Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A running theme of the Democratic primary has been Pete Buttigieg’s surprising presence near the top of early-state polls, and his nonetheless dismal prospects as the party’s nominee because of his failure to draw any meaningful support from black voters. I’ve written at length about how this trend is less a referendum on the tastes of black Democrats than of white ones — the former having treated the 37-year-old small-town mayor like a 37-year-old small-town mayor, while an outsize share of the latter have bafflingly and single-handedly catapulted him into the upper tier of presidential candidates despite his inexperience, cynical opportunism, and lack of a convincing electability argument.
But while Buttigieg has been characterized as an especially noteworthy magnet for black ire, mostly based on his polling numbers, the reality is that he’s polled roughly as well with black voters as several of his fellow would-be nominees who were presumed to be among their inevitable top choices, including black New Jersey senator Cory Booker before he dropped out last month. Less examined is that, for all his struggles, Buttigieg is still outperforming an opponent who’s rapidly become a darling of the liberal pundit class and a candidate to whom flailing moderates are starting to pin their hopes for staving off leftist insurrection in the primary: Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who’s stayed in the race despite persistently polling lower than several candidates who’ve long since moved on.
Klobuchar’s patience with herself seems to be paying off: A recent Civiqs–Iowa State University poll found her polling in the double digits in Iowa at 11 percent, a seven-point leap from December and good for fifth place behind national front-runner Joe Biden. A stronger-than-expected performance in the caucuses might convince her that staying on past New Hampshire is a worthwhile pursuit. But her struggles with black voters nationally — with whom she was polling at less than 0.5 percent in early January, according to a Washington Post–Ipsos poll — show no signs of abating, and should only get worse in light of recent developments.
On Thursday, The Hill reported that a coalition of black activist organizations in Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota, including the Minneapolis NAACP and Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, are calling on the senator to suspend her campaign due to her handling of Myon Burrell’s murder case when she was the Hennepin County district attorney. Democratic candidates’ records as prosecutors have emerged as surprise weaknesses in the 2020 election, as progressive skepticism and even hostility toward Kamala Harris have illustrated. But even by the standards of this newfound antipathy toward architects of mass incarceration, Klobuchar’s behavior during the Burrell case is worthy of special attention.
The Associated Press reported the story on Monday after a yearlong investigation. It details Klobuchar’s prosecution of a November 2002 shooting that claimed the life of 11-year-old bystander Tyesha Edwards, wherein the defendant’s alleged accomplices both confessed to the crime and insisted that Burrell, who is now serving a life sentence in prison for the shooting, wasn’t even present when it took place. Two men — Ike Tyson and Hans Williams — were swiftly arrested after Edwards was killed; both were seen near the scene, one of their girlfriends called the police on them, and both later confessed. Burrell’s name entered the investigation only later — after it was mentioned to police by a jailhouse informant whom a Minneapolis homicide detective had offered “major dollars” in exchange for information, even if it was uncorroborated hearsay. (The detective ended up paying the informant $600 for Burrell’s name.) Tyson’s lawyer subsequently told his client that he’d “never see the outside of a prison” if he didn’t implicate Burrell too, according to the AP. Tyson obliged, but only after being promised that the part of his plea deal where he named the teenager wouldn’t actually be used as evidence.
That agreement turned out to be worthless. Klobuchar’s office threw the book at Burrell. It bolstered its case against him using the testimony of Timmy Oliver, Tyson and Williams’s intended victim, who, after eight hours of police interrogation, finally signed a paper saying that he’d seen Burrell standing 120 feet away, across the street, and behind a wall shortly before the shooting. Prosecutors then collected more putative corroboration from other jailhouse informants — seven in total, one of whom told the AP outright that police had “brought him through what to say” in exchange for a 13-year reduction of his prison sentence; another informant has since recanted. When facing his own interrogation, Burrell asked for his mother 13 times rather than the lawyer to whom he was entitled.
Now Burrell is in prison for life. His mother died in a car collision shortly after visiting him one day. And rather than letting his case hover in the background as a particularly monstrous chapter in her already punitive tenure as Hennepin County’s head prosecutor, Klobuchar has transformed it into a fixture of her campaign lore, invoking it during her runs for Senate and now the White House as exemplary of her commitment to keeping black communities safe. Nor does she seem particularly swayed by these recent developments and further affirmation of Burrell’s likely innocence. Her campaign’s tepid response to the AP’s reporting was simply that if there was new evidence in Burrell’s case, it should be reviewed.
Among the primary candidates whose deficit of black support has been dissected ad nauseam — including Buttigieg’s — Klobuchar’s record as a prosecutor and conduct in the Burrell case suggest that she’s been relatively lucky to fly under the radar. Less clear is whether it will last: In light of the New York Times editorial board’s recent endorsement of her campaign, the AP’s reporting, and home state black activists’ calls for her to stop campaigning, suggest that both greater scrutiny and harsher assessments are coming her way, and that her low polling among black voters is warranted for reasons many of them didn’t even predict. It’s bad enough that prosecutors’ single-minded pursuit of victory produces outcomes like Burrell’s with regularity. To advertise his case as a special victory for black safety in Minneapolis, as Klobuchar has, plumbs new depths. Until recently, the senator’s lack of black support has seemed more attributable to antipathy toward her uninspiring rhetoric and an abundance of more appealing alternatives. Now it’s equally apparent that when granted stewardship over a black teenager’s future, she chose to send him to prison for life rather than entertain serious doubts about his guilt.