Democrats’ divide: Voters of color and white liberals diverge on crime

Rick Caruso speaks to reporters holding microphones and phones toward him.
Rick Caruso speaks to reporters on Feb. 11 after filing to run for mayor of Los Angeles. His advisors believe public safety will rise in importance as an issue and create a receptive audience for their billionaire developer candidate.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Few issues put Democratic elected officials in as difficult a bind as rising crime.

Changing a criminal justice system that locks up people — especially Black men — at a higher rate than in almost any other developed nation ranks as a high priority for many Democrats, particularly Black voters and younger white liberals.

But as homicides increase in much of the country, public safety also has risen as a priority for voters. And an emphasis on public safety almost inevitably creates tension with efforts to reform the system.

Making the issue harder for Democrats, key groups in their coalition see the issue differently: White liberals tend to see crime as a less pressing issue than Black and Latino Democrats do, multiple polls show. Black voters remain strongly supportive of changing the justice system, but support among Latino voters has waned.

Those splits in Democratic ranks create trouble for the party’s elected officials, even as rising crime also creates an audience for Republican appeals.

Those dynamics are already affecting California politics early in this election year, as shown by the new UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. State voters could weigh in this fall on a ballot measure that would roll back some criminal justice reforms adopted in recent years. And public safety issues could play a major role in the June 7 primary for mayor of Los Angeles.


Exploiting a rift

Last year, Eric Adams, a former New York police officer, rode concerns about public safety, especially in working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, to victory in New York City’s mayoral race, becoming the second Black mayor in the city’s history.

In Los Angeles, Rick Caruso, a billionaire, white real-estate developer, is about as different a character from Adams as could be imagined. But he has opened his campaign with a similar public safety emphasis.

In an interview this week with Ben Oreskes, Caruso criticized L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who faces a recall effort pushed by opponents who accuse him of being soft on crime.

Voters are “scared, they’re frustrated. They’re angry at governments. They feel left behind,” Caruso said. “They want change, and they want hope, and they want the ability for their kids to walk to school and play in a park and not worry about homeless encampments around them and not worry about crime rising.”

Arguments of that sort don’t have to be fatal to Democratic hopes for reform, said Roshni Nedungadi, a founding partner of HIT Strategies, a Democratic polling firm that specializes in studying the attitudes of voters of color and younger voters.

“The way that criminal justice reform is portrayed often involves a false choice between more police and an absence of public safety,” she argues. Her firm’s polling shows that a Democratic message that talks about alternative ways of achieving safe communities, including shifting resources to other needs, can sway voters, she said.

Caruso’s advisors, however, include veterans of New York politics, and they’ve clearly taken the lessons of Adams’ success to heart. They believe public safety will rise in importance as an issue as the campaign proceeds — much as it did in New York — and create a receptive audience for their candidate.

In his interview, Caruso called for adding 1,500 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department. His advisors have sought to position him to take advantage of the crime issue, referring prominently to his tenure as president of the L.A. Police Commission, which may double as an effort to get voters to see him in that light, rather than in the less popular persona of real estate magnate.

That could be a tough sell, both in June’s multi-candidate primary and, if he makes it that far, in a November runoff in which the other candidate likely would be Rep. Karen Bass, who is the clear front-runner in the race.

Still, Democrats would make a mistake if they dismissed the potential power of crime as an issue, something a lot of national Democratic leaders did until Adams’ victory.

Part of that stemmed from what Democratic political analyst Ruy Teixeira refers to as the “Fox News fallacy” — the assumption by liberals that if Fox reports about something, it must be false.

But much of Democratic leaders’ reticence flows from their knowledge of how the issue of crime can block their criminal justice reform agenda.

President Biden spent considerable time in the Democratic primaries apologizing for — or at least trying to explain away — the tough-on-crime policies he advocated during the 1980s and ’90s, a period when crime rates were much higher. He and his top advisors are deeply familiar with the cross-pressures that Democrats encounter when crime rises.

Already, those pressures are evident. Recall efforts against recently elected progressive prosecutors have cropped up in several places. One, aimed at San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin, is scheduled for the June ballot. In Congress last summer, the public perception of rising crime strengthened the hands of conservative Republicans and shut down efforts to negotiate a compromise on a police reform measure that Bass had championed.

