Politics As nation grapples with COVID-19 and systemic racism, Democrats look to activate voters down ballot

13:26  17 october  2020
13:26  17 october  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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WASHINGTON – Chris Scott thinks the nation has hit a "perfect storm" for voters to be inspired to get involved in local elections.

As political director for Collective PAC, which aims to elect more Black people to public office, Scott said the impact of COVID-19, calls for police reform and a slew of other issues are "combining everything for people to really get an understanding."

"All politics really are local," Scott told USA TODAY. "You can have a president, but the person that is most likely going to have an impact on your everyday life is that state (representative), is that county prosecutor or district attorney."

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Democratic leaders are hopeful that a renewed focus on local elections amid a contentious presidential election could mean flipping some statehouse and county-level seats from Republican red to Democrat blue.

“What I think we're seeing is that, especially for young people, especially for young people of color, yes, they are going to vote for Joe Biden because they hate Trump,” said Run For Something co-founder Amanda Litman. “But they are fired up about voting against their city council or holding their mayor accountable."

a person posing for the camera: Keke Williams is pictured. © Keke Williams Keke Williams is pictured.

County prosecutor positions become a key focus for Democrats

This isn't the first time Fanon Rucker has run for Hamilton County prosecutor in Ohio. And it isn't the first time he's gone up against Joseph Deters.

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Whitmer, a Democrat who made the shortlist to become Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate, has been a lightning rod for controversy this year, trading barbs with President Donald Trump and imposing some of the nation ’s strictest Covid - 19 lockdown orders.

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More than 15 years ago, Rucker ran a write-in campaign for that country prosecutor seat, which would represent Cincinnati. He lost to the Republican Deters, who has now held that position for 16 years.

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But Rucker believes that the county is ready for a change. He noted that in the past 16 years, county leadership has swung from leaning Republican to more Democratic control.

"The change, demographically, from 2004 to today has been seismic," Rucker said.

Fanon A. Rucker wearing a suit and tie: Fanon Rucker is pictured. © Fanon Rucker Fanon Rucker is pictured.

Rucker is one of several Democrats running for county prosecutor positions across the country.

County prosecutor positions have come into the limelight as racial inequality and criminal justice dominated headlines over the summer. Nationwide protests sprung up across the country after George Floyd, a Black man, died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Since then, the deaths of several Black people in police custody or at the hands of police have caused nationwide outrage and calls for police reform.

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Julie Gunnigle, who is running for Maricopa County Attorney in Arizona, is also going up against a Republican incumbent, Allister Adel. And then there are the progressive candidates who have bucked the Democratic establishment along the way. That includes José Garza, who is running Travis County District Attorney in Texas and used his progressive platform to defeat the Democratic incumbent, and Karen McDonald, who also defeated a Democratic incumbent in the race for Oakland County Prosecutor in Michigan.

Paco Fabian, spokesperson Our Revolution, which aims to elect progressive candidates, said that even before the nation's current reckoning with the criminal justice system, there was a movement to get "top progressive cops" to country prosecutor and attorney positions.

"There's a trend that predates the George Floyd protests, but is gaining momentum in the wake," Fabian said.

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Rucker, who served as a judge for District 1 of the Hamilton County Municipal Court for more than 10 years, said building a relationship between the community and police department will be one of his top priorities if elected. He noted he's represented police officers in the past, as well as worked as a civil rights attorney.

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"I kind of have a fortunate and unusual position of having good relationships, credibility and trust amongst both sides of this issue," Rucker said.

While Rucker says he can flip his seat blue, and that his county is becoming more Democratic, he isn't sure what will happen to the rest of the state. He noted that no presidential candidate has won the White House without winning Ohio in over 50 years, and that trend of going back and forth between Republican and Democrat will likely continue to happen for the state's leadership.

"As much as our national politics and the national leader of our country has vacillated from one party to the next, I think that's going to continue to be the consistency of Ohio," he said.

Felicia French

Like Rucker, Felicia French is attempting to change the Democratic landscape in her Arizona community. For a month, French paused her life in Pine, Arizona, to live with the Navajo Nation and help with COVID-19 crisis.

A nurse and combat veteran running for the Arizona state Senate, French couldn't  campaign door-to-door and her campaign moved entirely online. When she saw how disproportionately the Navajo and Hopi communities were being affected by the coronavirus pandemic, she couldn’t just sit back and watch.

In a converted camper van, French spent her days in Tuba City, helping screen hospital visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, staffing a triage testing tent, and helping at several COVID-19 testing blitzes.

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But at night, she was back to campaigning. Despite spotty cell service, French continued make calls and send emails to voters.

“I can't just sit on the sidelines,” said French, who served in the Army and Arizona National Guard for over 30 years. “I took an oath to protect the Constitution and our country, and I meant that.”

a person wearing a purple shirt and smiling at the camera: Felicia French is pictured. © Felicia French Felicia French is pictured.

