Maryland primary recap and Jeff Smith on criminal justice reform

Maryland primary recap and Jeff Smith on criminal justice reform

July 22, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

On Tuesday night, Maryland held its primaries, with the Republican and Democratic primaries looking very different from one another.

On the Republican side in the governor’s race, state delegate Dan Cox defeated his opponent, former Maryland secretary of labor and secretary of commerce Kelly Schultz. Cox is currently leading 56% to 40%, a result that likely will not change much even after mail ballots are counted.

Current governor Larry Hogan, who had endorsed Schultz, he was not happy with the result, even going so far as to tweet his disapproval. As Beard explained,

He tweeted that Trump had selfishly colluded with national Democrats to cost us a governor’s seat in Maryland. Of course, because Trump had endorsed Cox and Democrats had spent some money on behalf of Cox to boost him in the Republican primary because they thought that they were more likely to be Cox than Schultz. And really, this is a very fatalistic take from Hogan without even knowing the democratic nominee that there’s no way Cox could win, though it’s probably pretty true. I think Cox obviously is a very, very poor fit for Maryland, even under the best of Republican circumstances. And Hogan’s spokesman even confirmed that he was not going to vote for Cox in the general election, labeling him a conspiracy theory believing QAnon wack job. So clearly not a fan.

On the democratic side, author and CEO of the Robin hood Foundation, Wes Moore, is leading the Democratic primary. While there are still many votes to be counted, Moore is the most likely winner at this point.

The end of last week was also the filing deadline for federal candidates to submit their reports detailing all of their fundraising for the second quarter of the year, the period from April 1 to June 30. And despite the fact that Democrats are undoubtedly heading into a difficult November midterm, the fundraising numbers strongly favor Democrats, particularly for the Senate, Nir pointed out. He then shared a few pairs of numbers for Senate candidates on the Democratic and Republican side to highlight the stark differences:

In Georgia, Rafael Warnock topped the list with an astonishing $17.1 million. Herschel Walker, Trump’s pick, the Republican, raised $5.7 million. And that was actually a rather good haul among Republicans in general. Many others fared much more poorly. In North Carolina, Democrat Sherry Beasley raised $7.4 million. Congressman Ted Budd, her Republican opponent for this open seat, raised just 2.1 million. In Pennsylvania, obviously a top pickup target for Democrats, John Fetterman absolutely crushed it. He raised $10.9 million despite experiencing a stroke during the quarter that he’s still recovering from. His opponent, Dr. Oz, raised just $1.9 million. That is just a pathetic sum for a candidate running in a large state. And this pattern repeats over and over and over again in almost every key race.

Now, if money were the only thing that determined the outcome of elections, we wouldn’t bother having to hold elections. Of course, that’s not the case. But the fact is that in terms of enthusiasm, it’s clear that progressive donors remain fired up, and that the email lists of all these candidates are still rigging in huge sums.

“In the second quarter of 2022, notable Democratic candidates have raised 56% of all donations from outside donors, and Republicans, 44%. So despite the huge change in fortunes based on the political environment, and despite the fact that Republicans now seem to have something of an operational competitor to act blue in the form of win red, though, I guess that’s questionable, they aren’t making up the gap, he added. “This means that no matter what happens in November, Democrats will have the money to get their message out. And if the party loses and faces setbacks, it won’t be for a lack of resources.”​​​​​​

Beard then moved on to discuss Tuesday’s House vote to pass the Respect For Marriage Act, which would codify the right to same-sex marriage into federal law — which has become crucial in the wake of the Dobbs decision from the Supreme Court and Justice Thomas’s call to look at and potentially overturn over Obergefell, which guaranteed the right for same sex marriage.

As Beard elaborated, there were some really notable results from Tuesday:

47 Republicans voted for it, along with every single Democrat. Some of the notable yeses included House Freedom Caucus Chair, Scott Perry, who’s in a Republican leaning but potentially competitive district in Pennsylvania. Also, voting yes was representative Liz Cheney from Wyoming, who famously opposed same sex marriage when she was running for Senate from Wyoming, even though her sister was an out lesbian at the time. Also, the entire Utah delegation voted for it, which is notable for the way that the Mormon Church has evolved on the issue over the years. And Ken Calvert, a California Republican who’s not really known as a moderate, but was redistricted into a more competitive district with Palm Springs, which has a significant gay population, also voted for it. There were some notable no votes from people who are having potentially competitive races this cycle.

