Clarence Page: Right, left cooperate outside Washington

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Despite the partisan bickering and gridlock in Washington, I am encouraged by the surprisingly bipartisan coalitions that backed recent state victories for marijuana legalization, gay marriage and prison sentencing re­form. Maybe we can all get along.

Not on everything, of course. If everybody agreed on everything, opinion writers like me would be out of business. About that, I am not worried. What makes these coalitions so remarkable in their support of these is­sues is how much their members disagree on almost everything else.

That happy thought brought liberals together with libertarian tea party conservatives in Colorado and Washington to put marijuana legalization over the top by 55 percent to 45 percent in each state.

The Colorado cause benefited from vigorous fundraising and a high-profile en­dorsement by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a libertarian Republican and tea party favorite.

Washington residents similarly won the backing of mainstream non-hippie figures like Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who has long favored legalization, regulation and taxation over what he calls “nanny state laws.”

As a result, proponents proudly noted, the Colorado measure received more votes than President Barack Obama, who carried the state by 5 percentage points.

Similarly, a slice of Republican Mitt Romney and Libertarian Gary Johnson voters helped Maryland, Maine and Wash­ington became the first states to legalize same-sex marriages by popular vote.

Conservative support helped, even if groups like the new Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry were not easy to find amid the louder opposition from social conservatives.

In Maryland, for example, county-level results reveal that “across wide swaths” of Republican territory, “same-sex marriage actually ran well ahead of Barack Obama and the Democratic ticket,” according to Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and a volunteer in Maryland’s successful same-sex marriage vote. Without Romney voters, he wrote in the Huffington Post, “the measure would almost certainly have lost by a mile.”

Another dramatic coalition helped Cali­fornia roll back its 18-year-old “Three Strikes” law. It set a national standard among efforts at the time to pack prisons with lawbreakers and throw away the key, without much regard for whether the punishment was more serious than the crime.

The old law, which spurred a national trend of similar laws, demanded a life sentence for a third conviction of any felony.

That meant even such minor third strikes as stealing a pair of socks could jam the state’s badly overcrowded prison system with yet another convict for life.

The new law will put away for life only hard-core criminals such as murderers, rapists and child molesters for any third felony offense. For everyone else, the third strike must be a “serious or violent” felony.

Right on Crime, a prominent conservative justice reform initiative, supported the law, which was drafted by a partnership of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a group of Stanford University law professors.

How prominent is Right on Crime? Its signatories include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former House Speaker Newt Ging­rich, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Attorney General Edwin Meese.

Yes, that’s the same Ed Meese who, as President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, described the American Civil Liberties Union as part of the “criminals’ lobby.” But when asked more recently about the ACLU, he cheerfully replied, “If they want to join us, we’re happy to have them.” Maybe we can all get along.

Cash-strapped states and small-government conservatives appreciate measures that can save money without increasing crime rates. Alternative sentencing for small-time offenders and drug rehabilitation for nonviolent drug offenders make great fiscal sense and reduce the abuses that the Legal Defense Fund fights against.

But Norquist has long built coalitions around a simple but critically important concept, he told me in an interview last year: Don’t let ideological differences on other issues stop you from cooperating wherever your interests overlap.

It’s refreshing to see ideological opposites find ways to get things done.

It’s too bad the political left and right haven’t been getting things done that smoothly in Washington.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

 


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