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Essential Politics: Democrats scramble to combat rising homicide rates in American cities

President Biden and Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland at the White House
President Biden and Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland leaving the State Dining Room at the White House on Wednesday after a meeting on preventing gun crime.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

This is the June 25, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

A rise in violent crime in the nation’s cities poses a threat to the Democratic Party that little else could rival; finding a way to address the problem has posed difficult challenges for the party’s leaders.

Over the last two decades, America’s politics has divided more and more along lines of city versus countryside. Democrats built an urban-based coalition that unites progressive whites — mostly young and college-educated — with a Black and Latino voter base that’s more often working class.

That happened only after years of sharp declines in crime opened the way for the transformation of urban neighborhoods from Crown Heights in Brooklyn to Silver Lake in Los Angeles.

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Just as white flight from cities helped power the Republican rise from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, the urban resurgence of the last 20 years, despite all the attendant problems of gentrification, helped make possible the coalitions that elected Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Rising crime acts like kryptonite on such coalitions, sapping their strength and laying bare their flaws.

As homicide numbers mounted nationwide over the last year, many leading Democrats seemed uncertain how to respond. Progressive activists, focused on ending abusive policing, defined much of the Democratic message last year. More centrist Democrats believe the activist slogan of “defund the police” cost them seats in last year’s election, but they had little response of their own to offer.

That began to change this week as President Biden sought to regain the initiative and keep his party’s divide on the issue from worsening.

In a White House event on Wednesday, Biden aimed to reframe the crime debate around the issue of guns — politically safer territory on which his party stands relatively united.

Meanwhile, a new figure, Eric Adams, the likely next mayor of New York and a Black former NYPD officer, staked his own claim to national leadership on the subject. He dominated the city’s Democratic primary Tuesday after a campaign focused on reducing crime in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

A homicide surge

Overall crime in the U.S. remains at historically low levels. The number of nonviolent crimes, such as auto thefts and nonresidential burglaries, has continued to drop in most places. Nonviolent crime makes up the bulk of illegal activity.

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Homicides, however, have surged.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, this month reported 162 homicides in the city so far this year, a more than 25% increase over the same period a year ago. Similar increases have occurred across the country, from Miami to Oakland, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Assn.

The homicide rate remains far below the terrible levels reached in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the recent increases have wiped out years of progress. No one entirely understands why, and neither party’s explanation fully fits the facts.

Republicans have blamed last year’s racial justice protests and subsequent debates over shifting money out of police department budgets.

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“American small businesses, families and communities are experiencing the devastating effects of anti-police rhetoric and police department budget cuts at the hands of Democrat politicians,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement this week.

But homicides have risen in cities that increased their police budgets as well as those that cut them, in cities that saw major protests last year and those that did not, as well as in cities that went through intense COVID-19 lockdowns and those that took a more relaxed approach.

Moreover, the homicide increase began months before last summer’s racial justice protests: Homicide rates nationwide bottomed out in 2014 and started creeping upward in some places the next year.

Biden points in a different direction. In the U.S., homicide usually means shooting, and the sale of guns soared last year — hitting almost 2.4 million, a 20% increase over 2019, according to federal statistics. More guns equals more homicides, Biden aides say.

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At the White House on Wednesday, Biden promised a crackdown on dealers who flout gun laws and sell weapons without doing background checks, and he renewed his calls for stronger gun laws.

“If you willfully sell a gun to someone who is prohibited from possessing it, if you willfully fail to run a background check, if you willfully falsify a record, if you willfully fail to cooperate with the tracing requests or inspections, my message to you is this: We’ll find you,” Biden said. “We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets.”

From a substantive standpoint, that points in a useful direction. Many criminologists agree that the greater number of guns in circulation has played a role in the homicide rise. Efforts to keep guns off the streets should help, they say.

Biden and his top aides also made the case that his $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan provides money for cities and counties to hire more cops. They’ve gone after Republicans for voting unanimously against it.

