Progressive activists are working to turn this year’s nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice into results at the polls on Election Day, as they push to drive turnout and influence contests that will determine criminal justice policies at the local level.
The groups engaged in electoral politics include Black Lives Matter, the sprawling social justice organization closely associated with this year’s protests. It launched a political action committee in October to endorse candidates and reach voters. In addition, the Color of Change PAC, the political arm of a longstanding civil rights organization, has endorsed a slate of what it defines as progressive prosecutors. And liberal organizations recently created The Frontline initiative to turn out young people of color.
The Working Families Party, aligned with high-profile progressives, such as New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is battling on behalf of liberal candidates in contests that will decide who holds positions as sheriffs and prosecutors.
The stepped-up political engagement comes after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis sparked mass protests in scores of American cities earlier this year and forced individuals, elected officials and companies to reckon with systemic racism.
“We’re going from protests to the polls,” Angela Angel, a former Maryland state legislator who is a senior adviser to the new Black Lives Matter PAC, told CNN. “We understand in this moment that the real power is in exercising our right to vote.”
In the runup to Election Day, the group has targeted young voters in more than a dozen key states with a particular focus on reaching people who had requested absentee ballots but had not yet returned them. The PAC also is taking a stand on state and local candidates and ballot initiatives.
In Georgia, a traditionally red state now in play in this year’s presidential and US Senate elections, the Black Lives Matter PAC is backing Joyce Barlow, a Democrat running for the Georgia House of Representatives to represent a swath of rural southwest Georgia. Barlow, who is African American, is trying to oust veteran State Rep. Gerald Greene, the only Republican representing one of the 49 majority-Black House districts, according The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Georgia Democrats need to flip 16 seats out of 180 to take control of the chamber.
In Florida, meanwhile, the PAC is urging a “yes” vote on Amendment 2, which would phase in a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the Sunshine State by 2026. Business groups oppose the measure, saying it will hurt a state economy struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Angel said her group is telling Florida voters that Tuesday’s election “isn’t just about the presidency. Your money, your minimum wage is on the ballot.”
The protests that erupted over the summer have thrown a spotlight on prosecutors, activists say.
“We saw that very different outcomes were realized by Black people killed by police violence, based on the prosecutors elected in their jurisdictions,” said Arisha Hatch, who oversees the Color of Change PAC.
She contrasted Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s decision to pursue a murder charge against a former Minneapolis police officer in the May death of Floyd with Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s handling of the investigation in the death of Breonna Taylor, killed in March during a botched police raid of her Louisville apartment.
Taylor’s mother has sought the appointment of an independent prosecutor to handle the case. In September, Cameron announced that a grand jury indicted one former Louisville Metro Police Department Detective Brett Hankison, with three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment in connection with his actions on the night of the raid.
Neither Hankison, nor any of the other officers who were part of the raid that night, were charged in connection with her death. Hankison has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
“The way Keith Ellison is handling the murder of George Floyd versus the way Daniel Cameron is handling Breonna Taylor is a prime example of actually having prosecutors in place who share your values and are accountable to Black people,” Hatch said.
Neither attorney general is on the ballot this year.
But the Color of Change PAC and other liberal groups are putting their political muscle into local prosecutors’ races around the country — including Los Angeles County where progressive organizations are backing George Gascón over current District Attorney Jackie Lacey and supporting the reelection of Kim Foxx in Cook County, Illinois, home to Chicago.
Traditionally, incumbent prosecutors face few challengers.
A study released earlier this year by the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina’s Law School at Chapel Hill examined more than 2,300 prosecutors’ races around the country and found contested elections in fewer than 700 — or less than a third — in either the primary or general election.
Carissa Hessick, a UNC criminal law professor who directs the project, said the reasons for so little competition vary: Rural counties might lack enough lawyers to mount a challenge to an incumbent. Prosecutor elections don’t generate much attention. And voters don’t always understand the power local county and district attorneys wield.
The activist groups say they are working to change that.
“The people we actually interact with on the local level have a more direct impact on our lives than, quite frankly, who we pick for president,” said Delvone Michael, who oversees criminal justice projects at the Working Families Party.
Ohio race targeted
This fall, Michael’s group, which has roots in New York, has invested in an under-the-radar contest in Cincinnati to back Democrat and former municipal court judge Fanon Rucker in his quest to topple Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. Deters, a Republican, is the county’s longest-serving prosecutor.
The Working Families Party mailers in the race tout Rucker’s opposition to cash bail for non-violent offenses. “People shouldn’t be sitting in jail because they can’t afford to not be there,” Rucker said in an interview with CNN.
In a recent debate, both candidates said they opposed defunding the police.
But Deters and GOP officials have seized on the Working Families Party’s involvement to cast Rucker as out of touch with the county and siding with the group’s position on law-enforcement funding.
The Working Families Party’s “people’s charter” calls to “shift resources away from policing, jails and detention centers” and into schools, housing and jobs programs.
“Fanon Rucker has been telling voters that he opposes defunding the police while working hard to get out-of-state groups that adamantly want to defund our police,” Deters said in a statement to CNN. “Fanon should either be honest with voters that he wants to eliminate our police force or immediately call his friends in New York and tell them to take down their ads.”
In an interview, Rucker said he welcomes the support of “anybody who says ‘We like that Rucker. We agree with what he’s trying to do, and we are here to support him.’ But I don’t change my positions for anybody.”