A Celebrity With a Cause

The American game of celebrity politics has been played with equal opportunism by left and right for well over a century. The players generally mean well, yet the famous can certainly be fatuous. Actors and artists, like politicians, are known to preen and prate, and their fitful interventions can be ineffectual, annoying and occasionally inimical to the causes they support. When they speak, America usually listens-but often laughs.

Nobody is laughing at Russell Simmons.

Mr. Simmons, the hip-hop impresario, suddenly seems on the verge of achieving what political leaders and New York Times editorials have perennially failed to do: reform the draconian narcotics statutes of New York State, known as the “Rockefeller drug laws” ever since their passage under the late Governor in 1973. (Here I should disclose that one of the organizations working to repeal the Rockefeller laws also employs my wife.)

Although elected officials across the spectrum have long lamented the awful injustices caused by those laws-which prescribe hard time for small offenses and curtail judicial discretion-the will to change them has been absent for a decade or more. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people who should be receiving drug treatment have gone to prison, where they cost the taxpayers billions of dollars and are trained in serious criminality.

Such are the unintended consequences of conservative zeal. Under the Rockefeller laws, a rapist or a murderer can receive less time than a first offender holding a small amount of cocaine. Everyone has long known that this status quo is cruel, wasteful, destructive and stupid. No one in authority has done anything about it. A year ago, when Governor George Pataki and the State Legislature appeared to be approaching agreement on terms for reform, The Times ran an editorial headlined “Time to Move on Drug Law Reform,” urging the Governor and his legislative antagonists not to “let politics-as-usual stand in the way.”

Of course, that was exactly what they did. And that’s exactly what was about to happen again during the current session-despite the fact that Mr. Pataki repeatedly professes his profound concern about the drug laws’ inequities. (“The thing I most want to see happen is to see you reunited with your families,” he reportedly assured the relatives of inmates incarcerated under the Rockefeller laws last summer when they met with him in Albany. Imagine how little progress they would have made since 1994 if the Governor didn’t care so damn much.)

Enter Mr. Simmons, whose interest in the drug laws is based on what he knows and where he comes from. “I’ve seen the effect of these laws on my family and on my friends,” he said as he sat on a plane waiting to take off for Albany, where he was scheduled to meet with Joseph Bruno, the conservative Republican leader of the State Senate, whose musical favorites probably include none of Mr. Simmons’ artists.

While the rap mogul has been active in defending public education and other causes, he was enlisted very recently in the cause of drug-law reform. The chain of events that led to his involvement began with Anthony Papa, the painter and ex-convict who co-founded Mothers of the New York Disappeared, an advocacy group that has been toiling for drug-law reform. Mr. Papa convinced Andrew Cuomo, who took a strong position for reform of the Rockefeller laws during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, to join this year’s campaign for repeal.

It was Mr. Cuomo who convinced Mr. Simmons -a friend and political supporter-to join the coalition demanding change. The effect has been stunning, in no small part because Mr. Simmons put his money, his mind and his many friends in the entertainment industry where his mouth is. In a matter of weeks, his highly credible promise to bring 100,000 demonstrators to rally at City Hall has won him the rapt attention of politicians accustomed to ignoring the poor and the imprisoned.

As a successful businessman, Mr. Simmons says he regards a political campaign as an exercise in “branding” and “deal-making.” The rappers are “the world’s greatest brand-builders,” he says, and no politician “wants to be branded as being insensitive.” Now he wants to “get a deal, get some people out of jail and give [the political leaders] the credit they deserve”-if they end up deserving it.

Whatever “deal” Mr. Simmons and his allies may reach with the powers that be will fall short of full repeal. But whether or not the reform coalition wins a satisfactory resolution this year, Mr. Simmons has made both pols and fans listen. “We cannot let go or let up,” he warns. There’s another thing he may or may not remember to mention in Albany: He and his associates are busy registering hundreds of thousands of new voters at concerts and rallies. If they show up at the polls, a change is gonna come.