Awkward stances on criminal justice reform by both governor hopefuls

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The bitter contest for governor is razor-thin, and the candidates sharply differ on several issues like HB 2, Medicaid expansion and voter ID, but when it comes to police-community relations the candidates are not nearly as far apart.

North Carolina’s bitterly contested gubernatorial race, pitting a Republican incumbent Pat McCrory against the state’s Democratic attorney general, is effectively a toss-up, with most opinion polls giving the Democrat Roy Cooper a slight edge.

McCrory was already on the defensive with many urban voters over his decision to sign HB 2, an unpopular law that overturned local ordinances protecting the rights of LGBT people and prompted national scorn and economic sanctions. But the ongoing implosion of the Trump campaign has placed additional stress on McCrory, who made an early call to align with his party’s presidential nominee.

As North Carolina’s attorney general for the past 16 years, Cooper has largely remained out of the political spotlight until he started jockeying for a gubernatorial bid last year. A cautious politician, he cultivated law-and-order credentials in his role as the state’s top law-enforcement official. But even while staking a position in his party’s moderate wing, Cooper has found plenty of areas to contrast himself against his McCrory, thanks to his opponent’s steady drift further right over the course of his first term.

The two candidates contrast on many issues, including HB 2, voter ID, Medicaid expansion and access to abortion, while sparring over McCrory’s record on education and the economy.

Their differences on the strained relationship between law enforcement and communities of color are far more nuanced. The issue was thrust on them in late September when protests erupted in Charlotte in response to the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man. Both candidates find themselves in an awkward spot, with McCrory playing to his conservative base by backing law enforcement, while taking care to avoid the racially polarizing rhetoric of his party’s standard-bearer. Meanwhile, Cooper must adjust to the Democratic Party’s increasing emphasis on diversity while preserving some of his law-enforcement support.

Asked during their second debate on Oct. 11 if they agreed with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s statement that “racial bias is a problem for everyone, including police,” the two gubernatorial candidates seemed to squirm, giving halting answers and choosing their words carefully. Or maybe not so carefully.

“I think there’s bias in all of us,” McCrory responded. “It’s not necessarily always racial bias. It might be bias of how we dress, how we look, the environment that we might be in. And those are also tools for our police officers to determine what action to take.”

The campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment to ascertain whether the governor misspoke or he actually believes that bias is a legitimate tool of law enforcement.

Asked to respond to the same question, Cooper said, “I think all of us have biases that sometimes conflict with our jobs. We need training. We need to make sure that law enforcement has the resources that it needs. And we need to emphasize community policing. I think when law enforcement works with communities, gets to know communities, I think you have safer law enforcement and better law enforcement all the way around.”

Cooper’s campaign also declined to respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, allowing the candidate to evade questions about how bias in favor of law enforcement might have influenced how he’s handled his job as attorney general — in particular, the case of Kalvin Michael Smith in Winston-Salem, which has received national attention. Smith, who is black, is serving a 28-year sentence after being convicted in the brutal beating of Jill Marker, but multiple reviews of the case have called into question the original investigation by Winston-Salem police Detective Don Williams, notably that he failed to pursue leads about an alternate suspect with a history of mental illness and stalking the victim. Cooper has ignored repeated calls for him to move to vacate Smith’s sentence so that it can be retried.

As attorney general, Cooper is painfully aware of how evidence can be manipulated, resulting in wrongful convictions. An audit commissioned by Cooper found that the State Bureau of Investigation under his leadership withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases, the Raleigh News & Observer reported in 2010. The review was prompted by the exoneration of Greg Taylor, a Greensboro native wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years for a murder he didn’t commit. The N&O reported that former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker “said his findings signal potential violations of the US Constitution and North Carolina laws by withholding information favorable to defendants.”

The misconduct at the SBI gave the Republican Governors Association ammunition to run a 30-second TV spot launched in mid-August that rapped the Democratic candidate for a “failed record” and “weak leadership.”

While the ad cites the N&O’s reporting, the narrator says, “As attorney general, one of Roy Cooper’s responsibilities was to oversee the SBI’s crime lab, but Cooper failed to do his job. Under Cooper’s leadership, SBI distorted or withheld evidence in hundreds of cases, leading to wrongful convictions and criminals going unpunished. Under Roy Cooper, the SBI was tainted by shoddy investigations and staggering lack of competence at the lab.”

Two years after the scandal, the call for a new trial for Kalvin Michael Smith came from none other than the person tapped by Cooper to look into look into allegations of evidence being manipulated at the SBI — Chris Swecker. The former FBI director wrote in a 2012 report that the original police investigation that led to Smith’s conviction “was seriously flawed and woefully incomplete, thus calling into question whether the original jury rendered their verdict based on all the relevant and accurate facts in the case.”

During their third and final debate on Oct. 18, McCrory and Cooper sparred over the performance of the state crime lab, but the debate focused on backlogs, and neither candidate brought up the perversion of justice that resulted from the manipulation of evidence under the attorney general’s watch.

