Last week, DRCNet reviewed drug reform initiatives on the state or local ballot in various locales across the country. This week, we take a look at some gubernatorial races in which drug policy is playing a role. In an election cycle dominated by war and rumors of war and with an economy that is shedding thousands of jobs each week, drug policy has not, for the most part, played a large role in this fall's campaigns -- with a few notable exceptions. But insurgent third party and independent gubernatorial candidates, and at least one Democrat have tried to put the drug war on trial in races across the country. This week, DRCNet looks at the races in New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Next week, we will look at selected state and local races.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR
New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws and medical marijuana have become issues as the governor's race heads into its final weeks. According to recent polling, incumbent Republican Gov. George Pataki has 41% of the vote, Democratic challenger Carl McCall has 30%, and wealthy businessman and Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano has 20%, although Golisano may be surging. Also in the race, and getting some much needed attention from televised candidate debates are Marijuana Reform Party (MRP) candidate Tom Leighton (http://www.marijuanareform.org) and Libertarian Party candidate Scott Jeffrey (http://www.lp.org).
For the major party candidates and Golisano, who has thrown $40 million of his Paychex fortune into his campaign, the goal is winning the election. For the Libertarians and the MRP, the goal is 50,000 votes -- enough to win the parties an automatic ballot line for the next four years.
Pataki and the Democratic-dominated New York Assembly have been sparring for the past two years over competing half-measures that would tweak the Rockefeller laws. Pataki initiated the campaign battle over the Rockefeller laws by quietly seeking early this month to cut a deal with Assembly Democrats. But the Democrats, who have long struggled with the governor over the scope of any reforms and over the key issue of judicial discretion, weren't buying. Pataki's new proposal, which would allow more people serving time on drug charges to ask for resentencing, still had significant flaws, such as a provision that would make people arrested within 1,000 feet of a school or 100 feet of a park ineligible for treatment. That would disqualify most people arrested in New York City. But the Democrats' reluctance to accept the Pataki proposal was also rooted in partisan politics. "The Democrats have no incentive to give the Republican governor a victory on easing the drug laws," the New York Times noted.
Democrat McCall has criticized the Rockefeller laws and Pataki's proposed reforms, but Golisano did him one better last week by taking to the airwaves to call for outright repeal of the Rockefeller laws. The Golisano campaign issued a detailed position paper on the issue, calling for treatment over prison for nonviolent first-time offenders, complete retroactivity for persons previously sentenced under the Rockefeller laws, and substantial reductions in current sentencing guidelines. The Golisano plan would also restore discretion in sentencing to judges (http://www.golisano.com/press/RockefellerDrugLaws.htm).
While Golisano's political aim with the repeal proposal is to strengthen his support among New York City voters by peeling off Hispanic voters who may have favored Pataki and black voters inclined to vote for McCall, the first black man to run for governor in New York, his move has made Rockefeller law reform an issue in a campaign that had, for the most part, ignored the topic. Black and Hispanic votes for Golisano in New York City should provide a good indicator of support for drug law reform, since Golisano otherwise portrays himself as "the most conservative candidate in the race."
Also last week, Golisano endorsed medical marijuana, provoking Democrat McCall to say he, too, would activate a long-blocked state medical marijuana program. When asked by the New York Times what his position was, Gov. Pataki, who in the past had flatly opposed medical marijuana, first declined to give an opinion. When pressed, however, he told the Times that his medical professionals "concluded that it is not justified at this time, that there are alternatives, and I support that conclusion."
Golisano's medical marijuana stand was a bit much for Marijuana Reform Party candidate Tom Leighton, who accused him of "political opportunism" in a press release last week. "Golisano is exploiting the suffering of seriously ill patients for his own political gain," said Leighton. "The voters should not be fooled by 'me too' medical marijuana advocates."
Leighton's irritation is understandable; coming off a well-received performance in the first candidates' debate on October 13, he is not about to let Golisano run with an issue that he has been pushing for years. That debate gave wide exposure to Leighton, and to Libertarian candidate Jeffrey. And while the New York Times referred to Leighton as an "obscure candidate," it also printed his name in each of its hundreds of thousands of copies.
