This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. We will run a series of articles in the coming days on progressive victories that came out of the 2020 election at the state and local level.
The upsurge of protest since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, compounded by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha in August, another police murder, of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia in late October, and similar incidents of police violence in recent years raised Americans’ awareness of the reality of what many candidates began to call “systemic racism.” Although most voters don’t want to “defund the police,” they’ve expressed growing concern over racial profiling and other forms of police misconduct, mass incarceration of people of color and the racial disparities of the war on drugs.
While Trump sought to tamp down these attitudes with racist appeals to “law and order,” including the use of federal troops to quell protests in Portland and other cities, the idea that “Black Lives Matter” echoed from the streets into the voting booth (and mailed ballots). On several fronts, voters embraced candidates and ballot measures to reign in the police, restore voting rights to people on parole, relax drug laws and challenge long-standing racist practices.
DA, Law Enforcement and Prosecutorial Reform
Rising anger has led voters to elect progressive local District Attorneys who pledged to prosecute police misconduct, limit or eliminate the use of bail to keep people in jail while they await sentencing and reduce the overall prison population.
This year, voters in Los Angeles County (the nation’s largest, with over 10 million residents), elected bold reformer George Gascon as the new District Attorney. Embraced by Black Lives Matter, the former LA cop and San Francisco DA beat incumbent Jackie Lacey, who was heavily supported by police unions, with 53.6 percent of the vote.
Gary Tyack, a former judge, told the Columbus Dispatch that he decided to run for Franklin County (Ohio) prosecutor because “I frankly have seen too many situations where people of color have been shot by police officers and nothing has come of it.” He won the seat with 53 percent of the vote, ousting Ron O’Brien, a Republican who served in that post for 24 years and was known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty,
Other candidates — including Monique Worrell (Orlando), Jose Garza (a labor and immigrant rights lawyer and former public defender) in Travis County (Austin), Texas, Alexis King in Jefferson County, Colorado (who opposes prosecuting people for drug possession), Gordon McLaughlin (in Larimer and Jackson counties, Colorado), Karen McDonald (Oakland County, Michigan), Laura Conover (Pima County [Tucson], Arizona), Alonzo Payne (in Colorado’s San Luis Valley), Andrew Warren (in Florida’s Hillsborough County) and Mimi Rocah (in New York’s Westchester County) — won their DA races for the first time. So did Keith Higgins (in several counties in south Georgia), who ousted incumbent Jackie Johnson, who gained national media attention for her mishandling of the murder of the Ahmaud Arbery, the black jogger who was chased and then fatally shot by a white former police officer and his son in Brunswick, Georgia. Amy Padden, a Democratic reformer, was running neck-and-neck with Republican John Kellner for the DA’s seat in Arapahoe, Lincoln, Douglas, and Elbert counties in Colorado.
Voters also re-elected a host of progressive prosecutors, including Kim Gardner in St. Louis, Mark Gonzalez in Nueces County (Corpus Christi) and Kim Foxx in Cook County (Chicago). Foxx, the first African American woman to serve as the county’s top prosecutor, has pushed to reform the bail system and reduce charges for minor crimes, in order to make the criminal justice system fairer for Black and Latino people. Eli Savit in Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), who once clerked for the late-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and who earned the endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and singer John Legend, won the Democratic nomination for his seat in the primaries and ran unopposed in the general election. He won the race for Washtenaw County prosecutor.
Other lefty DAs, who were not up for re-election this year, set the tone for the latest wave. Larry Krasner, elected Philadelphia’s DA in 2017, quickly shook up his office by firing attorneys who were considered too close to the police and by exonerating prisoners’ wrongful convictions based on the misconduct of police and prosecutors that mostly targeted people of color. The next year, voters in Suffolk County (Boston) put Rachael Rollins in the DA’s office. Among other bold reforms, she released a list of 136 police officers accused of misconduct and branded them as untrustworthy courtroom witnesses. In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, elected DA in 2019 declared a new policy to prevent cases from being charged or prosecuted based solely on the testimony of officers with a history of “serious misconduct.”
In another sign of this new mood, California Assemblyman Rob Bonta recently announced his plan to introduce legislation to prevent elected prosecutors from investigating police misconduct if they’ve accepted campaign funds from law-enforcement unions. And in October, 11 state attorney generals and 53 local DAs announced that they would refuse to enforce laws that criminalize abortion, even if the increasingly conservative Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
Voters installed a number of reform-minded sheriffs who oppose cooperation with ICE in identifying undocumented immigrants, want to clean up overcrowded jails and respect protesters’ civil liberties. Most of them ousted long-term incumbents with a track record of punitive law enforcement, either in Democratic primaries or in the general election.
Georgians elected the first Black sheriffs in the history of their three counties: Keybo Taylor in Gwinnett County, Reginald Scandrett in Henry County, and Craig Owens in Cobb County. Owens defeated Sheriff Neil Warren, who faced criticism for conditions in the county jail after several inmates died in custody. In 2017, Warren triggered controversy when he pressured the president of local Kennesaw State University to punish cheerleaders who knelt in protest at a football game while the national anthem was being played. Warren, who called the protesters “unpatriotic,” told a colleague in a text message that the university president “assured me that the cheerleaders will not be on field from now on. Thanks for always standing up to these liberal[s] that hate the USA.”
John Williams in Athens-Clarke counties in Georgia, Kristin Graziano in Charleston, S.C., Patrick McDermont in Norfolk County (Massachusetts), and Charmaine McGuffey in Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio prevailed in their campaigns for sheriff. McGuffey, took a lot of abuse as a law enforcement officer in the sheriff’s department. In 2017, she sued her former boss, Sheriff Jim Neil, who had fired her, claiming that she created a “hostile work environment.” McGuffey said she was fired for being an open lesbian and for complaining about the excessive force against inmates in the county jail. Earlier this year, McGuffey beat Neil — who had attended a Trump rally, cooperated with ICE and backed the construction of a bigger jail — in the Democratic primary, then she defeated her Republican opponent Bruce Hoffbauer.
