It was no surprise that during interviews with Univision and other Spanish-language stations that aired this week, immigration reform was the most discussed issue for President Obama. With the U.S. Senate and House in disagreement over provisions of an overhaul, and Democrats and Republicans vying for the votes of a growing demographic, that was expected.
But while the president was not asked, nor did he speak, about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Fla., one that has spawned heated discussions about racial profiling across the country, he did speculate about a possible candidate for Homeland Security chief, someone who has become a lightning rod on the issue.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly would be “well-qualified” to run the Department of Homeland Security, Obama said in an interview with Univision’s affiliate in the New York/New Jersey area. He hasn’t actually named Kelly as his choice to replace outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is leaving to head the University of California system.
Was putting such a strong endorsement out there a first step toward seeing how Kelly’s name is received, or was it a case of the president being polite when being put on the spot? Obama said the commissioner “might be very happy where he is.” If Kelly isn’t, though, Obama said he’d want to know about it. “I think Ray Kelly is one of the best there is,” Obama said.
Never shy New York politicians are weighing in. Kelly has the bipartisan support of Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called Kelly “uniquely qualified” for the job, in the New York Daily News. She cited, in addition to NYPD experience, his work during the Clinton administration, leading the U.S. border patrol and overseeing enforcement agents at the Treasury Department.
However, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday said the New York City police commissioner would be a “poor choice” to head Homeland Security. On MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes,” Jeffries said: “He’s been a good administrator, and perhaps I could even support his potential appointment to this position in the absence of the massive aggressive stop-and-frisk program that he’s run, and the unconstitutional Muslim surveillance program, but that’s kind of like saying, I had a good year, if you don’t count the winter, spring, and fall.”
Jeffries called for “an effective balance between national security or effective law enforcement on the one hand and a healthy respect for our civil rights and civil liberties on the other.”
New York is currently defending the legality of the stop-and-frisk policies expanded and endorsed by Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has said, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
An analysis this year by the New York Civil Liberties Union highlighted “racial disparities” and “ineffectiveness” when it came to the program’s recovery of illegal guns. The report said: “Last year, the NYPD stopped and interrogated people 532,911 times, a 448-percent increase in street stops since 2002 – when police recorded 97,296 stops during Mayor Bloomberg’s first year in office. Nine out of 10 of people stopped were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. About 87 percent were black or Latino.” Grounds for stops include “furtive movements.”
Kelly has also been criticized for post 9/11 surveillance of Muslim citizens, mosques and community organizations, as detailed in reporting by the Associated Press.
According to King, who has heard from those close to Kelly, the NYPD chief is “not saying no” to the idea of serving in Obama’s cabinet.
A criticism of Obama has been that in trying for common ground with opponents, he takes some of the most loyal members of his base, particularly African Americans, for granted. In The Washington Post this week, Janet Langhart Cohen urged the president, in his second term and after the Zimmerman verdict, to speak out about issues of concern to African Americans, including “unfair stop-and-frisk policies.”
Expect the questions and the expectations to get more pointed if Kelly is indeed a serious candidate for the Homeland Security post, with a line being drawn from profiling protests to the police commissioner’s record in New York.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3