career. But it also reflects the reality of Sacramento, where family ties run deep inside the Capitol.
“I think I do have a unique opportunity to use the doors that my father has worked hard to open, for the greater good,” Núñez said.
He said he hopes he can help “other people in the way that I was helped.”
Fabian Núñez, now a partner at a prominent lobbying firm, declined to be interviewed for this article but said he is proud of his son’s work.
The effort to allow California parolees to vote is part of a broader nationwide push to restore voting rights to people with criminal histories. Recently Nevada, Colorado, New York and Florida have expanded voting rights for felons. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia allow people to vote as soon as they’re released from prison, even while on parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing people in local jails to vote. But granting voting rights to parolees from state prisons requires voter approval. The last time they changed the rules about who can vote was in 1974, approving a measure allowing felons to vote only after completing both prison and parole.
That leaves about 40,000 Californians who have completed their prison sentences unable to vote while on parole, according to an analysis of the pending measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6.
Núñez is part of a large coalition of civil rights advocates that have been pushing for this change for the last three years. It’s taken on heightened urgency now, amid widespread protests against racism and calls to revamp the criminal justice system following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. With African Americans overrepresented among parolees — making up 26% of the parole population but only 6% of California adults — the measure is a top priority for the Legislature’s Black caucus.
“Parole by definition is not punishment — it’s to help reintegrate people back into the mainstream,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, the Sacramento Democrat who wrote ACA 6.
“Parolees are many times working, paying taxes, raising their family, doing right. And they can’t vote on policies that affect their lives.”
The measure raises questions about how far California should go in reducing consequences for crimes.
“It’s a matter not of prejudice or denying a right — it’s about justice,” GOP state Sen. Jim Nielsen said at a recent hearing. “Historically, justice has required a forfeiture of voting because of the severity of the impact of crime on society and on individuals.”
Parole is a transition between incarceration and freedom that involves many restrictions intended “to incentivize further appropriate behavior,” argue conservative election watchdogs cited as opponents in the bill analysis.
An advocate for crime victims opposes the policy — and the messenger.
“We have somebody lobbying behind it that has not even taken responsibilities for the violent crime he committed,” said Nina Salarno Besselman, a board member of Crime Victims United.
“He never completed the sentence he was handed down because he was able, through political favors, to change things in his favor.”
As an attorney, Salarno represented the parents of the man killed in the fight with Núñez and his friends in a lawsuit against Schwarzenegger. They alleged that his commutation violated a victims’ rights law, but an appeals court ruled in 2015 that “while Schwarzenegger’s conduct could be seen as deserving of censure and grossly unjust, it was not illegal.”
The victim’s father called Núñez “a total abuser of the system.
“I don’t think people that committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote,” Fred Santos said. “Because they violated other citizens’ rights, they should not have their rights.”
Santos, a Bay Area software engineer, is resentful that Núñez is trying to earn more rights for criminals while he and his wife still grieve for their son. The family visits Luis’ grave several times a year, Santos said, on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, his birthday and the anniversary of his murder. They return at the start of every football and basketball season to adorn the gravesite for Luis’ favorite teams: black and silver for the Raiders, blue and gold for the Warriors.
“People get together and talk to their children; we go to the cemetery and put flowers and decorate,” Santos said. “That’s as much as we can do.”
Luis was going to college in San Diego when a 19-year-old Núñez and three friends traveled there from Sacramento for a weekend of partying in October 2008. Prosecutors alleged that Núñez and his buddies drank heavily, then grew angry when they were turned away from a party near San Diego State University. A fight erupted.
“I jumped in when I saw my friend on the floor and he had a stab wound in his leg,” Núñez said in an interview with CalMatters. “Had I seen Luis bleeding out, I would not have jumped in.”
Núñez and his friends returned to Sacramento, burned the clothes they’d worn and tossed their knives into a river.
Two months later, they were arrested. Two pled guilty to conspiracy and assault. As the trial drew near for Núñez and the other friend, Ryan Jett, the pair pleaded guilty to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon — for the two men injured — and voluntary manslaughter for Santos’ death. The district attorney announced that both men admitted responsibility for Santos’ death, and both were sentenced to 16 years.
Fred Santos said he holds them equally culpable “because it was a mob attack.”
But Schwarzenegger drew several distinctions in his commutation. “Jett stabbed Santos once through the chest, severing his heart,” he wrote, while Núñez aided and abetted but “was not the actual killer.” The governor also noted that Núñez had no prior criminal history, while Jett had multiple convictions.
Núñez’s supporters say he and Jett never should have gotten the same sentence.
“The case became highly politicized,” said Kevin de Leon, a former state Senate leader who has known Núñez since he was a baby because he is close friends with his father.
“There is no question that Esteban had to pay a price, as well as the other young men, because of the tragic outcome… But there’s always been this gross narrative that he was the one that stabbed (Santos), when he wasn’t.”
