Democrats’ challenge: Respond to voters’ perceptions of crime and disorder

San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin looking somber as he talks with supporters.
San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin greets supporters after election returns showed him being recalled by voters Tuesday.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

For the last year, progressive Democrats have lost elections in some of the party’s most prominent strongholds, with concern over crime and public disorder playing a major role in the outcomes.

Last year, Eric Adams rode a wave of concern over crime to victory over more progressive candidates in New York’s mayoral race. This week, San Francisco voters recalled their progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin. In Los Angeles, concern over crime provided the fuel behind Rick Caruso‘s rise in the race for mayor, which now goes to a runoff between the billionaire developer, a former Republican, and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass.

These elections don’t mean that voters have decided to reverse direction on criminal justice policy or head back to the mass incarceration policies of the 1980s and 1990s. The same San Francisco voters who removed Boudin from office, for example, voted overwhelmingly (74% in the latest count) for incumbent California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, who has strongly supported progressive policies on crime and appears well positioned for statewide victory in November.

Across the Bay in Contra Costa County, Dist. Atty. Diana Becton, a progressive, won reelection. In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has become a conservative favorite since his election four years ago, was forced into a runoff after a campaign that focused attention on his failure to curb abuses by deputies in his department.

Each of those elections had their own quirks. In Boudin’s case, the gusher of money his opponents raised clearly played a big role in his defeat. So, too, did the fact that he was elected in the first place with just 36% of the first-place votes in San Francisco’s ranked-choice system, meaning that he entered office in 2020 without a majority base of support.

But progressives would be making a mistake if they seized on those idiosyncratic factors and ignored the broader pattern of concern that urban voters have expressed.


Dealing with low-level crime

“I don’t think the electorate was rejecting criminal justice reform policies,” said San Francisco State political scientist Jason McDaniel, who studies urban politics. But progressives have been slow to respond to a public that feels “the general state of things not being very good right now,” he added.

That problem goes beyond the criminal justice realm. Democrats reacted slowly when inflation first began to accelerate, insisting that rising prices were “transitory” — a word the White House has now all but banned.

Administration officials were also slow last year to acknowledge the extent of problems at the southern border.

On crime, the initial response from many Democratic officials to public concerns about a rise nationwide was to insist the problem was overblown. Violent crime rates remain much lower than they were a generation ago, they said, which is true, but not responsive to voters’ anxieties.

In San Francisco, Boudin responded to criticisms of his record by pointing to data showing that the city’s homicide rate remains low.

“He told everyone that they were wrong,” said Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt, who supported the recall. “You can’t ever start from the premise that voters are wrong, that’s Politics 101.”

Part of that reaction was the typical defensive response of a party in power to criticism. Part was an unhealthy tendency of some Democratic activists to assume that any problem touted on Fox News must be fake.

But part of the reaction also comes from a mismatch between the problems voters worry about and the ones progressive prosecutors feel they should be held accountable for.

It’s true that judging by the major categories of crime the FBI reports annually, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles remain fairly safe, even as several types of crime, including shootings and auto thefts, are higher now than a few years ago. But as voters have said in polls, focus group and interviews, many don’t feel safe.

In our most recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll of California voters, 75% said they believed crime in the state was increasing. Half said crime was on the rise in their own communities. Forty-five percent of voters statewide said they felt less safe in their neighborhoods than they did four years ago; only 6% said they felt safer.

Some of that concern no doubt stems from news coverage, although the tendency of television news to over-emphasize lurid crimes has been true for decades.

But there’s something else at play, especially in the nation’s big, coastal cities: Concern about crime has risen hand-in-glove with the visible increase in homelessness.

When voters say that “crime” is a top concern, they may not be thinking about homicide statistics so much as the person they saw taking drugs on the corner or the anxiety they feel about what their children might see on the street.

The sort of low-level, persistent disorder associated with mass homelessness poses a serious problem for criminal justice reform, which holds, as a core belief, that the apparatus of law enforcement should not be society’s primary way of responding to the problems of poverty.

The progressive prosecutors elected in recent years — George Gascón in Los Angeles, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Alvin Bragg in Manhattan and Boudin, as well as others — have each adopted their own individual policies. What they all have in common is an emphasis on reducing the number of people behind bars by bringing fewer charges, seeking shorter sentences and, especially, by diverting nonviolent and low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system.