Leighton made use of his limited time to appeal to upstate farmers with a pledge to support industrial hemp and to financial conservatives by arguing that legalizing marijuana could bring more money into the state's tax coffers. Leighton said pot smokers would not mind being taxed if the drug were legalized. That provoked Libertarian Jeffrey to retort: "Well, I am a pot smoker who does not want to pay more taxes."
Some New York drug reformers were delighted with Golisano's stands, however, including Anthony Papa, an artist and former Rockefeller prisoner who was granted clemency by Gov. Pataki and the state Parole Board in 1997. Papa had supported Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic Primary because his proposed Rockefeller reformers were superior to that of his opponent, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall. Now, however, Papa is supporting Golisano, and he appears in a campaign ad being run by the Golisano campaign (http://www.golisano.com/images/Videos/TonyPapa-30.avi).
Even though a Pataki victory appears assured, Golisano's New York City vote and the ability of the Marijuana Reform Party and the Libertarians to garner the 50,000 votes they seek will be indicators of the strength of the drug reform message in New York.
In no state governor's race
is drug reform more tied with partisan politics than Ohio. Republican
Gov. Robert Taft and his wife, Hope, have led a major, possibly illegal,
effort to block the state's "treatment not jail" initiative, Issue One,
from passing. As Dan Forbes reported, they have used state resources
to try to defeat a measure they oppose, they have brought in fellow drug
warriors from states such as Michigan and Florida, and they have connived
with federal anti-drug bureaucrats
Those moves provided an opening for underdog Democratic challenger Tim Hagan, a former Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) commissioner making his first bid for statewide office. In mid-September, Hagan, who has consistently trailed Taft in pre-election polls, announced he would support Issue One. "We all know someone who has struggled with addiction," Hagan said on September 16. "These are individuals who, if given the help they need, can once again become productive citizens. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves to give them that opportunity."
Directly addressing arguments against Issue One, Hagan added while he believes drug reform would best be handled by legislation -- not in the Ohio constitution as Issue One requires -- the Republican-led General Assembly had failed even to hold a hearing on a "treatment not jail" bill sponsored by his brother, state Sen. Robert Hagan. That bill would require treatment for most nonviolent drug offenders. Similarly, while Issue One opponents succeeded in obtaining ballot language that emphasizes the $247 million cost of the initiative, Hagan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the measure would save money in the long run because treatment is far less expensive than jail. It would also reduce crime by targeting chronic drug addicts, he said.
Hagan could benefit from endorsing Issue One, according to some Ohio observers. "I could imagine a scenario where Issue 1 fails by a small margin and Hagan actually wins because of the Issue 1 TV ads and then he gets other votes because he's the Democratic candidate," University of Akron political scientist John Green told the Toledo Blade last month. "Hagan's support for Issue One could encourage turnout by black voters who believe drug laws "disproportionately hurt the African-American community," Ohio State political scientist Herb Asher told the Blade. That could give Hagan a big boost, he added.
Two weeks ago, Issue One supporters, frustrated with official obstruction and ballot wording that mentioned the $247 million cost but failed to mention savings the reform would generate, began floating trial balloons suggesting that they would junk a planned advertising blitz for the initiative in favor of supporting Hagan's campaign. That ended when Hagan announced he would not accept financial support from initiative supporters. Hagan, who has made a campaign issue of condemning political action committee contributions to campaigns, told the Blade it would be "pretty hypocritical" to accept money from just such a group. "These separate committees are undermining the process. Whatever they do, they're going to do. I don't have any control over it," Hagan said.
But he may also have feared being smeared as taking money from the "billionaire outsiders," who financed Issue One. The "outsider" charge has been leveled repeatedly by initiative opponents, despite the fact that two of the four major financial backers of Issue One have strong Ohio ties. California high-tech engineer Richard Wolfe is from a family that owns the Columbus Dispatch, while Peter Lewis heads Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance.
