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Democrats’ big test on crime

AP Photo (Nam Y. Huh/Paul Beaty)
Split photo of Chicago mayoral runoff candidates Paul Vallas, left and Brandon Johnson, right.

What to do about an upsurge in violent crime has become a burning issue in America’s deep blue urban centers. That’s why Democrats are riveted on the April 4 runoff election that will pick Chicago’s next mayor.

It’s a duel between two Democrats with strikingly different outlooks on law and order. The outcome will go far in determining whether their party will rebuild its credibility on public safety or continue to let Republicans enjoy an unearned advantage on a potent issue.     

The frontrunner, with 33 percent of the first-round vote, is Paul Vallas, a pragmatic Democrat who earned national renown as a reform-minded CEO of Chicago public schools. Finishing second with 21 percent was Brandon Johnson, a Cook Country commissioner who lines up with the progressive left.

Vallas is white and Johnson is Black, but public frustration with rising rates of murder and gun violence cuts across racial and ethnic lines. In one pre-election poll, 57 percent of Chicago voters picked crime as their top concern, followed by the cost of living and jobs. That included a majority of Black and white voters and 48 percent of Latino voters.

Submerged in this wave of voter anxiety was incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who ran a distant third with just 17 percent. Calling public safety “a basic human right,” Vallas has touted his endorsement by the city police union and vowed to make Chicago “the safest city in America.”

Johnson, who once endorsed “defunding the police,” has focused his campaign on calls for more spending on housing, education and social services. He’s backed by Chicago’s powerful teachers’ union.

The mayoral race is thus a microcosm of the wider debate among Democrats about how to respond to rising public alarm about crime, homelessness and the eroding quality of life in the nation’s big metros.    

It flared up last week in Washington, when Congress overturned a D.C.  government bill rewriting the city’s criminal code. Among many uncontroversial provisions, the bill lowered penalties for carjacking — a baffling move in a city that has seen carjackings rise for five straight years.

Progressives joined city officials in protesting the congressional bigfooting as a violation of home rule. Nonetheless, most Senate Democrats and a sizeable contingent in the House voted for the move.

Many cited Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the D.C. bill, subsequently overridden by a tone-deaf city council. And President Biden, who has consistently sided with mayors struggling to make their cities safer, pointedly refused to veto the congressional intervention.  

The episode illuminated a growing rift between local elected Democrats and progressive ideologues who pose a false choice between fighting crime and combatting police abuses and racism.

In New York, for example, progressives accuse Mayor Eric Adams of echoing Republican talking points because he’s taken a tough line on violent crime. Adams has fired back, calling Manhattan’s liberal elites out of touch with life in working-class Black and Hispanic communities.

In last year’s midterm elections, Democrats lost six House seats in New York districts that Biden won, effectively handing control to the Republicans. A key factor in those races was a strong public reaction against an unpopular bail reform bill passed by the Democratic state legislature.

Yet Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) accused Democratic candidates of validating and amplifying Republican narratives on crime by distancing themselves from the left’s toxic “defund the police” slogan. “If we’re going to talk about public safety, you don’t talk about it in the frame of invoking defund or anti-defund, you really talk about it in the frame of what we’ve done on gun violence, what we’ve done to pass the first gun reform bill in 30 years,” she said.

Beltway babble about “frames” and “narratives” means little to people in neighborhoods plagued nightly by random gunfire, gang violence, robberies and carjackings by armed adolescents.

Another common trope on the progressive left is that Democrats only feel compelled to adopt “tough-on-crime’ rhetoric to appease “white swing voters” or frightened suburbanites. This shows how little they know about the people whose interests they presume to champion.

Just before the midterm elections, 81 percent of Black voters said violent crime was very important to their vote, compared to 56 percent of white voters and 65 percent of Hispanic voters.

As big city mayors like Adams, Bowser and San Francisco’s London Breed know, the most urgent demands for protection arise from Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans living near crime “hot spots.” A Brown University study found that in some neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Chicago, young men – overwhelmingly Black and brown – are more likely to meet a violent death than were U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some Democrats try to navigate the split on crime between the party’s pragmatic and left wings by avoiding the issue. That’s a big mistake. According to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, midterm voters gave Republicans a 13-point advantage when asked which party they trust most to handle crime — strikingly including a quarter of Democrats.

So, Democrats must dig themselves out of a hole on crime. Most voters favor a crackdown on both crime and abusive policing, but vanishingly few support a stance that’s seen as anti-police.

Democrats can regain the initiative by listening to their constituents rather than progressive ideologues. The message in Chicago and other cities is clear: Americans across racial and ethnic lines demand both safety and justice, and Democrats are the only party that can deliver both.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Biden Chicago Chicago mayoral race Crime in the United States crime rates defund the police Eric Adams London Breed Lori Lightfoot Lori Lightfoot Los Angeles Muriel Bowser New York New York City Paul Vallas Washington D.C.

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