(Written by John Eligon and Audra D. S. Burch)
A veteran law enforcement officer in Charleston, South Carolina, campaigning to unseat her boss has vowed to root out racial bias in the 900-member Sheriff’s Department and rebuild trust in the Black community.
A former judge in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, who is running for district attorney, has promised to change how prosecutors make charging, plea and bail decisions.
And in Hamilton County, Ohio, the race for the top prosecutor pits a Republican incumbent running on a “tough-on-crime” platform against a Democrat and former judge who is pushing to eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses and create a conviction integrity unit.
While the coronavirus and battered economy have overtaken issues of race as the focal points in presidential and congressional campaigns, despite the disproportionate impact of both on communities of color, systemic racism and police reform have emerged as dominant themes in a number of local elections. In states across America, from California to Kentucky to New York, many voters said they saw the races for sheriffs, prosecutors and council representatives as having more consequence to their lives.
In South Carolina, Kristin Graziano, a 32-year police veteran, is challenging Sheriff Al Cannon, who has held the Charleston County post since 1988. Graziano, a Democrat, said she had been thinking about race and policing for years, particularly after the death of Walter Scott, a Black man who was killed by a white North Charleston police officer in 2015.
Graziano, 53, has centered much of her candidacy on issues of accountability and diversifying the department, which covers a county that is almost one-third Black. If elected, Graziano, who is white, would be the first woman to serve as a sheriff in the state.
“When unarmed men get shot in the back running away from police and when people get choked out in handcuffs, obviously those are not right,” said Graziano, who began her law enforcement career in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s a systemic problem, it’s always been a systemic problem. I think it’s a very small portion that have the bias, but we have to own it.”
Cannon, who is white, said the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, which led to thousands of protests across the country this summer and conversations about race and racism, sharpened a collective focus on racial injustices. But, he said, his department was already making progress, including efforts to reduce the county’s inmate population.
And about three months ago, Cannon, 74, said he moved to avoid “flash points,” such as directing the force to issue citations rather than make arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Both candidates said they were encouraged by the surge in early voting in Charleston County. As of Thursday, about 76,000 people had voted in person, compared with 43,000 in 2016. And mail-in ballots jumped from 16,000 to 52,000, county records show.
Hoping to harness the energy at demonstrations amid a national conversation about race, organizers pushed massive voter registration drives over the summer. The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of activist groups, hosted a series of virtual town halls and conventions focused on election issues. And local chapters of Black Lives Matter hosted Instagram live chats with candidates to weigh their positions on issues of race and policing.
Rock the Vote, a nonprofit organization aimed at registering young voters, said its platform had surpassed 2 million registered voters this year, up from 1.7 million in 2016. Since Floyd’s death, Voto Latino, a nonprofit political organization, registered 451,976 voters across the country.
“Following the murder of George Floyd, we saw an explosion in voter registrations,” said Danny Turkel, communications manager of Voto Latino, noting that the organization registered 97,000 voters in June alone. He said a July poll showed that three-quarters of Latinos surveyed supported the Black Lives Matter movement and 64% said police reform was among their top reasons to vote.
But there is a racial divide over the importance of race in this election season.
In a Pew Research Center survey that interviewed 7,485 registered voters in July and August, at the height of the unrest and the nation’s reckoning over systemic racism, 85% of Black and 66% of Hispanic respondents viewed “race and ethnic inequality” as very important to their vote, compared with 43% of white voters.
Still, a growing number of Black and Latino voters support President Donald Trump, despite his refusal to denounce white nationalism and his calls for “law and order” in the wake of some protests that turned violent. A large national poll released on Thursday showed the president winning 9% of Black voters this year, up from 8% in 2016, and 35% of Latino voters, up from 29%.
“The stakes, I will say, have never been higher,” said Martin Luther King III, the son of the famed civil rights leader. “I think the vast majority of Black Americans — and really Americans — believe that we’ve got to address the issue of race, systematic racism.”
In Louisville, Kentucky, where a protest movement galvanized by the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor has persisted for 150 days, the focus has been on changing the makeup of the Louisville Metro Council, which has the power to change police policy and, in June, passed a bill known as Breonna’s Law that banned no-knock warrants.
“Folks are paying attention to that and they’re connecting it to their ballots, and that is vitally important,” Attica Scott, a Kentucky state representative, said. “Until folks really understand how local and state and federal government work, they won’t necessarily be the kind of informed voters who can create this change.”
Last year, the office of Bo Duhé, the district attorney for Louisiana’s 16th Judicial Circuit, made an unusual motion to have Lori Landry, the first Black female judge in the district, removed from more than 300 cases. Duhé’s office argued that Landry was biased against prosecutors, in part because she accused them of racial bias in their treatment of defendants.
Now Landry, who left the bench in July, is challenging Duhé in his reelection bid.
She has centered her campaign on the racial disparities she complained about from the bench, and she said the national conversation on race has only highlighted injustices that have left her more worried than when she was growing up.
“I was never afraid for the safety of my brothers like I’m afraid for the safety of my 21- and 28-year-old nephews,” Landry, 57, said. “It has shaped me as a person. But it also has pushed me in a race that I might not otherwise be in.”
Duhé, who is white, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. But in interviews with other news outlets he has stressed the need to protect victims and provide alternatives to incarceration for defendants.
For some Black residents of the 16th circuit, which includes Iberia, St. Mary and St. Martin Parishes, the district attorney’s race has been a rallying cry for change in a criminal justice system that they have long felt was stacked against them.
Many still feel the sting of the tenure of Louis Ackal, the former Iberia Parish sheriff whose deputies accused him of brutal, racist acts and who was acquitted on charges of federal civil rights abuses. And many local residents see the district attorney’s office, which has always been led by white men, as upholding a system that has made Louisiana among the states with the highest incarceration rates, with Black men and boys nine times more likely to be locked up before trial than their white counterparts.
Robby Carrier-Bethel, a community activist in New Iberia, said a lot of new young people are engaging in the political process this year, helping with door-to-door canvassing, phone banking and social media outreach for Landry. There are some indications that the efforts are moving Black voters toward the polls. Black voter registration is slightly up this year in the 16th circuit compared with four years ago, while registration among white voters has fallen.
Carrier-Bethel, 60, said the urgency of this election lay in her concern that hard-won racial advancements of generations past could be lost.
“Realizing that actually makes you stop and pause,” she said. “You understand fully what’s at stake and that you have to be the protector of those rights.”