While in prison, Núñez was aware of the clemency efforts, but says he was caught by surprise in January 2011 when he learned his sentence had been reduced while watching the news with his cellmate.
“I saw it on the ticker and I just started crying,” Núñez said.
The Santos family also learned of it from the media — a shock that deepened their pain. The fight Esteban Núñez took part in “stabbed my son in his heart,” Fred Santos said. “And Fabian Núñez stabbed us in our back.”
The incident led to a new state law that requires a governor to notify prosecutors at least 10 days before shortening a criminal sentence, so that prosecutors can inform victims’ families.
“The pain doesn’t go away,” Fred Santos said. “We are serving a life sentence.”
Núñez has not apologized to the Santos family, but said he’d like to someday.
Santos said he wouldn’t accept an apology now. He and his wife just want Núñez not to hurt anyone else, and to make his court-ordered restitution payments to them so that each month he remembers their loss.
At Mule Creek State Prison east of Sacramento, Núñez was focused on survival. The young man who had once dined with his family at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home was now a prison cook making 16 cents an hour.
“Everybody knew my father was a politician,” Núñez said. “For people inside, it was like I had a life that I squandered away, which I understand and respect. And for correctional officers, I think it was like, ‘Oh, you’re in our house now. Let me show you how it goes down in here.’
“I think there was just a lot of desire to humble me.”
When he found out he had only a few years left in prison, Núñez said he started reading self-help books from his mother and analyzing his childhood. He was determined to, in his words, “figure out what’s wrong, where I fell short, what mistakes I made, what influenced those decisions.”
He connected with Scott Budnick, a Hollywood producer who runs rehabilitation programs in California prisons through the Anti-Recidivism Coalition he founded.
“I met him in a large group of incarcerated men,” Budnick wrote in an email to CalMatters, “and right away he stated that he wanted to use this experience to work with kids and be a mentor, so they would never have to see the inside of a prison, and would have the support to go into college instead. He has maintained that focus and commitment to being of service to others and helping others find a better path.”
Released in 2016, Núñez remembers telling his parole agent his plans for his first day of freedom. First up: steak and shrimp. Next: enroll in college and register to vote.
“You can’t vote,” Núñez recalls the agent telling him. “‘You’re legally not allowed to vote because you’re on parole.’”
Núñez had sworn to himself that he would not follow his father’s path into politics. The thought of walking into the Capitol filled him with shame, a reminder of both the crime that sent him to prison and the political connections that helped set him free.
“I wanted to pretend like it never happened,” Núñez said. “I wanted to live under the radar.”
He moved in with his mom in the Sacramento suburbs and began studying to become a mechanical engineer. But he was haunted by calls from his friends who were still locked up.
“They would ask like, ‘What’s it like? How are you?’ And I just couldn’t bring myself to answer,” Núñez said.
“I felt guilty that I was out here, able to be with my family, when I knew there were people who were in very similar situations, like myself, and still inside.”
Soon he decided that instead of ignoring his criminal past and political connections, he wanted to make the most of them. He called Budnick. The Anti-Recidivism Coalition encourages formerly incarcerated people to advocate for changes to the system; it took him on as an intern. Over the next three years Núñez was promoted to policy coordinator.
“We at ARC believe that those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions,” Budnick said. “Because of Esteban’s experience in prison, he is an incredible guide to those that are navigating their own change.”
As an advocate now making about $80,000 a year, Núñez has pushed for new state laws that prohibit prosecuting youth under age 16 as adults and repealed prosecutors’ power to file murder charges against people who didn’t directly kill someone, but were involved in a felony that led to a death. He also worked to qualify a ballot measure permitting prisoners and parolees to vote. When it failed to get enough signatures, Núñez and fellow advocates narrowed the scope to parolees only, and asked the Legislature to put it on the ballot instead.
Assemblyman McCarty agreed to carry the measure. He had gotten to know Núñez and found his transformation compelling.
“He acknowledged that he had all kinds of privileges that other people did not, so he was able to get a second chance,” McCarty said. “He noticed that a lot of people in the justice system did not. And he was going to use his life and his opportunity to be back in the mainstream to work on these issues.”
A key piece of Núñez’s work is encouraging people who have committed crimes to become more civically engaged. Núñez believes they will make better choices if they feel more invested in society.
“Voting is really like the most traditional way that somebody can voice their opinions,” he said.
Núñez was unable to vote in the 2016 presidential election because he was on parole. It had ended by the midterm election, so he cast a ballot in 2018. And then, on a blue-skied day in March, Núñez tucked his 2020 primary ballot into its envelope. The sun was out, a breeze wafted through the trees. He headed to a polling place in downtown Sacramento, joined by friends who also were discharged from parole in recent years.
United once by their criminal status, they are united now by their work to change the justice system. Together, with broad smiles, they dropped their ballots into the box.