As thousands of protesters gathered on Louisville streets Wednesday afternoon, Daniel Cameron faced the toughest moment yet in his fledgling political career. Kentucky’s 34-year-old attorney general patiently explained on national TV that his allegiance was to the law, not to his race or to emotions or to public sentiment, and that every tragic wrong does not necessarily find a cure in the criminal code.
For most of his nearly hour-long explication of why three White police officers will face no criminal charges in the shooting death of an unarmed Black woman who was in her apartment in the middle of the night when they gunned her down, Cameron shared the TV screen with images of people streaming through the city’s streets, some holding protest signs, others holding sticks and wearing gas masks.
But as piqued as tensions were, Cameron radiated confidence and a bedrock belief in the rectitude of the law. He might not be accustomed to split-screen treatment on cable news, but he’s lived a split-screen life from the moment he entered politics.
Cameron won his first bid for elective office last year by beating a more stringently conservative state senator in the Republican primary and then defeating his Democratic opponent despite the fact that Democrats had held the attorney general post in Kentucky for 70 years.
Republicans in his home state and in Washington immediately embraced Cameron as a symbol of a more diverse future that some Republicans were working to create for the party before Trump captured its soul and identity.
Yet Cameron ran a campaign that largely steered clear of discussions of race; he made no show of meeting with Black groups in Louisville, which is 23 percent Black.
Four days after Cameron’s victory, Trump, who won just 8 percent of the Black vote in 2016, brought him onstage at a Black Voices for Trump campaign event in Atlanta. And last month, he was chosen to deliver a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention.
In that speech, Cameron slammed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as someone who believes that there is no diversity of thought in the Black community, who says that any Black who doesn’t support him “ain’t Black.”
“Look at me, I am Black,” Cameron said. “We are not all the same, sir. I am not in chains. My mind is my own.”
On Wednesday, Cameron left that kind of rhetoric behind.
He approached the microphone masked against the novel coronavirus, and then, in a soft, serious tone, he took pains to present himself as a neutral, deliberate arbiter. A finder of fact. Someone who believes that “the criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief” and that “criminal justice isn’t the quest for revenge.”
But race was a key reason he was standing at the microphone. It was why this shooting death put him in charge of an escalated, intensely watched investigation. Though Cameron never mentioned the race of the officers who killed Taylor, he did address the central role race has played in public perceptions of his investigation.
“I am a Black man and I speak for the office,” Cameron said in response to a question about the racial makeup of the investigators in the Taylor case. Twice during his news conference, Cameron’s emotions welled up, catching his throat as he contemplated how his mother might react if he were to be the victim of a similar tragedy and as he considered a question about finding justice for Black Americans.
And despite Cameron’s persistent efforts to present his findings and the grand jury’s decision as the logical and necessary result of a process that put aside the emotions of this wrenching year, he kept coming back to the reality of 2020 in Louisville and in American politics.
“I certainly understand the pain that has been brought about by the tragic death of Breonna Taylor,” he said. “I understand that as a Black man.”
But “if we simply act on emotion or outrage, there is no justice,” Cameron added. “Justice is not easy. It does not fit the mold of public opinion.”
Cameron explained why Taylor’s death was not a murder, why the two officers who shot her were justified in using deadly force, why the law precluded him from deciding on his own whether the officers ought to be charged in her death.
He was calm, consummately knowledgeable, in command of his material — exactly what some Kentucky Democrats fear might make him a political force for years to come. Cameron has become a target of Democratic disdain and liberal wrath — as of Wednesday afternoon, his Wikipedia biography described him as “the first Uncle Tom elected” to his office.
“The hostility to Cameron from progressives and African American elites was almost immediate,” said D. Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. “He’s shown the ability to follow the mysterious strategy of his mentor, Mitch McConnell, who built a career as a non-Trump style of politician who nonetheless has fully embraced Trump.”
Formerly McConnell’s counsel in Washington, Cameron relied heavily on the Senate majority leader’s support and on big donations from McConnell-aligned groups in his 2019 campaign.
“It’s hard now to appreciate the conventional wisdom when Cameron first emerged, which was that as an African American linked to McConnell, he was the weakest link on the Republican ticket,” Voss said.
But just as it has repeatedly been proved to be unwise to count out McConnell’s political staying power, so too was it foolish to expect that Cameron would lose because he wasn’t a fire-breathing right-winger.
“He’s young and bright and exactly what the Republicans want to showcase,” said Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. “He has a nice smile and he’s very smart. I’ve seen him follow McConnell in many ways.
“He’s really still a blank slate to much of the public,” Clayton said, “and he’s largely avoided being a prominent voice on race. I’ve never heard him say that police brutality needs to be on the agenda, never saw him reach out to the NAACP. He’s big on law and order.”
Whether Cameron was “tough on crime” was one of the first questions Trump posed to the then-candidate in July 2019, when McConnell brought his protege to the Oval Office to meet the president.
In a 25-minute session, Trump complimented Cameron as being “out of central casting” after the lawyer shared his views on crime, immigration and gun rights.
But one senior Kentucky Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because “no one wants to cross Mitch,” said Cameron has not yet shown he can make his way forward in politics without McConnell. “People in the party still don’t know what he stands for,” the politician said. “He’s tried to avoid contentious topics.”
Cameron did have to take on race in his campaign after the Lexington Herald Leader published a cartoon depicting Cameron grabbing onto the coattails of a Ku Klux Klan robe worn by Trump. Cameron blasted the cartoon as evidence of liberal intolerance of “the idea of folks that look like me who happen to be Republican.”
Cameron has called his conservatism homegrown, the product of two conservative parents who owned a small coffee shop where he also worked.
He first came into public view as a fullback on the University of Louisville football team. While in law school at the same university, he interned in McConnell’s Senate office, then clerked for a federal judge who had previously worked for McConnell.
McConnell hired Cameron as general counsel in 2015, a job that entailed helping the leader identify and promote conservative judges to the federal bench.
Cameron came home to Kentucky and briefly lobbied to legalize industrial hemp. But in short order, McConnell came calling, urging Cameron to run for attorney general.
McConnell’s Kentucky network was highly visible in Cameron’s campaign. Former aides to the leader were among his largest donors, and the Judicial Crisis Network, a key advocate in McConnell’s push to confirm Trump’s nominees to the federal courts, spent more than $350,000 on pro-Cameron TV ads.
The scene in Louisville after a grand jury indicts one of the officers involved in the Breonna Taylor shooting