Not Tired of Winning: criminal justice election analysis, November 2022
Hello all! I’m writing to briefly update you on the results of last week’s elections from the perspective of work to end mass incarceration. Given all of the many high-stakes results across the country for many issues, it’s been hard to keep track! To cover the results, I’ll start by extensively quoting a recent article from Bolts Magazine, which I’ve been proud to support through the Just Impact Fund, and which has a great rundown on DA elections and a few others.
DA Elections (quoting a portion of this Bolts article, with some light edits and rearrangements, and some new updates from me)
Republicans bet that they would make major gains in the midterms by attacking criminal justice reformers. But that strategy repeatedly failed last week, most notably in the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, where Democratic nominee John Fetterman prevailed after facing major attacks over his record over promoting clemency for people incarcerated for life.
Reformers also made new inroads in local races and are poised to take over new prosecutor offices.
Mary Moriarty, a career public defender who has clashed with the local police and prosecutors, will become the next prosecutor of Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis. In an election that encapsulated the local conflicts over policing and prosecution since George Floyd’s murder, she easily prevailed against a former judge who had argued that reform rhetoric was threatening public safety. Moriarty made the opposite case, impugning the effects of decades of tough-on-crime policies…
Other candidates who emphasized a reform message also prevailed. Kimberly Graham, who represents abused and neglected children in court, won in Polk County, (Des Moines), Iowa’s most populous county. Kelly Higgins, a defense attorney, won the DA race in fast-growing Hays County, Texas (outside of Austin) after promising a “sea change” in the county; he told Bolts that he was moved toward more progressive positions by a group of activists organizing in Central Texas. They join Memphis’s new DA [Steve Mulroy], who won in August, in growing the reform ranks. In Dallas and San Antonio, Democratic DAs [John Creuzot and Joe Gonzalez, who have been strong local leaders on criminal justice reform, handily defeated challenges by well-known opponents.
In King County, home to Seattle, voters elected Leesa Manion, the chief-of-staff of the retiring prosecutor, instead of a candidate who was running on bringing more punitive practices to the county.
[In Alameda, reform candidate Pam Price has pulled ahead in recent counts; the vote tabulation is ongoing.]
Running for DA in Oklahoma County, [Democrat Vicki Behenna defeated] Republican Kevin Calvey[, who] vowed to drop the charges filed by the outgoing DA against five police officers who shot and killed 15-year Stavian Rodriguez outside a convenience store.
In Indiana, the local Fraternal Order of Police has targeted the chief prosecutor of Marion County (Indianapolis), Ryan Mears, and endorsed a Republican candidate who wanted to ramp up low-level arrests and prosecutions. Mears prevailed last week.
Reform candidates for District Attorney [lost against] incumbent prosecutors in Maricopa County, Arizona, Pinellas and Pasco counties, Florida, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, and Douglas County, Nebraska.
[In San Francisco, challenger John Hamasaki failed to unseat Brooke Jenkins, who was installed to replace Chesa Boudin after his recall; she will now serve a full term. Hamasaki ran on anti-corruption. Evidence that Jenkins had repeatedly broken the law and has stalled on cases where police murdered civilians was not enough to move voters against her.]
The bottom line is that reform candidates across the country now oversee a combined population of over 50 million. Many of these victories happened despite the demagoguery, scapegoating, and outright lies thrown at reform candidates.
In Los Angeles, Kenneth Mejia defeated the incumbent by 20 points to win the office of controller after a fresh-faced campaign that highlighted the enormity of police spending in the city. He notably put up billboards visualizing the size of the police budget compared to other city services. Also in L.A., reviled Sheriff Villanueva lost by 20 points and cried at his concession speech. His replacement, Robert Luna, will be better, but deep changes are going to require years of work (potentially aided by the passage of measure A, which will allow the County Board to remove elected Sheriffs for cause). If Lindsay Horvath keeps her lead in the County Board race for district 3, that bodes very well for major ongoing County reforms.
Tina Kotek won the governor’s race in Oregon. Kotek has been significant supporter of Measure 110, which decriminalized simple drug possession across the board and allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen statewide public health, treatment, and recovery capacity, and which became a flash point in the governor’s race, with tons of grotesque anti-110 messaging. Kotek’s victory is notable for the failure of those attacks and the fact that now 110 is safe from being repealed in the short term.
Harris County (Houston) Executive (locally known as “Judge”) Lina Hidalgo survived a tight reelection race to keep her seat. Meanwhile, Dems picked up an extra seat on the Harris County Board of Commissioners, which positions them to make some big changes regarding funding priorities as between the jail and housing/health/food initiatives.
In Illinois, Republicans spent a lot of money and TV time trying to scare voters into voting against incumbents who had passed major bail reform. Yet Dems not only kept their seats, but increased their supermajority in the legislature.
In Kentucky, voters elected several public defenders as judges in Jefferson County (Louisville). Notably, they ousted Circuit Court Judge Mary Shaw who signed the warrant in March 2020 for the raid of Breonna Taylor’s home.
