November 4, 2010

Light shining through the clouds

For those of us who love reason, truth, moderation and rationality… the first Tuesday in November produced much disappointment. There were precious few bright spots, but a few stars peaked through the gathering clouds and managed to survive the wrath of those pulling the straight Republican lever.

Republican losses in well-publicized races such as Angle/Reid and O’Donnell/ Coons took a bit of wind from Tea Party sails. Not that I really expect we’ve seen the last of the losers in those contests, and I’m certainly not saying Harry Reid was all that much better of a choice, but at least voters in Nevada and New Hampshire recognized insanity when they saw it and voted for the lesser of evils.

Down ballot races in my backyard produced degrees of sanity in the otherwise batshit crazy red flood that cost Chet Edwards a seat he held for 20 years. Edwards was a damn good Congressman, supported by reasonable Republican moderates, the NRA and several veteran’s groups, but none of that was enough to overcome the tide that has been sweeping Texas since the Shrub first popped his head out of that West Texas prairie dog hole.

Other than in heavily Latino regions, bright spots appeared only in the most populous counties of Dallas, Harris (Houston), Bexar (San Antonio), and Travis (Austin). Incumbent District Attorney Craig Watkins managed to hold on as Dallas County District Attorney by the skin of his teeth. Watkins is the former defense attorney who in 2006 took over the infamous office formerly held by Henry Wade; reputed to be one of the most ruthless in the country. Watkins is also the first African-American in Texas history to win election to the office of District Attorney.

What makes Watkins’ win worthwhile is the special Conviction Integrity Unit he created within the office with the charge to use DNA evidence to identify people who had been falsely convicted by his predecessors. The unit has reviewed 180 cases to date, and freed 19 wrongly convicted men. As a result, Dallas County now leads the country in exonerations.

In the beginning Watson actually had critics, including his Republican opponent, arguing that it wasn't a prosecutors job to free the wrongly convicted. Those negative voices pale in light of the justice that has been accomplished as a result of Watkins’ efforts. While the slim margin of Watkins' victory is concerning, at least there were enough reasonable people left in the county to recognize the good in the man, and to do the right thing.

Probably the most encouraging news of the Tuesday debacle is that voters in my adopted state of Colorado still have good sense. Not only did they soundly reject the so called “Fetal Personhood measure by an almost 75% margin, they also turned out State District Court Judges Terence Gilmore and Jolene Blair. These are the two prosecutors reprimanded in 2008 by the Colorado Supreme Court for withholding exculpatory evidence in a 1987 murder case… evidence that could have prevented the conviction of an innocent man.

In 1999 a Larimer County jury convicted Timothy Masters of murdering Peggy Hettrick in Fort Collins. In 2008, when presented with the new evidence, a visiting judge overturned the conviction agreeing that DNA testing raised questions about the original case. While Masters was in prison Gilmore and Blair were promoted to judgeships. Masters lost ten years of his life for a crime he didn't commit, but when confronted with evidence of their malfeasance the former prosecutors only expressed “embarrassment.”

The reprimand and finding that they “directly impaired the proper operation of the criminal justice system” did not preclude them from sitting on the bench, but reasonable Colorado voters accomplished that which the legal system could not. Blair and Gilmore were rejected by almost two thirds of voters while six other judges also on the ballot were retained by an average 70 percent margin.

In a political environment where civility has been lost, and in an election cycle where sanity was almost nowhere to be found, a few stars still managed to shine through the clouds. Little bits of light like these give me some small hope for the future. This country will survive.