Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck’s landmark hate-crime prosecution of a man accused of murdering a transgender Greeley teen could prove “very much a mixed bag” for the Republican, who emerged Tuesday as a candidate in the 2010 U.S. Senate election.
That’s according to a political analyst who predicts the “hot button issue” of hate crimes could become contentious as Republicans vie for the nomination to challenge appointed Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
“There’s such a significant constituency of Republican activists who do regard these issues as [the] holy grail,” said Eric Sondermann, an analyst with public affairs and media consultants SE2. “It’s hard to take an attitude of ‘let’s agree to disagree.’ “
Buck filed first-degree murder and hate-crime charges against Allen Andrade, the Thornton man convicted by a Greeley jury in the brutal beating death last summer of Angie Zapata, an 18-year-old transgender woman. It was the first time Colorado’s 2005 bias-motivated, or hate-crime, law has been prosecuted in the murder of a transgender victim and one of the first prosecutions in the nation of hate-crime laws against an accused killer of a transgender woman.
“Initially, I was skeptical about the use of the bias-motivated crimes statute,” Buck wrote in an opinion article in Sunday’s Denver Post. “Through my exposure to the Zapata case, I was persuaded that these crimes are unique. Bias-motivated crimes are particularly heinous because they target an entire community of people, not just the actual victim.”
That’s by no means a popular position among national Republicans, as evidenced by the vigorous debate Wednesday over a bill to add sexual orientation and transgender status to federal hate-crime law. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, or the Matthew Shepard Act, passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a 249-175 vote and heads to the Senate.
“It’s very much a mixed bag for Ken Buck,” Sondermann said. “The good news for Buck is the trial put him front-and-center, and he won. And there’s nothing like prevailing in a high-profile murder case.
“The bad news is, hate crimes, as a category of law, is very questionable and is particularly controversial among a lot of Republican audiences and particularly among some Republican intellectuals.”
One local conservative intellectual, Independence Institute researcher David Kopel, doesn’t think the Andrade prosecution will pose a problem for GOP activists when it comes to supporting Buck for the Senate nomination. “When prosecutors win a high-profile criminal conviction, it tends to be a positive thing for them politically,” said Kopel, who authored a 2003 argument against hate-crime laws, titled Hate Crime Laws: Dangerous and Divisive.
“Regardless of what a person thinks of the underlying hate-crime statute, you had a vicious murder here, which [Buck] proved to the jury was not a heated thing,” Kopel said. “Those who believe in law and order and civil liberties would have to say Ken Buck did a very good job.”
Kopel questioned whether hate-crimes statutes are as divisive as some think. Hate-crime laws are “not an issue on which I see a lot of party unity,” he said.
It’s that disunity that could work against Buck, according to Sondermann. “Being the first successful prosecutor of that case puts [Buck] in the middle of that dialogue, and I’m not sure that’s where he wants to be.
“What’s problematic for the party as a whole,” Sondermann said, “is if you have Ken Buck as the successful hate-crime prosecutor, and you have Ryan Frazier with his own independent viewpoint, it puts this whole issue back in play in the middle of the Republican Party.”
Frazier, an Aurora city councilman with his toe in the water for a Senate run, has broken with the party line over gay-rights questions, first as a vocal proponent of a 2006 statewide domestic-partnership ballot initiative and then when he came out early in favor of adding health benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.
It’s the prospect of a third, more socially conservative candidate, that could exploit Buck and Frazier’s unorthodox positions in a bid for the ideological core of Republican voters and “risks making this again prominent,” Sondermann said.
That candidate could be conservative radio talk show host Dan Caplis, who has been publicly weighing a bid for Bennet’s seat. “Caplis’s natural constituency is going to be the social conservative,” Sondermann observed. “There are forces that would pull this thing down to the lowest common denominator.”
“The Republican Party is a large party with a lot of different people in it,” Kopel said, noting that the “gay-rights issue is not as important as others” when it comes to deciding whether a politician is a solid Republican.
“Caplis has also made the point that he’s for preserving the traditional definition of marriage, he’s not anti-gay,” Kopel said. “That’s an important part of how that message needs to be presented — it’s not based on hostility.”
Sondermann dismissed the notion that voters might forget about Buck’s hate-crime views by next spring when the race heats up.
“They’re not going to be front-of-mind a year from now, but with the power of television advertising, direct mail, viral campaigns, that doesn’t mean it can’t immediately be put back front-of-mind. We will hear about this assuming Buck proceeds with his candidacy.”
Buck didn’t respond to a request for comment. He has said he plans a tour of the state this summer to launch his campaign.
As for the dozen Weld County residents who seemingly had no trouble buying Buck’s argument that Andrade committed a hate crime when he killed Zapata?
“Republican voters don’t have judges in black robes to tell them how to interpret the law,” Sondermann said. “Voters get to interpret whatever the heck they want.”