Eric Holder didn’t announce his candidacy for president in 2020 this morning, and he didn’t need to. His words at the National Action Network Convention in New York City pretty much suggest that he likely will.
The former U.S. attorney general had the audience captivated on Wednesday before he stepped to the podium to say even a single word. The Rev. Al Sharpton joked before Holder spoke that he “heard Eric Holder was running for president.” The audience cheered in approval, with one woman shouting out loud, “Run, Eric. Run!”
He was sitting on the stage with heavyweights like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but everyone, it seems, wanted to hear Holder, the man who is leading a national effort to take on gerrymandering.
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James spoke before Holder and didn’t disappoint. She lad the crowd by recognizing black women, the Democratic Party’s most important constituency. “Where my sistas at?” she said to a thunderous response: “We’re right here.”
She ended by giving a shoutout to Wakanda.
Holder took the podium and said everything we expected him to say: Criminal reform is needed and gerrymandering is undermining American democracy. He said nothing about running for president, but his keynote address certainly sounded like a stump speech, and a perfectly tailored one for NAN’s mostly black (and female) audience—a critical constituency if he does throw his hat into the 2020 race.
Taking on the current administration’s harsh stance on policing, Holder blasted President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for their abusive policing views.
“The present administration wants to take us back to the failed leadership of the past,” he said. “They’re not being tough on crime. They’re not being smart on crime. They’re being dumb on crime. [The] formerly incarcerated continue to face significant obstacles, and they now face a hostile administration intent on making law enforcement an instrument of the fear they use to divide and try to govern us.”
Indeed, Trump has used the Oval Office as a bully pulpit, most notoriously telling an audience full of police officers that it’s OK to assault suspects in custody.
Holder shifted to the voting rights of formerly incarcerated men and women, arguing that people who are engaged in the electoral process are unlikely to reoffend. He said it’s time to stop punishing people long after they have served their time and are no longer under legal supervision.
“These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they’re also counterproductive,” Holder said. “By perpetuating the sigma and the isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood that they will commit future crimes.”
In 12 states, felons lose their right to vote permanently or require the governor’s pardon. According to ProCon.org, there are only two states where a citizen who is currently serving time for a felony is not barred from voting. More than 6 million people cannot vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project.
If Holder does run for president, voting rights will likely be a signature campaign talking point. He’ll also have a hefty government résumé to bring to the national conversation. When former President Barack Obama caught flak for not coming through for black America, Holder’s Office of the Attorney General was considered the exception (even though it can be argued that he wasn’t). His showing in Ferguson, Mo., after civil unrest erupted in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by then-cop Darren Wilson stands out as the most symbolic moment of his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
The NAN conference is the ideal place to start. It’s a prominent audience at a national convention with significant media attention. It is also a safe venue where he can test his talking points and feel out the pulse of black America. Holder was certainly a hit here. If he does run for president, he will get black votes. How many exactly will depend on whether he is able to galvanize voters of all races in ways that Hillary Clinton could not. And just as important, he’ll need to earn millions of votes from white folks who may see him as anti-cop—and who voted for Trump.
He closed out his keynote by saying that fighting for a more just America won’t come easy and his calls for criminal-justice reform won’t come overnight.
“I am honored to talk to you as colleagues in the work of forging a more just society that reflects our conviction that all are created equal,” he said. “In spite of difficulty and opposition and resistance we will undoubtedly face, as I look around this room here today, I cannot help but feel confident in where today’s experts and leaders will take us in the months and the years to come.
“We can do this,” he added.
Whether Holder will try to help in that effort by running for president remains to be seen.