“Which is more important? Your pork chops, or the people that are contracting COVID, the people that are dying from it?” asked Tony Thompson last April when the virus spread among workers at a giant Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Thomas, the Black Hawk County sheriff, lobbied the company to close the plant after health officials reported that more than a third of the Tyson workforce – over 1,000 workers – had contracted the virus and at least three had died. Tyson initially refused to shut down the plant but eventually agreed to do so after Thompson continued to sound the alarm to state and county officials and the media. Thompson – a Democrat who is in his 12th year as sheriff – was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote.
A Changing Court and Prison System
In New Orleans, progressives ran a slate of seven candidates to “flip the bench” and install reformers as local criminal court judges committed to ending cash bail and finding alternatives to prison. Two members of the slate — Angel Harris and Nandi Campbell, both former public defenders — prevailed. Harris also worked as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU.
Voters in San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Columbus (Ohio), San Jose, Oakland, Berkley, Sonoma County (CA), Kyle, Texas, and Portland (Oregon), either created or strengthened civilian oversight commissions on law enforcement. Eighty-two percent of voters in Portland created a new oversight body with the power to subpoena police documents, require police officers to testify, and discipline or even fire officers who engage in misconduct. In Michigan, 88 percent of voters approved a state constitutional amendment that requires law enforcement officers to obtain a search warrant before accessing electronic data. In Akron, Ohio, voters embraced a measure to require police to “promptly” release body-cam videos after an officer seriously harms or kills someone. In King County, Washington (Seattle), voters supported a measure to require investigations whenever a person dies in law enforcement custody and to pay for an attorney for the victim’s family members. Philadelphia approved a new policy calling on police to end “unconstitutional stop and frisk” policing.
Activists in cities around the country have pushed to cut police budgets and redirect funds to programs that address the root causes of crime, drug abuse and homelessness. In a few cities, these demands were part of ballot measures that won voter approval.
In Los Angeles County, voters supported Measure J, which requires the county to address racial injustice and mass incarceration by spending at least 10 percent of its general fund on community investment and alternatives to incarceration. None of the funds can be used for jails or law enforcement. The campaign was a top priority for social justice groups who have been pushing for good jobs, affordable housing, health services and an end to police abuses. San Francisco voters approved Proposition E (by 71 percent), overturning a law that required the city to maintain a minimum number of full-time police officers.
In California, 59 percent of voters embraced Proposition 17, which restores voting rights to about 50,000 people on state parole following their prison sentences. Nevada passed Question 3, a measure that will make it easier for the state to grant prisoners a pardon. California is the 19th state to restore voting rights to ex-prisoners.
The “war on drugs,” which began under Richard Nixon in the 1970s, disproportionately targeted young men of color, leading to their high rates of incarceration. This year, voters said it was time to look for more humane approaches to addressing addiction and the drug trade. In every state where a ballot measure asked Americans to reconsider the drug war, voters sided with reformers.
In Arizona, Montana and New Jersey, voters legalized marijuana for recreational purposes; South Dakota followed suit for both recreational and medical purposes; Mississippi said OK to medical marijuana. Oregon voters approved a trailblazing ballot measure to decriminalize possession of small amounts of so-called hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and methamphetamines — the first state to do so. They also legalized the use of psilocybin, a psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms, for supervised therapeutic uses. Oregonians also voted to direct marijuana sales taxes toward drug addiction treatment programs. In Washington, DC, voters in effect decriminalized psychedelic plants, following the lead of several other cities. Marijuana is now legal in 15 states. These reforms will reduce the number of Americans sentenced to jail for low-level drug offenses.
Racism Loses at the Ballot Box
Racism was on the ballot, too, and lost. After decades of controversy, Mississippi, which has the highest proportion of black residents — 38 percent — of any state, finally has a new state flag without the divisive Confederate battle emblem that previously flew for 126 years. Seventy-one percent of voters approved the change. The state had faced pressure from religious, sports, business and civil rights leaders to remove the symbol of its Jim Crow past.
Two-thirds of Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment to remove racist language from the state Constitution. The 1901 Constitution was written to disenfranchise Blacks and poor whites, and includes language that bans interracial marriage and requires public schools to be segregated. Although federal court decisions have nullified those provisions, the language has long been a symbolic reminder of the state’s Jim Crow history.
Utah and Nebraska voted to remove from their constitutions slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishment. In Rhode Island, voters removed “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name — a measure that was defeated in 2010.
Racist redlining was also on the ballot. Thanks to a campaign spearheaded by the Nebraskans for Responsible Lending coalition, 83 percent of the state’s voters supported Initiative 428 to stop triple-digit predatory lending by reducing annual interest rates from an average of over 400 percent to 36 percent. Payday lenders, who target people of color, have charged an average of 400 percent interest rates for their mostly low-income customers, trapping them in a cycle of debt and bankruptcy.
Black Hawk County (Iowa) voters re-elected Democratic supervisor Chris Schwartz, a community organizer and Black Lives Matter member who helped raise awareness of Tyson’s irresponsible labor practices. In his first term, Schwartz pushed for a “ban the box” law to prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records and prevent them from considering criminal backgrounds until after a provisional job offer is made. He also worked to secure solar power for county buildings, protect workers’ rights, address food insecurity, expand mental health and drug addiction services, and challenge landlords who evict tenants during the pandemic.
Correction: This article originally stated that Eli Savit was re-elected in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He actually won for the first time. TPM regrets this error.
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.