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Race matters (continued)

The incredible vanishing death penalty

One twist that could put race at the center of the gubernatorial campaign is a debate over the death penalty. Deval Patrick, who fought death-penalty sentences as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is a staunch opponent; in contrast, both Tom Reilly and Mitt Romney support its selective use. Last May, of course, an 11-member panel, appointed by the governor back in 2003, floated a proposal for an error-free death penalty for especially heinous crimes (see "Scientific Uncertainty," News and Features, May 7, 2004). The plan, according to the Romney administration, was to file a bill to implement an infallible death penalty early this year.

Almost four months into 2005, however, Romney’s long-awaited legislation remains exactly that. This winter, Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor’s communications director, had suggested a bill would be filed in February or March. Earlier this month, when the subject came up during an interview with the Phoenix, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey said, cryptically, "There will be news on that soon." What gives?

There are a few theories. One holds that Romney, in the wake of recent setbacks (last year’s Republican legislative misadventures, the recent veto-proof passage of stem-cell legislation by the House and Senate), will take a pass on this fight and hope that the memory of his blue-ribbon panel quietly fades away. "I’m quite certain that they’re blowing smoke out their you-know-what on this," one Democratic legislator says. "There’s no way they’re going to try a bill, because if they try any bill, they’re going to be embarrassed."

Another possibility, though, is that Romney is simply delaying until the moment is right — that is, until an especially shocking crime occurs. "We suspect that he’s waiting for the right time," says David Ehrmann, president of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty. "That would be when there’s a horrific murder, when emotions are at a height. And then he’ll release the bill."

For those who think Romney’s every move is made with an eye toward running for president in 2008, this tactic may seem the height of cynicism. But if you give the governor credit for his convictions, it doesn’t sound quite so bad. "To give the devil his due, I think he’s a true social conservative," says one Democratic observer. "I don’t think people understood that in this state in 2002." If Romney honestly believes some crimes merit execution (a belief shared, incidentally, by approximately half the residents of Massachusetts), and if he a) truly thinks forensic science can eliminate wrongful convictions or b) sees the trade-off between justice and some measure of uncertainty as reasonable, it makes sense that he’d do everything possible to advance his agenda.

Recent history shows that dramatic events can shift the tenor of the death-penalty discussion. After the 1997 murder of Jeffrey Curley, the 10-year-old Cambridge boy who was kidnapped and killed by two pedophiles, the legislature nearly reinstated the death penalty, which had been abolished 13 years earlier; only a last-minute vote change by former Peabody state representative John Slattery kept this from occurring. "That issue is so event-driven," says pollster David Paleologos, of Suffolk University. "That particular issue just strikes a chord in people. When there’s some kind of heinous crime, it just freaks people out.... Based on what I’ve observed with Romney, in terms of poll-driven decisions, I’d say he’s holding it as a possible issue."

Don’t mention the blowjob

Today, John Podesta heads the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. But Podesta is best known as a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton. In person, Podesta is a commanding presence — lean and angular, with a keen gaze and cutting wit. In other words, he’s ideally suited to rally the Democratic faithful and skewer the excesses of contemporary Republicanism.

For the most part, anyway. Last week, at Lesley College, in Cambridge, Podesta delivered an address with the grand-sounding title "Renewing America: A Progressive Vision of Moral Leadership." At the speech’s outset, Podesta neatly skewered the Republicans’ alleged superiority on "values," contrasting the harsh realities of the US House budget proposal (which includes cuts of $30 billion to $35 billion from Medicaid, food stamps, adoption and foster-care services, and welfare-transition assistance over the next five years) with House majority leader Tom DeLay’s claim that "God is using me all the time, everywhere, to stand up for a biblical world-view." (The line got plenty of laughs from the audience.)

But while Podesta effectively highlighted Republican hypocrisy, a discussion of the roots of this hypocrisy — and, more to the point, the willingness of the American electorate to wink at it — was noticeably absent. Near the end of his presentation, in response to a question from the Phoenix, Podesta spoke to this problem. "I think it happened over a long period of time," he said. "What it meant to be a ‘values voter’ got a little disordered in this country, and maybe it’s our fault, because we weren’t talking about it enough." Then Podesta segued into one of the favorite Democratic prescriptions of the moment — the need to reinvigorate progressive religious thought. "Progressive religious voices have always been part of the coalition that’s worked to make this society more just," he said, citing the civil-rights, labor, and abolition movements. "Somehow, they got out of the public arena; they got out of the town square. Their voices were not there."

Point well taken. But that’s not the whole story. The truth is that Bill Clinton, Podesta’s old boss, helped create the alleged Democratic "values deficit" by engaging in his tawdry dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and then — worst of all, perhaps — lying about it on camera. Yes, blithely slashing programs aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society is far more troubling, and far more immoral, than getting oral gratification in the White House. But given the abiding puritanical streak here in the US, the memory of Clinton’s bad behavior has allowed Republicans such as the ethically challenged DeLay and the Iraq-intelligence-manipulating President George W. Bush to sell themselves, with a straight face, as godly men. Someday, this problem will fade away; for now, unfortunately, it’s very much with us. As Podesta works to restore sanity to the values debate, he should be honest with us — and with himself — about how things got so out of whack in the first place.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com

page 2 

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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