National Democrats have shifted dramatically on crime over the past year based on signs that voters have tired of liberal criminal justice reform, but some of the party’s state and local elected officials seemingly haven’t gotten the memo.
It’s a divide that was on stark display this week during a heated debate in Chicago’s mayoral race. One of the two Democratic candidates, Brandon Johnson, has continued to embrace progressive criminal justice policies despite the headwinds his party has faced.
“What we should be working towards are real violence prevention measures,” Johnson said at the debate Tuesday. He has advocated more mental health facilities and youth employment programs in lieu of more aggressive policing.
His opponent, Paul Vallas, has vowed to crack down on crime.
But Johnson has racked up more endorsements from city council members, county officials, and state legislators than Vallas has, whose views align more closely with the mainstream of the national Democratic Party.
“The difference between congressional Democrats and local Democrats in big cities is the difference between Blue and Purple America,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, told the Washington Examiner. “Many congressional Democrats represent swing districts and states where law and order is a big issue, while mayors in large cities sympathize with the victims of police violence and have reservations about a criminal justice system which stacks the deck against minority residents.”
Congressional Democrats sent a clear signal earlier this month that they’ve abandoned the progressive push for reforms when dozens of them voted to overturn a new crime law in Washington, D.C., that the city’s local leaders had overwhelmingly approved.
The new crime law would have overhauled D.C.’s criminal code, lowering penalties for offenses such as carjacking at a time when carjackings in the city are skyrocketing. Twelve of Washington’s 13 city council members voted to override the mayor’s veto of the law.
But congressional Democrats — and, ultimately, President Joe Biden, who emerged in support of the effort to overturn the law after the House had moved forward — apparently sensed the danger in appearing too soft on crime.
Some big-city Democrats seem to have yet to recognize that peril, even though attitudes on criminal justice reform have changed significantly even in the most reliably liberal enclaves.
“As a Capitol Hill resident for over a decade, I can’t ignore the ever-growing number of crime alerts on my Twitter feed,” Cartney McCracken, a Democratic strategist and D.C. resident, told the Washington Examiner. “I can’t help but feel perplexed at the very idea of loosening the criminal code — how would that make our communities safer?”
Democratic voters in San Francisco last year ousted their district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in a recall vote after Boudin’s refusal to prosecute lower-level crimes led to widespread fears about the city’s safety. Baltimore voters rejected their top prosecutor in the Democratic primary last summer over crime fears.
In Atlanta, voters chose a mayor who ran on adding more police officers to the streets and jailing gang leaders.
And in Chicago, voters’ rejection of Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a primary earlier this month was widely seen as a signal that they had had enough of the public safety status quo.
But despite obvious signs of a shift among the Democratic base, some big-city Democrats have continued to pursue the policies that briefly represented the party’s mainstream in the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 murder.
“This is a front and center issue, and it’s one that we should, by any measure or statistic, be ahead of — but we’re not,” veteran Democratic strategist James Carville told NBC earlier this month.
In Philadelphia, for example, District Attorney Larry Krasner has doubled down on progressive criminal justice policies that decline or downgrade prosecutions for many offenses. His controversial approach has coincided with a massive increase in violence, leading state Republicans to seek his impeachment.
Some voters will soon have a chance to send a message to local Democrats about their tolerance for progressive reforms.
The Denver mayoral contest is revolving around which candidate can best restore a sense of safety.
The mayor’s race in Philadelphia, set for November, has also focused heavily on what candidates would do to stop a wave of violence.