John Legend has a message that’s as tailor-made as his suits for this political morass of a moment in American history.
The question is whether enough of his many millions of followers are listening.
The Emmy-, Grammy-, Oscar- and Tony Award-winning singer and songwriter has been making the rounds lately, tweeting to fans and talking to journalists about the importance of electing progressive district attorneys this year.
“If you care about mass incarceration, if you care about dealing with police violence, if you care about all these issues that people been protesting about and marching about,” Legend told me over Zoom recently, “one of the areas that we need to pay attention to — that we haven’t been paying attention to — is the power of the prosecutor.”
So far, he has endorsed at least 25 candidates in multiple states, including three who are running in California. He’s also come out in support of Chesa Boudin, who is struggling to fend off a well-funded recall campaign and hang onto his job as district attorney of San Francisco.
“There’s opposition when you want to reform things, and particularly when you when you want to reform them in a progressive direction,” Legend said.
In many ways, this campaign is completely on brand for a man who, for more than a decade, has been advocating for criminal justice reform and against the systemic racism that continues to pervade this country.
Most of Legend’s preferred candidates favor ending cash bail, for example, and not pursuing charges for low-level offenses that disproportionately hem up people of color.
But his campaign also is a bit of a head-scratcher given that, outside of mayoral elections in the biggest U.S. cities, county-level political races almost never get this kind of attention. Especially from celebrities such as Legend, who has a platform so ginormous that he spent four years using it on Twitter to be a legitimate pain in former President Trump’s you know what.
And especially at a time when Republicans are poised to eliminate the Democrats’ slim majority in Congress and try to yank the nation back to the conservative, tough-on-crime policies of the past. That could include anything from sending people to prison for longer sentences to dumber, more draconian measures, such as arming teachers and arresting women for getting abortions.
So why focus on local politics, rather than national politics, at a time like this?
Because, Legend said, what’s local is what’s controllable. “Folks really need to pay attention to who’s representing them on a local level, on a state level,” he said, “because a lot of important decisions are made that way.”
Indeed, if the past few weeks — heck, the past few years — have proved anything, it’s that voters shouldn’t be looking to the perpetually gridlocked federal government if they are seeking real systemic change.
Just look at what has happened following the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y.
The House Judiciary Committee is preparing to vote on a package of gun control legislation, the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” that’s likely to go nowhere in the evenly divided Senate.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators have been meeting to try to come up with a deal of their own. At most, we can expect a modest expansion of background checks to buy guns and a “red flag” law to keep them away from dangerous people. But if the past is any indication of the future, we might not even get that.
Already, President Biden is considering a round of executive orders on gun violence. “He cannot do this alone,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said to reporters Tuesday. “And so Congress needs to act.”
In California, by contrast, gun safety legislation is moving rapidly through the Legislature, with the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“We’re going to control the controllable, the things we have control of,” he said during a recent event at the state Capitol.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade, likely turning liberal California into a destination for women who need abortions and will be banned from getting them in their Republican-led states.
“The reason why there will be laws in place that are going to severely limit women’s freedom is because of local and state offices,” Legend said. “So these folks that are state representatives, state senators are going to statehouses, voting on these draconian laws that will severely restrict women’s freedom.”
Indeed, it’s easy to forget that local politics are the reason why a majority of Americans are being held hostage by Republican policies, which are only backed by a minority of the population.
The GOP spent years mobilizing voters to elect candidates at the city, county and state level, gerrymandering districts and ramping up voting restrictions on people of color, setting up the deep polarization we see today.
This is perhaps most evident in the ongoing debate over criminal justice reform, the issue that’s nearest and dearest to Legend’s heart.
Last week, Biden signed an executive order aimed at overhauling policing at the federal level. Among other things, it requires agencies to revise their use-of-force policies and creates a national registry of federal officers fired for misconduct.
It’s something. But that executive order is hardly a substitute for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Congress failed to pass and would’ve prohibited every cop in the country from deploying the chokeholds and no-knock warrants that led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I know progress can be slow and frustrating, and there’s a concern that the reckoning on race inspired two years ago is beginning to fade,” Biden said. “Today, we’re acting. We’re showing that speaking out matters, being engaged matters, and that the work of our time, healing the soul of this nation, is ongoing and unfinished and requires all of us never to give up.”
Meanwhile, at the local level, police departments in cities across the country did manage to enact some reforms, caving to pressure from voters and activists. But that progress is now threatened thanks to an uptick in homicides and a corresponding backlash leading to the return of 1990s-style tough-on-crime policies and candidates.
Nowhere is this more true than in California, where the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 9,000 rank-and-file LAPD officers, is pumping millions of dollars into races ahead next week’s election. One of the union’s biggest targets is mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass, who was one of the co-sponsors of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
There’s also the potential recall of Boudin, which many see as a bellwether of the public’s ongoing appetite for criminal justice reform. If declining to prosecute low-level offenses and sending people to pretrial diversion programs instead of jail can’t fly in San Francisco, then, as others have observed, it won’t fly anywhere.
This is why, in addition to Boudin, Legend says he is backing Alana Matthews for district attorney in Sacramento County, Diana Becton in Contra Costa County and Pete Hardin in Orange County.
“We don’t have one criminal justice system,” he said. “We have a bunch of them — each town, each county, each state has a criminal justice system. And we need people in office who are thinking holistically and progressively about how to really solve the problems that we face.”
Even with nearly 14 million followers on Twitter, a new album and a residency in Las Vegas, Legend insists he’s under no illusion that his voice alone will sway elections. But he hopes it will persuade disillusioned voters, those who look at Congress in disgust and wonder what’s the point of casting a ballot, to take another look at what’s at stake in their local elections.
It’s a message that certainly can’t hurt and just might work.
“I think me contributing my voice, along with other voices out there, is helping people notice these candidates, pay attention to what their platform is, and what reforms they want to put in place, and then make their own decisions.”