Upcoming races show Democrats grappling with police reform messaging
Democrats are grappling with how to message on police reform ahead of a number of high-profile local races and the 2022 midterm elections as shootings rise across the country.
Republicans successfully tied a number of Democrats to the “defund the police” movement in the 2020 general election, a tactic some centrist Democrats blame for their narrowed House majority.
Now, local and state races in 2021 could preview how the issue will play in 2022. In Philadelphia, for example, the city’s progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner overcame a primary challenge in what his allies saw as a win for the police reform movement. Meanwhile in New York City, Democratic mayoral primary candidate Andrew Yang warned earlier this month that defunding the police would be the wrong approach for the city.
“I don’t know that defund the police is an effective message broadly because it is perhaps at best confusing, at worst misleading,” Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist Mark Nevins said.
The developments come one year after the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in police custody sparked a reckoning on race and policing in the U.S.
At least 12 shootings took place in eight states over the weekend, according to CNN and data from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA). Additionally, GVA reported that deaths from gun violence have risen by 23 percent this year to more than 7,500.
Last weekend’s shootings took place in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
“It’s up in pretty much every city in the country — small, medium, large, Democrat, Republican, red state, blue state, doesn’t seem to matter,” said University of New Haven criminal justice professor Michael Lawlor, who previously served as a prosecutor and a Democratic member of Connecticut’s House of Representatives.
Critics have tied the rise in violence to police funding cuts and other reforms. Advocates of police reform, on the other hand, are quick to point to factors besides police funding, including an unprecedented pandemic, and note that a one-year spike doesn’t necessarily foretell a trend.
Still, the increase could give Republicans an opening to put Democrats on the defensive, tying them once again to progressive calls to reallocate funds away from police departments. The strategy proved to be successful last year in more than half a dozen districts where Republican candidates ousted Democratic incumbents.
“If people feel under threat, they’re going to go for the candidates who promise to immediately relieve that threat,” said Republican strategist Keith Naughton.
An analysis released by the Economist last week showed that in Wisconsin, former President Trump outperformed President Biden in areas where protests over police reform and the police shooting of Jacob Blake turned violent, including Kenosha County, where the shooting and bulk of the protests took place.
Republicans say the strategy of tying Democrats to violence and the defund the police movement likely won’t play as well in large cities, but it could become an issue in some key districts.
“I think our urban areas and our cities, they’ve been mostly captured by the Democrats and particularly by the progressives, that it’s going to take a lot to shake those voters away from that sensibility,” Naughton said.
Krasner’s primary win in Philadelphia is a key example of progressive control over reform efforts in the nation’s biggest cities.
“If Krasner had lost that would have been a big deal, that he won isn’t as much of a big deal,” Naughton said.
Some argue the race was a litmus test on whether progressive reformer prosecutors would be tied to the country’s increase in gun violence and homicides. However, others say the race was insular to Philadelphia.
“It’s hard to call the [district attorney] race in Philadelphia a model for anything outside of Philadelphia,” Nevins said. “And I think that’s going to be true of the subject of criminal justice reform or police reform. In general, it’s going to depend on where in the state it’s being discussed or debated.”
In New York City, meanwhile, the top eight mayoral candidates will participate in a forum marking the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. Yang, along with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a retired police officer, have said defunding the police is not the right answer for the city. Both candidates have called for more police presence in the city amid an increase in violent crime. However, Maya Wiley, an attorney running for the city’s top leadership post, has pledged to cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department.
And police reform is set to be a major talking point in Virginia’s gubernatorial election in November. The commonwealth’s Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin seized on the law enforcement issue last month, launching the “Law Enforcement for Glenn” coalition with nine members of the commonwealth’s law enforcement community.
“Officers and frontline workers are being targeted by people who want to defund and demoralize them – even reducing the criminal penalties for assaulting them. These attacks will stop on my watch,” Youngkin pledged in a statement last month.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, the conversation on policing has more of a focus on reforming law enforcement after video emerged earlier this year of two police officers drawing their guns on and pepper-spraying a Black Army officer, 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, in Windsor, Va. in December.
“I can promise you, what Lt. Nazario went through, my son, who is white, would never be stopped if he was wearing the flag and the cloth of our country,” front-runner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said at a virtual primary debate last week.
McAuliffe, along with his other Democratic opponents, have called for greater police accountability in the commonwealth.
“I have a record of carrying a bill as a legislator to prohibit the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers, so we don’t have an Eric Garner situation here in Virginia,” progressive candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy said at the forum. “Helping to pass a bill to have a ban on no-knock warrants, so we don’t have a Breonna Taylor situation here in Virginia.”
Nazario is part of a long list of Black Americans who have experienced violent encounters with police over the past year, including Andrew Brown Jr. in North Carolina and Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, who both died at the hands of police.
The rise in shootings also gives Democrats the opportunity to campaign on what they say is an urgent need for gun control reform in the U.S.
“I think we just have to tell people what we really want to do,” said South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.
Democrats argue that Republicans are missing the chance to unify around the issue of policing, and have instead politicized it.
“Reforming the police does not mean we are anti-police,” Seawright said. “We want to make sure that law enforcement is keeping up with an ever-changing U.S. community and also prevent another George Floyd.”
Democrats emphasize the bipartisan work being done on Capitol Hill on police reform negotiations.
“Every system deserves to be reevaluated and that’s what the legislative process is all about. That’s what Democrats are trying to do with the police reform bill,” Seawright said.
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Republican Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), who are both involved in the negotiations, have expressed hope recently about passing police reform through Congress.
“If you look at the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, the most loyal voting bloc African American voters, doing something on police reform is not just a hope and wish, it’s a must,” Seawright said. “I don’t care how red or blue any district is or any state is, if you don’t turn out your base and you don’t speak to the bread and butter issues, barbershop and beauty salon issues, then you’re going to have an even deeper problem.”