May 28 was a classic Memorial Day-weekend Saturday in the metro area. It was a day to spend time with the family in the park or take in a Rockies game at Coors Field.
It certainly wasn't a day to be inside a stuffy second-floor office in Aurora, waiting for Lieutenant Governor Joe Rogers to arrive. But that's what members of Friends and Families of the Imprisoned were doing, having given up their Saturday to hear him speak. They learned, however, that Rogers had stood them up for the second time in two months.
Friends and Families is a local group that lobbies against mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Most of the organization's 200-plus members are middle-aged and elderly black women who have one or more sons in federal prison serving ten to forty years for selling illegal drugs, typically cocaine.
Joe Rogers holds the highest state office of any elected black Republican in the country. He's also one of five Republicans currently running for Congress in Colorado's new seventh district, which encompasses the aged suburbs that form a rough semicircle around Denver's northern half. One of these suburbs is Commerce City, where Rogers grew up.
Commerce City is also where many of the Friends and Families members raised the sons who are now in prison. A number of these mothers live there still, and they are all registered to vote.
When campaigning before black voters, Rogers sprinkles his speeches with the words "our people." And when his people in Friends and Families invited Rogers to make an appearance at their monthly meeting on April 27, he accepted, two weeks in advance. The morning of the meeting, however, he backed out. News of his cancellation arrived by a phone call from an apologetic aide, who explained the lieutenant governor had unexpected family issues that required his immediate attention. Rogers rescheduled for the group's next regular meeting, on May 28. The mothers were disappointed, but they understood; after all, they have families, too.
It was not to be. Again, Rogers's aide phoned the group's Aurora office that morning, pleading family matters.
This time, the mothers were angry.
"I think he had an emergency family cookout he had to go to," said one.
"We got family issues, too," cried another. "Our sons are in prison, and they're going to be old men by the time they get out! I knew we couldn't trust no black Republican."
Had he shown up, Rogers would likely have heard variations on the same sad theme. Yes, our boys did wrong, the mothers would have told him, but did they really do ten years' worth of wrong, 25 years' worth, 30 years, 40?
Since mandatory drug minimums were passed in the early 1990s, Colorado's black prison population has spiked up 60 percent. One in nineteen black men in Colorado is now in prison -- ten times the rate for whites. Among black men in their mid-to-late twenties, the number is closer to one in nine.
Last April, Rogers was quoted as saying, "I'm obviously deeply bothered by those statistics."
Obviously, the mothers would have told him, "So are we." They would have asked candidate Rogers what, exactly, he would do about mandatory minimums were they to help him get elected to Congress. They would have asked if he planned to pose the hard questions, such as why only 5 percent of the black men in federal prison on drug charges were convicted of high-level drug dealing -- that is, why are corner crack dealers serving decades of time? They would have asked Rogers if he intended to press his peers in Congress to carefully consider just what and whose purpose is being served by locking up so many of his people.
That's what the mothers would have asked on the sunny Saturday of their Memorial Day weekend.
Candidate Rogers rescheduled for the night of June 6.
Then, once more, he canceled.
Rather, he half canceled. His aide called to say that Rogers would be more comfortable getting together for lunch with Friends and Families co-founder and president Emma Phillips, rather than standing before the entire group.
So Phillips, a 66-year-old grandmother whose only son began serving a 25-year sentence for possession of crack cocaine in 1996, met Rogers at Bennett's, a barbecue joint on Peoria Avenue in Aurora.
Rogers was nearing the end of a rough week. Two days earlier, state auditors had released a report that accused him of misusing state funds. The report said he should pay back $5,800 in "inappropriate expenses," including trips for his wife. The auditors detailed a total of $12,000 in "completely unsubstantiated" expenses and also called into question $52,100 paid to consultants with no contracts or time logs. Rogers didn't attend the public briefing on the report. He sent his chief of staff instead, and later told reporters he'd been too busy reading to schoolchildren to make it.
"All this time, I've been thinking he's been canceling because he doesn't want to be associated with our group," Phillips said shortly before her lunch with Rogers. "Now with all this coming out, I'm not so sure that we want to be associated with him."
Rogers met Phillips at the door of the restaurant with a gracious smile and a ready apology. "I hope you don't think it was something about you that kept me from coming before," he said. "It just seemed like every time I was on track to meet with you all, something threw me off."
He canceled on May 28, Rogers explained, because he realized at the last minute that he had to attend his uncle's fiftieth wedding anniversary. As he scanned the menu, Rogers complained of sleep deprivation. "I'm getting just about three hours, most nights," he said. "I'm running like a dog on this campaign."
