Race Cards

The battle over the public defender's office has a familiar scent.

NOW THAT A special investigator is on the case, it will be a while before the fight over the Hennepin County Public Defender's office is settled. In the meantime it should be noted that what is transpiring here is a classic bit of racial bait-and-switch politics of the sort Minneapolis and Hennepin County practice so well.

In the incumbent PD, Bill Kennedy, we have a man who has compiled a fine record in frontline public defense work, and--just as important in times like these--has fought publicly and zealously against funding cuts and sundry political machinations that would serve to undermine the cause of public defense and tilt the scales even more decisively toward police and prosecutors. On the second count especially, he is thus a thorn in the side of good government, which is nowadays bent on averting its eyes wherever due process and the rights of defendants are concerned. There are no liberals anymore where the rights of people accused by the state are at issue--or, if you prefer, no conservatives where the principles of the Constitution are involved. In any case an old street fighter like Kennedy, a brash man with a class-bred sense of fair play, has got to go; he bears unflattering witness to the escalating inequities of the justice system.

The matter of race hangs heavy over any deliberation regarding crime and the courts, for obvious reasons. How better to attack a person like Kennedy than with a black candidate who happens to be compromised? Given the continued assaults upon their charter, chief public defenders have to be able to mount political as well as legal confrontations. Bill McGee could scarcely afford to do that, and wouldn't last long if he did: Any of the various allegations attached to him, regardless of their merit, could be resurrected and conflated into a taint on the public defender's office in the event that he became a thorn in the side of good government.

Frankly, however, there is no reason to suppose he would. After serving as special investigator for the Hennepin County Attorney's office and helping to absolve Officer Dan May of any wrongdoing in the shooting of Tycel Nelson, McGee went to work for that office as a prosecutor. The most damning case against his being appointed public defender is contained in his own words to CP's Monika Bauerlein a couple of weeks ago.

Essentially, McGee made the case that he would be a good man for the public defender's office because he is a prosecutor at heart, and wouldn't be squeamish about cutting deals with his former colleagues. After relating an anecdote to demonstrate his regret over helping to acquit people during his tenure at the Legal Rights Center, he went on to say, "I believe in the right kinds of situations a prosecutor can do as much good as 10 defense attorneys.... [Prosecutors and defense attorneys] have more in common than we think. I'm not saying that the system should be tough on people. I think we should hold them accountable and say, we're going to put together a program that works for you. I think people need to come to the table. Cooperation does not mean co-optation." Nooo, of course not. But cut through the double-talk and McGee seems to be promoting the view that public defenders ought to roll over more easily in the name of tough love. If you were accused of a crime, would you want a man who talks like that defending you?

This is all very Minneapolis. There's nothing uniquely local about the political advancement of that element of the black middle-class, which is willing to talk tough about the African-American masses, but one must admit that it's quite a refined tradition here. We have possibly the most conservative black mayor that any major city has ever had, a woman who ran blatantly racist ads during her 1993 campaign and has manifested no interest at all in the city's growing poor and minority population except to call for beefed-up cops and courts; we have a largely quiescent black leadership class that hardly ever cries foul in any sustained way--and small wonder, given their reliance on the patronage of white foundations; and now we have a prosecutor of checkered repute being advanced for the most important legal defense post in Hennepin County.

IN THE COURSE of reporting her stories on the public defender's office, Bauerlein spoke to local criminal defense attorney Demetrius Clemons, and his comments offer an interesting footnote to the controversy. He compared the public treatment of Bill McGee's accuser, Loretta Elgren, to the reception accorded Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. "They're bringing this woman up and putting her on trial," he said. "She's not applying for anything. This should be decided on the candidates and their qualifications.

"But what it sets up is a division in the community. The last time [a tight contest for Kennedy's job] happened, there was a lot of support for him from minority communities. And there was the same support this time, too. So how better for his enemies to negate that support than by going out and recruiting a minority person for the job, and then to make a martyr out of him? We'd have to be naive to say that there was not some wheeling and dealing and politicking going on. I'm not that naive.

"But now we as a people are past the stage where we support someone just because they're black. We are not so monolithic that you could control us and we're not going to fall for those types of diversions. That's what I think the board of public defense was trying to do. And I see a resemblance to the ploy that Bush was trying to pull. It's really slick."

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