Associated Press/Seth Wenig, File
FILE – Police officers escort a handcuffed suspect to a car during a raid in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. It’s hard to find anyone on board with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to toughen the state’s bail laws, two years after they were retooled to keep people from being jailed because they are poor. The debate over bail in New York has been fierce enough to delay passage of the state’s budget. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Democrats are struggling with how to talk about crime ahead of the midterms.

Most acknowledge the “defund the police” movement has fallen out of favor with much of the party and voters. But there is still disagreement over how to allocate resources to fight crime while presenting a united tough-on-crime message to voters.

President Biden has focused on gun restrictions, recently vowing to crack down on ghost guns. 

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has vowed to commit “the full resources” of New York in the aftermath of a subway shooting in Brooklyn earlier this month.

“We are sick and tired of reading headlines about crime,” Hochul, who is facing reelection in November, said. “It has to stop. I am committing the full resources of our state to fight this surge of crime, this insanity that is seizing our city.”

The subway shooting put yet another spotlight on violent crime across the country. The murder rate in the U.S. has spiked around 40 percent, according to FBI data cited by the New York Times. And in 2021, homicides increased by roughly seven percent. 

Republicans were successful in their effort to paint down-ballot Democrats as “weak on crime” in 2020 even as Biden worked to steer clear of the progressive “defund the police” message.

Two years later Republicans are still using the same tactic as Democrats scramble to find a cohesive message on the issue and Biden is struggling in the polls on crime. A CBS News poll released earlier this month found that 39 percent of Americans said they approved of the president’s handling of crime, while 61 percent said they disapproved. 

“Voters of all stripes are experiencing this crime wave and are distressed by it, so I don’t know who Democrats think they are making happy by continuing to ignore it,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish. “It’s just one more instance of national Democrats completely bungling a messaging opportunity.” 

Nearly two years after the “defund the police” movement gained traction in the U.S., moderate Democrats say the phrase still makes the party vulnerable. In a recent interview with Politico, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) called the phrase “a terrible idea.” 

“If your words are ‘defund the police,’ they’re going to think you mean that. And they know the world is on fire,” Spanberger, who is one of the most vulnerable House Democrats, told the outlet. 

Instead of focusing on “defunding the police,” Democratic candidates appear to be turning their focus to gun control, which they see as a solution to combatting violent crime and which has long been touted by much of the party’s faithful.

Kina Collins, a progressive gun control activist running to replace incumbent Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District, has been vocal about gun reform since launching her campaign last year. 

“This is more than a perfect time to start electing fresh faces and new names to politics, especially young Black folks who grow up in these communities and experience the everyday gun violence and the crime,” Collins told The Hill in an interview. 

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D) is another example of a young, Black progressive candidate calling for gun control and more resources for urban neighborhoods, like the one he grew up in Philadelphia. 

“What’s heartbreaking for me is I can go home tonight to North Philly and have another person gunned down in my neighborhood,” Kenyatta said at Thursday’s Democratic Senate primary debate. “This has been the core of my campaign.” 

In a post-debate interview with The Hill, Kenyatta said gun violence should be treated as a state or city emergency. 

“This is actually about releasing money from [the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency] and releasing money at the city level to rush resources,” Kenyatta said. 

The Senate race’s frontrunner, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), has touted his own record of working to combat gun violence during his tenure as mayor of Braddock, Pa. 

“I think it’s going to be a tough year for Democrats and Republicans are going to try to weaponize crime, honestly,” said Fetterman’s senior adviser Rebecca Katz. “I think we need someone on the ticket who knows how to actually deal with crime in his own community.” 

Senate candidate and Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Penn.), who has experience dealing with crime and gun violence on a federal level as a member of Congress, during the debate called for more background checks on firearms and for funds to be shifted from drug law enforcement to efforts combatting illegal gun distribution. 

But the debate also highlighted how the issue of crime has become difficult for Democrats, especially when it overlaps with race issues in the years after the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up to protest police brutality. Kenyatta called out Fetterman over a 2013 incident in which Fetterman while carrying a shotgun, confronted an unarmed Black jogger he suspected was involved in nearby gunfire and detained him until police arrived. Fetterman has denied pointing the shotgun at the man and says he made a split-second decision amid the background of concerns about gun violence and crime in the area. 

Kenyatta demanded that Fetterman apologize for the incident and Lamb also hit Fetterman, saying his answers to the questions surrounding the incident were “disqualifying for any of us who have to work hard to gain the trust of the Black community.”

Democrats acknowledge that the issue lies in the underinvestment in Black and brown communities across the country and many say the party should put its emphasis there.

“When you have high poverty, you have poor school outcomes. When you have instability in housing when you have food insecurities, you tend to see higher crime rates in those areas and you tend to see over-policing in those areas,” said Minnesota state Rep. Cedrick Frazier (D). 

Frazier authored legislation that would devote up to $150 million to public safety. Frazier says the package comes at public safety from multiple angles by providing funds to community groups, local officials, police, and prosecutors. 

“We’re leaning into things that you would not have historically leaned into,” Frazier said, referring to how the legislation addresses public safety. “We’re talking about crime prevention at those root cause issues that tend to lead to where you see high crime rates in particular communities.” 

Democrats are also trying to flip the script on Republicans, saying they are not doing enough to address the root causes of crime. 

“What is the GOP actually doing about this poverty? They’re doing nothing,” Collins said. 

At the same time, party strategists are urging candidates and leaders to take a simpler approach to the message. 

“It’s actually not ideological to say everyone deserves to feel safe and protected in their community,” said Tyler Law, a Democratic strategist and former national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

 “It’s such a common sense, unifying message,” he added. “Take the ideology out of it. Just think about the basics.” 

Tags Abigail Spanberger Biden John Fetterman Kathy Hochul Kina Collins Malcolm Kenyatta

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