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“Some might say that the other party was for defunding the police,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “I’ll let others say that.”

Biden has years of experience on crime legislation. But that’s now a point of controversy in his party. The 1994 crime bill he helped push through bolstered tough sentences that many progressives blame for worsening mass incarceration. Emphasizing gun enforcement could shift the debate onto safer ground for him. The emphasis on helping local governments beef up law enforcement could also blunt the GOP’s continuing attacks.

What the emphasis on guns does not do is resolve the tension between reducing crime and reforming policing. Talks in Congress on a bill to set national standards on policing remain difficult, despite a statement by negotiators that they have the “framework” of a deal.

Nationwide, the goal of building police forces that maintain public safety while consistently protecting individual rights remains elusive.

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That’s where Adams says he’ll make a mark. Currently the Brooklyn borough president, he took a strong lead in the vote count Tuesday night in New York’s Democratic primary for mayor, racking up big totals in precincts with Black or Latino majorities.

Adams first came to prominence as a Black officer denouncing racism within the police department. In this campaign, however, he positioned himself as an advocate for more effective law enforcement, sharply criticizing progressives who, he said at a rally earlier this year, had “hijacked the conversation of what everyday New Yorkers want. They want to be safe.”

New York mayoral candidate Eric Adams celebrates at his primary election night party Tuesday.
(Kevin Hagen / Associated Press)

With the city’s ranked-choice voting system and tens of thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted, a final result won’t be known for weeks, but Adams on Thursday spoke as the presumptive winner. He holds an advantage of some 75,000 votes over his closest rival, Maya Wiley, who argued for shifting resources away from policing and had the support of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the votes of many of the city’s young, white progressives.

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At a news conference outside Borough Hall, Adams said his campaign had lessons for the party as a whole: “If the Democratic Party fails to recognize what we did here in New York, they’re going to have a problem in the midterm elections and they’re going to have a problem in the presidential election.”

He insisted that safety can be achieved without sacrificing civil liberties.

“America is saying, we want to have justice and safety and end inequality,” he said. And, he added, “I’m going to show America how to run a city.”

‘We have a deal’

Biden campaigned on the claim that he could bring bipartisan deal making back to Washington. Many scoffed. It looks like he may get the last laugh.

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As Jennifer Haberkorn and Eli Stokols reported, a bipartisan group of senators reached an infrastructure deal with Biden on Thursday. It’s a roughly $1-trillion package to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, water systems and broadband internet connections, and the negotiators believe they’ll have the 60 votes needed to pass it through the Senate later this year.

The deal covers only some of the categories of projects that Biden proposed in his own infrastructure plan two months ago. According to White House calculations, he got about two-thirds of what he asked for on the areas the deal includes.

But Biden gets a second bite at the apple. For the kinds of spending not covered by the bipartisan agreement — as well as for tax increases on wealthy Americans and big corporations — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plan to use the special budget procedure known as reconciliation, which can get a bill through the Senate with just 50 votes.

That will require all Democrats to agree, but reaching the bipartisan infrastructure deal will help keep Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia on board. Just to make sure, Biden said he won’t sign the bipartisan deal unless Congress also passes the reconciliation package.

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Expect a long summer of wrangling, with final votes likely in September.

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Harris heads to the border

Vice President Kamala Harris announced on Wednesday that she would visit the border amid persistent criticism from Republicans that she had not yet done so, Molly O’Toole and Noah Bierman reported.

The visit gets Harris to the border ahead of former President Trump, who plans a trip next week. And it comes after the number of teenage border crossers in government shelters has declined significantly from the levels hit earlier this year.

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Harris visited a center that processes migrants and met with advocates, migrants and others.

Meanwhile, Tracy Wilkinson looked at why Biden’s immigration policy focuses on Central America’s Northern Triangle countries.

