John Legend has a message as tailor-made as his suits for this momentous political quagmire in American history.
The question is whether enough of his millions of followers are listening.
The Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award-winning singer and songwriter has been doing the rounds lately, tweeting to fans and speaking to reporters about the importance of electing progressive district attorneys this year.
“If you care about mass incarceration, if you care about police brutality, if you care about all these issues that people are protesting and marching against,” Legend told me recently on Zoom, “the one of the areas we need to pay attention to – which we haven’t paid attention to – is the power of the prosecutor.
So far, he has endorsed at least 25 candidates in multiple states, including three who are running in California. He also showed his support for Chesa Boudin, who is struggling to fend off a well-funded recall campaign and keep her job as San Francisco district attorney.
“There’s opposition when you want to reform things, and especially when you want to reform them in a progressive direction,” Legend said.
In many ways, this campaign is very much on the mark of a man who for more than a decade has campaigned for criminal justice reform and against the systemic racism that continues to plague this country.
Most of Legend’s favorite candidates favor ending cash bail, for example, and no prosecutions for petty crimes that disproportionately hinder people of color.
But his campaign is also a bit of a headache given that, outside of municipal elections in America’s biggest cities, county-level political races hardly ever get that kind of attention. Especially from celebrities like Legend, who has such a gigantic platform he spent four years using it on Twitter to be a legitimate pain in former President Trump, you know what.
And especially at a time when Republicans are poised to eliminate the slim majority of Democrats in Congress and try to revert the nation to the conservative, repressive policies of the past. This could include anything from sending people to prison for longer sentences to dumber and more draconian measures, such as arming teachers and arresting women for abortions.
So why focus on local politics, rather than national politics, at a time like this?
Because, says Legend, what’s local is what’s controllable. “People really have to be careful who represents them at the local level, at the state level,” he said, “because a lot of important decisions are made that way.”
Indeed, if the past few weeks — heck, the past few years — have proven anything, it’s that voters shouldn’t turn to the perpetually stalled federal government if they seek real systemic change.
Watch what happened after the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, NY
The House Judiciary Committee is preparing to vote on a package of gun control laws, the “Protecting Our Children Act,” which is unlikely to go anywhere in the equally divided Senate.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators have come together to try to find their own accord. At most, we can expect a modest expansion of background checks to buy guns and a “red flag” law to keep them away from dangerous people. But if the past is any indication of the future, we might not even understand that.
Already, President Biden is considering a series of executive orders on gun violence. “He can’t do this on his own,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday. “And so Congress must act.”
In California, on the other hand, gun safety legislation is advancing rapidly through the Legislature, with support from Governor Gavin Newsom.
“We’re going to control what’s controllable, the things we have control over,” he said at a recent event at the state Capitol.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade, likely turning liberal California into a destination for women who need abortions and will be barred from getting them in their states. led by Republicans.
“The reason there will be laws in place that will severely limit women’s freedom is because of local and state offices,” Legend said. “So these people who are state representatives, state senators, are going into state houses, voting on these draconian laws that will severely restrict women’s freedom.”
Indeed, it is easy to forget that local politics is the reason a majority of Americans are held hostage by Republican policies, which are supported by only a minority of the population.
The GOP has spent years mobilizing voters to elect candidates at the city, county and state level, gerrymandering districts and tightening voting restrictions for people of color, creating the deep polarization that we see today.
This is perhaps most evident in the ongoing debate over criminal justice reform, the issue closest and dearest to Legend’s heart.
Last week, Biden signed an executive order to overhaul the police at the federal level. Among other things, it requires agencies to revise their use-of-force policies and creates a national registry of federal officers fired for misconduct.
It’s something. But that executive order is little replacement for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Congress failed to pass and would have banned all cops nationwide from deploying the chokeholds and no-knock warrants that led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I know progress can be slow and frustrating, and there are fears that the race calculus inspired two years ago is starting to fade,” Biden said. “Today we are taking action. We show that talking matters, being engaged matters, and that the work of our time, healing the soul of this nation, is ongoing and unfinished and compels us all to never give up.
Meanwhile, at the local level, police departments in cities across the country have managed to pass some reforms, bowing to pressure from voters and activists. But that progress is now threatened by a rise in homicides and a corresponding backlash leading to the return of 1990s-style tough-on-crime politicians and candidates.
Nowhere is that more true than in California, where the Los Angeles Police Protection League, which represents more than 9,000 LAPD base officers, is pumping millions into races ahead of the LA election. next week. One of the union’s biggest targets is mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass, who was one of the co-sponsors of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
There’s also Boudin’s potential recall, which many see as an indicator of the public’s continued appetite for criminal justice reform. If you refuse to prosecute minor offenses and send people to pretrial diversion programs instead of jail can’t fly to San Francisco, so as others have observed, it won’t fly anywhere.
That’s why, in addition to Boudin, Legend says he’s backing Alana Matthews for district attorney in Sacramento County, Diana Becton in Contra Costa County and Pete Hardin in Orange County.
“We don’t have one criminal justice system,” he said. “We have a bunch of them – every city, every county, every state has a criminal justice system. And we need people in the office who think holistically and incrementally about how to actually solve the problems we face.
Even with nearly 14 million followers on Twitter, a new album and a residency in Las Vegas, Legend insists he is under no illusions that his voice alone will influence the election. But he hopes it will persuade disillusioned voters, those who look at Congress in disgust and wonder what the point of voting is, to rethink what is at stake in their local elections.
It’s a message that certainly can’t hurt and could work well.
“I think my voice, along with other voices, helps people notice these candidates, pay attention to their platform and the reforms they want to put in place, and then make their own decisions.”
Los Angeles Times