The hosts then pivoted to Kansas’ upcoming August 2nd primary, during which a very important ballot measure is going to be on the ballot that will serve as the first real test of abortion rights at the ballot box since the Dobbs ruling. Nir explained that what is on the ballot is a constitutional amendment that would change the state constitution to say that that document does not guarantee a right to an abortion. Adding context, he noted,

Republicans have put this measure on the ballot because, in 2019, the state Supreme Court found that the state constitution did in fact guarantee a right to an abortion. And that has prevented Republican lawmakers from placing limits on abortion or banning it all together. We’re mentioning it now because for the first time there is a poll of this race. The Republican pollster coefficient, which says that it polled simply for public consumption, shared a poll with 538 that has the yes side leading by a small 47 to 43 margin.

A “yes” vote would mean that the Kansas constitution would be amended to say that it does not protect the right to an abortion, so progressives are pushing for a “no” vote. That things are so close in such a red state, with these numbers coming from a Republican pollster, suggests that there is a real chance of victory for progressives. Recent fundraising reports that came out show that the progressive side (for “no”), has recently out raised the “yes” side — yet another positive sign in what will be a difficult race.

“Republicans almost certainly put it on the ballot in the summertime instead of at the normal November general election because they were hoping that lower turnout would benefit them. It’s possible that that actually might bite them,” Nir said, adding his thoughts. “That coefficient poll suggested that voters who support abortion rights actually may be more fired up now as a result, obviously, of the Dobbs ruling. So we’ll see, but that is just two weeks away. And it is a race that is very important to keep your eye on in terms of the future of abortion rights and other ballot measures on this exact same issue that will be coming up in the fall.”

Next, Smith joined Beard and Nir on the show to share insights into criminal justice reform, his new life after serving time, and the story of how he ended up in prison, which involved an attack mail ad and being recorded by a wire.

His book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, is both a memoir and a story of his time in prison — and is wrapped in a larger argument about the way that the American criminal justice system encourages recidivism, instead of working to actually rehabilitate people.

After he was released, Smith returned to his hometown of St. Louis and helped lead a new re-entry organization, that has reduced recidivism by about 50%, versus the benchmark and continue to work in re-entry and affordable housing.

Smith offered this perspective on his time in prison:

To know that I went to prison, over a postcard, but you know what, I’m blessed to be where I am today and thankful. Even though it was an incredibly difficult year, I did learn a lot, about a part of American life, that otherwise, I’d have never had that kind of exposure to. And it’s probably helped me become a much better advocate, in that policy space. And I work on criminal justice reform issues here in Missouri and was able to be a leader, in passing various criminal justice reforms, over the last few years, through the Missouri legislature. An area, that again, I probably wouldn’t be equipped, to be an effective advocate in, had I not had the experience, not just being a lawmaker, but a law breaker and seeing what life is like, behind bars.

According to Smith, there are three big buckets of issues when it comes to criminal justice reform: First, what happens before prison and that’s sentencing issues; second, what happens inside of prison; and third, re-entry, what happens after you get out. He believes there are huge problems in all three of those buckets.

“First of all, on the sentencing side, we’ve got a huge issue, in sentencing a lot of people to prison, who probably don’t need to be there, [especially] drug offenders,” Smith said. By putting them into prison, he explained, in most cases it takes them away from actual treatment and fails to get to the root issues that are leading to their substance use disorder — thus doing them a disservice.

“And we’re doing society a disservice, because when they come out of prison, they’re typically, not healed at all,” he added, noting that a majority of people who are locked up in this country have a substance use disorder that typically results from deeper trauma, which is usually a function of adverse childhood experiences.

Smith noted that there are also huge problems inside of prison, adding that there are few, if any, efforts to rehabilitate people in this country, particularly in the context of what other industrialized democracies do:

If you go to prison, in Denmark or Sweden or Norway, or a lot of European democracies, the odds of going back, are very low. In most of those countries, about 15% of people who go to prison, come back to society and then commit new crimes and go back to prison. In the United States, that number is closer to 75%, so, about five times as high. If there were any other industry, where 75% of say the widgets that were being made, ended up being defective, that company would never survive. That industry, would have a huge problem surviving. But we tolerate that with humans and we do almost nothing, in the way of serious, vocational training.

