Sept. 27, 2018: Political Report

Daniel Nichanian

In this edition of the The Appeal: Political Report 

  • New Jersey: Bergen County sheriff resigns after racist remarks. What’s next?

  • Massachusetts and New York: Incumbents lose Democratic primaries, continue reelection bids

  • Oklahoma: Can a candidate for prosecutor make Payne and Logan counties “a mecca for criminal justice reform?”

  • Washington: Challenger to Seattle’s chief prosecutor suspends campaign

  • Quick link: Watch and read Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke debate policing in Texas


New Jersey: Bergen County sheriff resigns after racist remarks. What’s next?  

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino resigned on Friday after WNYC published a recording in which he can be heard making racist remarks in response to Governor Phil Murphy’s proposal to legalize marijuana. “Christ almighty, in other words let the blacks come in, do whatever the f— they want, smoke their marijuana, do this do that, and don’t worry about it,” Saudino says on the recording. “You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops.”

Initial reports indicated that Murphy would appoint an interim sheriff. But the secretary of state announced yesterday that a state law specific to sheriffs will force Bergen County to hold a special election on Nov. 6, in just 40 days. The county had already mailed 36,000 ballots that it now needs to correct. Because of the compressed time frame, parties will settle on nominees through quickconventions rather than primaries. It is unknown at this time who will run, and there will be very little time for candidates to present platforms and be held accountable for their stances. This expedited process will nevertheless determine the sheriff through 2020.

This could represent a missed opportunity to reform law enforcement practices in New Jersey’s most populous county. One risk is that Democratic leaders, wholargely embraced Saudino when he joined their party in 2016, fail to treat his departure as an occasion to change not just the person of the sheriff but also the office’s broader policies. In his statement on Friday, Murphy talked of ensuring that Saudino’s “bigoted beliefs” are smoked out of the sheriff’s office. But the problem goes beyond one individual’s views. “I think the sheriff’s words are abominable, but they really crystallize for us in New Jersey what the racial disparities in our criminal justice system tell us,” Ryan Haygood, the president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told me. “[His] behavior is symptomatic of a larger system in which racial discrimination operates to disadvantage Black people and other people of color.” Haygood notes that New Jersey has the highest racial disparity of both youth and adult incarceration in the country.

On the same day that Saudino’s remarks were made public, WNYC’s Matt Katzpublished an investigation into detention conditions for immigrants at the Bergen County Jail. Bergen County detains people arrested by ICE and charges the agency for each night of detention. This has been a very lucrative arrangement under the Trump administration; the county is expected to receive about $12 million this year, an increase of 214 percent from 2015. Saudino defended this practice by claiming that Bergen County treats detainees better than if they were elsewhere. “If they’re not at my jail, I know they’re going to be somewhere else. I take great pride in knowing they’re in the best possible facility they could be,” he said in July.

But Katz’s reporting casts doubt on that statement. Bergen’s detention guidelines are older and tougher than those of neighboring counties, and immigrants detained at the county jail are barred from “contact” visits from their relatives. “When spouses, children and friends come to visit they are separated by a glass partition and must speak through a telephone,” Katz writes. The jail also held a mother who was separated from her 2-year old child, Steve Janoski has reported for NorthJersey.com. “Whoever they bring to us is who we have,” Saudino said in response. County executive Jim Tedesco has defended detention conditions in the jail and has sought to shift the criticism to the federal government, a deflection that Murphy has also employed.

It still seemed like Murphy would get to choose a new sheriff when I talked to Haygood, who advised him to “appoint someone has a sense of the way that racism has infected the criminal justice system.” But he also called on Murphy to take bolder steps. Saudino “is a symptom of a larger systemic problem that requires action, and frankly to date the governor has not taken action to address the systemic problems that plague particularly Black people in the justice system,” he said. Earlier this month, Haygood published an op-ed that outlined what Murphy should do to advance racial justice. Murphy “ran on a really progressive platform,” Haygood told me, but “nine months into his administration we’re still pushing him to focus” on these issues.


Massachusetts and New York: Incumbents lose Democratic primaries, continue re-election bids

Massachusetts: Berkshire County district attorney Paul Caccaviello lost the Sept. 4 Democratic primary against Andrea Harrington, a defense attorney. But he has since announced a write-in campaign to keep his position in November. He told The Intercept that a district attorney should not be a “product manufactured by a powerful political machine.” This attack is not without irony: The Appeal reported in June that Caccaviello’s predecessor coordinated with Governor Charlie Baker to elevate Caccaviello to incumbency just months before the primary.

Harrington is running on ending “tough on crime” prosecution and on confronting “the impact of systemic racism”; she proposes expanding restorative justice programs, ending cash bail for low-level offenses, and repealing mandatory minimum sentences. (I refer you to this Aug. 30 newsletter in which I wrote about the election’s contrasts in more detail.) In the primary, Harrington defeated not just Caccaviello but also Judith Knight, who ran on a similar reform platform. But Eoin Higgins reports in The Intercept that Knight could endorse Caccaviello’s write-in bid because of what she describes as Harrington’s managerial inexperience; Knight also told Higgins that she might join Caccaviello’s office if he won.

New York: Caccaviello is just one of several incumbents who have lost Democratic primaries but are persisting in their re-election campaigns. Last week, I wrote about the sheriff of Ulster County who is still running on the Republican, Conservative, and Independence parties’ lines after losing the Democratic primary to a more progressive candidate.