While Cooper has staked out a cautious position on police reform, law enforcement support has largely shifted to McCrory.

“I’m grateful to the men and women who serve honorably and risk their lives every day to keep us safe,” Cooper said during the second debate as he criticized a bill signed into law by McCrory that restricts public access to police video. “I’m also mindful that there are so many communities who feel targeted, and they yearn to be heard and they yearn for respect. What we need is a governor who’s going to work to make sure we have that mutual respect. And part of mutual respect is transparency.”

McCrory blasted his opponent for trying to have it both ways.

“In front of an FOP in an interview, which was recorded, he says he was in favor of it — trying to get the endorsement of the Federation of Police,” McCrory said. “By the way, I got that endorsement. And I’m very proud to have not only their endorsement, but the endorsement of five other major police organizations in North Carolina, because I care for both the victims and also care for those persons being investigated.”

On other issues, the two positions of the two candidates are much further apart.

McCrory defended his decision to sign HB 2 into law, deflecting blame for the national backlash against the legislation to Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Cooper.

“There was a concept of gender identity, which was a radical concept — which, by the way, the left brought this issue up, not the right,” McCrory said. “One of the great political scams in the state history and national history is Roy Cooper and the mayor of Charlotte brought this issue to North Carolina, with a very powerful group called the [Human Rights Campaign], which has helped Roy an awful lot, and they just had to add a portion of [Charlotte ordinance], which said the following: ‘You must have gender identity or gender expression in order to get into a private-sector restroom, locker room or shower in the public access to the private sector.’”

Cooper has repeatedly called for the repeal of HB 2.

“If a local government wants to protect people from being fired because they’re gay, House Bill 2 says you can’t do that,” Cooper said. “If a local government wants to raise the minimum wage, House Bill 2 says you can’t do that. If a local government wants to provide discrimination protection to veterans — and a couple cities had those kinds of ordinances that have been wiped away by House Bill 2 — this is one of the reasons why House Bill 2 has been pointed out as one of the most discriminatory laws in the country and why we are suffering such economic damage for it. Because it’s wrong. It writes discrimination into our law, and it is wrong, period.”

During the second debate, McCrory defended signing two anti-abortion bills into law despite promising during his 2012 campaign that he would not further restrict abortion rights.

“If you consider having a doctor make sure they don’t do an abortion after five months [into a woman’s pregnancy], that’s not a restriction on the individual; that’s the law,” McCrory said. “And all it requires is the doctor to make sure they have a record of that. It did not impact at all the access to an abortion.”

Cooper’s response was withering.

“His legislation requires that a doctor send a woman’s ultrasound to state government,” the Democratic candidate said. “Now, however you feel about the policy, we don’t need state government bureaucrats reviewing women’s ultrasounds. This is the kind of restriction that he promised would not take place, that he did. And now he’s coming around trying to say that’s not a restriction. I think people would say that it is, Governor, and that you are distorting your record.”

On Medicaid expansion, the candidates have marked out positions that are diametrically opposed.

“The worst thing that Gov. McCrory and the legislative leadership has done — they have refused to accept the billions of dollars that we’ve already paid to Washington that could have come back to North Carolina and expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians,” Cooper said. “And here we are again — Gov. McCrory putting the social issues ahead of the best interests of the state. Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, even Gov. Mike Pence — he’s on the ticket with Donald Trump — they all saw that expansion of Medicaid in their state even if they disagreed with the policy, helped create tens of thousands of good-paying health jobs.”

While noting that his administration is expanding Medicaid for Alzheimer’s patients, McCrory defended his decision to not do so for all those below 133 percent of the federal poverty line.

“Because right now we don’t know what the cost of 10 percent [share of cost saddled on the state] will be to the taxpayers of North Carolina, and I think it’s irresponsible to enter into something without knowing the cost,” McCrory said. “And right now a Wall Street Journal article just in the past six weeks is showing that all those states that he’s mentioned — their costs are much greater than ever anticipated. I had to inherit a $525 million mis-forecast on Medicaid spending from the [previous] administration, and we had to fix that.”

McCrory has stood behind an omnibus election bill he signed into law in 2013 that included a voter ID provision. The law was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year, with the author of the ruling finding that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”

“If ID’s good enough for Sudafed, I think it’s good enough for the people of North Carolina to vote,” McCrory said during the second debate on Oct. 11.

“If you don’t think there’s a potential for voter fraud, you’re digging your head in the sand,” he added. “Because, as you know, in the history of the United States, in Chicago and West Virginia and Texas, voter fraud occurs, and we need to make sure we do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Cooper noted that the law went far beyond voter ID, also restricting early voting and registration.

“When the three-judge panel in the Fourth Circuit said this law intentionally discriminates against minorities and students it was time to stop, but Gov. McCrory continues to use taxpayer money to pay lawyers to continue to appeal this. Of course, he lost. It’s shameful for the governor to keep pushing this legislation.”