The Memo: Lightfoot is latest Democrat to fall to anger over crime

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is the latest Democrat to fall to public concerns over crime.

Lightfoot suffered an ignominious fate Tuesday when she failed to even make the runoff in her bid for a second term.

Paul Vallas, a centrist Democrat who topped the Chicago poll by a comfortable margin, has promised to grapple more forcefully with the crime problem in the nation’s third-largest city — and has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police.

Lightfoot, by contrast, had at one point sought to cut around $80 million from the police department’s budget.

“Paul Vallas speaking intently on that issue was part of the reason he was able to garner the largest share of the vote on Feb. 28,” said Tom Bowen, a Chicago-based Democratic strategist who worked for both Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

A GOP analyst in Chicago, Chris Robling, agreed, calling the issue of crime “decisive.”

“The Vallas campaign made public security and personal safety the focal points of his campaign,” Robing added. “Obviously the campaign’s polling and Vallas’s own sense of the electorate was, ‘We won’t go wrong by focusing on public safety.’”

There were, of course, other factors to the mayor’s defeat — not least her peculiar propensity to alienate former allies and her failure to win the whole-hearted allegiance of any major constituency in the city.

Still, the result is one more data point demonstrating the political perils for Democrats who don’t persuade voters they are sufficiently tough on crime.

Back in 2021, several progressive candidates hoping to become mayor of New York City were vanquished by Eric Adams (D), a former police officer and centrist, in the Democratic primary.

The same year, voters in Minneapolis — the city where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in 2020 — emphatically rejected a ballot measure that would have supplanted the police department with a Department of Public Safety.

In June 2022, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D) was recalled by voters unhappy with his lenient approach on crime.

And even though Democrats suffered fewer losses than expected in last November’s midterms, they were hit hard in New York state, where Republicans gained four House seats and polls showed crime to be among voters’ top concerns.

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle contended that “crime has always been a very important talking point for the right” and that “conservatives have often racialized and urbanized crime.”

But he also acknowledged, “Democrats still have difficulty in talking about how to reduce crime,” given that the nuances the party often favors don’t always persuade moderate voters.

That problem becomes particularly salient when crime rates rise, as they have done over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now there’s a new challenge looming on the issue.

President Biden faces a tricky political choice thanks for a reformist law passed by the city council in the District of Columbia.

The overhaul of the District’s criminal code includes a number of changes that ease sentences.

Once the law takes effect, mandatory minimum sentences will be abolished for all offenses with the exception of first-degree murder — and even in that case, the length of a compulsory sentence is reduced to 24 years from 30 years.

The law also reduces the maximum sentences for a number of crimes— often substantially. The maximum sentence for armed carjacking, for example, is down to 24 years from 40 years. The maximum for unlawful possession of a gun by a felon falls to 4 years from 15 years.

The D.C. bill is so far-reaching, at a time when crime rates in the District are elevated, that it was vetoed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, a mainstream Democrat who tangled with then-President Trump during the George Floyd protests. But reformers on the council easily mustered the votes to override her veto.

Republicans in Congress are now putting pressure on Democrats, as they push a so-called resolution of disapproval to the D.C. law. The rebuke, which would quash the D.C. law, has already passed the House and appears to have a strong shot in the Senate given that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed support for it.

In that scenario, Biden would be in a serious bind as to how to use his power of veto.

If the president lets the D.C. changes stand, Republicans will accuse him of being soft on crime. If he pushes back against them, he will offend progressives — and annoy advocates who want the District of Columbia to be freed from congressional oversight.

Republican strategist Brad Blakeman told The Hill that the label of being lax on crime “is completely toxic” for Democrats, including Biden.

“But you can’t expect anything different when people feel unsafe and they feel the criminals are running the city,” Blakeman added.

Centrist Democrats have worried about their party’s political vulnerability on crime since at least 2020.

The “Defund the Police” slogan in particular was seen by many as disastrously counterproductive — and as a reason why the party’s performance in congressional elections in 2020 was unexceptional even as Biden ended Trump’s time in the White House.

In his first State of the Union address in March 2022, Biden conspicuously called to “fund the police.”

Some Democratic strategists, such as Bowen, believe a modulated approach can pay off for his party.

Voters “want their leaders to combat a complex problem with complex solutions,” he said.

But so far, Democrats are struggling to unlock the code on the topic.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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