Jaylen Cavil is running for sheriff of Iowa’s largest county. One of his campaign promises is to fully defund the office he’s running to oversee.
Cavil is a Black Lives Matter activist running a write-in campaign to oust Polk County Sheriff Kevin Schneider, a Democrat who was appointed to the office in 2018 and is seeking his first full term. Cavil hopes to give voters who are frustrated with both Democrats and Republicans a reason to vote this year.
Supposedly, Polk County and Des Moines are progressive jurisdictions, electing Democrats for sheriff and county attorney. Nevertheless, this year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Des Moines have been marked by tear gas and projectiles fired at protesters, along with frequent arrests and excessive charges, including against a newspaper reporter covering a protest. No city in Iowa, and few similarly sized cities in the nation, have responded that aggressively to racial justice demonstrations this year.
Meanwhile at the state and federal levels, Iowa Democrats are distancing themselves from the “defund police” movement. They go out of their way to praise law enforcement, making little effort to wrestle with the radical but important ideas coming from the grassroots left.
It’s an important lesson from our national discourse on race and policing — Democrats might be better than Republicans on law enforcement reform, but they’re still not very good.
“We don’t see anyone on the ballot in 2020 that makes us excited to vote at all. None of us are saying, ‘I can’t wait to vote for Theresa Greenfield and Cindy Axne and Joe Biden.’ That doesn’t excite any of us,” Cavil told me.
“We know the alternative is worse, but still, folks aren’t excited to go to the polls this Election Day. Me being on the ballot has the effect of giving some folks a reason to be excited to vote.”
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The idea to run a write-in campaign for sheriff started as a joke. At a demonstration this year, Cavil was frustrated at deputies and said, “I’m going to run for Polk County sheriff and become their boss.”
Eventually, Cavil and friends made signs and social media materials to promote the campaign.
When Cavil says “defund police,” he really means it. He would seek to gradually reduce the Polk County sheriff’s budget to zero, and divert those resources to mental health and drug treatment programs.
“I would move those funds from incarcerating people to trying to stop crime at the root,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Besides defunding the sheriff’s office, Cavil’s platform includes decriminalizing all drugs, eliminating cash bail and ending collaboration with federal immigration enforcers. He says Democrats who control local government in Des Moines are not real progressives, and says the local police union has too much influence over city and county affairs.
Cavil has a unique view of the tension between radical and mainstream politics. He is both a Black Lives Matter organizer and a former Democratic campaign staffer. He said his views on the issues haven’t changed, but recent events made him doubt whether electoral politics can be effective.
Cavil now finds himself publicly criticizing the same people he was calling and inviting to campaign events a year ago. When he recently posted in a local Democratic Party Facebook group about his write-in campaign for sheriff, he got hateful comments and eventually his post was deleted.
Of course, Cavil has plenty of criticism for Republicans as well. He has helped organize protests against Gov. Kim Reynolds, and was struck by the governor’s vehicle at an event in June.
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Cavil acknowledges he’s unlikely to win the sheriff’s election, but he and his allies already are looking forward to 2021, when Des Moines and other Iowa cities will hold local elections.
“No seat on city council should be seen as safe. ... We want all seven out,” Cavil said.
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