Bluegrass blitz: How McConnell was sold on sentencing reform

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Mitch McConnell returned to his home state of Kentucky, he couldn’t escape the debate over criminal justice reform.

Ads in favor of the Senate bill were running on television. Religious leaders, business executives and local politicians were talking about it. Even McConnell’s beloved University of Louisville proved no sanctuary: It held a forum in support of the legislation.

Much of the noise in Kentucky was no accident. It was encouraged and amplified by advocates who embarked on a single-minded campaign to sway the senate majority leader, recognizing his support as crucial to unlocking a historic overhaul of federal sentencing laws — a bill now on the precipice of becoming law.

“We’d get into meetings and no one was thinking about the leader, and to me, that’s the goal line,” said Holly Harris, the director of the advocacy group Justice Action Network and a former Kentucky Republican Party official. “So we started working on voices that would be most impactful to the leader and going to places where he would notice us.”

Harris, who lives in Kentucky, enlisted the White House and other groups across the state to get McConnell’s attention at home as President Donald Trump and other Republican supporters in Washington pushed him to bring the bill up. McConnell doesn’t like to divide his caucus, and he had been hesitant to put the legislation on the floor, as a handful of Republicans were saying the bill was too soft on some criminals.

“It was critical that he understand both the policy value of criminal justice reform and also the political,” Harris said of McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2020.

Harris and others helped organize the forum at the University of Louisville, for example, with a roster of carefully selected speakers. The list included former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah. It also included Sadiqa Reynolds, head of the Louisville Urban League, long an important constituency to McConnell.

The forum came the day before rapper Kanye West visited the White House to talk about the issue, an event that garnered considerably more headlines. But Harris was focused on McConnell.

“This is a serious man, and he wants voices that have gravity,” Harris said.

The White House helped in subtle ways. Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who was lobbying McConnell in Washington to bring up the bill, also helped promote the issue locally. At one point, the press-shy Kushner unexpectedly joined a call with local reporters about polling data that showed support for the bill in Kentucky, surprising even those who had organized it.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also added pressure, doing appearances and meetings around the state. He did several of the events with his wife, Kelley, who visited rehabilitation centers and halfway houses that would be helped by the bill.

Even with his fellow Kentuckians, the famously tight-lipped McConnell didn’t hint at how he would move forward. While Democratic and Republican senators pressured him to bring up the legislation in Washington, he listened to friends in Kentucky who adopted a strategy of flooding him with information, but not pressuring too obviously or too hard.

Josh Crawford of the Pegasus Institute, a Kentucky think tank with strong ties to McConnell, says that pressure from people or groups outside the state that demonized him for holding up the bill were not effective.

“Mean tweets were not going to get him to move,” Crawford said. Instead, Crawford lobbied for the legislation by approaching it as a conversation with McConnell in which repeatedly detailed how similar reforms have worked on the state level.

“I do think localizing it was important to him,” he said. “Reform efforts in Texas, or Georgia or South Carolina are good, but I think him seeing what has gone on here from a policy standpoint and politically helped.”

The bill, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Tuesday, gives federal judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts. It follows efforts in several states, including Kentucky, to overhaul parts of the system.

The legislation represents a huge shift from criminal policy when McConnell first came to the Senate in the 1980s. At that time, “tough on crime” was a popular Republican buzzword.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a top advocate for the legislation who pushed McConnell to bring it up, says he has seen the tenor shift even since he came to the Senate in 2011. Republicans, including some major GOP donors, have increasingly embraced the changes as a way to save taxpayer money, better rehabilitate prisoners and make sentencing fairer.

“One of the most effective arguments we had in support of the legislation is that legislation like this has been enacted in a number of states,” Lee said.

McConnell likely took note of the political effect in his state, too, as Republican State Sen. Julie Raque Adams, who represents Louisville, was re-elected this year after successfully pushing state legislation to help female prisoners. She used the issue in campaign ads and won her race as several other GOP lawmakers in her area were defeated.

A fellow Louisville grad, Raque Adams spoke to McConnell about the issue.

“I communicated how important it was in my race, and how it really connected with people in the urban areas,” she said.

Despite all of the efforts, the bill appeared to have stalled in the Senate by early December, with only a few weeks left in the session. Harris scheduled a meeting with McConnell and brought a binder full of articles and other evidence that the issue was playing well in Kentucky.

“I prepped for that meeting with McConnell like I was studying for the bar exam,” Harris said. “We just kept saying, this issue is very important in Kentucky.”

Along with the efforts from Washington Republicans, including Trump, the Kentucky lobbying paid off. Not only did McConnell announce last week that he would bring up the bill, but it passed with 87 yes votes on Tuesday night — including the majority leader’s.

It now heads to the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan has said it will get a vote.

McConnell was “the person who saved this bill,” Harris said. “Ultimately the voices that are going to matter to him most are the ones back at home. That was our calculation”

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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