Voters generally size up political candidates based on small impressions. On the positive side of the ledger, it could be something as simple as a kind and encouraging word from the candidate to a small business owner, farmer or social worker. It’s hard to extrapolate any concrete policy objectives from such encounters, but they give the voter the sense that the candidates understand their challenges and is looking out for their interests.
On the negative side of this T-chart, a single decision can likewise poison a voter’s outlook on a candidate. Imagine for a moment that you’re a supporter of Kalvin Michael Smith, a black man from Winston-Salem who has been in prison for almost 18 years because of a conviction based on a police investigation that few city officials would try to defend.
Smith has been in prison for longer than Roy Cooper has been the state’s attorney general, giving up the best earning years of his life and the ability to be with his family. An independent review by retired FBI assistant director Chris Swecker found that the police investigation “was seriously flawed and woefully incomplete, thus calling into question whether the original trial jury rendered their verdict based on all the relevant and accurate facts of the case.” Swecker agreed with a finding by a citizens group that there was no credible evidence that Smith was at the scene of a crime where a pregnant woman was brutally beaten into a coma.
Cooper has ignored calls to overturn the case and grant Smith a new trial for at least three years. Prosecutors drop cases or decline to pursue charges all the time on the basis of acting “in the interest of justice” if they don’t believe there’s adequate evidence.
Considering Cooper’s aspirations to be North Carolina’s next governor, his studied disinterest in the Smith case looks an awful lot like a political calculation that he has less to lose by alienating Smith’s supporters than outraging conservative, white swing voters, who based on their support of law and order — and let’s face it, for many, straight-up racism — would be outraged to learn that a black man convicted of a brutal assault had received a new trial.
The forfeiture of a man’s liberty because the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the state refuses to grant him a new trial, in the face of damning evidence that the case was botched, is not a small thing to Smith’s supporters. They can rightly make inferences into the candidate’s character and values based on what appears to his choice to do what is politically expedient instead of what’s right.
Cooper’s supporters may ask: Isn’t there something bigger at stake — the direction of North Carolina’s economy and educational system — than justice for one man, even racial justice? Maybe there is.
People who are dissatisfied with the hard-right turn of state government — urbanites, teachers, the LGBT community, advocates for the poor — are investing intense and abiding hope in Cooper, a Democrat who formally announced on Oct. 12 that he would challenge Republican incumbent Pat McCrory. Cooper has been described as an heir to the progressive legacy of Terry Sanford, who pursued pro-growth policies and largely steered the state away from the intransigent racism of Deep South states like Mississippi and Alabama during the 1960s.
The News & Observer, the state’s newspaper of record, editorialized on Oct. 17 that next year’s gubernatorial race “will be a referendum on ideas and ideals,” with far more at stake than the usual “jousts between ambitious politicians seeking to win more for their egos than for the people.”
McCrory must own a record of policies that have been hurtful to the poor — including refusing to expand Medicaid while cutting unemployment insurance — and hurtful to women by restricting access to abortion. He either has to own that record, or admit that the Republican leadership in the General Assembly, not he, is driving the state’s agenda.
Cooper sounded decidedly populist notes during his campaign announcement at Nash County Community College in Rocky Mount.
“Governor McCrory has the wrong priorities for North Carolina: Giving away the store to those at the top at the expense of the middle class and our schools,” he said. “He won’t find a way to keep good teachers, but he finds a way to pass tax giveaways to big corporations.”
The pitch sounds appealing, but we don’t really know the specific contents yet. Maybe it would be foolish to scorn Cooper based on his handling of the Smith case, but it’s useful to understand the political compromises involved in seeking the highest office in the state.
Politics will break your heart. By all means, get swept up in the fervor of the campaign. Celebrate when and if Cooper wins, but recognize that the luster will come off when the realities of governing set in.