The Memo

The Memo: New York City mayoral race is harbinger for politics of crime

Community members attend a peace vigil to end gun violence in New York
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In one corner, a retired police captain who vows to crack down on crime. In another, a former MSNBC contributor backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

On June 22, one week from today, Democratic voters will select their nominee to be mayor of New York City. Their choice has national implications.

It’s not just that the two top candidates in one recent poll — New York Police Department veteran Eric Adams and civil rights attorney Maya Wiley — can be slotted so neatly into the larger story of the left-versus-center struggle that is roiling the Democratic Party.

The race is also a test of how voters react to rising crime rates. 

Violent crime is climbing in many cities across the country, not just New York. Politically speaking, that’s something that worries Democrats and gives hope to Republicans.

Put simply, voters in fear tend to turn right, not left.

“Crime is an issue that works on behalf of the Republicans and on behalf of those who want ‘law and order’ — and that catchphrase will become very salient if this is going to continue to be a hot issue,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College and an expert on New York politics.

Murders in New York City shot up a shocking 45 percent in 2020. They have continued to rise this year. And crime now outranks every other issue in terms of its importance to voters.

A poll last week from Pix11, NewsNation and Emerson College made this crystal clear.

Thirty-one percent of New Yorkers chose crime as their top issue, way ahead of the 12 percent who each chose police reform and housing. Every other topic ranked even lower.

Another poll, from NY1 and Ipsos, asked voters to choose up to three issues that were most important to them from a list of 14. “Crime or violence” once again came top of the list, being selected by 46 percent of all New York respondents — and by exactly the same share of likely Democratic voters. 

Adams, who touts his support from rank-and-file cops and has little tolerance for the “Defund the Police” movement, has taken the lead in the primary, where the winner will be the clear favorite to win the general election. 

As far back as April, The New York Times was noting that Adams “has positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate.” One of his main campaign trail soundbites, the Times noted, emphasizes how “public safety is the prerequisite to prosperity.”

The salience of crime is “the key that has boosted Adams,” said George Arzt, a veteran New York Democratic consultant whose experience in city politics dates back to his days as press secretary for the late Mayor Ed Koch (D). Arzt is working for business executive Ray McGuire in this year’s contest.

“You think about how, after the George Floyd death, everyone was calling for defund the police,” Arzt said. “Now everyone is calling for more police, whether it be on the subways or to get guns off the street.”

The left, having struggled to coalesce around a single candidate, finally appears to have settled on Wiley as its standard-bearer. Wiley, who served as counsel to current Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) before becoming an MSNBC contributor, almost doubled her support in one recent poll. 

Her surge is largely attributed to the endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez, who appeared with Wiley again over the weekend.

But Wiley has also had to back-pedal from a comment she made in a debate last week, where she appeared to be open to the idea of taking guns away from cops. Earlier this month, she released a campaign ad in which she said of police: “It’s time the NYPD sees us as people who deserve to breathe.”

The ramifications of the race are fascinating. If Adams wins, the left will have suffered an important defeat in one of its key strongholds — and centrists will argue that even Democratic voters are put off by rhetoric that sounds too antagonistic toward the police.

If Wiley maintains her momentum and pulls off a surprise victory, progressives will be newly emboldened — but Republicans will have a new target upon whom to rain down allegations that Democrats have taken a turn toward radicalism.

There are complications, of course. 

For a start, the race isn’t just Adams vs. Wiley. Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, won the coveted endorsement of the Times, and shaded Wiley for second place in a new poll released Monday by Marist and sponsored by WNBC, Telemundo and Politico. Garcia has more in common on crime and policing with the centrism of Adams than the progressivism of Wiley.

Second, this is the first mayoral election in New York’s history to make use of ranked choice voting, where voters may fill out up to five preferences on their ballot. Even pollsters acknowledge this makes the eventual outcome extremely hard to predict. It also means it could take weeks to declare a winner, especially if the top two or three candidates are bunched closely together when the first-preference votes are counted.

Whatever happens in New York, the politics of crime is set to grow more prominent nationally.

Murders nationwide are up about 25 percent. Police departments are having trouble recruiting new officers and retaining those already in uniform. The slogan “Defund the Police” polls horribly. 

Yet, at the same time, progressive activists are impatient for greater change to a law enforcement and criminal justice system that arrests, imprisons and kills Black people at disproportionate rates. 

Their impatience grows all the sharper as the chances of police reform legislation being enacted in Congress appear to dim. President Biden — already distrusted by some on the left because of his central role in passing tough crime legislation in the 1990s — has backed away from a campaign promise to create a police oversight commission.

But for now, as violent crime keeps ticking up across the nation, some Democrats wish the party could talk about almost anything else.

“The job of Democrats is to keep the discussion on things that are favorable to Democrats, like creating jobs and making it cheaper to access health care,” said David Shor, a veteran of then-President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and a prominent data scientist.

The other task for his party, Shor added, was “avoiding the unpopular things, like defunding the police, and trying to keep the salience of crime down. The key liabilities for Democrats are that people trust Republicans on crime and immigration — those are probably the biggest ones.”

Avoiding the topic of crime will be difficult, both nationally and in New York. 

On Sunday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) hit the campaign trail, supporting Curtis Sliwa for the Republican mayoral nomination. Sliwa first came to prominence as violence soared a generation ago, as the founder of the quasi-vigilante Guardian Angels group.

For a minute, it seemed like the early 1990s all over again.

Democrats will be hoping things don’t turn out that way.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bill de Blasio Joe Biden new york state politics of violent crime rates mayoral race mayor candidates gun violence Rudy Giuliani
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