There’s also a legitimate debate over how much crime has increased and whether recent efforts to send fewer people to prison have played any role.

Homicides have risen in much of the country, but many types of property crime have declined. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that homicides were up about 17% last year in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco. Auto theft and car break-ins were up, burglaries down. Property crimes in general are up relative to 2020, but that year was an all-time low, and those crime rates remain down compared with earlier years.

Voters don’t necessarily care about such nuances, however. In Los Angeles, for example, 71% of voters say crime is up in their local area, with 42% saying it’s up “a lot,” according to the Berkeley IGS poll. Statewide, 65% of voters see an increase, the poll found.

Those numbers vary noticeably among groups and split Democratic constituencies.

Nationally, Black Democrats are about twice as likely as white Democrats to say that reducing crime should be a top priority for Biden and Democrats in Congress (70% vs. 34%), according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Latino Democrats landed in between, with 56% saying the issue should be a top priority.

A division shows up in Los Angeles, as well. About 1 in 5 of the city’s voters are white people who identify as strong liberals, the Berkeley IGS poll found. And those strongly liberal whites, who make up a central part of the Democratic voter base, are less likely to say they believe crime in their local area has gone up a lot (28% say it has) than are Latinos (38%) or whites who identify as somewhat liberal (41%), moderate (57%) or conservative (75%). Black voters were also less likely (28%) to say that crime locally had risen a lot.

Clearly, white conservatives don’t overwhelmingly live in neighborhoods that have been more affected by crime than white liberals. The numbers illustrate how much ideology shapes the way people perceive the world. But it’s those perceptions that influence how people vote.

So when the poll asked voters if they thought the state should roll back Proposition 47, the voter-passed initiative from 2014 that reduced penalties for some property crimes, it should be no surprise that strongly liberal whites and Black voters were among the least likely to say yes, while Latino voters and less liberal whites favored the idea.

Within Los Angeles, 61% of Latino voters, 71% of white moderates and 89% of white conservatives favored amending Proposition 47. Asian American voters and whites who identified as somewhat liberal were closely divided on the issue, while about 7 in 10 Black voters and strongly liberal white voters opposed any changes.

Could those divisions among Democratic constituencies create an opening for a candidate like Caruso to exploit, especially running against a liberal Democrat, like Bass, who has spent much of her career identified with police reform efforts?

He seems willing to bet millions that it might.

Rick Caruso wears a suit and speaks to reporters holding microphones
Rick Caruso speaks to reporters on Feb. 11 after filing to run for mayor of Los Angeles. His advisors believe public safety will rise in importance as an issue and create a receptive audience for their billionaire developer candidate.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Berkeley IGS/LA Times poll

The new poll had a lot of news — much of it not great for Democrats.

As Phil Willon reported, fears about crime and concern over his handling of homelessness have left Gov. Gavin Newsom with sagging approval ratings. Five months after he handily defeated a recall, 48% of registered voters approved of his job performance, while 47% disapproved. It’s a measure of the weakness of state Republicans that the governor is widely considered a near lock for reelection this fall.

Newsom should be vulnerable, but California Republicans blew their chance with their ill-fated recall effort, George Skelton wrote.

Of course, things could be worse. Newsom could be facing the sort of verdict the voters are giving Sen. Dianne Feinstein. After winning six elections to the Senate, Feinstein’s ratings with voters have plummeted, Melanie Mason reported. Much of the drop comes from Democrats who have turned against her. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris don’t do so well, either, the poll found.

As mentioned above, the poll found that a majority of voters want to reinstate tougher penalties for some crimes, changing Proposition 47, as Hannah Wiley reported.

And, also as mentioned above, Bass has taken an early lead in the L.A. mayoral race, as Oreskes reported.

Finally, as Tom Curwen wrote, the poll showed that nearly three-quarters of the city’s voters rated their city as either “one of the best places to live” or at least “nice.” That’s something of a contrast to all the doom and gloom about people fleeing high prices, homeless encampments and the region’s endless traffic.

We have more results from the poll coming next week, so stay tuned.

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The latest from the campaign trail

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) endorsed the GOP primary challenger to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney on Thursday, his latest show of fealty to former President Trump as Republicans try to take control of Congress, Seema Mehta reported.

