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Guest Opinion: Can Democrats defuse ‘defund the police’ message?

By Gary Pearce 

Crime issues have bedeviled Democrats for decades. Every time they get painted as soft on crime, they lose elections.

In 1968, it was “law and order” campaigns by George Wallace and Richard Nixon. In 1988, it was the Willie Horton ad that George H.W. Bush and Lee Atwater used against Michael Dukakis. In 2020, it was “Defund the Police,” which some Democrats say kept them from winning a majority in the North Carolina House or Senate.

There’s always a racial edge. “Defund the Police” came out of Black Lives Matter protests. “Law and order” came in the wake of the civil rights movement and urban riots in the Sixties. Willie Horton was a convicted felon who, while out on a Massachusetts weekend furlough program, committed assault, armed robbery and rape. He was black.

Pat McCrory already has raised the issue in the 2022 Senate campaign. On August 6, he tweeted that Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley “refuses to denounce Cori Bush’s latest anti-law enforcement comments…. she’s just not fit to represent North Carolina families in the US Senate!”

Beasley’s campaign made clear that she doesn’t support defunding the police.

Bush – who, like Beasley, is black – is a Democratic congresswoman from Missouri who recently said “defunding the police has to happen. We need to defund the police and put that money into social safety nets because we’re trying to save lives.”

Democrats don’t have to fall into this trap.

President Biden didn’t. In 2016, he made a point of opposing defunding police. He also had a record of supporting anti-crime bills in the Senate.

One key to former Governor Jim Hunt’s victories in 1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996 was that he took strong stands on fighting crime. Governors Mike Easley and Roy Cooper earned crime-fighting credentials as attorneys general. Easley had been a prosecutor and district attorney; a drug kingpin once threatened to kill him.

Bill Clinton ran in 1992 as a “new kind of Democrat” – meaning, in part, not soft on crime like the hapless Dukakis. In 1994, President Clinton supported a tough law that was blamed for causing mass incarceration.

As with many things Bill Clinton did, Hillary Clinton paid the price in 2016. She was criticized for a 1996 campaign speech (for Bill) in which she described gang members as “super-predators.” In 2020, Donald Trump falsely claimed Biden used the term. He also falsely claimed Biden supported defunding police. Trump, in effect, attacked Biden as too tough on crime and too soft on crime. That didn’t add up.

There is a tension here: balancing legitimate concerns about crime with legitimate concerns about police conduct.

Which is why Democrats are taking a close look at Eric Adams, the party’s nominee for mayor of New York City. Adams is a former New York police captain. The New York Times called him “a Democrat who speaks with uncommon authority about both public safety and police reform.”

Adams, who is black, grew up in poverty. He says he was beaten by police officers before he joined the force. The Times said:

“He spent years drawing attention for challenging police misconduct, only to emerge as the most public safety-minded candidate in this year’s mayoral primary. His striking trajectory and promises to combat inequality helped him connect with a broad swath of Black and Latino voters and with some white working-class New Yorkers.”

Adams shows you can be tough on crime and tough on police misconduct. Democrats will need to be both in 2022 and 2024.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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