If Issue One has been the primary focus of drug policy in the Ohio campaign, an October 15 debate raised the medical marijuana issue. Hagan supported it, citing his father's death from cancer three years ago, then raised eyebrows by adding that he would not have had a problem sending his nephew "or someone" out to buy marijuana for his father. But Hagan stood by his statement in the face of criticism the following day, telling the Plain Dealer, "If that was my daughter and I could ease her suffering, you bet I would."
Taft, for his part, argued against medical marijuana. The following day, he told the Columbus Dispatch that he had confirmed with his wife, whom he considers a drug expert, that marijuana is an addictive "gateway" drug. Hagan is trailing in every poll, with the most favorable sounding showing him trailing by 7%. Other polls have given Taft an 8%, 11% and an 18% margin. Issue One also appears to be losing, although a poll released Tuesday showed it winning 60% to 38%. But that poll, conducted by the New Jersey-based SurveyUSA, did not mention the $247 million in costs -- language that will figure prominently on the actual ballot. Other polls show the measure losing by 20 points.
Still, Issue One supporters are heartened enough to have committed to a last-minute advertising blitz in support of the measure. "We will hit every major media market in the state," Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies spokesman Rob Stewart told DRCNet. "We still think we can win." And, if the political scientists are correct, the last minute TV ads could bring Hagan a surprise victory.
For drug reformers, the Wisconsin governor's race is a three-way contest between Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and Libertarian Party candidate Ed Thompson, the blue collar brother of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, now Secretary of Health & Human Services in the Bush administration. Sitting Republican Gov. Scott McCall, who was appointed to replace Tommy Thompson, is facing off against Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle.
Drug policy has not been much of an issue in a campaign dominated by budget crisis -- except when Ed Thompson brings it up -- but both major party candidates have been doing their best to demonstrate their "tough on crime" bona fides.
Doyle, whose political career has been based on prosecuting criminals, brags on his web site about ending parole and cracking down on drug dealers, while McCallum touts his efforts to keep building new prisons.
"Jim Doyle has cracked down on drug dealers, deploying over $10 million in grants to local communities to fight drugs and penetrate networks of criminals trafficking crack, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine," his web site tells voters. "He has opened new anti-narcotic offices and launched education campaigns to encourage the public to use the drug tip hotline. These efforts have led to the arrest of over 1500 drug dealers in the last twelve years."
McCallum, for his part, uses his web site to brag about limiting inmates' ability to request reconsideration of their sentences and adds that he has "worked hard to ensure that the state's prisons have adequate space to keep criminals locked up." McCallum's drug policy positions are limited to attacking methamphetamine with harsher penalties and supporting "law enforcement's work throughout the state to interdict shipments of illegal drugs and the various regional task force efforts to get these drugs off the street."
Both candidates have admitted to smoking marijuana in college, but if their drug policy positions are any indication, such activity must have taken place in a galaxy far, far away.
Libertarian Ed Thompson (http://www.EdThompson.org) has made drug policy reform one of his key campaign planks and has hammered away at it at campaign stops across the state. Using the state's budget crunch for leverage, Thompson advocates slashing the prison population and budget through reforming mandatory minimum sentence laws and removing drug possession from the criminal codes. "We can cut the corrections budget in half, get nonviolent people out of prison. We could cut the prison budget in half and it would still be twice as big as it was in 1989," he said at one campaign stop.
"Taxpayers would save billions of dollars and citizens would better be able to seek therapy if nonviolent drug offenses were removed from the criminal justice system and the priority placed on those who do harm to you and your loved ones," says his policy statement.
But while Thompson has received plentiful media coverage, both in Wisconsin and in the national press, and has plowed more than $300,000 into his campaign, his dreams of a Jesse Ventura-style surprise victory appear to be fading. In a tight three-way split, 34% of the voters could make him governor, but a Tuesday poll shows him at 8%. A similar poll three weeks ago, which the Thompson campaign criticized as biased, had him at 6%.
According to this week's survey, the We the People/Wisconsin statewide poll, Democrat Doyle is leading with 46% of the vote to McCallum's 35%, with Thompson in third place trailed by Green Party candidate Jim Young with 3%.
"Our drug war is a dismal failure," said Thompson. But it doesn't look like that issue is grabbing Wisconsin voters this year.