Image from Stephen Zappala’s (left) campaign ad
YouTube screenshot

You have to give them credit. After some initial stumbling last summer, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have upped their pandering game for black votes to epic levels.

While secret stashes of hot sauce in the purse may seem over-the-top, black voters have come to expect white Democrats to do a certain amount of catering to them around election time. However, the expectation is that there’s some actual policy on the table to help black people amid all the dabbing, black-celebrity endorsements and barbershop visits.


Apparently that memo didn’t make it to one Democrat running in the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday. Stephen Zappala, a candidate for attorney general in Pennsylvania, has presented a new low in pandering, hypocrisy and outright lying for black votes. He’s discovered the Black Lives Matter “shortcut” for electoral success, and whether it works this year or not, it’s clear he won’t be the last one to try it.

Attorney general is a powerful position in Pennsylvania and is often a stepping-stone to the governor’s mansion or U.S. Senate. On a more practical level, the attorney general also sets policy for one of the most complicated and abusive criminal-justice systems in America for black people. Over 50 percent of the prison population in Pennsylvania is African American, even though black people are only 12 percent of the state population. Worse, according to a 2013 study (pdf), the Keystone State imprisons almost 10 percent of working-age black men, an incarceration rate that ranked fourth in the nation in 2010. Despite these horrible statistics, over 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in Pennsylvania is African American, so you have to win black votes if you want to be attorney general at a time when scrutiny of criminal justice is at an all-time high.

Enter Zappala.

Stephen Zappala has been district attorney for Allegheny County, which includes the city of Pittsburgh, since 1998. He entered the attorney general’s race with the mother of all political pandering ads for African-American voters.

The commercial, entitled “Eighteen,” starts with video from Sandra Bland’s arrest, then flows into video of Walter Scott being shot by a cop, followed by a short clip from the Ray Rice domestic violence incident—a cavalcade of black death and suffering—as this voice-over starts: “He didn’t need a traffic stop in Texas, a shooting in South Carolina or an elevator in Atlantic City.” It continues, going into how Zappala pioneered domestic violence prosecutions in Pittsburgh, pushed for camera recordings of all traffic stops and has been the only district attorney in the state to convict an on-duty police officer of criminal homicide.


On the surface, it’s a jarring ad that delivers a powerful message: essentially that Zappala was concerned about criminal justice for black people before it was trendy; that Zappala was “Black Lives Matter” before black lives mattered. The problem is that the commercial is an absolute lie. Zappala has one of the most appalling records of any district attorney in America on issues of race and justice. But he, and other politicians like him, think that flashing a few pictures of black death and suffering, along with an empathetic voice-over, is enough to fool black voters come election time.

When Zappala took over as district attorney in 1998, the Pittsburgh Police Department was already under review from the Department of Justice for racial discrimination and harassment. He continued this trend in his first big case, cutting a deal so that a police officer, John Charmo, accused of shooting an unarmed black man 12 times, got a two-month sentence with time served. Zappala convicted Charmo in October of 2001, and the officer was out of jail by Christmas. But it gets worse from there:

2011: Jordan Miles, a musical prodigy who had performed at the White House, was on his way to visit his grandmother when Pittsburgh officers mistook him for a drug dealer, jumped him and savagely beat him. Although Miles received a skull fracture and had his locks pulled out of his scalp, Zappala brought no charges against the officers.


2012: Leon Ford Jr., an amateur boxer and mechanic, was shot five times in his car by Pittsburgh police who suspected him of being a drug dealer. Despite video evidence that contradicted the police’s story and the fact that Ford was left paralyzed from the waist down, Zappala brought no charges against the officers. He did, however, charge Ford with five assault charges against the police.

2015: Kevin Lockett was viciously attacked by five drunk white men at a train station in Pittsburgh, who not only hurled racial slurs at him but also threw him onto the train tracks and stole his shopping cart. Despite Lockett’s extensive injuries and video evidence of the assault, Zappala chose to prosecute only one of the attackers and let him off with a three-year sentence. 

In every case, the victims were African American and the attackers were cops, white or both, and Zappala never sought real justice. And these are just the cases that have gone public. Who knows what kinds of backroom deals have been cut at the expense of African Americans in Pittsburgh under his watch? But the problem with this campaign tactic isn’t just that Zappala is trying to gain votes from black lives—or deaths—or that he’s ignored the requests of the Bland family and African-American pastors in the state to remove the commercial. The problem is that his campaign may be symptomatic of a new cynical strategy to attract black votes through black tragedy.


There was a time when most white politicians, Democrat or Republican, felt that all they had to do to win black votes was show up at a few churches, take some pictures with black kids, and maybe give a keynote speech at a local NAACP-chapter dinner or two. And in a lot of cases, it worked. However, because of the activism of the last two years, black voters are demanding more from politicians on criminal justice, especially from Democrats. And the result, in some cases, is that lip service to “criminal-justice reform” has become the new church picnic, the new bingo game at the senior citizens home—just another symbolic gesture to win votes, with no substance behind it.

Zappala’s campaign for Pennsylvania attorney general may be the most egregious example, but district attorneys from Dallas to San Francisco and everywhere in between are drawing from the same playbook; jumping on the symbolic Black Lives Matter, criminal-justice-reform bandwagon; and hoping that black voters won’t notice that there’s no real policy reform to back up the slogans and commercials.

Zappala probably won’t win the Democratic nomination for attorney general—he’s behind in the polls to Josh Shapiro, a candidate endorsed by none other than President Barack Obama himself—but his campaign is still instructive. As with any other idea that originates in the black community—civil rights, criminal-justice reform, etc.—we have to remain vigilant to ensure that these ideas don’t become symbolic shortcuts for ambitious Democrats. Like books and albums, black lives—and the policies that protect them—still matter. And campaign commercials aren’t an acceptable shortcut.


Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.