Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Christian Leader meets Willie Horton: Mike Huckabee and the politics of crime

Mike Huckabee's rise in the polls in the Iowa guaranteed that the opposition research would kick into geer. Huckabee was the governor of Arkansas in the 1990s. Governors are generally aided by their role as crime fighters, carrying out executions (by denying clemency) and using their powers to extend prison terms. But when states provide for the parole release of violent criminals there is always the chance that someone released on the governors watch, went on to commit a new and horrible crime. This has become known as the "Willie Horton" problem, following the name of the convicted killer who received a furlough from Massachusetts in the 1980s under Governor Mike Dukakis. When Horton kidnapped a couple and raped the wife, the tragedy became a center piece of the 1988 Presidential election in which Vice President George H W Bush won after being behind in the polls.

Huckabee's Willie Horton turns out to be a convicted rapist named Wayne DuMond, whose release from prison becamme a cause celebre for evangelical Christians like Huckabee in Arkansas. As reported by Richard Serrano in the LA Times, the DuMond story is a one that"rings with gothic details" including rape, castration and finding God. DuMond's spiritual advoisor was a minister named J. D. Cole who had known Huckabee for years. Cole and fellow Christians believed that DuMond might have been innocent, horribly punished for a crime he did not commit. Even if he wasn't, DuMond had found Jesus in prison and now claimed to be saved.

Cole's intervention moved Huckabee who wrote DuMond and suggested that parole was his best hope. Reports on how much the governor may have lobbied his parole board are conflicted, but Huckabee made clear he supported DuMond's release, even after meeting with his victim and the prosector in the case.

At one point in the meeting, Stevens recalled, she stood up, put her face next to Huckabee's and told the governor: "This is how close I was to DuMond. I'll never forget his face, and you'll never forget mine."

The meeting ended, and Long, a Republican, could tell the governor was unmoved: "Most of what I think about him would be unprintable. His actions were just about as arrogant as you can get."

The prosecutor added that Huckabee and Arkansas evangelicals were conned by DuMond's contention that he had been "saved" -- a common ruse by prisoners.

"If you're religiously converted," Long said, "how do you go out and kill two women in Missouri?"

Dispute remains about how hard Huckabee pushed the parole board to release him. Huckabee wrote to DuMond in prison "Dear Wayne. . . . My desire is that you be released from prison," the governor wrote. "I feel now that parole is the best way. . . ." Today he indicates that he only recommended parole (although some parole board members recall feeling pressured and that letting him out was a "favor" for the governor).

So far few of his opponents are using this potential Willie Horton against Huckabee on the campaign trail. They may be hoping for a media frenzy that will do the work for them. But there is another possibility, one which bodes well for us who would like to see this campaign and nation get beyond the stale politics of crime. Perhaps the media frenzy won't work this time even though the elements are all there (save one). You've got a terrible crime and then its even worst repetition. You have a governor seemingly spurning a frightened and angry rape victim while writing a "Dear Wayne" letter to her rapist.

One big difference is that DuMond is white and maybe if Willie Horton wasn't black it would not matter if he had raped and killed. Its a sickening thought that racism alone explains the power of crime politics. But it is also possible (and this is much more hopeful to me) that Huckabee's own self definition as a "Christian leader" provides him a way to respond that the wonkish Mike Dukakis did not have. Huckabee can admit and regret failing to see through DuMond's claims of spiritual salvation without abandoning his belief in redemption and the possibility of salvation for even the worst criminals.

Just as importantly, as a former pastor, Huckabee has and proclaims a model of leadership and governance that is centuries old, well respected, and totally different than the executive as prosecutor or crime fighter which has become so normal during the war on crime.

If Huckabee continues in to remain in the top tier of Republican candidates it will be fascinating to watch how he plays against the pre-eminent "governing through crime" candidate, Rudy Giuliani.

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