The death penalty is a low-priority election issue

Mike Royko

November 20, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

SOUTHERNERS ARE sensitive about the unfavorable way they are sometimes portrayed. They're offended by the many stereotypes: ignorant rednecks, backwoods bigots, roadhouse rowdies and slow-witted chaw-tobacco hillbillies.

And they have a legitimate gripe. In movies, why is every potbellied, ham-fisted sheriff a Southerner? Don't such creatures exist in Vermont? Aren't there any beady-eyed, stranger-hating farmers in northern Wisconsin? Don't small-town racists exist in Indiana or Illinois?

Having said that, I can't help but think the South brings some of the disrepute on itself.

A Southern newspaper recently surveyed Democratic state party leaders about Mario Cuomo's presidential prospects. If he runs, how will he be viewed by Southern voters?

Not too favorably, they said. And the biggest rap against him would be that he is against the death penalty.

Consider that. We're in a global financial war. Our economy has a bad case of the shakes and might soon lapse into delirium tremens. We can't afford to teach the young or take care of the old. Some cities are jungles and some farmers are barely hanging on to the land. Highways are crumbling and bridges are creaking. And half the country is on a hate and envy kick.

With all that, are there really people who will vote on the basis of which candidate favors strapping some slack-jawed dolt into a chair and hitting him with a few thousand volts? Will it make their lives richer and fuller? Will it help take this nation into the 21st century? And what if there's a power failure and the first jolt doesn't get him? Will we be a lesser society?

I should mention that I favor the death penalty. Or, more accurately, I'm not against it. My position is that I really don't care much one way or the other.

It doesn't deter crime. Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, Texas has led the nation in executions with 40. But Texans are still killing each other in record numbers. And the murder rate is still high in Florida (27 executions), Louisiana (20), Georgia (14) and most other Southern states.

Maybe executions make the victims' families feel better. And if that's the case, I wouldn't lose any sleep over frying John Gacy, Richard Speck or the cannibal in Wisconsin.

Either way, it doesn't seem like a suitable litmus test for someone running for what we like to think of as the most important office in the world.

True, many people feel strongly about the death penalty. Any time I've written about it -- and even when I haven't -- I get ferocious letters on the subject.

I also get ferocious letters on the subject of cats. And nothing can bring out the ferocity of readers like a slur against their favorite football team. Unless it is a slur against their favorite country and western singer or rock star.

But would somebody vote on the basis of a candidate's views on cats, football or musical tastes? I hope not. But if I were running for office, I'd avoid the subjects.

I'm sure there are people all over the North and the rest of the country who favor the death penalty. Most polls show that the majority of Americans everywhere say, "Turn on the juice."

But I doubt that the rest of the country is going to make that a high-priority issue if Cuomo runs. I don't think that someone who has just been booted out of a job at a computer company will say: "The job market has dried up; I've missed one payment on the house, two on the car; my wife cries herself to sleep, and the kids wonder why daddy has stopped shaving every day. I'd get drunk, but I can't afford the hooch. Gee, I'm really concerned about Cuomo's reluctance to execute killers."

Anybody who thinks that way should be in the unemployment lines.

Not that I think the South should vote for Cuomo or that it would even if he favored snuffing out the lives of villains and offered to strap them into the chair himself.

Cuomo or any other Democrat will be considered too liberal. And the majority of Southerners distrust liberal programs. Except when the government is liberal about keeping open unnecessary and costly military bases at our expense, or doling out our taxes for liberal subsidies to farmers. There are many forms of welfare under assumed names, and some are as popular as grits and gravy.

And the South might be justified in rejecting Cuomo because he is a New Yorker, and everybody knows what a wild and crazy place New York is. You can't safely walk the streets there at night the way you can in, say, Birmingham, New Orleans or Houston.

But the death penalty? Anybody who feels that strongly about it might consider a write-in vote for the guy who pulls the switch.

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