Rising crime rates scramble mayoral politics in Democratic-dominated cities

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Skyrocketing crime in most major cities has thrown a spotlight on the policies of Democratic mayors and the reforms many of them pushed in the wake of 2020’s protests.

In cities holding mayoral contests this year, crime has eclipsed many of the problems, such as housing and jobs, that feature in typical races.

In cities without 2022 elections, some Democratic mayors are facing fierce criticism of an approach to criminal justice that many voters blame for allowing violence to proliferate.

Concerns about crime have already played significantly into mayoral politics over the past year. New York City voters selected Mayor Eric Adams from a crowd of liberals last year largely on the basis of his pro-police, anti-crime agenda. In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms surprised many political observers when she did not seek reelection amid scrutiny of her public safety record; the race to replace her was almost completely dominated by conversations about crime.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens prevailed last November on a set of campaign promises that included hiring more police officers and installing thousands of security cameras across the city.

In metropolitan areas around the country, widespread violence has scrambled mayoral politics and left Democrats in even the most liberal places vulnerable to a backlash that could cost them their seats.

LOS ANGELES

Criminal justice reforms have come under the microscope in Los Angeles due in part to an aggressive campaign to secure a recall of the city’s liberal district attorney, George Gascon.

Concerns about homelessness and rising crime have sparked efforts to remove Gascon, who won his post in 2020 amid a national reckoning on race and policing.

Dissatisfaction with Gascon has spilled over into the mayoral contest, where two Democrats are squaring off to replace outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Rick Caruso, a billionaire businessman who surged to the top spot in the June 7 primary, has endorsed the Gascon recall effort and offered financial support for it.

Rep. Karen Bass, Caruso’s November challenger, has levied some mild criticisms at Gascon — in March, for example, she accused him of being too “rigid” in his pursuit of criminal justice reform — but has not explicitly backed the push to remove him.

Cracking down on crime has defined Caruso’s campaign platform. He describes Los Angeles as “the most under-policed big city in America” and has advocated showing more “respect and gratitude” to police officers besieged by negative public perceptions.

Caruso pledged to add 1,500 more officers to the Los Angeles Police Department and ultimately grow its ranks to 11,000, which would mark the highest staffing levels the department has ever seen, if he succeeded.

Bass, by contrast, has proposed hiring more nonofficer staff, such as mental health specialists and social workers, to handle some duties presently addressed by sworn officers. She has put the ideal number of LAPD officers at 9,750, which is modestly larger than the current size of the force.

A recent poll showed most Los Angeles voters want to see the size of the LAPD increased or at least preserved; just 15 percent of voters supported reducing the size of the city’s police force.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser is cruising to reelection to a third term in November after clearing a crowded Democratic primary field last month.

Crime was a central feature of the primary contest, during which Bowser took a tougher line on public safety than her two top challengers. Councilman Trayon White and Councilman Robert White, two city officials who opposed her in the primary, criticized Bowser’s focus on upping funding for the police department.

“I don’t think the police are the end-all solution for reducing crime,” Trayon White said in a mayoral primary debate last month.

Bowser had touted plans to put hundreds more officers on the city’s police force. As crime levels in the nation’s capital have climbed, the number of available officers has fallen to the lowest point in years. That has driven up police response times to 911 calls and forced the remaining officers to work more and more overtime.

The Metropolitan Police Department had 3,519 officers as of April; Bowser’s proposals include growing the force to 4,000 over the next decade.

Her pro-police push ahead of the primary drew perhaps the clearest distinction between her and her liberal opponents; the overwhelmingly Democratic population in Washington, D.C., means her victory in November is all but assured.

MILWAUKEE

Voters in Milwaukee selected their mayor in April from a pair of candidates who both ran on hiring more police officers and stamping out violence.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson defeated former Alder Bob Donovan after a runoff this year in which plans to lower crime dominated the conversation.

But in the deeply liberal Wisconsin city, Johnson’s pledge to pursue what he called “holistic public safety,” an increase in police staffing coupled with investments in mental health and youth services, among other nonpolice solutions, won the day.

Milwaukee police said murders were up 38% through the end of June compared to the same time period last year.

PHILADELPHIA

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney landed himself in political trouble this week when he lamented the spike in gun violence that has occurred on his watch and mused that he’ll be “happy” when he’s no longer mayor of his city.

Kenney is term-limited and can’t seek reelection next year, but his handling of public safety, and how his successor will handle it differently, is likely to be a top focus of next year’s mayoral race.

In 2017, Kenney endorsed the city’s far-left district attorney, Larry Krasner, who recently won reelection despite presiding over a significant increase in violence. Kenney stopped short of endorsing Krasner last year during his primary battle, but he did not go so far as to push back on his performance, instead offering to stay “neutral.”

Like in Los Angeles, where the next mayor’s relationship with the city’s aggressively liberal district attorney could be determinative for voters, Philadelphia’s mayoral contest next year could focus in part on how the candidates pledge to combat crime alongside Krasner.

CHICAGO

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot will run for reelection in February, and the field of candidates lining up to challenge her is already growing.

Lightfoot has faced criticism of many of her public safety choices, including for imposing a vaccine mandate that threatened the jobs of hundreds of police officers at a time when the force was facing a shortage and for limiting when officers can give chase to suspects.

The race to succeed her is almost certain to focus on how to deal with the city’s long-standing but growing crime problem.

Some candidates forming bids are already talking about how they would hire more police and push a harder line on crime than Lightfoot.