Can Andrew Cuomo Win Without Being Pro-Death Penalty?

With Elizabeth Warren having ruled out a presidential run in 2016, I am going to tentatively state that Andrew Cuomo would be my top choice for the next president. The precise reasons why I feel this way are a matter for another post, but barring something unexpected happening, if Cuomo runs, I will be voting for him in the Democratic primary. I decided to write this blog post about a political stance of Cuomo that I am in full agreement with but may unfortunately cost him the Democratic nomination. That stance is his opposition to capital punishment. To give a bit of my personal background on this issue, before I became very interested in gay rights, abolition of the death penalty was actually the cause I was most into. While I do not devote as much time and energy to it as I used to, my views have not changed. I am still unequivocally opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances. Yes, that includes in the case of terrorists.

Opposition to the death penalty is something of a Cuomo family tradition. Andrew’s father, Mario, became famous for his opposition to the death penalty. New York is something of a bastion for “billy club liberalism”–support for moderate-to-conservative policies on crime and liberal policies on most other issues–which explains why, although members of the NYPD are forbidden under a city ordinance to use racial profiling, they also have great discretion to “stop and frisk” people. As Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo was trying to maintain a political career in a time when America was experiencing a shift toward support for more authoritarian penal codes. Arguably, Mario refusing to take the route of many previously anti-death penalty politicians and endorse executions in at least some circumstances played a major role in him losing his office to George Pataki. Whenever Andrew Cuomo takes a controversial stance as New York’s current governor, he likes to compare it to his father’s principled opposition to the death penalty. In 2004, Andrew publicly urged New York to end the death penalty once and for all. Thus, Andrew Cuomo has staked out a very firm position against the government putting people to death.

At first glance, this might not seem like something that will damage Cuomo’s chances of receiving the Democratic Party nomination. Cuomo is a Democrat, and  Democrats typically oppose the death penalty, right? The truth, however, is more complicated. Originally, the Democratic Party was primarily pro-death penalty. While serving as a judge prior to becoming president, Andrew Jackson imposed the death penalty multiple times, including in one month sentencing three men to die for stealing horses. As Sheriff of Buffalo, New York, Grover Cleveland sometimes performed executions himself. Arguably, opposition to the death penalty was more closely connected with the Republican Party. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Lydia Maria Child who became supporters of the Republican Party (as well as abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips who disdained all political parties) made up much of the anti-death penalty movement during the 1800s. In Wisconsin, where capital punishment was abolished as early as 1853, it was primarily Republican legislators who foiled an 1857 attempt to bring it back. The “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll was a staunch Republican and a vocal opponent of the death penalty. While serving as a member of the Ohio legislature, future Republican president, James Garfield, had gone on record as firmly opposed to the death penalty, though this did not stop the man who assassinated him in 1881 from being executed. “Czar” Thomas B. Reed, the Republican Speaker of the House for much of the 1890s, had fought to abolish the death penalty in his native Maine. After retiring from public office, former Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes became anti-death penalty. In the early 1900s, “progressive” Democratic president Woodrow Wilson favored the death penalty. In the 1930s, a shift began. President Franklin Roosevelt announced his opposition to the death penalty. During World War II, however, Roosevelt demanded that three saboteurs be executed without civilian court trials. Harry Truman was more liberal than FDR but still took a complicated stance on the death penalty. In 1950, Truman commuted the death sentence of a man who had attempted to kill him. But when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to die for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, Truman admitted that he had never really favored capital punishment but did not intervene to stop their executions. As president, John F. Kennedy allowed a federal execution to take place but also signed a bill repealing Washington, D.C.’s mandatory death penalty law. It was in the 1960s that the heyday of Democratic opposition to the death penalty began. Lyndon Johnson allowed Attorney General Ramsey Clark to ask Congress to end the death penalty. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey, who had gone on record as opposing the death penalty in his 1960 primary campaign, was nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. In the 1972 election, George McGovern also opposed the death penalty. In 1976, as the Democratic Party made some attempt to reclaim a portion of its conservative heritage, Jimmy Carter voiced support for the death penalty, though of course he later became a strong opponent of the practice. This rightward tilt on executions did not last long, however. The Democrats’ 1984 candidate, Walter Mondale, was opposed to the death penalty, as was the 1988 candidate, Michael Dukakis. Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty was one of the issues that Republicans used to pillory him as “soft on crime,” (his ill-advised weekend furlough program for dangerous prison inmates did not help either). By the early 1990s, the Democratic Party had decided to once again change its stance on the death penalty. Having watched several anti-death penalty candidates be crucified by voters, it was probably decided that the “politically correct” stance was to favor executing some criminals. In 1992, Bill Clinton strongly favored the death penalty, and as president he signed legislation that expanded its use. Al Gore was also in favor of the death penalty. Though plenty of Democrats, such as Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and Russ Feingold, still opposed the death penalty, they were not getting anywhere near the presidency. In the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, only Carole Moseley Braun, Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton opposed any use of the death penalty. John Kerry, the party nominee, had previously opposed the death penalty but amended his stance to voice his support for executing terrorists. In 2008, the three Democratic frontrunners, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, all favored the death penalty in some capacity. Obama did not express the same gung-ho support that Bill Clinton had shown, but he made it clear he believed that the government had the right to use the death penalty in certain cases, such as with terrorists and murderers of children. Andrew Cuomo shows none of this moderation. He simply states that he wishes to abolish the death penalty, without laying out any exceptions. If Cuomo is nominated in 2016, he will be the first major-party candidate since Michael Dukakis to unequivocally oppose the death penalty. And the fact that he seems to draw inspiration from his father on this issue may make it hard for him to change his position. It is always possible he will change his position. However, I am not sure it would be necessary in order to get nominated. While Democratic Party leaders seem to feel that support for the death penalty is a necessary ingredient for a winning candidate, I am skeptical, because I truly think many Americans would be surprised to know that, say, Barack Obama and the Clintons, favor the death penalty. And evidence from Gallup indicates that while opposition to the death penalty has not reached the levels it was at in the 1960s, it has noticeably increased since the 1990s. As I said earlier, the perception is that Democrats are anti-death penalty. So I am not sure that making the perception reality would hurt Cuomo that much. My personal hope is that Cuomo can win the nomination and the election while still opposing capital punishment, because I would like to see it proven that opposition to capital punishment is not, no pun intended, the kiss of death for presidential hopefuls.


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