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Jamil Smith: Where Marcia Fudge Went Wrong

Her potential bid for Speaker of the House dried up shortly after a report that the Ohio Congresswoman once went to bat for a convicted domestic abuser who is now accused of killing his wife

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Tom Williams/Getty Images, Susan Walsh/AP/REX Shutterstock

Nancy Pelosi appears to be safe. The Democrats opposing her bid to resume her role as Speaker of the House — specifically Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) — keep stepping on rakes. Everyone from freshman member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to former president Barack Obama have given Pelosi their full-throated endorsement. Yes, 16 Democrats signed a letter earlier this week rebuking her, but 16 donors published one of their own that implied they would suddenly become awfully frugal were Pelosi replaced as leader.

But the most significant indicator that this may be over is that Pelosi’s sole public challenger suddenly backed down.

Marcia Fudge, the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democrat representing the Ohio district where I was born and raised, had been reportedly weighing her own bid for House Speaker. At least until Tuesday evening, when she released a statement unexpectedly siding with Pelosi. Fudge had lately been giving Pelosi hell in public, telling HuffPost that African Americans in the House were “not feeling the love” from the House Minority Leader and that “just as there is this undertone of racism in the country, there’s also that in our caucus.”

But Fudge said in her Tuesday statement that Pelosi would give her the latitude to improve the Voting Rights Act and that “the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic party, Black women, will have a seat at the decision-making table.” Pelosi later announced that she intends to restore the House subcommittee on elections and that Fudge will be its chairwoman.

All of this seems like good news. My hometown Congresswoman, the successor to the late, great Stephanie Tubbs Jones in Ohio’s 11th District, and a fellow graduate of Shaker Heights High School was a contender for the House Speakership and will maintain a prominent voice in the Democratic leadership. I wish that I could have felt pride in that moment. Instead, I was just shaking my head.

Hours before Fudge’s de facto concession to Pelosi, her communications director, Bernadine Stallings, told Rolling Stone that Fudge would formally decide whether or not to run for Speaker sometime after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, as per earlier reports. She later said that Fudge hadn’t told her what changed her schedule. Perhaps it is coincidence, then, that Fudge’s plans shifted one day after Dan DeRoos, a reporter for Cleveland’s CBS affiliate, tweeted a copy of an August 9th, 2015 letter addressed to Timothy McGinty, then the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor. The letterhead read “MARCIA L. FUDGE,” and the Congresswoman had signed her name at the bottom. In the letter, Fudge offered her support for Lance Mason — a convicted domestic abuser who now, three years later, is accused of murdering his estranged wife, Aisha Fraser.

Fraser, 45, was stabbed to death last Saturday. As of this writing, Mason is the prime suspect. He was charged with felonious assault after injuring a police officer in a crash as he fled the scene of the crime. Fraser’s body was found in the driveway of Mason’s home in Shaker Heights — the suburb of Cleveland where she, Fudge, Mason and I all went to high school.

A former member of both the Ohio Senate and the state’s House of Representatives, Mason had been a judge in the county’s Court of Common Pleas until he was sentenced in 2014 to two years in prison for domestic violence against Fraser. According to court documents and testimony, Mason had stopped the family SUV in the middle of Van Aken Boulevard, a main traffic artery in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, punched Fraser 20 times, choked her, bit her and slammed her head against the dashboard five times. He then ejected her from the vehicle and sped off with their two daughters, ages four and six at the time. Fraser, a sixth-grade teacher at nearby Woodbury Elementary, suffered a broken orbital bone and required facial reconstructive surgery.

A year later, Fudge began her letter of support for the then-incarcerated Mason by writing that it “comes as a result of more than 20 years of friendship.” Fudge emphasized that while the assault was “out of character and totally contrary to everything I know about him,” she commended him for “immediately recognizing that he needed help.” Repeating the same language that too many have used to give domestic abusers an undeserved second chance, Fudge wrote that the man she knew was “a kind, intelligent man and loyal friend” and “a good man who made a very bad mistake.”

(Fudge’s office tells Rolling Stone they are not aware of any record of Fudge writing a similar letter of support for Fraser to any party, nor has Fudge shared with her office details of any contacts with Fraser around the time of the 2014 assault.)

Whether or not Fudge’s influence mattered, Mason was released from prison after serving only nine of the 24 months of his sentence. Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson even hired him — not long after Jackson was re-elected in 2016 with Fudge’s endorsement — as a minority business development director. Mason was “terminated effective immediately” by the city after his arrest this past weekend — but Mayor Jackson defended both himself and Mason’s hiring, alleging that he had “no way to predict the future.”

Though I didn’t know her well, Fraser graduated two years ahead of me at Shaker Heights High School in the early Nineties, and friends of mine were very close to her. At its heart, this is a story of a woman murdered, allegedly by an abuser who had the right political connections. It is, then, a fully imaginable tragedy.

However, the politics involved are unavoidable. I asked whether the controversy surrounding the Mason letter ended Fudge’s consideration of a run for Speaker, and her response was defiant. “My decision was not based on the tragic death of Aisha Fraser,” Fudge says. “Any statements to the contrary are untrue and should stop.”

It is still worth questioning Fudge’s judgment, now and then.

There were already questions about Fudge’s Speaker candidacy stemming from her refusal to co-sponsor the Equality Act, which applies federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ Americans in employment, housing and various other areas of life. To that point, Fudge said on November 15th, “What I opposed was including the Equality Act in the current Civil Rights Act,” which she claimed “isn’t even adequate to protect the people currently in it,” and that she wants a “new and modern” civil rights bill that includes LGBTQ Americans.

That may explain away Fudge’s stance on civil rights to some, but how does she explain her advocacy for the release of a convicted domestic abuser, one who now stands accused of stabbing Fraser to death?

“My heart breaks for Aisha Fraser,” Fudge says in a statement. “I pray for Aisha’s family, especially her children, as they attempt to deal with this tragedy. My support of Lance in 2015 was based on the person I knew for almost 30 years. The person who committed these crimes is not the Lance Mason familiar to me. They were horrific crimes, and I condemn them. I and everyone who knew Aisha are mourning her loss.”

I grasp that we should not judge criminals purely by their crimes, and that Mason would likely have been released from incarceration by now had he served his full term. But victims of domestic violence need more support than abusers who present as respectable when not punching their partners. It is odd that even back in 2015, Fudge didn’t reconsider “the person I knew” after the person she knew broke his wife’s face.

It appears that Fudge stood by Mason, and not Fraser, until Fraser was dead. Fudge was wise not to test whether Democrats would stand by her now.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify Aisha Fraser’s age at the time of her death.

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