Steptoe & Johnson LLP
Country Mourns Dallas Tragedy as Congress Recesses
America was shocked and heartbroken on July 7, when a gunman deliberately targeted police officers providing security at a protest march in Dallas. Five officers were killed and nine others, as well as two civilians, were wounded in the massacre. The shooter, later identified as Michael Xavier Johnson, had expressed frustration over recent officer-involved shootings of black men and professed his desire to kill white officers. Just 10 days later, another gunman ambushed police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three and wounding three others. Shooter Gavin Long had expressed strong anti-police sentiments similar to Johnson’s. The tragedies have pushed the topic of tension between law enforcement and the communities they serve into the national and electoral dialogue.
As the country mourned the Dallas and Baton Rouge victims, Congress began its more than month-long recess on July 15, allowing members to attend their parties’ national conventions and spend the month of August back home in their districts. Lawmakers returned to Washington on September 6.
Despite the efforts of delegates in the “Never Trump” camp and supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) to prevent their parties’ frontrunners from earning the nominations of their respective parties, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton emerged victorious and were officially nominated for President. Trump chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate, and Clinton tapped Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her vice presidential pick.
Law enforcement, criminal justice and national security were all major themes throughout the two conventions.
At the July 18 to 21 Republican Convention, Donald Trump spoke of trying times in America and said that the country is in crisis. “The attacks on our police and the terrorism in our cities threaten our very way of life,” Trump said in his acceptance speech. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.” After citing troublesome crime statistics showing that homicides increased by 17% in America’s 50 largest cities last year, Trump drew contrasts between himself and Clinton. He claimed the world has become less safe since Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, and he proclaimed himself the “law and order” candidate. In terms of immigration policy and enforcement, he reiterated his call to build a wall on the Mexican border and his plan to suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place.
A number of speakers at the GOP Convention discussed the importance of electing a commander in chief who enforces the law and protects national security. Featured speakers included Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke; U.S. Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell; Pat Smith, mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith; Marine veterans Mark Geist and John Tiegen, who fought in the Battle of Benghazi; parents whose children were killed by illegal immigrants; retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn; and the former Attorney General under President George W. Bush, Michael Mukasey.
During the July 25 to 28 Democratic National Convention, there was a similar focus on law enforcement and criminal justice, but from a different perspective. One of the noteworthy presentations of the week came from the “Mothers of the Movement,” a group of women whose children (including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland) have either been killed by police officers or died while in police custody. In their remarks, they advocated for systemic changes. “We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect … because the majority of police officers are good people doing a good job,” one mother said. Prior to the convention, the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police criticized the Democratic National Committee for not allowing families of slain officers a speaking opportunity at the convention. The Clinton campaign was quick to point out that two speakers hailed from law enforcement — former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and NYPD Detective Joe Sweeney, a 9/11 first responder.
In her acceptance speech, Clinton advocated for gun-control reform as a means to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, and encouraged reconciliations on issues including race relations and immigration. She encouraged Americans to examine systemic problems from opposing viewpoints. “So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism,” she said. “Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of police officers, kissing their kids and spouses goodbye every day and heading off to do a dangerous and necessary job. We will reform our criminal justice system from end to end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Other speakers to focus on security and justice issues included Pam Livengood, a New Hampshire mother whose daughter struggled with an opioid addiction; children of undocumented immigrants; Kate Burdick, an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia; Anton Moore, an anti-gun-violence advocate; and Jamie Dorff, a widow who lost her husband, an Army pilot, in Iraq.
As the conventions highlighted, the nation is attuned to and concerned with law enforcement and criminal justice issues. We expect Congress to focus some on these issues before it adjourns later this year. Whether it will be able to enact any laws in this area remains to be seen.
California Congressional Races to Watch
Senate: Under California’s top-two primary rules, the race to replace four-term Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer this November features two Democrats, as no Republican candidate garnered enough support to appear on the ballot. Attorney General Kamala Harris finished first in the June primary, roughly 23 percentage points ahead of the second-place finisher, eight-term Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez from Orange County. It is the first time since California began directly electing its senators in 1914 that there will be no Republican name on the ballot for a Senate race.
Shortly after Harris prevailed in the primary, she received endorsements from a number of prominent party members. President Obama and Vice President Biden both threw their support behind the longtime prosecutor. “Kamala Harris fights for us,” the President said in a statement. “And if you send her to the Senate, she’ll be a fearless fighter for the people of California — all the people of California — every single day.” The endorsement was unsurprising to many, as Harris helped fundraise for Obama’s U.S. Senate race in Illinois and served as the state co-chair of his 2008 presidential campaign. Nonetheless, Sanchez said she was “disappointed” by the Obama–Biden endorsement and would have preferred that they not use their political influence to sway support in a race between two Democrats. Sanchez faces an uphill battle, but her campaign has said that she will make a concerted effort to court independent and Republican voters in addition to Democrats.
PORAC endorsed Attorney General Harris’ candidacy in September 2015, citing her being consistently accessible and responsive on issues important to the Association and its members.
House of Representatives: The race to fill Representative Sanchez’s seat in California’s 46th Congressional District also pits two Democrats — former state Senator Lou Correa and Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen — against each other. It is the first Democrat-on-Democrat race in Orange County history. Correa appears to have the advantage, having earned endorsements from Representative Sanchez and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. PORAC endorsed Correa in February 2016, saying Correa has always “sought our input on issues involving public safety and law enforcement.”
In the Seventh District, incumbent Democrat Dr. Ami Bera is seeking a third term against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Representative Bera is expected to have a tough path to re-election in the district, where he won by less than one percentage point in 2014 and where Barack Obama narrowly won in 2008 and 2012. The Congressman has been criticized for accepting illegal campaign donations (his father admitted in May to illegally contributing more than a quarter of a million dollars to Bera’s two previous congressional campaigns). After announcing his support for Trump in May, Sheriff Jones, meanwhile, has recently attempted to dissociate himself from many of the Republican nominee’s comments. PORAC endorsed Sheriff Jones earlier this spring.
For the second time, the 17th District’s eight-term representative, Mike Honda, faces fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, who beat the incumbent by a slim margin in the June primary. Khanna mounted a similar challenge against Honda in 2014, the first real re-election threat the Congressman had faced up to that point, but ultimately lost by a slim margin. The race has already become contentious as the candidates trade criticisms. PORAC has endorsed Representative Honda in this race.
There are 53 congressional seats in California, and PORAC will continue to keep a close eye on the races as Election Day approaches.