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Port: Stop falling for the gotchas and grandstanding

"Focus less on manufactured controversy, and more on real progress on real policies."

Senator Jessica Unruh Congressman Kelly Armstrong
U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, right, hosts a roundtable of North Dakota's energy community at Bismarck State College in April 2019 featuring state commissioners, industry leaders, and State Sen. Jessica Bell (D-33), left.
Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press

MINOT, N.D. โ€” We all know that politics, especially the sort that emanates from Washington, D.C., consists of a lot of theater that has little to do with coherent policy agendas and a great deal to do with casting aspersions at one's political enemies.

We know this. We write move scripts and novels and stand-up routines about this sort of thing. So why do we fall for it?

I was thinking about that while reading a recent piece by my fellow columnist Joan Brickner who demands to know why Congressman Kelly Armstrong didn't sign a letter condemning bigotry that was circulated to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability by Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking Democrat on that committee.

I don't know why Rep. Armstrong didn't sign that letter. Truthfully, I don't really care. Every day the climate of our national political discourse is marred by a cloud of this sort of gotcha grandstanding. This side demands that the other side condemn some odious thing, and the other side refuses and casts aspersions back.

And to a point, I get it. I wish my friends on the left had done more to speak out against left-wing protest violence. I wish my friends on the right weren't so dismissive of the Jan. 6 riot, and disgraced former President Donald Trump's role in it. But beyond a point, this is all just thespianism.

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I could get a statement from Rep. Armstrong about the Raskin letter. His office is very responsive. All it would take is a phone call. But why bother? I could probably write something blind that would be almost identical to what they'd give me.

He'd condemn racism and white supremacy and perhaps throw a few barbs in, too, for Raskin and his Democratic colleagues for trying to manufacture a gotcha moment.

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And what would it mean? To you and me? As a practical measure of the sentiments of our elected representative?

Not a whole lot. Talk is cheap, especially when it emanates from the lips of a politician.

What matters more? Real progress on real policies, and by that measure, it's hard to see how Rep. Armstrong is some bigot.

Armstrong has co-sponsored, along with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Sen. Cory Booker, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law, or EQUAL, Act .

This bill, which Armstrong also co-sponsored in the last Congress, seeks to eliminate sentencing disparities in federal court for crack and powdered cocaine violations. As the ACLU notes, offenders sentenced for crack cocaine violations tend to be disproportionately Black. Those sentenced for powdered cocaine are a far more white demographic. And yet, it's the same drug.

This is blatant racism, and Armstrong has consistently backed bipartisan legislation, joined by Black colleagues, to address it.

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But we're supposed to believe he sympathizes with bigots because he didn't sign some letter?

There are other examples too.

Armstrong is a member of the bipartisan Second Chance Task Force , which is organized around the goal of easing the transition from prison to society .

He's also a cosponsor of the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration, or FAIR, Act, which seeks to reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws. That's a legal procedure whereby the government takes property from people โ€” cash, vehicles, homes โ€” often without a corresponding criminal conviction. It's bad for everyone, but especially for non-white communities, as groups like the ACLU and NAACP have pointed out. And this is no posturing, because Armstrong was instrumental in advancing this sort of reform at the state level when he served in the North Dakota Senate.

By the way, among Armstrong's cosponsors on the FAIR Act? Rep. Raskin, whose letter Brickner cites as evidence of Armstrong's alleged callousness on racial issues.

Again, grandstanding is what politicians do. We know this. And we also know who their audience is. It's us.

We're the rubes they're trying to put one over on.

Maybe we ought to quit falling for it. We could start by caring more about real progress on real policy than the ephemera of manufactured controversy.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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