Opinion: An unintended benefit

(Emerson Lynn, St. Alban’s Messenger)

Vermont’s Attorney General T.J. Donovan is taking a little heat for his failure to to sign a letter pledging to no longer accept campaign contributions or political endorsements from the state’s police unions.

The rebuke comes from The Justice Collaborative Institute, which is making the case — nationally — that the relationship between prosecutors and law enforcement should be arm’s length and that accepting campaign contributions and endorsements from police unions pollutes the relationship and, in effect, is a barrier to the reform necessary to address systemic inequities.

The group has a valid point. There is little question that reform within the law enforcement communities is a national priority and this need requires an openness, and honesty that campaign contributions and political endorsements make problematic.

But it’s more complicated than may first appear. It’s of little consequence to Mr. Donovan. He doesn’t have any serious competition and will be easily reelected in November. He’s already made the decision not to accept donations or endorsements from police unions this campaign. He’s gone so far as to say he would not accept any contributions in the future from police unions. But he did not say he would refuse their endorsements.

Which makes sense. If he had a strong Republican opponent why would he give that person the advantage of appealing to the police unions for their endorsement? He wouldn’t. The police unions also have a variety of issues that concern them, just like the unions representing teachers and state employees. They have the right to cast their political support to the candidate that best represents their needs.

The potential irony is obvious: The more liberal candidates, Mr. Donovan, for example, could be put more at risk than conservative candidates, who wouldn’t pay any attention to the group’s pressure. It’s the conservatives who would play the law and order card, welcoming the police unions contributions and endorsements.

And that would leave us where?

It’s a question that has become one of the nation’s central issues. For the moment, it’s surpassed that of COVID-19. It’s at the forefront as the president yesterday visited Kenosha, Wisconsin. It’s at the forefront as the protests continues in Portland, Ore. And the president continues to make the issue front and center with his tweets which are designed to incite more violence; he’s obviously making law and order the center of his reelection campaign. He understands voters value their personal security above most other things. He will play the issue until the last fumes of his cause are exhausted. The Kenoshas and the Portlands play to his favor.

Joe Biden understands this as well with his refusal to embrace any “defund the police” pledge. He’s also decried the lawlessness and the looting. He’s trying desperately to make the point that our civil liberties, no matter the race or orientation, depend on a nation’s ability to maintain law and order. Without it, anarchy reigns. Everyone loses.

When the president warns that “No one will be safe in Biden’s America” he’s playing to roughly 10-15 percent of the electorate that’s undecided. Democrats need to have their own law and order message; one that addresses racial inequities, and one that also addresses the public’s safety. Donald Trump won in 2016, surprising even himself. For that to be avoided in November, the Democrats can’t give him any advantages. That runs up and down the ticket. To paraphrase a cliche: To do so would be penny wise and pound foolish. Even in Vermont.)

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