Also in New York, state Senator Dave Valesky is considering mounting a campaign to keep his seat despite losing to progressive challenger Rachel May in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. Valesky is on the ballot on the Independence Party line and the Women’s Equality Party line. In the past legislative session, Valesky voted for series of bills to toughen sentencing. These would have expanded life without parole sentences, restricted the availability of parole (including by more than doubling the time that some incarcerated people must wait between hearings), and made people liable for homicide if they sell an illicit substance that leads to a fatal overdose. Other New York senators who lost on Sept. 13 may still decide to emulate Valesky.


Oklahoma: Can a candidate for prosecutor make Payne and Logan counties “a mecca for criminal justice reform?”

In her bid for a second term as the Republican district attorney of Payne and Logan counties, Laura Austin Thomas defends maintaining the status quo on prosecution. “Criminal justice reform is a very fun and nice and popular political sound bite, but a lot of it’s empty, empty words,” she said at a candidate forum. “The district attorney’s office can’t continue to be the dumping ground for it.” She faces Cory Williams, a Democratic state representative who has said that he is running to make Payne and Logan counties “a mecca for criminal justice reform in this state.” “We can change the paradigm of the entire state because we did it right here,” he added.

Thomas and Williams hold contrary views when it comes to sentencing. “Oklahoma desperately needs sentencing reform because we have a lot of incredibly draconian sentences that we don’t actually realize any value out of,” Williams said in a 2015story published in The Oklahoman about people serving life without parole sentences because of the three-strikes drug law. That same year, Williams sponsored a bill that loosened that statute. He also pushed to make marijuana possession a misdemeanor. Then, in 2016, Oklahomans adopted State Question 780, an initiative that made possessing any drug a misdemeanor; Williams has since opposed legislative efforts to scale back that initiative.

But Thomas denounced State Question 780 in an op-ed she wrote in 2015, defending the practice of charging drug possession as a felony. “Misdemeanor sentences do not carry consequences large enough to leverage a commitment to treatment for many of the most serious user,” she warned.

Williams is now proposing to reform the DA’s office. “One of my primary goals is to lower the amount of fines, fees, and costs associated with prosecuting crime,” hesaid at a forum, faulting the practice of “fil[ing] a felony version of a crime that also has a misdemeanor because the felony has more fines, fees, and costs attached to it.” He has similarly criticized prosecutors’ habit of stacking multiple charges. In his answers to an ACLU questionnaire as elsewhere, he also commits to curbing cash bail, expanding diversion programs and partnering with local groups to expand treatment options, and releasing statistics about racial disparities linked to prosecutorial decisions.

Thomas refused to answer the ACLU’s questionnaire, writing that “most of the things you want me to ‘pledge’ would violate the oath of office I took.” During the GOP primary, she mocked her challenger Jill Ochs-Tontz for her work as a defense attorney. “She comes in our office and throws fits when we ask that her client have to do community service like everyone else,” she said. “I’m not a criminal defense attorney, don’t want to be one, will never be one.”

Payne and Logan are Republican counties—combined, they voted for President Trump by 40 percentage points—so Williams faces an uphill climb. That said, he already represents a district that voted for Trump, albeit more narrowly according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections.


Washington: Challenger to Seattle’s chief prosecutor suspends campaign

Dan Satterberg, the prosecutor of King County (which includes Seattle), faced no opponent in his re-election races in 2010 and 2014. And he no longer faces any active competition this year either after Daron Morris, a public defender, suspended his campaign for medical reasons.

Satterberg was first elected as a Republican in 2007 but is running as a Democrat this year. He has backed a range of reforms during his tenure, for instance defending the repeal of the death penalty and establishing new diversion and treatment programs, but he has also pursued tougher prosecution for some offenses. The Stranger’s Sydney Brownstone reported in March that Satterberg’s office was “increasingly criminalizing the demand-side of sex work” and that advocates were worried that his new policies would endanger sex workers. (Josh Kelety maps out Satterberg’s different facets in this lengthy profile that Seattle Weekly published in June.)

A major disagreement between Satterberg and Morris concerned the construction of a new youth jail in Seattle, a plan that has long been targeted by protesters. Morris echoed other opponents of the project in arguing that these funds would be better used promoting alternatives to incarceration. Satterberg supports the new jail, and points to reductions in youth incarceration as an indication that he too is committed to expanding such alternatives. The Seattle Times reported last year that the number of people held at the existing youth jail had reached its lowest point in two decades, but also that about half of the detainees there were African American, though African Americans are 13 percent of the county’s population. During his campaign, Morris drew attention to racial disparities in King County’s criminal justice system; he also ran on goals that included shrinking cash bail and decriminalizing sex work (a move Satterberg opposes).


Quick link: Watch and read Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke debate policing in Texas

In a debate on Friday, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and his Democratic challenger Representative Beto O’Rourke were asked about Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who killed Botham Jean in his own apartment. Cruz promptly attacked O’Rourke for disrespecting police officers. “I think it is offensive to call police officers modern-day Jim Crow. That is not Texas,” he said. “If African Americans represent 13 percent of the population yet they represent one-third of those who are shot by law enforcement we have something wrong,” O’Rourke later said.

You can watch the full relevant section of this debate on YouTube here. You can also read my transcript of this exchange here. In addition, Tim Murphy analyzed this aspect of the debate for Mother Jones, placing it in the context of the candidates’ broader rhetoric.

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