A candidate for statewide office in Connecticut spoke about drugs and race during a campaign stop the other day.
A candidate for governor.
Yes, this qualifies as news.
He wasn't a Democrat or a Republican, of course. He's a third-party candidate. And he's not a big-time politician like Lowell Weicker or a movie star like Arnold Schwarzenegger. So he may have trouble getting many voters to listen to what he has to say.
But in our limping democracy, serious discussion of pressing issues that require painful self-examination can be hard to find. So it's worth listening to what a third-party candidate like Clifford Thornton has to say.
Especially when it's about drugs and race in Connecticut.
"Connecticut has a population of 3.4, 3.5 million people," Thornton told me after his public appearance. He doesn't need a roomful of voters to rev up his outrage. "Of that population, black and Latino males make up less than 6 percent. But they account for almost 68 percent of the prison population, with almost 70 percent of them being there for drug-related charges.
"I ask you, is race and class a factor?
"If, in fact, whites were arrested and incarcerated [at the same rate] per illegal drug use and sale, we wouldn't be having this conversation because there would literally be armed insurrection in the streets. For instance, when they have these rock concerts in the Meadows, you will see where they arrested 10 or 15 or 20 people for drugs. Within a 24- to 48-hour period, most of those children are out because most of them come from the suburbs, and their parents will not tolerate that. If the same thing happened to an inner-city youth, chances are he would be doing some time.
"Am I lying?"
Third-party candidates rarely win statewide elections. But they have managed to force issues onto the radar and have even seen some of them become law. Social Security happened that way. Ross Perot forced Bill Clinton to tackle the budget deficit. In New Haven, the Green Party got ruling Democrats to embrace campaign finance reform.
So third-party candidates like Cliff Thornton -- who's seeking to become the Green Party's candidate for governor -- should not, must not be discounted.
His campaign stop the other day was before a room of 25 like-minded potential voters at Yale, a mix of drug-policy types and criminal-justice-reform activists. They nodded their heads instead of squirming in their seats when he spoke of how "race privilege" keeps white suburbanites (many of whom drive into cities to buy their dope) "from getting arrested or going to jail.
"Money lets you hide your problems. And race and money are Siamese twins."
There's good reason you don't usually hear candidates for statewide office talking like that. They make people uncomfortable. It's easier to win office feeling the pain of Gold Coast commuters stuck in traffic jams (as long as you don't mention that they're stuck there because they don't want to pay higher taxes to support mass transit). Plus, winning statewide office requires persuading white suburban voters to support you. The balance of power lies in the suburbs.
But this is exactly the kind of uncomfortable debate that Connecticut should have. And why shouldn't an election campaign be the forum?
Since retiring from the former Southern New England Telecommunications Corp. nine years ago, Thornton, 61, has crusaded to end the drug war. He's cared about the issue since his school days in Hartford's North End, when his mother died of a heroin overdose two weeks before his graduation from Hartford Public High School.
These days he lives in Glastonbury and runs a Hartford-based group called Efficacy . He travels the country and the world to make a case that the war on drugs, as it's now structured, overcrowds our jails without helping anybody, fails to stem drug use and consigns people of color to dead-end lives.
Who can argue with this? Who can argue as the professorial Thornton, dressed in a suit, shirt collar opened, decries the spiral:
Thornton was nearly yelling that day at Yale as he chided politicians for failing to confront voters with uncomfortable truths about the doomed and expensive war on drugs, for failing to deliver more treatment and urban aid programs.
"Politicians have to be willing to risk their jobs!" Thornton cried out, pounding on a table. "We need politicians like that!"
Thornton's solution: Connecticut should legalize marijuana and hemp; "medicalize," meaning treat users for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy abuse; and conduct further debate and "honest" medical study of other illegal drugs.
He cites a series of "Circle for Change" house-party conversations organized last year by Hartford's A Better Way Foundation in Avon, West Hartford, North Branford, Trumbull and other suburbs to discuss the drug war.
These conversations spurred suburbanites to lobby the governor and legislators to pass the law that eliminated stark differences in mandatory minimum sentences for people who use powdered cocaine vs. crack cocaine, whose users are disproportionately black and Latino.
Which shows that people's minds can change. Hearts can open. A statewide political campaign may not be the usual stage for such miracles, but here's wishing Cliff Thornton luck.
He could probably use a good campaign slogan to start. So far he's playing off his initials and toying with "CT for CT" and "Are you children safer today than they were 40 years ago from illegal drugs?"
Have something snappier? E-mail it to me (email@example.com), and I'll pass it along.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.