Breonna Taylor Case Is Formidable Test for an Ascendant Attorney General
As the first Republican attorney general in Kentucky in more than 70 years and the first Black attorney general in the state’s history, Daniel Cameron has a future in Republican politics that has seemed limitless.
A charismatic orator and a member of an overwhelmingly white G.O.P., Mr. Cameron, 34, is still widely seen in Kentucky as the first choice to succeed Senator Mitch McConnell, his political mentor. Others suggest that he run for governor in 2023. Two weeks after Mr. Cameron delivered a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention last month, President Trump included his name on a list of possible nominees for the Supreme Court.
But first, there is his current job.
And this week that meant standing at a lectern and announcing, after more than 100 days of boiling impatience across the country, the conclusion of a state grand jury investigation into the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. The decision — that two police officers who shot Ms. Taylor would not be charged, while a third officer would be charged with wanton endangerment for jeopardizing the lives of Ms. Taylor’s neighbors — led to an explosion of grief and fury. Chanting crowds marched in cities nationwide and protests erupted across Louisville, where two police officers were shot.
“I certainly understand the pain that has been brought about by the tragic loss of Ms. Taylor,” Mr. Cameron said in his announcement on Wednesday. “I understand that as an attorney general,” he said, then went on, apparently choking up at one point: “I understand that as a Black man, how painful this is. Which is why it was so incredibly important to make sure that we did everything that we possibly could.”
Mr. Cameron’s measured speech illuminated his political gifts. But it also kicked off what is likely to be a long and intense debate over the process that led to the grand jury decision itself. And that, more than the speech, is what may matter most to Mr. Cameron’s political future.
“The presentation yesterday, if you didn’t have the advantage of being legally trained or experienced or knowing the facts of the case, there’s no reason for a person to have doubted what he said,” said Marc S. Murphy, a former commonwealth’s attorney for Louisville who once worked with Mr. Cameron at the same law firm.
But critics have charged that Mr. Cameron was misleading when describing the case in his remarks on Wednesday, and Mr. Murphy questioned whether Mr. Cameron brought as robust a case against the officers as possible to the grand jury. “There’s a lot of things that aren’t transparent about this,” he said.
Mr. Cameron grew up in Elizabethtown, a small city in the middle of the state, where his parents ran a coffee shop and his mother taught at a community college. He went on to the University of Louisville, where he played on the Orange Bowl-winning football team and was named a McConnell Scholar, two achievements that guaranteed special attention from Kentucky’s senior senator.
Even as a college student, Mr. Cameron was a dedicated conservative, said OJ Oleka, a fellow Louisville alum who is now president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities.
“Daniel’s actually the reason why I am a conservative,” said Dr. Oleka, who is also Black. A deep respect for institutions, he said, is what underpinned Mr. Cameron’s approach as attorney general. “He and I have had many discussions over the years about race and the law, and he’s been very consistent: You have to follow the law.” But, he added, you can make changes to the law as necessary.
After law school and between stints as a judicial clerk and private-sector attorney, Mr. Cameron worked as Mr. McConnell’s legal counsel in Washington. Mr. McConnell had shepherded the political careers of past protégés with mixed results. But Mr. Cameron’s role in the Republican Party could be symbolically important, as he himself noted in his recent convention speech.
“My mind is my own,” said Mr. Cameron, after describing himself as a “proud Republican” and a supporter of Mr. Trump. “And you can’t tell me how to vote because of the color of my skin.”
For Kentucky Republicans, the significance cannot be overstated. “It’s hard to look past what Daniel represents for our party here,” said Scott Jennings, who has acted as a political adviser to Mr. McConnell and Mr. Cameron. “McConnell understood the historic implications.”
In 2019, with the encouragement of Mr. McConnell, Mr. Cameron ran for attorney general. His campaign emphasized his role in selecting conservative judges, Mr. McConnell’s signature issue. He was also endorsed by the state’s fraternal order of police, saying “to the men and women in blue, I pledge to be your advocate and your voice every day.” He won handily.
His first year has been full, from handling widely criticized pardons issued by his fellow Republican, former Gov. Matt Bevin, to fighting hard to strike down coronavirus prevention measures from the current governor, Andy Beshear, a Democrat.
But in May, when the county prosecutor in Louisville recused himself from the case of Ms. Taylor’s shooting, Mr. Cameron suddenly had his most consequential job yet.
A belief took hold among critics that he had not pursued the case as aggressively as he could. Some have argued that he could have been more transparent throughout the process, given the importance of the case and the extraordinary tension surrounding it.
“I think that’s a shame and a missed opportunity here,” said Heather Gatnarek, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. “I think the entire community of Louisville and beyond is hurting, reeling, and looking for some information in order to trust what has been happening.”
Mr. Cameron faced sustained pressure as months passed and protests endured in Louisville. The case catapulted to national attention, with major celebrities demanding action. Scores were arrested after protesting in Mr. Cameron’s front yard, and photos of his engagement party in June, with no one yet charged, drew a storm of outrage.
Just as Mr. Cameron cited race as a reason the case had a special resonance with him, activists have argued that, as a Black man, he had an added responsibility.
“Let me tell you something, brother,” Sean Ali Waddell Jr., an activist and a relative of Muhammad Ali, said at a rally over the summer. “Don’t you be on the wrong side of history.”
Mr. Cameron’s announcement of the wanton endangerment charges on Wednesday likely increased his stature in the Republican Party, said Al Cross, a veteran of Kentucky political journalism.
“This was a big test and he has largely passed it,” he said. But Mr. Cross pointed out the many unanswered questions about the grand jury process, saying, “the story is not written yet.”
Mr. Murphy, who said he had been dazzled by Mr. Cameron’s intelligence and affability when they worked together, said he had been “surprised and disappointed” with Mr. Cameron’s tenure as attorney general.
An editorial cartoonist for The Louisville Courier-Journal in addition to being a lawyer, Mr. Murphy hesitated before filing his cartoon to his editor on Thursday morning. But he sent it anyway, capturing just how much his estimation of Mr. Cameron had evolved.
In it, a silhouette of the attorney general stood before the memorial to Ms. Taylor that had grown in downtown Louisville. He held a gas canister in one hand. A lit match had just been flicked out of the other.