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Tea Party Senator Welcomes Hillary Clinton To Cause Of Criminal Justice Reform

After a shout-out in Clinton's speech, Utah Sen. Mike Lee tells BuzzFeed News that conservatives have solutions for the issues surrounding Baltimore.

Posted on April 30, 2015, at 11:14 p.m. ET

Darren McCollester / Getty

Republican Sen. Mike Lee told BuzzFeed News Thursday he welcomed Hillary Clinton's high-profile support for his efforts to overhaul criminal sentencing guidelines — and said he was encouraged by prominent Democrats' evolving views on criminal justice policy.

With violence enveloping Baltimore and demonstrators filling the streets to protest police brutality in the wake of Freddie Gray's death, Clinton delivered a sharply worded speech Wednesday calling for an end to the "era of mass incarceration." The Democratic presidential frontrunner proceeded to hail a "growing bipartisan movement" taking shape around these issues — and specifically name-checked Lee and Sen. Rand Paul as examples of conservatives joining the cause.

"Now, of course it is not enough just to agree and give speeches about it," she said. "We actually have to work together to get the job done."

Lee, a leading figure in the tea party movement, said he was "pleased" by the candidate's praise.

"I didn't necessarily start the day out thinking I was going to get a shout-out from Hillary Clinton," he said, adding, "The Smarter Sentencing Act is a really good bill. We need to pass it."

But Lee also noted that the new coalition of aisle-crossers Clinton highlighted is not just composed of Republicans who have seen the light — it also includes plenty of Democrats who are changing their positions, including Clinton herself.

On the issue of criminal sentencing, for example, Lee has drafted legislation with liberal Sen. Dick Durbin that would soften and in some cases eliminate federally mandated sentences for various types of drug offenders. But while Lee said the bill has been applauded by "prominent liberal Democrats and some prominent conservative Republicans," many old-guard moderates in both parties have been resistant.

He said Democrats like Clinton have "absolutely" evolved on the issue, and some are only now conceding "that the one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum approach ... is not one that can be treated as though it's etched in stone."

Lee's comments echo those of his libertarian-leaning Senate colleague. On Wednesday Paul's presidential campaign released a statement arguing that Hillary Clinton is "trying to undo some of the harm inflicted by the Clinton administration" and "emulating proposals introduced by Senator Rand Paul over the last several years." The release cheekily added, "We welcome her to the fight."

Of course, America's left wing has long led the charge against tough-on-crime policies and aggressive policing tactics, which they argued had a ruinous effect on minority communities. But centrist Democrats like the Clintons looking to win national elections rarely aligned themselves with the left on these issues in the '80s and '90s. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a law that imposed harsher criminal sentences, expanded the death penalty, and allotted funds for more jails. Four years later, the first lady championed those policies in an op-ed, arguing for "tough measures that punish criminal behavior" and insisting that "young people who break the law are held accountable."

As a senator Clinton went on to co-sponsor legislation aimed at addressing racial profiling and strengthening ties between police and inner-city communities. And by 2008, as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, she railed against the GOP for their silence on these issues.

"You don't hear the Republicans talking about any of this," she said at the time. "You don't hear them talking about the disgrace of a criminal justice system that incarcerates so many more African Americans proportionately than whites."

But the political landscape has shifted considerably since then — while Clinton, serving as secretary of state, was withdrawn from domestic policy debates. Within the Republican Party, an ascendant libertarian movement has joined forces with certain elements of the religious right to advocate for an approach to criminal justice they say is more focused on efficacy, cost efficiency, and compassion.

The ideas have not yet fully taken hold in the GOP, where candidates have long benefited politically from their party's reputation for cracking down on criminals. And just this week, a noisy chorus of talk-radio conservatives has used racially charged rhetoric to deride the "thugs" behind the unrest in Baltimore. But among the movement's policy wonks, legislative efforts like Lee's are increasingly popular.

Meanwhile, Lee contended that conservatives should see validation in the images coming out of Baltimore. For example, local faith leaders have reportedly played a key role in easing tensions and quelling violence in recent days — evidence, he said, that public policy should be geared toward strengthening churches and other private institutions with local credibility.

"I think it's impossible for me to look at what's happening there and not see the importance of civil society," Lee said.

And in the now-famous footage of Baltimore mother Toya Graham indignantly dragging her teenage son off the chaotic streets, Lee saw the importance of fortifying families — a consistent emphasis in policymaking by social conservatives like himself.

"Moms are awesome," Lee said, adding that his own mother would have done the same thing to him in that position. "I'm not sure I know a mom who wouldn't."