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A referendum on crime?

Voters gave mixed reviews to tough-on-crime candidates, but public safety concerns still tightened key races

New York City police officers handcuff a subway shooting suspect on April 13. Associated Press/Photo by PC Keyes

A referendum on crime?

Michelle Alyssa Go’s typical morning subway commute ended in tragedy in January. The 40-year-old woman stood on the New York City subway platform, waiting for the southbound R train at about 9:40 a.m. Sixty-one-year-old Martial Simon pushed Go onto the tracks in front of the oncoming train. Police said Simon was homeless and suffered from schizophrenia. He had served time in prison twice. “Her life was taken too soon in a senseless act of violence,” her family tweeted, “And we pray that she gets the justice she deserves.”

Go’s is one of eight subway murders so far this year. Since March 2020, 22 New Yorkers have been murdered on the subway. Though still 4.5 percent lower than pre-pandemic rates, transit crime rose 40 percent from 2021. Fears rose along with the rates.

Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin put crime at the center of his bid for governor in New York. He accused Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul of underplaying public safety concerns. Zeldin pledged to get rid of cashless bail policies and fire New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who directed his office not to prosecute low-level crime and reduce sentencing for crimes like knifepoint robbery, commercial burglary, and “low-level” drug dealing.

Zeldin wasn’t the only Republican candidate who made public safety a key issue of his campaign. The party expected the message to resonate with voters amid growing backlash against “defund the police” rhetoric and liberal prosecutors who prioritize criminal justice reform over getting criminals off the street. But the results were mixed. Though the midterm elections were not a referendum on liberal criminal justice policy, public safety fears tightened key races.

Voters gave mixed reviews to tough-on-crime candidates in both local and governors races. Kurt Altman is the Arizona and New Mexico state director for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform initiative. He kept his eye on the county attorney race in Maricopa County, Ariz. Republican incumbent Rachel Mitchell beat her Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle. Voters chose Mitchell’s traditional approach over Gunnigle’s promised reforms.

“This race is critical. Gun crime, homicides, organized retail theft, and drug trafficking are impacting neighborhoods across our nation,” Mitchell told the Arizona Republic in July “The safety of our community depends on a county attorney who will prosecute dangerous criminals.” Her opponent pledged to expunge marijuana convictions, stop over-incarceration, and not prosecute abortion-related cases.

While district attorney races do play a role in crime rates, Altman said top-down messaging is also important for setting the tone on crime. Republican candidate for Arizona governor, Kari Lake, lost to Democrat Katie Hobbs in a neck-and-neck race. Lake prioritized immigration and crime: “People want safe streets. And there’s no denying it. If you’re a Democrat, you have to admit it … our streets aren’t as safe as they once were.” Tight polls showed her focus on the issue made inroads with voters. But crime wasn’t the winning issue in the state.

Backlash to “soft-on-on-crime” policies didn’t hold liberal, reform-minded prosecutors back from victory in several other notable county and district attorney races across the country. In Polk County, Iowa, voters chose Democrat Kimberly Graham over Republican Allan Richards. Throughout her campaign, Graham promised to end cash bail for many nonviolent offenders, stop prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses, and address “racial and income disparities in the justice system.”

Voters elected Vicki Behenna in a high-profile race for Oklahoma County district attorney. Behenna was named executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project in 2015. Her opponent Kevin Calvey emphasized supporting police officers, improving public safety, and cooperating with immigration enforcement.

In a high-profile Texas race, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales easily defended his position from Republican challenger Marc LaHood. Voters agreed with his approach of prosecuting fewer low-level, nonviolent offenses, Gonzales told the San Antonio Express-News. “We’re going to focus on violence involving guns,” he said, “And in order to do that, we had to bring criminal justice reform to the office, which meant that we were not going to focus on low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as misdemeanor marijuana cases.”

The progressive candidate outperformed expectations in the epicenter of the “defund the police” movement. Voters in Minneapolis and greater Hennepin County, Minn., chose self-styled champion of progressive criminal justice reform, Mary Moriarty, for county attorney over Martha Holton Dimick, who campaigned on a more traditional law-and-order platform to confront a rise in violent crime. The results surprised John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Peter Moskos. Violent crime rose by 21 percent throughout the state between 2020 and 2021. “I’m surprised that the county is not facing more of a backlash,” he said. “District attorney is incredibly important.”

But in Alameda County, Calif., the race between Pamela Price, who embraces a “collaborative” criminal justice system and less incarceration, and Republican Terry Wiley, a “public safety” candidate, is still too close to call. Gun violence rose in Oakland over the past year. Price took her first lead in the race yesterday.

In San Francisco, voters recalled liberal District Attorney Chesa Boudin in June for his “soft-on-crime” policies. In a viral LinkedIn post, Davis Smith, founder and CEO of Cotopaxi outdoor gear manufacturer, noted that organized theft occurred several times per week at his stores. Cotopaxi was the second business to pack up shop in the city’s upscale Hayes Valley neighborhood because of smash-and-grab crime, according to the Hayes Valley Merchants Association. On Nov. 8, residents decided to keep interim district attorney Brooke Jenkins as the city’s top prosecutor. “I am putting my foot down on the gas, as it has been for the last four months. San Francisco is no longer a haven for crime,” she said at an event in Chinatown. “The free pass is over.”

Public safety fears tightened some governors’ races in traditionally Democratic states. Governor is the highest office that can directly affect crime on a local level, and the races generate higher turnout than for a city mayor or district attorney. “Criminal justice is a uniquely local issue in the United States,” said Manhattan Institute fellow Charles Fain Lehman. “I think those are probably the most national, the most attended-to races where there’s an impact.”

In New York, Zeldin gained on his opponent as election day neared. Hochul’s 5-point win—the narrowest victory in nearly three decades—indicated that the issue resonated with voters.

Similarly in deep-blue Oregon, Republican Christine Drazan gave Democrat Tina Kortek strong competition in one of the most competitive races in the country. Homelessness and crime have increased in Portland over the last two years, and some Oregon voters said public safety concerns would flip their traditionally blue vote.

But as the mixed bag of results indicates, voters didn’t denounce criminal justice reform uniformly. “People are extremely crime sensitive,” said Lehman. “It isn’t even necessarily that they oppose reform. … I think the reality is that what voters are saying is that crime is too high. We would like it to be lower.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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