“We often ask prosecutors to do too much,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, who heads the justice program at New York University’s Brennan Center, which has supplied much of the policy analysis to bolster the reform movement.

Many of the problems that urban voters see on their streets — homelessness, drug use, untreated mental illness — are “societal problems,” she said. “You need to ask, is that public disorder something that you need a law enforcement intervention for?”

“We incarcerate millions of people,” she said. “Many of those people don’t need to be there.”

The evidence for that proposition is hard to argue with. Research has shown that mass incarceration not only fails to make society safer, it contributes to crime by depriving people of livelihoods, disrupting families and communities and locking up young offenders with career criminals.

Imprisonment is also hideously expensive, which is one reason prominent conservative figures have backed efforts to shorten criminal sentences and send fewer people to prison.

The problem, however, is that while progressive prosecutors and their allies have been explicit about who shouldn’t be dealing with low-level disorder — not police and not prosecutors — they’ve often seemed vague about who should, pointing to over-burdened social service agencies or advocating for programs that might work in the long run, but provide little help in the here and now.

That’s contributed mightily to the frustration voters have expressed — the feeling that elected officials aren’t taking seriously the problems they experience daily.

Figuring out how to retool the government’s response to problems like homelessness is, of course, not easy. But one lesson progressive prosecutors and their allies might take away from Boudin’s loss is that, at minimum, voters need to have the sense that all their elected officials, including the district attorney, take the problem seriously and are trying to work together on solutions.

“You can say, ‘It’s not my responsibility alone,’” McDaniel said. But voters “want a government that works.”

The Jan. 6 hearings

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol held its first public hearing Thursday night. As Sarah Wire and Anumita Kaur reported, the committee used previously unseen video of violence and graphic, emotional testimony from an officer wounded in the melee to place then-President Trump at the center of what House members called a conspiracy to overrule the will of voters.

If you missed the hearing, here’s a rundown of key moments.

By contrast with the sometimes-rambling nature of most congressional hearings, this two-hour opening hearing was televised drama of the highest order, carefully produced to highlight the key evidence, Lorraine Ali wrote. The committee hired James Goldston, former president of ABC News, to produce the presentation.

In advance of the first hearing, Wire took this look at the committee’s work to date and what to expect when the television lights go on.

Two days before the hearing, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is based in Santa Ana, ordered conservative lawyer John Eastman to give the House panel 159 more emails, including one the judge said was evidence of a likely crime related to the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. As Wire reported, the Dec. 22 email concerned the legal strategy that Trump’s allies should follow in trying to get the election results overturned. Eastman recommended they avoid going to court, which might risk a judicial ruling that would “tank the January 6 strategy.”

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Summit of the Americas

The U.S. has been hosting leaders of many — but not all — Western Hemisphere nations at a Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.

As Courtney Subramanian reported, President Biden opened the summit Wednesday by declaring democracy a “hallmark of our region.”

“As we meet again today, in a moment when democracy is under assault around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories, but the essential ingredient to Americas’ futures,” Biden said. “Our region is large and diverse,” he added. “We don’t always agree on everything. But because we’re democracies, we work through our disagreements with mutual respect and dialogue.”

The night before Biden’s speech, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, completing a round of speeches, addressed a symposium for student journalists to defend press freedoms. But as Subramanian and Tracy Wilkinson reported, he quickly found himself batting back difficult questions, like why the U.S. deals with governments that allegedly kill journalists while condemning others.

As Wilkinson reported, the U.S. did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela because the administration considers them undemocratic dictatorships. Instead, many dissidents from those countries are present. Wilkinson profiled one, a Cuban art historian and activist named Carolina Barrero, who said she has been repeatedly threatened with expulsion, imprisonment and torture due to her activism and involvement in demonstrations against the Cuban government.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Blinken defended the administration’s decision to exclude Cuba, along with Nicaragua and Venezuela, while inviting other governments with similarly questionable democratic credentials such as Brazil, Wilkinson wrote.

When planning got under way for the summit, the administration circulated an agenda identifying its major themes: improving healthcare, addressing climate change, enhancing democracy and expanding access to technology. But as Subramanian reported, members of civil society groups noticed a glaring omission: migration. Administration officials put off discussion of migration until the summit’s final day, Friday, and put forward a declaration committing more countries to share the burden of hosting migrants by creating more visa pathways to move legally or to allow migrants to obtain humanitarian protections. It is not at all clear, however, which nations will sign on.

