Why Is One of the Bluest States in the Country Reinstating the Death Penalty?

The volatility of the Trump administration has energized liberals and progressives for the first time since 2008, readying them for a fight to take back the House, governors’ mansions and state legislatures across the country. Sadly, their political party doesn't seem up to the challenge. 


Just last week, New York voted 55-7 to effectively make assaulting a cop a hate crime. While the state Senate is controlled by Republicans (with the help of an “independent” Democratic caucus that votes in lockstep), the Democrats barely put up a fight. Then there's North Carolina’s embarrassing cave on transgender rights, and the steadfast opposition to single payer healthcare among congressional mainstays like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, both of whom hold some of the safest seats in Congress. Across the country, Democrats are assuming seemingly Republican positions on key social issues, and it's jeopardizing their legitimacy as an opposition party.

Take Delaware. The second smallest state in the union (and the first to ratify the Constitution) is among the bluest states in the country, one of just six where Democrats control both houses of the state legislature and the governorship. By comparison, Republicans control each of those offices in 25 separate states. While its corporate-friendly tax laws have attracted pro-business moderates, the state has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992. Delaware has held a Democratic majority in its House of Representatives since 2009, a Democratic governor since 1993 and a majority in its state Senate since 1973.


It owes its current state Senate majority to Stephanie Hansen, who broke a 10-10 tie in the chamber when she won by 18 points in a mid-winter, post-presidential special election that saw a bigger turnout in her district than the 2014 midterms. The last Democrat to hold that seat, current Lt. Governor Bethany Hall-Long, only won her last race in the district by two points, so a case can be be made that its shade of blue is only darkening.

This is why the latest vote of the Delaware House of Representatives is so bewildering and infuritating.

Earlier this month, shortly after Arkansas killed four people in eight days in order to use its execution drugs before their expiration, the Delaware House, where Democrats hold a supermajority, passed a Republican-sponsored bill to bring back the death penalty. Ten Democrats—all of them white, including the speaker of the House, a retired state trooper—voted to reinstate one of the most racist and sadistic punishments in the criminal justice system. None of the legislators who voted for the bill, Republican or Democrat, spoke in favor of it.

After multiple failed attempts to end the death penalty legislatively (most recently, the Senate passed a repeal bill in 2015, which then failed in the House), the Delaware Supreme Court handed down a decision last August that found the state's death penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment because it did not require juries to unanimously recommend it. (The current bill fulfills that requirement.)

The Delaware House’s move comes at a time when support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in four decades. On May 11, the Florida Supreme Court threw out five death penalty sentences, including the murder conviction of a man against whom there never seemed to be a substantive case. “There is no fingerprint, footprint, blood, fiber pattern impression or other physical evidence tying [Tavares J.] Wright to the crime scene," read Chief Justice Jorge Labarga’s opinion in the case. "There is no cell tower evidence placing him in the vicinity of the crime scene. There is no murder weapon. The only evidence presented by the state to prove that Wright was the murder is the fact that he had motive and opportunity.” 

Delaware’s reasoning for reinstating capital punishment appears purely reactionary. In February, inmates at Vaughan Correctional Center revolted after begging, for years, for humane living conditions, access to medical treatment, and education. In the uprising, a corrections officer named Steven T. Floyd was killed. Two weeks ago, a state trooper named Stephen Ballard was murdered in northern Delaware while investigating a robbery. (The suspect was later killed.) 

Because of these two incidents, it remains entirly possible the Senate could ratify the bill, despite twice passing death penalty repeal in 2013 and 2015. He hasn’t yet indicated whether or not he’ll veto it, but Governor John Carney—a moderate who co-founded a "bipartisan breakfast club" as a junior congressman—is characteristically trying to find a compromise where there should be none, claiming he “wouldn’t rule out” supporting capital punishment in situations where a police officer or corrections officer was killed.

This is hardly the first time Democrats have taken a draconian stance on the death penalty. The party had so convinced itself that George H.W. Bush's transparently racist Willie Horton ad helped win him the 1988 presidential election that Bill Clinton executed Ricky Ray Rector four years later in order to prove he was "tough on crime." Rector was severely mentally impaired. Just last year, Hillary Clinton offered a baffling case for capital punishment during the Democratic primary to Ricky Jackson, a man who was exonerated ater spending 39 years on death row.

Why do they feel compelled to adopt these right-wing positions? One reason is that they think the ideological profile of their constituents leans further to the right than it actually does. A 2013 study of nearly 2,000 state legislative candidates found that on average, Democrats thought their constituents were about 5 percentage points more conservative on welfare, universal healthcare, and same-sex marriage than they actually were. On a more ideological level, Democratic officials have been drifting right since the 1970s, despite an influx of young progressives and rose-wielding socialists in the wake of Trump's stunning victory.

The root problem is not the state legislature in Delaware, or members of the House in New York, North Carolina, and California. For many, the Democratic Party has become a consulting firm masquerading as a political apparatus, designed for permanent opposition. It can’t ever reasonably accommodate both the left and the center, and it’s made clear which wing it prefers. The party's ideal politician isn’t Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, moderate social Democrats who have faced fierce opposition whenever they want to rein in Wall Street or expand the social safety net, but someone like John Carney, who wants to find a reasonable compromise on whether or not the state should be allowed to murder one of its citizens.

Despite the triumphant singing of House Democrats during the passage of the ACHA, it remains to be seen if they'll be able to capitalize on the sheer dysfunction of Trump's presidency. At some point, Democrats have to understand that simply not being the party of Trump will never be enough to maintain power, much less regain it; that they can no longer afford to subvert the progressive agenda, in Delaware or anywhere else. Unless they do, they won’t be singing for long.

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