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Is Massachusetts Turning Red?

Massachusetts has a proud record of investing in its communities and people.  It created the first pubic park, the first public schools and the first public transportation system.  It was the first state to legalize marriage for all and the first to offer universal health care insurance.  By traditional voting standards as well, Massachusetts is clearly a blue-state.  In the 2016 election, only one in three voters cast their ballots for candidate Trump.

On the basis of recent policy choices and public opinion, one may now discern a possible shift to the right. Take for example, three key defining issues: gun control, capital punishment and immigration.

Gun control.  Massachusetts has the most restrictive gun laws in the nation. “As a result,” Attorney General Maura Healey recently observed, “we have lower gun death rates than the rest of the country.”  She has threatened to take legal action if the Trump administration should require states to recognize concealed carry laws from other states.

Last month however the Supreme Judicial Court held that a ban on stun guns violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms.  It remains to be seen whether Massachusetts lawmakers will rewrite the law to substitute regulations for an outright ban.

At a regular meeting of a prominent men’s club in Orleans during the week after the Florida school shooting and President Trump’s call to arm teachers, all attendees who spoke strongly endorsed Trump’s  proposal. They disagreed only on peripheral issues, such as the type of gun to be provided and the type of training to be offered.  One participant even advocated (in apparent seriousness) the arming of all residents.

Capital punishment. In Massachusetts, the last execution took place in 1947.  In 1984 the state’s Supreme Judicial Court held a death penalty law unconstitutional.

The tragic fatal shooting of Yarmouth Police Officer Sean Gannon last month has inspired calls for reenactment of the death penalty.  In a Twitter message, the state’s Republican Party reaffirmed its backing of capital punishment for killers of police officers.  Republican Governor Charlie Baker reportedly said that he also “supports the death penalty for criminals who kill police officers.”

Since the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, House member James R. Miceli, a Democrat, has introduced bills to restore capital punishment for a broad category of violent crimes. None has become law, but that could change in the wake of the Gannon murder. In an April 19 piece in the Cape Cod Times, columnist Cynthia  Steed expressed her preference for a death penalty for all murderers.

Immigration.  Red-state populations tend to support ICE’s seizure, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, including those with no history of violent crime. Blue-states, by contrast, oppose the cruel tactics of the Immigration Control Enforcement agency (ICE) and have taken steps to protect immigrants within their jurisdictions.

The “Safe Communities Act” (SCA) bill introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature in January 2017 by Senator Jamie Eldridge and  Representative Juana Matias, both Democrats, would have confronted Trump’s anti-immigrant policies head-on by denying ICE its desired cooperation with local law enforcement and offering a modicum of security for resident immigrants who lack legal status. While almost half of the members of House and Senate signed on as bill co-sponsors, enthusiasm for immigrant rights waned during the following months.  Earlier this year, the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security failed to give the bill a favorable report.

Right wing organizations such as the Mass Fiscal Alliance lobbied heavily against the SCA on the ground that immigrants cost the state huge sums for social benefits.  Such arguments failed to take into account immigrant tax contributions, the economic importance of immigrant labor and the high cost of detention and deportation which all together outweigh the benefit costs.  The question now is whether the bill will remain off the table indefinitely or be reintroduced (with or without changes) during the next legislative term.

The Safe Communities Act, restrictions on military and police-type weapons, and the continued outlawing of capital punishment are hallmarks of a blue-state.  Should these markers disappear, Massachusetts citizens may soon find themselves living in a red-state.

 

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L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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