Mike DeWine wants Ohioans to think that Richard Cordray prefers seeing drug dealers, human traffickers and child pornographers on the streets. The state attorney general and Republican candidate for governor has made this pitch in two television ads, not to mention at stops along the campaign trail.
DeWine invites us to conclude that Cordray, a smart guy who seems to have thought long about running for governor, has decided the best way to win the hearts and minds of Ohioans is to unleash criminals upon the populace.
Far-fetched? In a word, yes, even for a Browns-like Ohio Democratic Party prone to losing statewide elections the past eight years. DeWine is engaged in that staple of campaigns — playing to fear.
His vehicle is state Issue 1, the proposed constitutional amendment that would ease penalties for a range of drug-possession crimes with the idea of reducing the prison population and plowing the savings into drug treatment. Cordray supports the measure. DeWine is opposed.
Ideally, when the two candidates meet Monday evening at Marietta College for their second debate, they would spend a prolonged stretch discussing their differences on the issue. They would dispense with the cartoonish hyperbole that laced their first debate. At one point, DeWine punched Cordray: “You’ve been a failure at every job you’ve ever had.” Cordray was less blunt in saying nearly the same about DeWine.
A reasoned exchange may help voters sort through a well-intentioned proposal that has generated hard-to-dismiss opposition, including Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court and Paul Pfeifer, a retired justice who had his share of clashes with the chief in court rulings. Such a back and forth would get away from the crass approach of the DeWine ads in a state coping with the opioid epidemic.
Consider the most recent 30-second spot. It opens with images of criminals seemingly at their bookings. They are holding placards stating their crimes. “Drug dealer. Released,” the ad darkly goes. “Human trafficker. Released. Child pornographer. Released. If Richard Cordray gets his way, criminals like these could be released early. Because these inmates could see a 25 percent reduction in their prison sentence, putting thousands of dangerous offenders back on our streets.”
Issue 1 includes a provision allowing for such sentence reductions. What the ad fails to mention is that the relief would be tied to participation in educational and rehabilitative programs. This expands an old concept. Ohio and other states have taken this route to help in managing the prison population and trying to prepare prisoners for the day they are released.
Prison officials would select the participants. Prisoners convicted of such violent crimes as murder, rape and child molestation would be ineligible.
An earlier spot argues that Cordray “would allow drug dealers to remain on our streets,” adding that he “would create a safe haven for drug dealers.” This involves the lowering of penalties for drug possession, lesser felonies reduced to misdemeanors. Chief Justice O’Connor has sounded the alarm about Issue 1 applying mere misdemeanor charges to the possession of as much as 19 grams of fentanyl, enough, she emphasizes, to kill 10,000 people.
No doubt a drug dealer, right? Yet Issue 1 keeps in place the current penalties for drug traffickers. Thus, Cordray has been talking tough about going after dealers, stressing the distinction between their kind and users. Defendants caught possessing a small amount of, say, heroin still would face stiff charges if they trade in illegal drugs.
Worth adding is that PolitiFact looked at this spot and rated its claim “false.”
All of this isn’t to put aside concerns about Issue 1, from the structure of a hard-to-repair constitutional amendment to the effect on drug courts and judicial discretion. Rather, the discussion deserves better than the fear-mongering of the DeWine ads, plus the Trumpian echo in his references to “Mexican drug cartels.” His portrayal of his opponent invites a frustrated: Really?
One ad concludes: “Mike DeWine is fighting back, locking up drug dealers, increasing treatment, giving families hope.” Richard Cordray is seeking the same. The candidates have different approaches. Those can be discussed without trying to scare everyone.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or email@example.com.