The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The electoral demise of ‘defund the police’

A police vehicle travels in downtown Minneapolis on Oct. 24, 2021. (Tim Evans/Bloomberg)

It’s a reality of our modern, increasingly polarized politics that leaders in both parties are loath to rebuke any substantial portion of their party base. But when the “defund the police” movement began emerging in sections of the left in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis, the reaction from Democratic leaders was swift. This was a very bad slogan, they said, and it was probably a bad idea to position the party as anything amounting to anti-police.

That rebuke was overwhelmingly vindicated in Tuesday’s elections.

Because the defund movement took off in mid-2020, it was largely too late for the issue to be truly reflected on that year’s ballot. But versions of it were very much before voters in Tuesday’s election and in the 2021 primaries. The lesson: Voters are open to police overhauls and new oversight, but they strongly rejected some of the more drastic ideas — including in some very blue areas. And amid rising crime nationwide, pro-policing messages won the day.

The big results came in Minneapolis, Buffalo and Seattle.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by a police officer, voters rejected by double digits a proposal to turn the Minneapolis Police Department into a somewhat-nebulous Department of Public Safety that would have been overseen by the city council. Two city council members who had supported the proposal also lost their seats by wide margins.

In Buffalo, democratic socialist India Walton had defeated incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in a primary earlier in the year but lost to Brown’s write-in campaign Tuesday. Walton had said at one point that she would “absolutely” run on a defund platform, though she later sought to moderate that stance.

Results on Long Island in New York also appeared to demonstrate uneasiness with going too far on criminal justice change. Republicans flipped district attorneys’ races in Nassau and Suffolk counties while focusing their campaigns on the state legislature’s move to limit judges’ ability to set cash bail for more-minor charges — an effort that had pitted moderate Democrats against liberals.

Police issues also were front and center in Seattle, where moderate Democrat Bruce Harrell defeated M. Lorena Gonzalez. Gonzalez had supported cutting police funding by 50 percent and transferring the money to other community efforts, somewhat similar to the Minneapolis amendment. Harrell made opposing defunding the police central to his campaign.

Perhaps the splashier result in that city came in the city attorney’s race. There, Republican Ann Davison won in a deep-blue city — a result hailed by some Republicans as proof that their party can compete anywhere.

In reality, though, Davison benefited from running against one of the most extreme Democrats on ballots across the country. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy had advocated the abolition of not just police, but also of jails and prosecutions for misdemeanor offenses. She also had stated her “rabid hatred of the police” and even praised setting fire to a children’s detention facility. There were also some stunning tweets from her campaign manager.

It should be no wonder that many top Democrats backed Davison. (Also, the race was technically nonpartisan, though Davison became a Republican during a lieutenant governor bid in 2020.)

Similarly, the New York Post editorial board pointed to Republican Nicole Ziccarelli’s win for Westmoreland County, Pa., district attorney, as evidence of voters balking at liberals’ ideas for police reform. “... Pro-police Nicole Ziccarelli beat Democrat John Peck to become the first Republican to hold the office in decades,” it said.

Again, though, context is key. Westmoreland County hasn’t elected a Republican DA in decades, but it went for Donald Trump in the 2020 election by 63 percent to 35 percent. The race also wasn’t really about defunding the police or even police reform more broadly.

And there were other indications that voters — in blue areas, at least — had appetites for less-far-reaching overhauls, or at least didn’t want to expand policing.

Cleveland supported a pretty substantial police overhaul by voting 59 percent to 41 percent for Issue 24, which creates a Civilian Police Review Board to review instances of alleged police misconduct. The police unions have vowed to fight it. The issue also was important in the mayoral race, where 34-year-old Justin Bibb, a supporter of Issue 24, defeated City Council President Kevin Kelley, who opposed it. Bibb received 63 percent of the vote.

In Austin, voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition A, which would have required the city to hire hundreds more police officers so that it would have two officers for every 1,000 residents vs. the current 1.6.

In the Philadelphia district attorney’s race, incumbent Larry Krasner, who won an upset in 2017 on a police-reform message and faced opposition from the police union, won by more than 2 to 1 in the primary and the general election.

Krasner had sued the police department 75 times before his 2017 election, but he drew a line against the “defund” rhetoric. He said, “I have never been a fan of the phrase ‘defund the police.' It’s confusing. I don’t think it’s very clear.”

While there are nuances in all of these races, the message is unmistakable. Defund advocates said their goal wasn’t a lawless society in which nobody would police their cities and counties; they pitched “defund” as merely being about cutting, rather than eliminating, funding. But when that message was on the ballot and its advocates ran on it and its variants, it failed decisively even in decidedly blue areas.

All of this should serve notice to some of the Democratic Party’s more liberal elements that perhaps their message was as bad as party leaders rather quickly realized it was.