McCarthy did not mention Cheney by name as he announced he was backing attorney Harriet Hageman in Wyoming’s August primary.

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The latest from Washington

Nearly two years ago, the House decided to allow members to vote remotely by proxy, presenting the measure as a temporary expedient to deal with the COVID-19 emergency. But, as Jennifer Haberkorn reported, lawmakers are using proxy voting for a wide array of reasons far beyond its original intent.

Vice President Harris is in Europe to meet this weekend with Ukraine’s president and anxious European allies as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to keep the world guessing about whether he will order his army to invade Ukraine. As Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman reported, Harris was leading a delegation to the Munich Security Conference that includes Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other top national security officials.

During a quick stop at the United Nations Security Council before heading for Europe, Blinken said that “the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine,” Bierman, Del Wilber and Nabih Bulos reported. “The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people,” Blinken said.

Early Friday, Harris met with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO and reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine, Stokols reported.

Biden has instructed the National Archives to turn over White House visitor logs to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, again rejecting Trump’s claims of executive privilege, Sarah Wire reported. Trump sued in October to block the release of other White House documents when Biden made a similar decision not to uphold his executive privilege claims. The Supreme Court in January ordered that the documents be handed over to the committee.

Meanwhile, Wire reported, the Capitol Police force has not made the majority of improvements recommended by the department’s inspector general after the Jan. 6 attack. More training and intelligence gathering to anticipate and protect against threats to Congress are among the most pressing needs, he told a congressional panel.

Federal health officials said Wednesday that they will soon update their guidance on mask wearing, Anumita Kaur wrote. The announcement came as several states have recently dialed back mandates requiring people to wear face coverings while indoors.

After weeks of criticizing Biden’s plan to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, some Republican senators are moving to tamp down the insinuations about race, Nolan McCaskill reported.

As the nomination approaches, Black Americans in the legal profession said they feel conflicting emotions: vindication and pride, exasperation and dread, Tyrone Beason reported.

How much is inflation affecting American families? Don Lee looks at the economic evidence regarding inflation’s impact.

For years, U.S. officials knew of mounting evidence that the president of Honduras was a drug trafficker. But, as Kate Linthicum, Tracy Wilkinson and Paulo Cerrato reported, officials were reluctant to indict the sitting president of an allied nation. But on Jan. 27, Juan Orlando Hernández left office, and the State Department has now formally requested his extradition on drug trafficking and weapons charges.

The latest from California

San Francisco voters recalled three members of the city board of education this week: School board President Gabriela López and members Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins. The results are “noteworthy precisely because the recall took place in liberal San Francisco,” Mark Barabak wrote.

“It’s not a case of pro-Trumpers seeking to ban books, or of conservatives stirring up unfounded concerns over critical race theory being introduced into grade schools. Parents of all political stripes have emerged as one of the most potent forces in campaigns and elections today, and woe to anyone seen as standing in the way of their kids’ education.”

After Tuesday’s trio of school board recalls, Democrats and Republicans alike saw the city not as an outlier, but as a potential bellwether, Mehta, Mason and Melissa Gomez wrote. Democrats in California and across the nation described the recall as a cautionary tale that voters view their party as insufficiently responsive to core concerns like education and safety.

Newsom announced a new, long-term COVID-19 strategy. As Taryn Luna reported, the governor said that, while the state is ending emergency measures such as mask requirements, it needs to remain prepared for future outbreaks. “We have all come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis, that there is no end date, that there is not a moment where we declare victory,” he said.

California lawmakers are targeting doctors and websites that promote COVID-19 misinformation in the latest batch of bills introduced by a group of Democrats pushing for stronger vaccination laws in the state, Melody Gutierrez reported.

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez on Wednesday called for former Councilman Herb Wesson to return on a temporary basis, to represent the South L.A. district that elected Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas a little more than a year ago, David Zahniser reported. Ridley-Thomas is fighting a federal corruption charge. His attorney called Martinez’s proposal premature.

California appellate court Judge Patricia Guerrero, who was raised by Mexican immigrant parents in the Imperial Valley, was nominated by Newsom to the California Supreme Court, Nathan Solis reported. If approved, she would be the first Latina on the state’s highest court.

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