Aug. 16, 2018—Political Report

Daniel Nichanian

Initiatives to legalize marijuana scored a big victory in Oklahoma in June and face their next test in Michigan in November. Today, I’ll explore these states’ marijuana debates, and I’ll also review significant recent elections in Minnesota, Missouri, Vermont, and Wisconsin:

    • August 14 results David Clarke’s chief deputy ousted in Milwaukee sheriff race, Sheriff Stanek under 50 percent in Hennepin County, and more

    • Michigan: Recreational marijuana initiative headlines November ballot

    • MissouriCole County prosecutor known for prosecuting clergy protest loses re-election

    • Missouri Lessons from Wesley Bell’s victory in St. Louis County

    • Oklahoma State implements legalization of medical marijuana, but prospect of referendum on recreational marijuana unexpectedly fades


Aug. 14 primaries: David Clarke’s chief deputy ousted in Milwaukee sheriff race, Sheriff Stanek under 50 percent in Hennepin County, and more

There were three important elections on Aug. 14 that I profiled in past newsletters:

Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: Earnell Lucas won the Democratic primary against the acting sheriff, Richard Schmidt. This was the first time in 20 years that Milwaukee voted for sheriff without David Clarke’s name on the ballot, but his shadow still loomed over the race. Schmidt was Clarke’s chief deputy until becoming acting sheriff in 2017 when Clarke resigned. Critics assailed Schmidt over his responsibility for the gruesome abuses perpetrated in the county jail under Clarke’s and Schmidt’s leadership. The campaign also revolved around immigration. As Raven Rakia reported in The Appeal, Schmidt’s office honors ICE detainer requests, while Lucas said the county has “more pressing needs for holding persons in our jail than individuals who simply do not have the proper documentations.” Lucas did not commit to definitively stopping this practice, however, noting that there are circumstances under which he would honor an ICE request even absent a warrant. Voces de la Frontera Action—an immigrants’ rights group that organized local opposition to Clarke, assisted Lucas’s campaign, and sent a mailer linking Schmidt to President Trump’s immigration agenda—claimed victory on Tuesday. “The results were an overwhelming affirmation that Milwaukee County voters do not want local leaders to collaborate with Trump in the separation of families,” the organization’s executive director said in a press release. A former police captain who now works at Major League Baseball, Lucas won 57 percent to 34 percent, carrying both the city of Milwaukee (by 31 percentage points) and the rest of Milwaukee County (by 10 percentage points); he faces no opponent in November.

Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota: On Tuesday, voters set up a major clash over ICE in Minneapolis and its surrounding towns: Republican Sheriff Rich Stanek and Democrat David Hutchinson moved on to a November runoff. I profiled this election in July: Stanek has drawn protests for cooperating with ICE and has worked with the Trump administration on immigration detentions, while Hutchinson has committed to scaling back cooperation. “You will notice the difference between … a sheriff who stands with ICE and a sheriff who stands with immigrants,” Hutchinson said. Stanek was held under 50 percent on Tuesday; his two Democratic challengers combined for a majority of the vote. (All candidates run on one ballot and the top two qualify for the runoff.) This election is technically nonpartisan, which helped Stanek win in the past even though the county often votes strongly Democratic. But with heightened public attention to ICE, the ingredients are there for an upset that upends immigration policy in this area.

State’s Attorneys in Vermont: Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage narrowly won the Democratic primary against reform-oriented challenger Arnie Gottlieb, 51 percent to 49 percent. As I wrote last week, Marthage’s office has consistently made aggressive prosecution and incarceration choices. Gottlieb ran against her “tough-on-crime” philosophy and advocated an increased use of alternative sentencing and diversion programs, including creating a drug court, which Marthage opposed. Gottlieb will still appear on the November ballot as an independent, alongside Marthage and another independent candidate, Christina Rainville.

In Lamoille County’s Democratic primary, however, State’s Attorney Paul Finnerty lost to Todd Shove, who ran on being “a little more aggressive in prosecution.” As the publication Seven Days reported, Finnerty highlighted his support for diversion programs but Shove “suggested that Finnerty has taken it too far.” That said, Finnerty was among the Vermont incumbents who earlier this summer answered an ACLU candidate questionnaire with a collective document that generally resisted calls for significant reform.


Michigan: Recreational marijuana initiative headlines November ballot

Michiganders will vote this fall on whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, 10 years after they overwhelmingly approved an initiative enabling its medical use. This new measure would allow people to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to 12 plants per household; it also would implement a tax on marijuana sales and distribute the revenue to education and transportation. At the same time, it would empower municipalities to regulate more harshly if not outright ban commercial marijuana businesses within their borders.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol successfully organized this petition drive in the spring, which meant that this initiative would be on the November ballot unless Michigan’s legislature immediately adopted it into law. But the GOP legislature chose not to act after weeks of uncertainty. Had legislators passed the initiative, they would have been able in subsequent years to amend and potentially weaken it with a simple majority. But if the measure passes via a popular vote in November, the legislature would need to muster a supermajority to modify its terms.

What this initiative lacks is a provision to expunge the records of people already convicted of marijuana-related offenses. “Our hope is that the legislature will address this issue shortly after passing, and we know many members of our coalition will be urging them to do just that,” a spokesperson for the coalition told the Detroit News. State Representative Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat who represents Flint, recently introduced a bill that would provide for the expungement of past convictions for acts that this initiative legalizes.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer supports expungement reform in addition to the legalization initiative. However, Republican nominee Bill Schuette opposes legalization and has sidestepped the expungement question. Back in 2008, Schuette was chairperson of a group that campaigned against the medical marijuana initiative; after it passed, he led efforts to restrict its scope and filed a complaint that led marijuana dispensaries to be shut down.


