New York's mayoral race is a referendum on "defund the police"

Andrew Yang Campaign Photo/Mark Kuroda

Last year, when defunding or abolishing the police became all the rage among liberals, New York City was at the forefront of the movement. There were more people in the Big Apple taking to the streets to decry law enforcement in the name of George Floyd and others than there were in Minneapolis. Mayor Bill de Blasio, sensing what he perceived as a moment of political opportunity, was quick to jump on the bandwagon. He quickly got to work with the City Council to cut funding to the NYPD and set up a commission to look at “police reform” proposals. The result was a surge of resignations and early retirements among Gotham’s police force that they still haven’t recovered from. And to the surprise of no one, the gangs of New York and other opportunistic bad actors noticed that a life of crime was suddenly considerably easier to live.

Now, as Hizzoner prepares to ride off into the sunset due to term limits, conditions on the streets of New York have evolved and so has the political landscape. Crime rates are up across the board and business owners have been fleeing the five boroughs almost as quickly as the cops. While some Democrats in the mayoral primary race are still courting the votes of the supporters of Black Lives Matter and the “defund the police” movement, they have been struggling in the polls. The ones who are currently among the leaders, including Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, are the candidates who have been calling for an increase in the city’s police force and a return to law and order. As Reuters points out this week, this is causing something of a split in the Democratic Party.

A year ago, protests over police brutality and racial injustice rocked cities across the country. Cries of “defund the police” and calls for reform echoed throughout the Democratic Party. But New York’s mayoral contest suggests a different political reality is taking hold among Democrats as urban areas nationwide dig out from the coronavirus pandemic…

The debate over the future of policing is taking place daily in New York, as a bevy of Democrats jockey for the party’s nomination ahead of the June 22 primary that will likely decide who becomes mayor. So far, candidates who have embraced a pro-law enforcement message and pushed back against progressive calls to reduce funding for police departments seem to have the upper hand.

The election’s outcome may provide a window into how voters prioritize issues in a post-pandemic society.

This is the dirty little secret that you won’t hear discussed on MSNBC or CNN and it’s not being printed on the pages of the New York Times. Police reform and racial justice are still supposedly what’s driving the national discussion at the moment, but on the streets of New York, there is a very different conversation happening. The city’s budget has turned into a black hole because of all of the revenue losses incurred via the pandemic and an exodus of New Yorkers. The murder rate has demonstrated sustained growth, along with the number of shootings (up 90% over the same period last year), robberies, and other crimes. The subway system is currently viewed by many as being too dangerous to use, particularly at night.

When the Manhattan Institute conducted a poll of Democratic primary voters earlier this month, more than half of respondents ranked “public safety” as their number one priority. Less than one in five said that they would like to see the number of police or their funding reduced. A separate poll from Emerson produced almost identical results.

Borough President Eric Adams, who I mentioned above, has revamped his campaign to focus almost exclusively on public safety. He’s promised to revive the NYPD’s plainclothes violent crime unit that was disbanded by Mayor de Blasio last year. He’s also planning to restore the police “stop and frisk” program which was similarly terminated. Those promises are pretty much 100% in conflict with the Democrats’ message at the national level, and yet Adams is in a dead heat with Yang, who is also saying he will beef up the police force and get violent crime under control.

Rising crime and violence were the conditions on the streets that propelled Rudy Giuliani into the Mayor’s office in the election of 1993. He ran on a promise to beat back crime at all levels and restore the quality of life that the city’s residents expected. He went on to institute the broken windows policy that soon turned things around. I’m not saying that the New York of 2021 is ready to elect a Republican, but the voters are clearly taking a liking to the Democrats who talk more like Republicans. And if either Yang or Adams wins, the national party will have some soul searching to do. The mainstream media continues to hype the Democrats’ “social justice” message, but that’s not going to do much for the people trying to survive on the streets of New York.