Rogers predicted, "I should win the general election handily," if he makes it past the Republican primary. "That's the real election for me," he said. "I do so well with Demo-crats that I'll take the general." The newly created seventh district is divided almost evenly among registered Republicans, Democrats and Independents. "This primary would be a lot easier for me if I'd just gone along to get along with [Governor] Bill [Owens]," Rogers said. "But that's not the kind of man I am. Because I'm not, there are a lot of powerful Republicans who are mad at me."
After they placed their orders, Phillips fired her first question, point blank: "Do you believe we're winning the war on drugs?"
Rogers considered his response for a few seconds, then said "That depends on how you talk about winning. The reality of our drug policy is that LSD, hash, cocaine, has all been illegal for decades, but you can still find them on any street corner in America. So the answer is that it's not clear yet that we're winning, but we need to keep fighting."
Phillips: "What's your position on mandatory minimums?"
Rogers: "My stance is somewhere between the middle of the road and the other side."
Phillips looked at Rogers like he had suddenly started speaking Wookie, then said, "What side are you on?"
Rogers replied, "Well, Emma, what I mean to say is, I am deeply bothered by the disparity between the sentences for powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. The mandatory sentences are much less for cocaine, and that's not fair to our people, because as you know, Emma, powdered cocaine is a drug of the suburbanites, and crack is more a drug of folks in the city."
Phillips: "So you're against mandatory minimums?"
Rogers: "Well, no, I don't want so much discretion in the hands of judges that they have the option of going easy on drugs and give little nothing sentences. But I believe we need to eliminate that disparity between sentences for powder and crack, because it's really the same drug."
Phillips: "Would you ease up a little on the mandatory sentences for crack, then?"
Rogers: "We could do that, Emma. We could do that. Or we could bring up the sentences for powder. Or we could bring them together somewhere around the middle of the road."
The candidate took a bite of Texas toast and then dug into his baked beans. Phillips picked at her barbecued chicken for a few minutes, then asked their waitress for a take-home box.
She went on.
"You know, my son is in prison for 25 years. It's not going to take him 25 years to learn his lesson. They're going after our kids younger and younger, and they're putting them in prison longer and longer, and I just really feel we need to get rid of these mandatory minimums. We've had them for going on ten years or more, and I don't think they're working."
Rogers: "I don't know that I agree with that, Emma. But I do agree with you that it's a sad demographic in prison. It represents a substantial portion of our people."
"So what's the answer?" Phillips asked.
"I don't know that I have the one true answer yet, but I believe it may be connected to stricter discipline of our children. I think that, honestly, the answer to this drug problem and a lot of other problems -- or at least one answer -- would be to renew a parent's right to spank their children."
Rogers: "Yes. We need a renewal of shame in America. We need more social stigmas. We need to heap shame on all these young women having all these babies outside of a marriage, and we need to hold the young men fathering these babies accountable. And we absolutely need to change the laws on parents exercising physical discipline on their children. We can't have these kids crying 'child abuse' so much that parents are afraid to spank their kids."
Phillips: "I was a good parent to my son."
Rogers: "Well, did you make him go outside and pick out his own switch? When I was a boy, I had to go get a switch from outside. Parents need to use the belt, too. And we need to let them. I had this case, about four years back, where this father of a child going to the Hinckley School, his child got out of line, and the school called the father, and the father went down there and yanked that kid out of class and took him into the nearest bathroom. That father did right. He said to that child, 'How dare you bring shame on our house?' And he belt-whipped that boy right there. And you know who got in trouble? The father, that's who. I tell you, Emma, we need more discipline in this country. We surely do."
Phillips nodded in tentative agreement as Rogers picked up the check.
Three days after her lunch with the lieutenant governor, having had a weekend to mull over the content of their discussion, Phillips said she agreed with Rogers on the issue of disciplining children. "I came from a very strict mother. Sometimes I thought she was trying to beat the hide off me. It's just common sense: If your kid's out of line, you spank that butt. But I really didn't understand all of what he was saying, because I wasn't there to talk about spanking."
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Phillips said that Rogers "seems like a nice man" and that she appreciated him buying her lunch. She also appreciated him not telling her only what she wanted to hear. "I think he was honest, because what he had to say to me, I definitely didn't want to hear," she said. "I just can't understand how he can be so pro-family but still be in favor of the mandatory minimums that tear families apart. In my mind, you can't be in favor of both.
"And all that 'my people' and 'our people' stuff. I might sound a little crazy, but I believe the war on drugs is a war on all the citizens of the U.S. It's impacting the black community more heavily right now, yes, but it's not a black thing; it's a U.S. citizen thing.
"I'm glad to have finally met the man, but I feel like he was still dodging the whole group, and it was the whole group he insulted, not just me. He can forget their vote."