Posted on June 10, 2022

Democrats Face Pressure on Crime From a New Front: Their Base

Alexander Burns, New York Times, June 3, 2022

A crowd of several hundred voters listened closely as Wes Moore, a Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, unspooled a soaring peroration about bringing a spirit of unity to state government. Introduced by a sparkling drum line and a row of local dignitaries on a bright and windy Saturday, Mr. Moore promised to deliver a better quality of life for East Baltimore on issues from education to personal safety.

Listening from across a small park was Teresa Armwood, a resident of the neighborhood. Ms. Armwood, 75, said she liked Mr. Moore’s tone overall but had not yet picked a favorite from the throng of Democrats seeking to lead the state.

One subject was foremost in her mind: crime.

Gesturing to a block of low-rise brick homes a short distance from Mr. Moore’s bandstand, Ms. Armwood traced what she described as a perilous journey from her door to the nearest mass transit.

“I walk from over there to the bus stop, and from the bus stop back over there,” she said. “And hope I get that far.”

In Democratic strongholds like Maryland, a rise in violent crime has pushed the party’s candidates to address the issue of public safety in newly urgent terms. Even before the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, reignited the debate over gun control, day-to-day gun crimes and other acts of violence were rattling the American electorate.

Long seen as a political wedge for Republicans to use against Democrats, crime is increasingly a subject of concern within the Democratic Party and the big cities that make up much of its political base.

And from Baltimore and Atlanta in the East to San Francisco and Seattle in the West, the candidates and elected officials pushing the party to address crime more aggressively are largely people of color. Candidates are motivated not mainly by fear of Republican attacks, but rather by mounting outcry from the Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities bearing the brunt of a national crime wave.

Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, a former police captain who made taking on crime the centerpiece of his campaign, has received the most national attention of these figures for his law and order rhetoric — and more recently for his struggles to implement effective anti-crime policies in office.

Yet he is only one of a larger cohort of Democrats who have been campaigning on those themes.

These candidates are casting aside the timidity that characterized Democratic arguments during the 2020 election, when much of the party was focused on root-and-branch reform of the criminal justice system in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Even though violent crime had begun rising during the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic leaders shied away from discussing it directly for fear of offending parts of their political base.

Alarming trends have changed the political conversation. In Baltimore, the city is on track to record more than 300 homicides for the eighth straight year, along with a rise in carjackings, robberies and other serious crimes. Concerns about police misconduct in the city have not evaporated seven years after the killing of Freddie Gray in police custody ignited protests and rioting, but persistent violent crime has pushed voters’ tolerance to the breaking point.

Those developments have transformed the Democratic Party’s discourse on matters of law and order, forcing the party to balance its determination to overhaul the criminal justice system with the imperative to protect its most loyal voters from a tide of violence.

Tom Perez, the former Democratic National Committee chairman running for governor of Maryland, said crime had moved to the foreground of the midterms. {snip}


The Maryland election is a microcosm of the developing Democratic arguments. The top candidates have not exactly lurched to the right on matters of law and order; even the sternest-sounding crime fighters are mingling their promises to crack down on violent offenders and impose new gun regulations with pledges to advance a progressive agenda on social welfare.

But in seeking support from Democratic primary voters, several Maryland Democrats are emphasizing public safety. Their appeals are aimed especially at older voters of color in Baltimore and the state’s dense suburbs, who are typically more moderate than the activist base.

During his speech in East Baltimore, Mr. Moore, a 44-year-old military veteran and former philanthropy executive, called for the police to battle crime with “appropriate intensity and absolute integrity.” {snip}


Mr. Moore is one of several Democrats, including Mr. Perez and Rushern Baker, the former executive leader of Prince George’s County, who are vying to overtake the early front-runner, Peter Franchot, the long-serving state comptroller who is the only major white candidate in the race.

Mr. Baker has promised to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore and pour state police resources into the city. In early May, he unveiled a television commercial vowing to “stop the slaughter of young Black men” in the city and decrying what he called the state’s indifference to crime victims there.

“Because they’re Black, nobody gives a damn,” Mr. Baker says in the ad.

The issue has permeated state politics beyond the governor’s race. In Baltimore, the incumbent state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, is facing a threat in the Democratic primary from multiple candidates who are challenging her record of responding to violent crime there. She is also vulnerable because she is under a federal indictment on charges of perjury and financial misconduct.

Her most prominent challenger, Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general of Maryland, has accused Ms. Mosby of failing to develop complex cases against violent offenders and of sending a permissive signal to criminals by announcing she would no longer prosecute certain misdemeanors like drug possession and trespassing.

“I think traditional politicians have just misread what the people in these disinvested communities want,” Mr. Vignarajah said. “They don’t want to unleash the police to do whatever they want, but they also don’t want you to tell criminals there are no consequences for their conduct.”

A study published in April by the Pew Research Center found that Black Americans were likeliest to name violence or crime as the top concern facing their communities, followed by economic issues and housing.