Pubdate: Sun, 8 Jun 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard B. Schmitt, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


WASHINGTON -- On a website he calls, Floyd G. Brown,
the producer of the Willie Horton ad that helped defeat Michael S.
Dukakis in 1988, is preparing an encore.

Brown is raising money for a series of ads that he says will show Sen.
Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to be out of touch on an issue of fundamental
concern to voters: violent crime. One spot already making the rounds
on the Internet attacks the presumptive Democratic nominee for
opposing a bill while he was a state legislator that would have
extended the death penalty to gang-related murders.

"When the time came to get tough, Obama chose to be weak. . . . Can a
man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?" the
ad asks.

Though in this presidential race crime has taken a back seat to the
war in Iraq and the economy, some Republicans think Obama is
vulnerable on the issue -- and they hope to inject it into the campaign.

Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona
have some sharply different views on crime, but in truth, the
president has little to do with day-to-day law enforcement. The vast
amount of crime-fighting in the U.S. is done at the state and local
level. Moreover, the rate of violent crime nationally has been
declining for more than a decade.

Critics say the issue of crime is used primarily to exploit voter
fears and stir up prejudices. Richard Nixon's pledge during the 1968
campaign to restore "law and order" was viewed as a subtle appeal to
white racial prejudice. The Willie Horton ad that made GOP consultant
Brown famous focused on a black Massachusetts felon who raped a woman
while on weekend furlough from prison. Dukakis was governor at the
time and supported the program.

"Presidents don't deal with crimes. Governors and mayors deal with
crimes," said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Boston's
Northeastern University. "These are relatively fringe issues for
presidents. Yet they certainly resonate when it comes to the

Brown is counting on that resonance. "There are many, many different
votes that Barack Obama has taken over the course of his state Senate
career that are going to show him to be absolutely missing in action
when it comes to the question of controlling violent crime," Brown
asserted in an interview.

He added: "If he thinks it is not a significant issue, then he should
talk to Michael Dukakis."

Conservative strategists say such ads can provide a window into a
candidate's personal morality. The issue of violent crime also is
germane, they say, because of Bush administration efforts to steer
more federal money to states for anti-terrorism programs rather than
traditional crime-fighting ones, a policy that has riled many
cash-strapped state and local governments.

Obama's campaign, and some independent observers, say Brown's work is
misleading at best., a political watchdog, has called
the death penalty ad -- which suggests that Obama's vote made him
responsible for the gang-related deaths of three youths --
"reprehensible misrepresentation."

The legislation was largely symbolic, because many gang killers were
already eligible for death under state law. It also was running up
against concern over the administration of the state death penalty
law. That concern ultimately led to a statewide moratorium on
executions. The Republican governor at the time, George Ryan,
eventually vetoed the legislation.

Obama supporters take exception to the notion that their candidate is
weak on crime.

"I thought . . . he tried to strike a decent balance between solid law
enforcement and protecting the rights of individuals," said Richard A.
Devine, the Cook County state's attorney, who leads the largest
prosecutor office in Illinois. In the Legislature, Obama led the push
for mandatory taping of interrogations and confessions to ensure fair
treatment of the accused.

Devine said the gang-related death-penalty bill was "really not moving
us forward at all."

Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt, asked about the ad, said: "The Republicans
will soon realize that trying to divert attention from McCain's plans
to continue George Bush's failed policies on Iraq and the economy by
launching long ago debunked attacks on Obama won't work. Sen. Obama
has a record that demonstrates he is both tough and smart on crime."

McCain, for his part, has mostly embraced the tough-on-crime" stance
of the last 25 years, including strict sentencing and a focus on the
rights of victims.

Obama appears more interested in addressing what he sees as the root
causes of crime, and even doing away with or modifying laws that set
mandatory minimum sentences such as those in drug cases. "We will
review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and
reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of nonviolent
offenders," he said in a speech at Howard University in Washington in

Obama supported the U.S. Sentencing Commission's move this year to
reduce the sentences of about 20,000 federal inmates imprisoned for
dealing crack cocaine. McCain opposed the early release.

Obama also supports restoring cuts in federal aid to state and local
government for putting more cops on the street under a program started
in the Clinton administration. McCain has indicated more cautious
support for community-oriented policing and has said he wants to make
sure federal dollars are spent effectively.

McCain opposes a federal ban on assault weapons that Obama

But McCain has been vilified by the gun lobby on occasion. He has
supported federal legislation requiring background checks for people
who buy firearms at gun shows, and the sharing of federal data about
guns used in crimes with state and local law enforcement.

In a recent speech to the National Rifle Assn., McCain portrayed
himself as a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment. But his past
statements show that he thinks that some NRA positions "actually
threaten the interests of law enforcement," said Dennis Henigan, legal
director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "He was
conspicuously silent on those when he spoke to the gun lobby."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake