Our Imperfect Friend

by Frank Zarro, Director of Legislative Initiatives and Civic Learning
Sep 19, 2016 8:30 AM ET

I watched the Libertarian town hall on CNN in July and was very impressed with presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s intelligence and candor, and I have long admired his running mate, Bill Weld.  

In mid-August I watched intently as Jill Stein and her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, participated in the Green Party town hall, and I listened carefully as Dr. Stein responded to the question of how she could possibly sleep at night if she took votes away from Hillary Clinton, resulting in a Donald Trump election victory. She replied that she indeed would be unable to sleep if Donald Trump were elected president but would likewise not sleep well if Hillary Clinton were elected. Regardless of the probable outcomes, Dr. Stein urged progressives to vote their conscience. 

The two major party candidates for president have the highest disapproval ratings in American presidential election history, and it appears that many voters are seriously considering supporting a third-party candidate.  

It remains to be seen whether or not Hillary Clinton will follow through on her convention pledge to supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders to address income inequality, campaign finance reform, and other progressive causes and on her promises to African-American voters to reform the country’s race-based criminal justice and mass incarceration policies. Mrs. Clinton’s history on these issues, as well as her post-convention words, deeds, and recently disclosed e-mail activity, have thus far done little to reassure us.

Mrs. Clinton’s track record on progressive policies is discouraging. As first lady she gave outspoken support for the Clinton administration’s Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1994 and the Clinton Welfare Reform measures of the 1990s, not to mention her now infamous “super-predator” comment of 1996. In addition, she supported the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, legislation that effectively restricted access to the federal courts and eviscerated federal habeas corpus for state prisoners seeking to vindicate civil rights violations and to overturn unjust state court convictions procured in violation of federal law. These measures disproportionally affect African Americans and Hispanics, who account for 60 percent of the 1.35 million people incarcerated in the nation’s state prisons.

On campaign finance practices, Mrs. Clinton continues to pursue large corporate and individual campaign contributions. After Bernie Sanders dropped out of the running, Mrs. Clinton met with pharmaceutical company executives at her hotel before this summer’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia was over, and they apparently wrote big checks. In late August Mrs. Clinton was in the Hamptons raising more money, and it’s a safe bet that the contributions were considerably higher than $27 reported to be the average donation to the Sanders campaign.

Recently released e-mails of the Democratic National Committee revealed what can only be characterized as a coordinated plan on the part of high-level party officials and the Clinton campaign to surreptitiously undermine the Sander’s challenge. Add to this that the former secretary of state’s controversial e-mails and disclosures seem to indicate that the Clinton Foundation accepts large sums of money from individuals and countries with less than stellar human rights and economic justice practices, and that this may have been part of a quid pro quo arrangement, actual or perceived. 

These are all valid and troubling concerns for those who advocate for structural political change. But we also have to consider the alternative. To paraphrase political commentator Bill Maher: Would you rather have an imperfect friend in the White House or a president Donald Trump? The election of Donald Trump would be the single greatest threat to our political stability since Watergate. There are ingenious balances of power built into the Constitution to insulate against a renegade president, legislature, or judiciary, but we must remember that the nation’s founders could not have taken into account the New Deal of the 1930s and the many ensuing comprehensive delegations of power from Congress to the Executive branch that have since resulted in the creation of numerous federal agencies and bureaus empowered with vast rulemaking authority, effectively functioning in quasi-legislative, judicial, and executive enforcement capacities.

While it is true that Congress retains powers of oversight for these agencies and officials, and in most cases must confirm presidential appointments to higher level administrative positions, this “fourth branch of government” reports to and serves at the pleasure of the president. A President Trump could wreak havoc with the federal regulatory and law enforcement apparatus through the administrative process.  Add to this the president’s awesome powers as Commander and Chief of our armed forces and guardian of the nuclear arsenal, the president’s constitutional duty to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices (there could be three appointments over the next four years), and his or her responsibilities as architect of our domestic and foreign policy, and we begin to comprehend exactly how grave a situation we find ourselves in as we approach election day. 

With the release of the DNC e-mails on the eve of the Democratic convention, Senator Bernie Sanders would have been well within his rights to withdraw his support of Secretary Clinton, dispatch his campaign strategists to pursue super delegates, and encourage his supporters to demonstrate on the floor and press for his nomination. His decision to continue to support Mrs. Clinton, urge his supporters not to demonstrate, and personally move for her nomination was nothing short of an act of patriotism. The risk that divided Democrats would result in Trump’s election was too great and as many of us will be called upon to do, Senator Sanders made the difficult decision for the good of the country.  

My wife and I happened to be visiting with our granddaughters the weekend following the Democratic convention. They were filled with encouragement and pride at Mrs. Clinton’s nomination, and I could not help but share in their hope and enthusiasm. All other considerations aside, this is a singularly historic moment for our country.  

With her nomination and hopefully her election, Mrs. Clinton will have assumed monumental moral responsibilities to the millions of young people who have transferred their support from Bernie Sanders to her. She also is responsible to women and girls everywhere, to African-American and Hispanic people, and to middle class, working, and unemployed poor people in this country who take her at her word. This is no longer about Bill or Hillary Clinton’s personal political power. This transcends politics. Progressive policies and goals dating back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society are at stake in this election.  

So, I will vote for our imperfect friend, hope for the best, and join movements like Sanders’ “Our Revolution,” recently launched to elect progressive candidates at the grassroots level and continue to work for economic, social, and criminal justice reform and peace in real time.  

Frank Zarro helped to create the Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice and serves as the project’s director of legislative initiatives and civic learning. He founded In Our Name Initiatives, designed to increase awareness of juridical, economic, and social justice issues and to advocate for reform of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Zarro has taught administrative law at Pace University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Public Administration Department. He has taught college-level courses at the university and community college level and legal research and a law library clinic to incarcerated individuals at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in Wilton, N.Y., and Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. In that role, he assisted prisoners with some 200 matters on a monthly basis. At McGregor, he led a workshop that brought a 2010 federal civil rights action challenging the disproportionate racial composition of the New York State prison population. He developed and taught a course curriculum for incarcerated veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces whose service-related post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and substance-abuse problems led to their arrest and conviction by civilian authorities after their return from service. He has taught additional courses in the prison system in such fields as literature, history, government, and business.

Mr. Zarro has held various management and planning positions in the New York State Unified Court System and has served as director of development and special projects for the New York State Defenders Association, where he helped to create the Veterans Defense Program.

Mr. Zarro received a master’s degree in public administration from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University and a juris doctorate from Seton Hall University School of Law.

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