DOJ’s Kristen Clarke could be secret weapon to Biden-Harris reelection

“I think she needs to become a star of this campaign,” said Terrance Woodbury, CEO of HIT Strategies.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke speaks on a federal investigation of the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Aug. 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

As the Biden-Harris administration works to shore up the Black vote in 2024 amid concerns over polling on President Joe Biden’s support, some say his secret weapon to winning over skeptical Black voters and subsequent reelection could be Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice.

Since entering office in May 2021 as the first woman and first Black woman to head the Civil Rights Division, Clarke and her team have worked to combat civil rights violations, including racial bias in policing, the suppression of Black voters, and racial violence, among others.

According to data from the Department of Justice, Clarke’s division opened 11 pattern or practice investigations into police departments across the country, filed lawsuits, and intervened in several cases to protect voting rights, particularly those of Black voters, and charged more than 105 defendants in more than 95 cases of bias-motivated crimes. 

Two high-profile prosecutions included the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and the mass shooter who killed 10 Black people inside a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

The Civil Rights Division also secured $107 million in relief for Black and Hispanic communities through the DOJ’s Combating Redlining Initiative in neighborhoods where banks and mortgage lending firms discriminated against them. Cities included Los Angeles, Tulsa, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Newark, Houston, and Memphis.

“These are the cases Black Americans need to hear about in order for them to be motivated to get out and vote to return Joe Biden to the White House,” said former U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones, who is running in upstate New York to win back his House seat in next year’s general election.

Mondaire Jones speaks at the “Just Majority” Supreme Court Reform Press Conference With Gun Violence Prevention Advocates on April 30, 2023, in White Plains, New York. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Just Majority)

Jones, a former Justice Department staffer and current member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the DOJ was “founded to protect the civil rights of all Americans, particularly Black Americans,” telling theGrio he is “proud” to see the Biden administration “revitalize the Civil Rights Division under the leadership” of Clarke.

Jones continued, “Kristen Clarke has been vigilant about using our civil rights laws to secure justice for victims of police violence and discrimination in the marketplace, such as in the housing and employment contexts.”

Before Clarke’s return to the DOJ, the 48-year-old daughter of Jamaican immigrants worked as a federal prosecutor at the Civil Rights Division in the early 2000s. Clarke was a trial attorney focusing on voting rights, hate crimes, and human trafficking. She also worked as a civil rights attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and headed the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“I think she needs to become a star of this campaign,” said Terrance Woodbury, CEO of HIT Strategies, a polling and data firm focusing primarily on voters of color and young voters.

Woodbury noted that Black voters, who are responsible for Biden’s 2020 presidential win, elected the president because they wanted action on police reform and racial justice.

Protesters in London confront police outside the U.S. Embassy in June 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd. In the U.S., though Congress did not pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, many applaud the DOJ’s Kristen Clarke for opening investigations into allegations of police misconduct. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)

“That’s what they were marching for more than anything. They were marching for accountability,” he told theGrio. He added, “Kristen Clarke is achieving it.”

Despite what is seen as critical work from Clarke and her division, Woodbury lamented that “nobody knows it” because the “White House will not politicize the Justice Department.”

Since entering office, Biden has sought to return to a decades-long tradition of not politicizing the DOJ, which has been used by some presidents for political purposes – namely, former President Donald Trump, who used the agency to go after his alleged Democratic foes and try to subvert the 2020 presidential election.

Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, told theGrio that she believes the Biden-Harris White House shouldn’t be afraid to be cheerleaders for their Justice Department and what it has been able to achieve in three years.

“You have to get your message out there,” said Campbell. “People may not pay attention to that, but it’s up to this administration, and those who are pushing for it, to do their job and let people know what they’re doing.”

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris,
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris walk back to the Oval Office after an April 2022 event in the Rose Garden about gun violence. The head of one civic coalition said the administration should do more to push the message about what its Justice Department has accomplished. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Campbell, who has attended several White House meetings with officials on civil rights concerns, particularly on voting rights, said Black voters must understand the stakes in the upcoming election. The success of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division “shows that elections matter,” she added.

“Who becomes the head of the Department of Justice matters. It does matter having Kristen Clarke in those positions,” Campbell said.

In the absence of Congress passing legislation to protect voting rights, she is particularly concerned after the Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in Arkansas ruled on Nov. 20 that private organizations do not have the legal authority to file lawsuits challenging Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If that ruling stands, it would place even greater emphasis on who occupies the Department of Justice.

“If that particular federal case stands, then the Department of Justice will be the only one that would be able to sue,” said Campbell.

And while a divided Congress was also unable to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the civil rights leader applauded the investigations of law enforcement misconduct opened by Clarke. 

Those under scrutiny include the Memphis Police Department, which was responsible for the deadly beating of Tyre Nichols in January, the Minneapolis Police Department, and the New York Police Department, among several others.  

Campbell noted that polling shows that police reform and criminal justice remain “high on the list” of concerns among Black voters. While the DOJ has done its best to hold police agencies accountable, she emphasized, “There’s more that has to be done so that you can have even more impact on reforms so that people don’t have to be afraid of being stopped by the police.”

“It’s just a real reality for Black America. It’s always been there,” she added. “It didn’t start with this administration and won’t end, of course, with this administration. But you can move the ball.”

Kristen Clarke (center), assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, speaks at a news conference in 2021 to announce that the department would be suing the state of Georgia over its new election laws. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Angela Angel, a senior adviser for Black Lives Matter PAC, said the Biden-Harris White House and campaign should “absolutely” spotlight more of Clarke and her office. 

However, she said it’s also important that Black voters “see the work” of the “many Black women in the administration,” as well as the number of Black judges appointed by Biden.

“There are a lot of things that are happening that are being done right now that are advancing Black folks in general,” Angel told theGrio. “If [Black voters] knew that, they would be more active in making sure that these folks are supported [and] that they are funded.”

Giving voters the full picture, she maintained, will help them “begin to think about what a government looks like under” Biden versus Trump, his likely Republican opponent next November.

Despite what some polling might suggest, Campbell said, “People are going to start really paying attention come January,” adding that the months leading up to Nov. 5, 2024, will be crucial for the Biden-Harris team to make their pitch to voters.

Campbell, who stressed that the Biden-Harris administration “has to tell their story,” said, “I don’t listen to these early polls.” She added, “The only poll that matters is when people start voting.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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