Amid the pandemic, candidates up and down the ballot have had to adjust how they campaign. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his campaign throughout the summer held mostly virtual events. However, he has now held in-person events and some his campaign efforts have shifted to face-to-face contact.

But unlike Biden, who has a national platform, candidates at the local level have had to appeal to voters differently.

Christina Polizzi, national press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said many candidates have adapted to the pandemic by trying to be a source of information about COVID-19 due to their past experiences as nurses or doctors, like French.

"We have absolutely seen people sort of lean on their experience, particularly if they have expertise in the medical field," Polizzi said.

Arizona is a key battleground state this year, where Democrats are hoping to win at the presidential level as well as flip a U.S. Senate seat. The state has voted Republican since the 1950s, with the exception of Bill Clinton winning the state in 1996.

But the Senate race between Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly has put in the state in play for Democrats up and down the ballot, including races like French's.

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French first ran for the state Senate seat in 2018 with no name recognition and limited campaigning and lost by less than 600 votes.

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Now, French has a full fledged campaign to take on Republican Wendy Rogers, who beat Republican incumbent Sylvia Allen earlier this year in the state’s primary. French believes she can build on her momentum from 2018, and said she's seeing more enthusiasm, particularly from independent voters.

“I'm cautiously optimistic. I ran in 2018, and I came within 577 votes as an unknown,” French said. “Nobody knew my name, and that's the closest any Democrat has come in this district, running in 10 years.”

French said one of the top concerns she wants to address if elected is education and Internet access. She noted that Arizona ranks 49th in the country for teacher pay and that the state is a quarter short in teachers. She added that many teachers in the state are older, which is concerning now with COVID-19 because they are at more of a risk.

"Public education is the keystone of our democracy," French said.

While French is optimistic about flipping her district's seat to Democrat, she noted Republicans have controlled the state's legislature for decades.

"We've had a Republican trifecta for quite a while," she said. "You know that's not a democracy when one party is ruling for that long. You need a change of thought, a change of leadership, and it's clear that we do right now in Arizona."

Likeithia “Keke” Williams

Democrats in Arizona aren't alone in thinking they can flip Republican leadership in their state. Democrats in Texas are also hoping to turn the Lone Star State blue.

Democrats want to build on the momentum that they saw in 2018, where several key House seats were flipped in Houston and Dallas suburbs. Now, they're looking to expand that success, not just getting more Democrats elected federally, but also locally.

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Keke Williams, a retired Army captain running for state House District 54, is among them. The district, which includes the Fort Hood military base, is seeing a shift from it's historic Republican hold.

In 2018, Democrat M.J. Hegar, who is now running for U.S. Senate, nearly won her race for a U.S. House seat for Texas's 31st U.S. Congressional district. That district also includes Fort Hood.

Like Hegar, Williams has military experience and hopes that will appeal to voters.

"My military experience has shaped, molded, and transformed me into being a servant leader who can be depended upon to stay the course, and accomplish the mission," Williams said.

Williams' experience with the military could be her biggest asset. While much of the nation is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, state House District 54 area is dealing with its own crisis.

Seven soldiers, including Spc. Vanessa Guillen, have died or disappeared over the past several months at Fort Hood. Last month, two U.S. House subcommittees launched a joint investigation into “an alarming pattern of recent tragedies” at the base.

Williams noted she wants to see policies that encourage reporting harassment or assault to be strengthened, and protections for those who report claims like that. She said she also believes there should be a "Command Climate Survey," which would address several areas like leader accessibility, unit cohesion, racist materials, sexually offensive materials, stress, reporting discrimination, and sexual harassment or assault incidents.

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"I am heartbroken and deeply distressed by an apparent pattern at an installation I love and where I was proud to serve," Williams said. "We must find justice for Vanessa Guillen and the numerous other soldiers who have died or disappeared in recent months."

Williams, who was endorsed by President Barack Obama, would become the first female veteran to serve in the Texas House of Representatives if elected.

Polizzi said she's seen a trend of more women of color, veterans, health officials and even teachers run for office due to policies the Trump administration has put in place.

"There are a lot of veterans who have stepped up to run for office and have talked about their experience serving their country," she said.

Williams, a Black woman, said that Texans are ready for change as the nation and the state grapple with the pandemic and a reckoning over long-standing issues of racial justice. If elected, one of her acts would be to band together with other representatives to try to get the legislature to pass the Crown Act, which would ban discrimination against people with natural Black hairstyles.

"I believe that the world in which we live is occupied by citizens who should be able to wear their hair, their way," she said.

"As a Black woman, I understand firsthand the pain and frustration that has led to this national reckoning we are currently experiencing and have faith that real progress is within reach," she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As nation grapples with COVID-19 and systemic racism, Democrats look to activate voters down ballot

Trump casts a 'very secure vote' for himself in Florida: 2020 election updates .
"I voted for a guy named Trump," the president said.Trump cast his ballot at the West Palm Beach library near his private Mar-a-Lago club. The president told reporters after leaving the library it was "an honor" to be voting and that he cast a "very secure vote.

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