Missouri: Lessons from the upset in St. Louis County

Wesley Bell’s transformative victory over St. Louis County’s longtime prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch continues to make waves. In HuffPost, Matt Ferner reports on the sustained activism that went into organizing people around change. “We opened our field office in Ferguson, right where the uprising took place,” recounts Dominique Sanders, a field organizer for Color of Change PAC. “We’d get folks talking about the race, the important role that prosecutors play in our community and that we had the power to elect the most powerful local criminal justice position in our region.” Activist and writer Frank Leon Roberts sounds a similar note in a postmortem of his own: “Bell’s win is testimony to the power of grassroots social movements [and] of the verifiable impact of the movement for Black lives on today’s political landscape.”

Both writers detail the organizations who engaged in movement-building work, including Action St. Louis and its founder Kayla Reed, the Organization for Black Struggle, Missouri Faith Voices, Indivisible St. Louis, the Ferguson Collaborative, the St. Louis Reform Coalition, Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices, Faith in Action, and Hands Up United.


Missouri: Cole County prosecutor known for prosecuting clergy protest loses reelection

Eyes were glued on St. Louis County on Aug. 7, but another Missouri prosecutor was also ousted that same night. Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson was seeking a fourth term, but he lost in the Republican primary to Assistant State Attorney General Locke Thompson.

Cole County includes the state capital Jefferson City, so investigations pertaining to the Missouri government are often within its jurisdiction. In the waning months of Eric Greitens’s governorship in the spring, it fell on Richardson to decide whether to indict Greitens for filing a false campaign finance report. He chose not to, but Greitens resigned in the face of myriad scandals just two weeks later, a sequence of events that may have weighted down Richardson’s own re-election bid. Richardson’s attitude toward Greitens contrasts with his unusually aggressive prosecution of political protest: In 2016, he brought 23 clergy members to trial for staging a pro-Medicaid protest that interrupted legislative proceedings. Most of them were African American and were later pardoned by Governor Jay Nixon.

The defining fault line between Richardson and Thompson, however, was over how prosecutors handle drug-related offenses. “I’m vastly different to my opponent in this race because he does not believe in treatment courts or he’s very skeptical of their effectiveness,” Thompson said during the campaign. “If you just throw people in prison without treating them for drug addiction or a mental health issue, they’re three times more likely to come back out and re-engage in that activity,” he added. Thompson campaigned on using drug courts more frequently, steering cases toward rehabilitative and treatment programs, and also creating a new mental health court.

Richardson responded with “tough-on-crime” warnings. “Our courts should never be expected or forced by politicians to engage in ‘revolving-door, soft-on-crime’ measures that might threaten our right to live and prosper in a safe community just to keep our jail costs low,” he said. He applied this logic to drug cases specifically: “The addicted person became addicted through their own fault,” so “we cannot excuse the commission of crime because the person was trying to obtain property to feed their addiction.” Richardson defended his circumspection toward using treatment programs on the grounds that defendants frequently claim false addiction problems.

The News Tribune confirms that Richardson’s office aggressively prosecuted drug cases and rarely resorted to alternative programs: Nearly two-thirds of Cole County’s felony criminal cases in 2017 were drug cases, and just 15 of these 455 felony drug cases (3 percent) were processed through the Cole County Drug Court. But Richardson has been secretive about his approach to drug prosecution. A judge ruled last year that he had “knowingly and purposely” violated Missouri’s open records law by refusing to share drug case-related records requested by Aaron Malin, a researcher who has filed a series of other lawsuits against the opaqueness of Missouri agencies’ drug task forces.


Oklahoma: State implements legalization of medical marijuana, but prospect of a vote on recreational marijuana unexpectedly fades

With an Aug. 8 deadline looming, Oklahoma’s Green the Vote group looked well on its way to collecting enough signatures to place an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana on the ballot. But just days before the deadline, the group’s leaders revealed that they had deliberately—and significantly—inflated the number of signatures they had gathered in an effort to build momentum. The group submitted its signatures to the Secretary of State’s office on Aug. 8, but the prospect of a vote on recreational marijuana has dimmed.

Advocates have enjoyed a far more successful last few months when it comes to medical marijuana. In a June 26 referendum, Oklahomans approved Question 788, which legalizes the medical use of marijuana, 57 percent to 43 percent. This expansive measure enables doctors to license the use of marijuana for any medical condition, and allows people to possess and grow larger amounts of marijuana than do many other states with similar statutes.

Shortly after the June vote, the state’s health board adopted emergency regulations that restricted the measure. These regulations, which Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, banned the sale of smokable marijuana and added a requirement that dispensaries employ a licensed pharmacist.  But this provoked widespread complaints that the board lacked the authority to pass regulations modifying the content of Question 788, and state officials soon changed course. In early August, the health board and Fallin rescinded their earlier rules, lifting the ban on smokable marijuana and the pharmacist requirement. Tulsa World’s Samantha Vicent recently reported on other outstanding issues that the Oklahoma legislature may have to tackle in its next session. But until then medical marijuana is ready to go: Question 788’s implementation begins later this month.


Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!