Since the massive nationwide protests that erupted in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, the debate over crime and public safety in the Democratic Party has been dominated by urgent calls for reforming police departments and confronting entrenched racial inequities in the criminal-justice system. History might record yesterday’s elections in San Francisco and Los Angeles as the end of that moment.
The decisive recall of progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, and the strong showing of the billionaire former Republican developer Rick Caruso against Democratic Representative Karen Bass in the Los Angeles mayoral primary, likely will pressure Democrats at all levels of government to rebalance their message on criminal justice going forward. The results in California—combined with the former police officer Eric Adams’s victory in the New York mayoral race last fall—send a signal to Democrats that, even in some of their most reliable strongholds, voters are demanding a shift toward policies to combat crime and restore public order.
“What you are really seeing is the Democratic base in cities is asserting its fundamental moderate values of prioritizing safety,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University.
The rising public demand for safety doesn’t mean Democrats are about to abandon the cause of criminal-justice reform and return to the “tough on crime” ethos of the 1990s. But it might prompt more leaders in the party to pull back from policies that appear to prioritize reform over public safety—the perception that doomed Boudin and also has triggered an ongoing recall effort against Los Angeles County’s progressive district attorney, George Gascón.
“It was a brief moment and an excessive swing,” Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, says of the push to reduce incarceration and reimagine, or even defund, policing. After Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, Marshall says, “we had this progressive reaction, and a lot of utopian thinking crept in. But the problem was to view a strong response to crime and public disorder through the narrow lens of racial politics. That missed something big, which is that low-income and minority communities are on the front lines of crime—they are the No. 1 victims. They don’t want police beating up on their sons, but they also don’t want to be ignored.” Polls in Los Angeles have shown high levels of concern about crime and disorder across racial lines.
Yesterday’s results do not represent a decisive lurch toward the right for these cities. In Los Angeles, Caruso was about five percentage points ahead of Bass as of this morning. But Bass remained close enough that many local observers believe she will remain highly competitive in November’s runoff, when the electorate will be larger and likely younger and more racially diverse. Also yesterday, Alex Villanueva, the scandal-plagued L.A. County sheriff who has become a hero to conservatives by blaming crime on “woke” liberal policies, was forced into a runoff that he might struggle to win after attracting only about one-third of the vote in the early returns. And young leftist challengers denouncing the police department and city efforts to clear homeless encampments mounted strong primary races against several centrist Democrats on the L.A. City Council, including Gil Cedillo and Mitch O’Farrell, with the latter likely headed to a runoff.
Still, the results in the marquee contests—the San Francisco D.A. recall and the L.A. mayoral race—show how much discontent over crime and homelessness has shaken the political landscape in what are ordinarily two of America’s most liberal cities.
Optimists in the party believe Democrats can recalibrate and fashion a message and an agenda balancing public concern about safety with a commitment to criminal-justice reform. Ben LaBolt, a San Francisco–based Democratic strategist and former campaign spokesperson for President Barack Obama, predicts that after the recall of Boudin, a child of 1960s radicals who was narrowly elected in 2019, Mayor London Breed is likely to appoint a centrist to complete his term. “I think what we’ll see is a return to the assertion that you don’t have to choose between public safety and criminal-justice reform,” LaBolt says. “In any other city, the next district attorney would still be considered a liberal Democrat. It’s just that they’ll be more focused on the public-safety piece than Boudin has been.”
Yet in practice, Democrats are finding it difficult to walk this tightrope, especially at a moment when crime is rising in most major cities. A leading advocate of criminal-justice reform in Congress, Bass has angered some of her traditional allies on the left, particularly in the Black Lives Matter movement, by promising that as mayor she would reassign more Los Angeles Police Department desk officers to patrol and eliminate the city’s widespread homeless encampments. On both fronts, she did not—or could not—go as far as Caruso, who has pledged much tougher action. Caught between divergent constituencies, Bass’s message in the primary often seemed wan and indistinct.
It’s not just Bass who has been squeezed between reform and safety. California Governor Gavin Newsom, who cruised into the general election after yesterday’s primary, has promised to spend more on housing for the homeless but also encountered resistance from liberal groups to his legislative proposal to require involuntary court-ordered mental-health care for more people on the streets. In Chicago, some reform advocates have sharply criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot for imposing a curfew on young people, urging more pretrial detention for violent offenders, and colliding with Kim Foxx, the progressive Cook County state’s attorney. But the greater threat to Lightfoot’s reelection next year is that many voters think she has not done enough to combat rising crime. In New York, Adams has tried to project support for both reforming police conduct and cracking down on violence. But the state legislature has so far rebuffed proposals he supports to detain more people before their trials and to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for certain gun crimes. Meanwhile, a poll released yesterday showed his approval rating quickly sinking amid elevated voter anxiety about crime.
Bass, who played a central role in drafting the criminal-justice-reform bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year, hasn’t moved as far to the center as Adams. “I have spent my adult life working on police reform, and will continue to do so if elected mayor,” she told one local publication. When it comes to homelessness, she has stressed providing more social services, rather than tougher enforcement of the anti-camping law the city council approved in 2021. And while she has criticized some of Gascón’s decisions, she also opposes his recall. (Supporters of that effort say they are nearing the 566,857 signatures they need by early July to qualify for the November ballot.)
On each of these fronts, Caruso, who reregistered as a Democrat shortly before the election, has been able to stake out ground to Bass’s right. He has endorsed the Gascón recall, pledged to add 1,500 more police officers to the LAPD, and promised to use emergency powers as mayor to override the provision in the anti-camping law that requires a vote of approval from the city council before any encampment is cleared.
The size of the audience Caruso attracted for that agenda—aided by about $40 million in spending, primarily from his own pocket—has been a sobering wake-up call for the city’s left. Frustrated criminal-justice-reform advocates argue that entrenched law-enforcement interests, led by police unions that spent heavily to promote Caruso and oust Boudin, are fanning a backlash before the new approaches have a chance to show their worth. Given time, they argue, policies that focus on avoiding incarceration (particularly for young people), reducing prosecution for nonviolent crimes, and emphasizing services and housing for the homeless over sweeps to clear encampments will produce better results.
“Two years after the George Floyd summer, after the stark income inequality in Los Angeles was exposed like never before during the COVID disaster, after tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Los Angeles, it would have been unimaginable that the front-runner for mayor would be a billionaire white guy who was on the police commission and who has the backing of millions of dollars from the police union,” says Mike Bonin, an L.A. City Council member from a Westside district who is stepping down this year after narrowly avoiding a recall effort over his resistance to cracking down on homeless encampments. “Clearly, we [progressives] have not really effectively articulated what these problems are about and what it takes to solve them.”
Bass and Caruso face almost mirror-image challenges in the general election. Bass must show that her painstakingly balanced platform will deliver enough change for voters who are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo on crime and homelessness. Caruso must convince voters that, as a former Republican without any experience in elected office, he doesn’t represent too great a leap into the unknown for such a Democratic-leaning city. “He’s been a good entrepreneur and civic citizen, but I could see a lot of both the elite and nonideological middle just deciding that Karen Bass can do a better job,” says Manuel Pastor, director of the Dornsife Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California.
Even if Caruso falls short in November, it would be a mistake for Democrats to ignore the message of his strong performance, combined with Adams’s victory last year and the backlash against Boudin and Gascón. All are reminders that, as Marshall puts it, most Americans believe “public order is the primary responsibility of government.” After yesterday’s primary results, it’s clearer than ever that in order to confront the criminal-justice system’s undeniable racial inequities, reformers must convince voters that they are equally committed to confronting threats to public safety.