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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016 12:22 am

Bradley’s TV ad reminiscent of ‘Willie Horton’ ad

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
Gov. Bruce Rauner announced early last year that he wants the state to reduce its prison population by 25 percent over 10 years. He has since signed numerous pieces of legislation during the past year or so to help achieve that goal, including recently, when he signed the marijuana decriminalization bill into law.

For the most part, House Democrats kept their members who are targeted for defeat by Republicans off those bills. The move was both defensive (to prevent their incumbents who represent tight districts from accusations that they are “soft on criminals”), and, as it turns out, offensive.

“In southern Illinois, we value the safety of our neighbors, friends and families,” begins a recent TV ad by Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion). “So why would anyone want to weaken penalties for dangerous criminals? Dave Severin’s biggest supporter wants to let 25 percent of the state’s prisoners loose into our communities.”

Severin’s “biggest supporter” is obviously Rauner, via his massive $11 million in contributions to the Illinois Republican Party so far this cycle. The state party has funneled much of that cash ($5.9 million as of last week) to the House Republican Organization, according to numbers compiled by Scott Kennedy at Illinois Election Data. Bradley’s opponent Severin reported raising just $9,335 in the second quarter, but HRO has been running ads on his behalf since early June.

So, the Severin campaign’s recent denial that its “biggest supporter” (which it claims is actually HRO) has no such position on releasing prisoners is nonsense. But its claim that Bradley’s ad is reminiscent of the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” advertisement is pretty close to being true. Horton, you will recall, was given a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and didn’t come back. In the meantime, he committed murder, armed robbery and rape. The Democratic presidential nominee in 1988 was Michael Dukakis who was governor at the time of Horton’s escape. He supported the furlough program and was ultimately blamed for Horton’s rampage in a devastating ad that benefited President George H.W. Bush.

Unlike the Horton spot, Bradley’s ad doesn’t mention any specific crimes committed by released prisoners. But there was hope in some circles that these sorts of ads would become a thing of the past in Illinois. A newspaper op-ed co-written by Sen. Kwame Raoul earlier this year cited poll results showing 74 percent of Illinoisans believe our criminal justice system is “broken.”

“While some have questioned whether Governor Rauner’s goal to reduce incarceration by 25 percent is politically achievable,” Sen. Raoul wrote, “it turns out that the voters actually support far-reaching policies that can make a real difference in reducing the number of persons held in Illinois’ prisons.”

Indeed, another poll conducted recently for the Rauner-allied Illinois Policy Institute found that 56 percent of Illinoisans believe that the criminal justice system is “unfair.” And more than 80 percent said politicians should support criminal-justice reforms “such as community supervision, mandatory drug testing and treatment programs – instead of prison – that reduce the likelihood the offender would commit a new crime.”

“A generation of candidates for public office have come of age worried about being the subject of a ‘Willie Horton’ advertisement,” Raoul wrote in that March 15th op-ed with Republican state Sen. Karen McConnaughay. “Now it seems that we have public support, political agreement and momentum on our side to fix our broken criminal justice system.”

So, if this TV barrage is successful, will it halt the governor’s policy momentum?
Sen. Raoul told me last week he hoped it wouldn’t. But, he warned, it “ain’t going to be easy” to pass more comprehensive legislation as it is, so he’s worried about the potential impact.

Incumbents who are targeted for defeat are rarely part of a controversial “solution” in Springfield – and Rep. Bradley has most definitely become a target since Rauner’s election. The heavy lifting at the Statehouse is usually done by those who don’t have to worry too much about electoral opposition. Rauner’s vast cash reserves can help comfort wary Republicans, and it’s highly doubtful that “safe” Democrats will ever draw a primary opponent over an issue like this.

Political organizations always use what works best in campaigns and this issue apparently polls well enough to include it in a TV spot, so that just might give some folks pause if Bradley wins and the issue is successfully deployed in other legislative campaigns. Let’s hope not.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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