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Echoes Of Willie Horton In Some 2022 Election Campaigns

The voice in the now-infamous 30-second political ad, created by supporters of George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, sounds ominous as it paints Dukakis as weak on crime. “He allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” says the the $8 million television ad, produced by the National Security Political Action Committee. The television camera cuts to a shadowy photo of a Black man and announces, “One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times … Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.” The ad, which political analysts say evoked racist stereotypes and fueled racist fears about crime , concludes, “Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.”


It would help get Bush elected, and the political strategy behind it would usher in an era of “wedge politics,” aimed at dividing voters and fueling their concerns about social issues, including abortion, school prayer and crime, the Washington Post reports. For years to come, the name “Willie Horton” was shorthand for racist campaign tactics — tactics that some Democrats say continue to pervade politics. An ad supporting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) attacks his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, with language similar to that used against Dukakis. “What happens when criminals are released because bail is set dangerously low?” says the the ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Then the ad cuts to news footage showing “tragedy” as an SUV plows through a crowd at a Christmas parade, before cutting to a man who was arrested. “Mandela Barnes wants to end cash bail,” the ad says. “Completely. He wrote the bill. Barnes still wants to end cash bail. Today.”Supporters of Barnes have called the insinuations in the ad outrageous, comparing it to the Willie Horton ads of 1988. In Pennsylvania, Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has highlighted Democratic opponent John Fetterman’s recommendation of clemency and release for a pair of incarcerated brothers whose last name happens to be Horton. Fetterman said he expected his opponent to “Horton us.”

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