Elisabeth Epps, who ran as a prison abolitionist and champion of social justice, won her race for Colorado’s 6th state house district.
Voters approved measures to ban slavery as a form of punishment for committing a crime in Tennessee, Vermont, Alabama, and Oregon. If properly implemented (a big “if”), these measures will require states to pay prisoners for their labor, which would blow corrections budgets out of the water unless they make some major changes.
Voters in Maryland and Missouri legalized recreational marijuana, with the measures allowing for record expungement in both states and the ability to petition for release in Missouri.
Here are some key takeaways. I also recommend checking out Radley Balko’s rundown on what the midterms tell us about voters.
Crime rhetoric mattered in this election, but far less than was predicted. Exit polling had crime motivating only about 10% of voters.
Voters care about crime and want solutions to it, and a large number of them aren’t falling for the empty punitiveness offered by Republicans and some Democrats. For example, In Arizona, crime polled as a ‘top issue’, but voters chose Democrat Katie Hobbs.
In most races where Republicans made a big issue out of crime, they did poorly (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, up and down the ticket). These are earthquake results, and probably should cause Republicans to reconsider their approach.
A few notable Democrats who took a very clear stance in favor of reform did extremely well, winning by more than 15 points, such as Kenneth Mejia for L.A. City Comptroller, Mary Moriarty for Hennepin DA, and John Creuzot for Dallas DA.
The one place where crime rhetoric may have had a systematic effect was in New York, where the New York Post (a Murdoch paper) incessantly hammered on it, Governor Hochul had a much closer race than expected, and many candidates underperformed Biden. Even voters in neighboring states exposed to the NY media market voted redder than their peers in other markets. Why did crime hysteria gain more traction in NY than other places? We won’t know without more research, but a solid theory is that NYC Mayor Eric Adams, who is a Democrat, heartily endorsed and amplified the exact false and misleading rhetoric used by the NY Post (saying things like murders are soaring, which they are not). In doing so, he legitimized it and made it a mainstream story reported on across news outlets, instead of an obvious partisan attack. Adams is a major liability for the Democrats.
In many races, where Democratic candidates parroted republican talking points on crime, they did poorly (Val Demings) or may have damaged others (such as Adams). In contrast, where candidates candidly addressed concerns about safety while offering solutions based on the evidence, and/or stood by their existing records of reform, they did well (e.g., Fetterman, Sitt in Oklahoma who was viciously attacked on his parole record). We see this in the NY state leg races compared to Congressional campaigns. Along these lines, it’s notable that in L.A., where Karen Bass is in an unexpectedly close mayor’s race after making the poor decision to employ some negative crime rhetoric against Republican opponent Caruso, whereas Kenneth Mejia blasted away the incumbent after running a fresh and bold campaign calling for major accountability for the LAPD budget.
While the reasons for particular wins and losses will be debated, we can see that adopting good messaging on this issue, including supporting criminal justice reform and not running away from it, has correlated with good electoral outcomes. We have very good message testing on how to talk about crime; what’s needed is for more candidates and operatives to put it into practice.
Although crime rhetoric didn’t get Republicans as much traction as they wanted last week, it’s still a serviceable weapon in their artillery, and we can expect them to increase their barrage of misinformation and fear mongering over the next two years going into 2024. Certainly Trump isn’t going to hold back on this issue, noting in his campaign announcement speech that he wanted to give the death penalty to people who sell drugs. Unlike in the 80s and 90s, however, the bench of people working on this issue is far larger, stronger, and more capable of taking on tough media challenges. Messaging experts developed messages this cycle that tested better than almost all other messages on any issue; this material needs to get into the field. Overall, I’m feeling good about how the current capacity is performing, and think that an additional $3-5 million a year over the next two years towards the stuff we know is working well already would have an outsized positive effect on the national political landscape.
I’ll close with these wise words from my colleague and friend Zoe Towns (Fwd.us):
Voters' baseline support for the actual policies that explicitly reduce jail and prison populations is high. They also want to support candidates who prioritize criminal justice reform. Support on both is well above water for both parties but very high for Democrats and, higher still, for Black voters (findings here) whose positions on these topics have been perverted and misappropriated by pundits from both parties. There's no doubt that lies and fear are powerful campaign tools and that they have made and will make our work much harder, but when voters are told the truth about criminal justice reform, they remain wholeheartedly behind it….
Our movement has massive systemic handicaps: We have less money and harder points to prove. We want to undo rather than maintain the status quo. We’re laboring in the face of white supremacist forces that have been mainstreamed and emboldened and which are doubling down on criminalization as a core tactic. We have 4.6 million Americans – representing two percent of the voting-age population – unable to vote due to felony convictions. And, still, more often than not we are putting policy and political wins on the board, successfully defending reforms, and safely driving incarceration downwards.
So there we have it! Thanks for reading.
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