Some summit participants noticed something missing in their view of Los Angeles: No homeless encampments. In advance of the summit, officials cleared encampments from a security zone around the South Park area, which included the convention center, where many of the summit meetings took place, and several nearby hotels where diplomats and others were staying, Ruben Vives, Rachel Uranga and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde reported. City officials said that 30 previously homeless people were given housing, but it appears that many simply moved to other locations.

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The latest from Washington

It didn’t happen after 13 people were killed at Columbine in 1999, when 26 were gunned down in Newtown in 2012 or when 17 people were murdered at Parkland in 2018. But, as Jennifer Haberkorn reported, the Senate is finally engaging in serious discussions over a bipartisan gun policy agreement that could save lives, even if the result is a far less ambitious policy than progressives say is necessary. If an agreement is reached, the Senate could vote on it as early as next week.

In the House, lawmakers Wednesday heard heart-wrenching and gripping testimony from parents, a child and a pediatrician who were all personally touched by recent mass shootings. As Anumita Kaur reported, the hearing was an effort by Democrats to highlight in dramatic terms the physical and emotional toll of gun violence two weeks after 19 children and two teachers were shot and killed in an elementary school classroom in Uvalde, Texas.

A few hours later, the House passed a bill that would raise the age limit for purchasing a semiautomatic rifle and prohibit the sale of ammunition magazines with a capacity of more than 15 rounds. The bill, which passed on a near-party-line vote of 223-204, stands no chance in the Senate.

On Thursday, the House passed a separate measure, a “red flag” bill that might stand a chance in the Senate, as Nolan McCaskill reported. The bill would seek to temporarily remove guns from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. It’s the product of ideas pushed by two Democrats, Reps. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) and Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), both of whom have experienced personal loss due to gun violence. When Carbajal was 12 years old, his sister died by suicide, and McBath’s teenage son was shot and killed in 2012.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday shielded federal border patrol agents from being sued over allegations of unreasonable searches and the use of excessive force. As David Savage reported, in the 6-3 decision, the court’s conservatives said that in nearly all instances federal agents may be not held liable for violating constitutional rights unless Congress has authorized such lawsuits for damages.

The latest from California

Gov. Gavin Newsom is in an enviable political position right now, Taryn Luna reported. With little chance of losing in November and unencumbered by typical reelection politics, he is poised to instead focus on continuing to insert the state into the national debate over reproductive rights and gun control, issues that matter deeply to Californians and could boost his political profile beyond the state‘s borders.

Over the next five months, California will play a significant role in the battle to control the U.S. House, Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta reported. With the primary over and the top-two matchups set, both parties will be focusing on a handful of swing districts. Democrats hope to win back at least some Republican-held districts that Biden carried in 2020. Doing so is key to their hopes of keeping control of the House or, more realistically, holding down the size of the Republican majority.

The next five months will feature a head-to-head battle between two candidates for Los Angeles mayor with very different views of the city and different strategies for assembling a winning coalition, Benjamin Oreskes and Julia Wick reported.

Four years ago, as a little-known retired lieutenant, Villanueva upset the incumbent sheriff — a feat that had not been accomplished in more than a century. Now, after a primary in which he won only 34% of the vote, he is trying to ward off the same fate, Alene Tchekmedyian and Connor Sheets reported. Villanueva’s swing to the right once he won office has alienated many of the Democrats who supported him four years ago and left him vulnerable. His likely opponent in the runoff is retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who is in second with about 25% of the votes and about half the vote counted.

Four members of the Los Angeles City Council are leading in their contests for reelection as the vote count continues, while a fifth is facing a likely runoff, David Zahniser and Marisa Gerber reported.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) appeared headed for a runoff election to replace Sheila Kuehl on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, with two candidates in a close contest to be his opponent, Jeong Park reported. West Hollywood City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath and state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Malibu) were battling for the second spot.

Some of the most-watched races in Tuesday’s election underscored how Democrats — particularly those on the party’s left — are scrambling to balance their goals of a reimagined justice system with rising voter anxiety about crime and homelessness, James Queally, Mason and Laura Nelson reported.

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