Biden’s foreign policy

Biden is likely to get a new Iran nuclear deal, Doyle McManus wrote, but it will cost him politically.

In Germany, Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined an effort to combat Holocaust denial and ignorance, Wilkinson reported. Blinken was in Berlin as part of a swing through Western Europe aimed at shoring up transatlantic relationships. He made a stop at the city’s Holocaust memorial to emphasize the need to “ensure that current and future generations learn about the Holocaust and learn from it.”

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Blinken’s stepfather survived the Holocaust — the only member of his family to escape.

On Friday, Biden hosts Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, and Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Nabih Bulos and Stokols reported. The meeting could be tense. Taliban rebels have been gaining ground as U.S. troops exit Afghanistan, imperiling the two leaders.

The latest politics news

More than 150 Houston hospital workers were fired or quit after refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Emily Baumgaertner reported. The case is one of the largest confrontations so far between employers and workers who refuse the shots.

He’s been Trump’s tight-lipped accountant for decades, but as New York prosecutors close in on Allen Weisselberg, will he keep quiet? Chris Megerian and Stokols took a look at the man who keeps many of Trump’s secrets.

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Former Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California’s Simi Valley, said he was “proud” to follow the Constitution on Jan. 6 to certify Biden’s win hours after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, some shouting, “Hang Mike Pence.” Pence warned Republicans that “if we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections — we’ll lose our country,” Melanie Mason reported. But the former vice president also lavished praise on Trump, continuing his effort to straddle the party’s divide over the 45th president’s legacy.

The Supreme Court’s busy June

The Supreme Court overturned a key provision of California’s agriculture labor law, David Savage reported. The justices ruled that the state cannot force growers to give union organizers access to their fields.

In a second California case, the justices ruled that police cannot follow a motorist into his home unless they have a warrant or are responding to a true emergency. The justices ruled in a favor of a retired real estate broker from Sonoma County who was ticketed for drunk driving after a California Highway Patrol officer tailed him and followed him into his garage.

Both rulings underscored the libertarian leanings of the high court’s conservative majority, Savage wrote.

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In a third closely watched case, the justices in an 8-1 vote upheld a student’s right to free speech on social media, ruling that a Pennsylvania school district could not discipline a high school student for profane posts she had written about her cheerleading squad.

Senior Democrats (75 and older) have a message for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer: It’s time to go, Mark Barabak wrote.

The latest from Washington

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland announced Friday that the Justice Department would sue Georgia to block its new voting law, Del Wilber reported. “Recent changes to Georgia’s election laws were enacted with a purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color,” Garland said at a news conference.

Pelosi announced Thursday that she would create a House panel to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, Sarah Wire reported. The move comes after Republicans in the Senate blocked a plan for a bipartisan investigation.

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Democrats for the first time used a law allowing Congress to overturn regulations to wipe two Trump policies off the books, Sasha Hupka reported. One of the overturned rules allowed payday lenders to circumvent caps on interest rates. The other involved the information the federal government has to provide to companies in discrimination settlements.

A third Trump rule giving companies more leeway to emit methane from pipelines is expected to be overturned on Friday.

A long-stalled effort to change how the military prosecutes sexual assaults is gaining traction on Capitol Hill, David Cloud reported. The move, pushed for a decade by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would take authority over such cases out of the hands of unit commanders and give it to independent military prosecutors. It won the endorsement on Thursday of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.

With vaccination rates still below par among younger Americans, the Biden administration is offering concerts, games, gift cards and other gifts as incentives to get people to take the shots, Megerian reported.

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The latest from California

Podcast: Katie Hill is taking her revenge porn fight to Congress. Seema Mehta talked with fellow Times staffer Gustavo Arellano about the former congresswoman’s case.

Conservative activists who push voter fraud claims hope to recruit thousands of people to watch polling places in the recall election, Paige St. John and Anita Chabria reported. In November, poll watchers from one of the groups caused disruptions at some polls.

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