Floyd Brown is back.
Brown, the former political director of "Americans for Bush" (meaning George H.W. Bush), was a key player in the infamous 1988 "Willie Horton" ad, and his new group the National Campaign Fund — which launched a new website "Expose Obama" — aims to take a similarly low-road approach to the presidential race and his new target, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois.
As Time’s Michael Scherer reported this week Brown is trying to raise funds to run a TV ad against Obama in North Carolina, which will holds its primary on May 6.
The subject of the ad is Obama’s record on gang violence, which in recent days has become a real problem in Obama’s home town of Chicago.
"WEEKEND OF RAGE," headlined the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday. "In gang-related drive-bys, an attempted robbery and other flashes of violence, some 37 people were shot in Chicago over the weekend — seven of them fatally."
“Bloody Weekend: 32 Shot, 2 Stabbed, 6 Dead,” reported the local CBS station on Sunday.
Chicago police blamed the increased violence on warmer weather and gang battles between competing factions of the Gangster Disciples street gang. "You just have too many guns, gangs, too many weapons out there," said Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis.
Brown’s TV ad names victims of gang violence — Tamika McFadden-Harris, murdered shielding her daughter after church choir practice; Mike Boyd, 15, beaten with bricks after a gang member crashed into his car; and Severa Enriquez, 14, who was shot five times in the back after he refused to flash a gang sign.
These victims, however, are from 7 years ago, however, in 2001, when Obama was a state senator. Quoting the Chicago Sun-Times calling the mayhem "urban terrorism," the ad points out that in 2001 Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang murders.
"When the time came to get tough," says the narrator. "Obama chose to be weak. So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"
The ad ends on an image of the World Trade Center rubble after 9/11.
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement that "Floyd Brown and the garbage he puts on TV represent everything the American people hate about politics, and we look forward to John McCain denouncing this shameful effort to boost his candidacy using Willie Horton ads…If Floyd Brown and his right-wing allies want to talk about who keep us safer in the world, they can start by asking John McCain why he refuses to end a war in Iraq that has only strengthened the recruiting arm of al Qaeda."
The ad is factually correct in that Obama on May 15, 2001, Obama voted against legislation, H.B. 1812, that would have extended the death penalty for murders committed "in furtherance of gang activity."
The bill was introduced after Enriquez’s murder. An earlier version was changed after civil libertarians voiced concerns that it would have given tools for prosecutors to seek the death penalty against members of gangs who commit crimes, whether or not the crimes were related to the gang membership.
At the time Obama argued that the bill would disproportionally impact African-Americans and Hispanics. "There’s a strong overlap between gang affiliation and young men of color," he said. "I think it’s problematic for them to be singled out as more likely to receive the death penalty for carrying out certain acts than are others who do the same thing."
Obama also took issue with the legislation having being drafted as a result of Enriquez’s murder.
"It’s problematic for us to continually pass criminal laws based on anecdote," Obama said. "When we have a single situation when a prosecutor doesn’t get what he wants, we come down here and pass a law, which is why we have a criminal code rife with contradictions. And it seems to me that we already have sufficient laws on the books to deal with these kinds of situations.”
He called the incident "extraordinarily tragic" but said laws already on the books could allow for capital punishment for those responsible for Enriquez’s killing.
"For those who support the death penalty, anytime that somebody…carried out these heinous crimes, I think they can, in fact, be dealt with in the appropriate fashion," Obama said.
What Brown’s TV ad doesn’t mention is that the state’s Republican governor, George Ryan, largely agreed with Obama, and he vetoed the bill in August 2001, saying the bill raised constitutional issues, that most gang related killings were at the time covered by the state’s existing death penalty statute, and because of concerns that the bill would unfairly and disproportionately affect minorities.
Ryan, who had issued a moratorium on the state’s death penalty because of concerns innocent people were being killed, also said that the bill’s "efforts are misdirected in light of existing laws, constitutional concerns and our past history of erroneously sentencing individuals to death."
Obama campaign spokesman Burton says, "The truth is, Barack Obama supports the death penalty for certain heinous crimes, and he led the effort to reform the death penalty system to ensure that it’s administered fairly and that convictions stand in court. Since most gang-related murders already qualified for the death penalty in Illinois, the legislation in the ad wasn’t designed to be tough on crime, but to score political points, and it was vetoed by a Republican governor."
There are other votes on gang-violence, however, that Republicans will likely bring up to paint Obama as soft on crime, should he be the Democratic nominee.
In 1988, for instance, Obama was one of only three state senators to oppose a law declaring it to be a Class A misdemeanor for released convicts to knowingly have contact with a member of a street gang if a condition of his release is refraining from such contact.
But Obama’s entire record paints a more complex picture on this issue. In 1997, he voted for a bill, to make it a Class-3 felony for peace or correction officers to commit a gang-related act (except in cases of undercover investigations.) In 1999, he voted to allow the court to require a minor to undergo a medical (or other) procedure to have a gang tattoo removed — as a condition of probation. In 2003, he voted to allow courts to prohibit a gang defendant from associating with gang members as a condition of bail or release from detention. In 2004 he voted for a bill to create a new felony offense for gang recruitment on school property.
Obama showed a willingness in other votes to expand the death penalty — for a first-degree murder near a house of worship, for some domestic violence cases, for killers who targeted disabled people, or who killed seniors with exceptional brutality.
It’s clear that Republicans plan on painting gang bangers as "urban terrorists" and plan on connecting Obama to them. Clearly some of that will prey on racial fears.
Will it work? Will Obama’s pushback be enough?