by Daniel A. Rosen |
I don’t know if I’m the only one of Joe Biden’s former interns serving time in prison, but I’m sure it’s not a long list. During my junior year of college at UCLA, I took off school for a quarter to intern in Joe Biden’s Senate office in Washington, D.C.
As a middle-class kid from the southern California suburbs, I had no ties to Delaware, but knew that Biden played an important role in the Senate. On foreign affairs and justice issues, he had a national profile, and I looked up to him. Biden had already run for President once by then, in 1988, the year I became eligible to vote.
So I went to DC and endured the questions from other interns about why I wasn’t working for the California delegation. For a while, I was the only intern in Biden’s office, since my school had a different calendar from most of those back east. So the Senator’s staffers pulled me in numerous directions, free labor always being in high demand.
That spring, I got a chance to work for the press office, both the judiciary and foreign relations policy shops, the legislative affairs team, and sometimes just answered the phone or opened the mail. It was a great experience and far more substantive than I expected.
Now and then, I had a chance to interact with the Senator himself. He struck me as personable, smart as hell, a little cocksure, a man who didn’t suffer fools or sloppy work too gladly. But also as someone authentic, who made time for people, even a kid like me who’d never cast a vote for him and would be gone in a few weeks. The obligatory photo I took with the Senator shows his trademark toothy grin, and a clueless kid who could never imagine he’d be writing from a prison cell about the elevation to the Presidency of the smiling pol next to him.
Those heady days in DC during the spring of 1992 feel like a lifetime ago. I’m a 50-year-old prison inmate now, not a starry-eyed college kid with grand plans to change the world. But I’m gratified to be cheering for Joe Biden’s victory speech on a Saturday in November, after a bruising campaign and 4 days of tense vote-counting.
The good news: Trump and his acolytes couldn’t suppress enough votes to steal this election, though they tried. True to form and his usual playbook, Trump turned around and accused the other side of engaging in exactly that malfeasance which he himself was employing. It’s a third-grade-level trick, but one which has worked for him. This time it didn’t, and that’s something I’ve seen here in prison – taking advantage of people and getting your selfish way can work for a while – until it doesn’t, and then you’re in trouble. Trump finally hit the ceiling – or a rebuilt wall in the Rust Belt – on his sulfurous, divisive P.T. Barnum act of hollow promises and revanchist grievances.
Biden’s election is not just a referendum on Donald Trump’s “Captain Chaos” routine, though it is that too. It’s the elevation of dignified, principled leadership and cooperative governance, even if the man championing those ideas can be at times an imperfect messenger. We could do a lot worse, as we have for the past four years.
Many of my fellow inmates supported Donald Trump, which was surprising to me. Some know he signed the First Step Act, and that he pardoned Alice Johnson, and that’s enough for them. For others who are inherently mistrustful of authority, Trump’s permanently raised middle finger to Washington aligns with their worldview.
But as someone who spent the better part of two decades in public service in Washington, I know that leadership matters – that a President’s words matter – and that what our elected officials say and do has a real impact on peoples’ lives. It’s not a win/lose game or reality television, and it’s not a profit proposition or a business deal. Governing as if it is those things has hurt this country.
Joe Biden knows he has a lot of work to do now, beyond just unifying the country. In his victory speech, he laid out his priorities: getting a handle on the pandemic, shoring up the economy, tackling the climate crisis, and at long last starting to address systemic racism.
Dismantling institutionalized racism has many layers, but policing, justice reform and decarceration are areas where Biden and Harris can make real progress in the near term. Biden has some amends to make in this area as one primary author of the failed anti-crime strategies of the last century. But that’s why I believe he’s well-placed to effect change – having seen the failure of old ideas, Biden is open-minded enough to learn from that track record. And Kamala Harris, as a prosecutor and Oakland native, has the right experience to help him.
Biden and Harris have put forward a plan full of tangible justice reforms. So have the Movement for Black Lives – appropriately named the BREATHE Act – and many others (including this author). The types of changes being proposed can disincentivize over-policing, rein in excessive sentencing, reduce jail and prison populations, save taxpayers money while improving public safety, and strengthen families and communities of color.
The punitive approach of the last 30 years hasn’t made American communities safer. It’s criminalized addiction, broken apart families, and warehoused two generations of mostly black men into a permanent underclass of inmates. Those who want safer communities can now come together to improve the system and root out systematic biases, under leadership that’s supportive of change. It’s too long overdue.
When I rejoin the free world in a year, I hope to work with Joe Biden again on those issues, at the end of my career. I’ve seen the effect of our failed policies up close, and the damage it does to inmates and families. I’ve come to understand, as that naive young intern couldn’t possibly realize, that empathy matters – that people matter – and it’s time we had a President who acted like it.