Setti Warren’s bad call

September 4th seems a long way off, but the Massachusetts Democratic primary will be here before we know it. Voters have a choice between three decent Democratic challengers and a Republican governor whose positions on taxes, criminal justice and immigration are squarely, and terribly, Republican.

From the sound of it the Democratic Governors Association has already conceded the November election to Baker, as an article by Joshua Miller at the Globe suggests. It also appears likely that the DGA will close its purse to whomever wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary. As if that were not bad enough, a recent statement from one of the challengers now threatens the criminal justice omnibus bill just passed by the legislature.

Last week former Newton Mayor Setti Warren wrote a piece in Blue Mass Group spelling out his objections to the omnibus bill now awaiting governor Baker’s signature: “I had to tell my friends in the legislature, many of whom I admire greatly, that I would have vetoed their bill if I were governor. I could not in good conscience sign any bill that creates new mandatory minimum sentences. They are discriminatory, ineffective, and lead to mass incarceration.”

Blogger “Hester Prynne” replied to Warren, “how would you intend that your veto be received by the overwhelming majorities who voted in its favor (including every member of the Democratic party) and who would say your veto throws the baby out with the bathwater?” — to which Warren replied, “I want people to know that there are some lines I just won’t cross in the name of ‘compromise.’ We know that mandatory minimums target black and brown people. Even though we are only 20% of the population of Mass, black and brown people make up 73% of those sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences.”

Other responses to Warren’s posting included:

  • “I have to admire the instinct that says, no. Really no more at all.”
  • “No user is going to be selling 10 grams of fentanyl to other users, given the strength of fentanyl. This undermines Mayor Warren’s position that this mandatory minimum targets communities of color, as the person being targeted for this crime is selling a substance that, when cut, could kill hundreds of people suffering from a substance abuse disorder.”
  • “It really does sound like you are getting the perfect in the way of the good. […] I fear more people will suffer under current mandatory minimum laws than [under] the proposed changes.”

A single dose of pure fentanyl is less than 2 milligrams and costs between $20 and $30. Ten grams represents 5,000 doses or $100,000. Even cut 10-to-1 or more, the number of doses would still be in the hundreds.

My own view of the controversy is that Warren is right about the evils of mandatory minimums — but he’s wrong to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even with new minimums for a limited subset of fentanyl trafficking, the legislature’s criminal justice reforms address many current problems with sentencing, prisons, probation, young offenders, decriminalize offenses and raise the threshold for others, create diversion programs, and should result in a substantial net reduction in mass incarceration. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater was not just a bad call, but irresponsible, because Warren sent the Republican governor a message of support for a veto of long-awaited and much-needed reforms. And Baker is now signalling that he wants more law-and-order changes.

After meeting Warren last year, I really wanted to like the guy. But his positions, or rather, his “adaptability” in changing and holding conflicting positions, really makes it difficult. Warren has had consistently progressive views on civil rights, abortion, energy, education, immigration, and revenue. But raising revenue shouldn’t involve corporate giveaways — and in 2011 he supported permanent R&D tax credits and reductions in business taxes. Now, in 2017, he’s singing a different tune. In 2011 Warren, who never misses a chance to talk about his family’s relationship to the military, was all for throwing anything and everything at terrorism; in 2017 he’s in favor of drawing down the many U.S. wars of choice.

Warren endorsed 5 of 8 pieces of Our Revolution’s “People’s Platform” — single payer, free college, $15 minimum wage (minus the cost of living increases), abortion, and automatic voter registration — but Keith Ellison’s “Inclusive Prosperity Act,” a revenue tool which taxes Wall Street transactions and would raise $300 billion in revenue — that was a bridge too far. Likewise, Warren refused to support Jeff Merkley’s “Keep it in the Ground Act,” which prohibits coal and oil field giveaways. Most telling, Setti Warren refused to support Bernie Sanders’ “Justice is Not for Sale Act of 2015,” which would have disentangled the U.S. government from the private prison industry.

After all this, it’s only fair to ask — does Warren really support criminal justice reform or not?

For me, this latest kerfuffle is a symptom of the bad judgment that comes of trying to hold inconsistent views simultaneously. You can’t be a centrist and a progressive at the same time. Setti Warren is a case in point.