Re-entry is also a major issue. In this country, about 90% of people, who apply for jobs, have a background check, run on them. About 85% of people, who apply to live in an apartment, have a background check, run on them. And most companies will never rent to, or employ someone, who has a record.

“So, what are some actual steps or actions that could be taken by regular voters, activists, things like that, through the political system to try to affect these things, instates, in their localities?” Beard asked.

The first thing you can do is try to change laws that prohibit felons from voting, Smith said. Other ways to help include visiting a prison to see what it’s like, volunteering to teach at a prison, volunteering in the chapel in a prison, or volunteering to help with vocational training at a prison or in jail. Being a pen pal to people who are locked up, who need companionship, can also effect change. Moreover, people can encourage their companies to be “second chance” employers and hire returning citizens.

Those who want to get involved can choose to volunteer with returning citizens as well, who are coming home and need a mentor or a job coach for a reentry agency in their community. Donating money to organizations that are doing the work to help with reentry or criminal justice reform can help on a larger scale.

Beard followed up by asking, “So criminal justice reform is really an issue that’s risen a lot in salience in the past two years. And there’s been some real progress made, particularly in larger cities that have elected, reform, district attorneys. And then there’s, of course, been inevitable pushback from the establishment. So as this has taken place in the past few years, what’s really surprised you as this has gone on and how do you see this going?”

Smith lamented that despite the progress, there is almost no political margin for error for progressive prosecutors:

If you decide, “You know what?” “I’m not going to prosecute certain types of crimes, and I’m going to focus on diversion, and rehabilitation and job training.” And then crime goes up in your community, you will be blamed for it. If your clearance rate goes down on murders and you’re a progressive prosecutor… And when I say clearance rate, I mean, the percentage of murders that are solved, where someone ultimately is charged and convicted or the taking of that life. If your clearance rate goes from 60% down to 40%, and you are a progressive prosecutor, you will be blamed in the entire worldview of progressive, kind of reform-minded prosecution will probably suffer.

The trio also discussed Eric Greitens, disgraced former governor of Missorui who is now running to serve as one of the state’s senators.

“Now, as Missouri’s turned to the right, there aren’t as many Democratic seats as there used to be, but there are still a couple of congressional seats with Democrats in them. And there’s a primary in of them where Democratic representative Cori Bush is facing a primary challenge from state Senator Steve Roberts in St. Louis. What do you think the odds of that happening? Do you think Roberts has any chance?” Beard asked, shifting to look at other races.

Smith thinks that he has a chance, despite being the underdog:

It’s a seat that Cori Bush knocked off a 20-year incumbent in Lacey Clay, who also came from a powerful political dynasty. Missouri’s a state that likes our dynasties and Clay was someone who had a pretty powerful perch in Washington DC. And I think it will be difficult for a young first-term state Senator that’s only had a year-and-a-half in the state Senate probably to knock off Cori Bush. That said, I would say that she is leaving herself more vulnerable than any incumbent should. She voted against the infrastructure bill, which help provides for taking lead out of our water. I think most people can agree that we don’t want lead in our water. And having a trillion dollar bill to do that, most Democrats agreed was a good thing. I think she was one of five or six in the House to oppose that.

In closing out, the hosts asked Smith about whether or not he sees himself running for office again. As Smith put it,

Even though it’s a challenging state to do progressive advocacy in, given super majorities in both chambers of the legislature, it is very rewarding to be able to continue to work on the stuff that I believe in and have some success on all three of those issues that I’ve worked on and to work with the ACLU here, which is one of my clients, to try to protect some civil liberties in a state that has been pretty retrograde on some of those issues. So, no, you’re not going to see my name on the ballot again, but you are going to see me probably for the next couple decades, continuing to work on the stuff that I talked about during my campaigns.

The Downballot comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts! As a reminder, you can reach our hosts by email at [email protected]. Please send in any questions you may have for next week’s mailbag. You can also reach out via Twitter at @DKElections.