Commentary

Dog whistles, scare tactics and what Pa.’s U.S. Senate candidates aren’t saying about crime

Tuesday Morning Coffee: There’s a genuine debate to be had over criminal justice reform. So far, voters in Pa.’s hugely important U.S. Senate race haven’t been getting it

October 11, 2022 7:23 am
Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman (L) and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz (R) Campaign file photos

Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman (L) and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz (R) Campaign file photos

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed that the truest test “of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But the sage of the Jazz Age never had to run for office. And, more specifically, he didn’t have to run in Pennsylvania’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race, where it barely seems possible to hold a single idea in mind for longer than it takes to run a 30-second attack ad.

And that’s a loss to the voters because an issue that deserves genuine discussion — fixing a broken prison system and furthering the cause of criminal justice reform so that people don’t return to jail — has been lost in a sea of sharp-elbowed rhetoric.

If you have not seen them — and this is hard to imagine, since they’ve been inescapable — Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, the Trump-endorsed celebrity physician, has managed to close a double-digit polling gap with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a reform advocate who chairs the state Pardons Board, with a series of commercials, aired by his campaign and by GOP allies, that prey on voters’ worst impulses with barely concealed dog whistles.

(Screen Capture)

The strategy is hardly original. Nor is it particularly unique.

In 1988, then Vice President George H.W. Bush effectively torpedoed Democrat Michael Dukakis’ White House hopes in the blatantly racist “Willie Horton” ad detailing a woman’s rape at the hands of a Black convicted murderer free on a “weekend pass,” as New York Magazine’s Intelligencer noted last week.

survey of more than 300 campaign ads in congressional and governor’s races by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia found candidates, predominantly Republicans, leaning heavily on ads that try to scare the voters by painting Democrats as being soft on crime.

In Wisconsin, for instance, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has gained in the polls against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes by slamming him for rising crime in such cities as Milwaukee, where homicides are up by 40 percent over the year before, Intelligencer’s Matt Stieb wrote.

In Pennsylvania, Oz has criticized Fetterman for hiring brothers Lee and Dennis Horton, both of whom are Black, after they were granted clemency in connection with a 1993 robbery and shooting in which they steadfastly maintained their innocence, the New York Times reported.

You would think that the Horton brothers are the kind of story that Republicans would want to champion. They are two men who transcended their circumstances to find success.

Instead, they’ve become avatars of the dystopian future that “Far-Left Fetterman,” as one ad describes him, would usher into existence if he wins in November.

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

Now it’s true that certain types of crime are increasing: Total violent crimes continue to rise even as homicides have dropped, Axios reported last month, citing an annual midyear survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

And Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, continues to be in the throes of a gun violence epidemic, as the Capital-Star reported Monday. Through Oct. 5, a total of 1,839 people had been shot, 383 of them fatally, The Trace reported, citing city data.

But a discussion about the incredibly nuanced and complex approaches required to prevent crime and make our communities safer can’t be adequately tackled in a 30-second advertisement.

As the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported earlier this month, Oz has been notably short on specifics on what he’d do about crime if elected, leaning instead on endorsements from law enforcement groups who historically back Republicans anyway.

Fetterman, who says he believes in the power of second chances, says he’d prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention if he wins in November.

In a new ad, he also sought to neutralize Oz’s backing from the blue, highlighting support from Montgomery Sheriff Sean Kilkenny.

Dr. Oz doesn’t know a thing about crime. He only knows how to help himself,” Kilkenny said in the new spot.

During a campaign stop in Philadelphia on Monday, Fetterman again defended his record.

Dr. Oz lies about my record on crime,” Fetterman said at African Small Pot, a restaurant on Woodland Avenue in the city, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Two of the things that I was most proud of in my career, stopping the gun violence as a mayor and fighting for the innocent and other individuals for a second chance. That is my record on crime. And that’s my commitment to fight for you in Philadelphia.”

Those are great bromides. But like most of this meme-centered campaign, it doesn’t advance the conversation. Nor does it indicate what Fettterman might do if he helps Democrats capture the majority.

In a statement devoid of any alternatives or policy prescriptions of its own, Oz’s campaign used state Department of Corrections data to attack Fetterman’s claim that releasing some offenders from prison would not make the state less safe.

Fetterman doesn’t know anything about crime other than how to make it worse. He proved that as mayor of Braddock where he oversaw a dramatic surge in violent crime,” spokesperson Brittany Yanick said in part, adding that “Fetterman’s policies are deadly, dangerous, and wrong for Pennsylvania.”

(Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)

Which brings us back to that Fitzgerald aphorism.

It was only a few years ago that Pennsylvania Republicans, fired by both fiscal conservatism and the evangelical belief in the power of forgiveness, teamed with Democrats to rebalance a prison system that put punishment ahead of rehabilitation.

bipartisan clean slate law — a variation of which was ironically also supported by former President Donald Trump — has given more than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians a fresh start, according to Wolf administration data.

But in post-pandemic America, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, away from reform, justice and mercy at a time when we need more of all of it.

Recently released data, reported by the Capital-Star, has laid bare deep sentencing and prosecutorial disparities that have unfairly targeted Black and brown Pennsylvanians. It’s been piled on top of all the other disparities in class, race and economics the pandemic put before our collective eyes.

Fetterman and Oz will meet Oct. 25 for their lone debate of the fall campaign. Here’s hoping voters get the discussion to which they’re entitled. Oz needs to make clear what he’d do differently. Fetterman’s record deserves a thorough vetting.

Because when it comes to criminal justice reform and the other big issues of this campaign, voters deserve a lot better than they’ve been getting so far.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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