Throughout 2023, mayoral candidates who owned a message of safety, accountability, and justice won several high-profile races—from Chicago; Jacksonville, Florida; and Lincoln, Nebraska, in the spring, to Boise, Idaho (where the losing candidate was a former police chief); Indianapolis; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; and Tucson, Arizona, this fall.
In the Chicago mayoral election, Brandon Johnson defeated Paul Vallas, who ran on a “tough-on-crime” platform with the backing of law enforcement unions. Johnson ran on approaching “public safety in a more holistic way,” championing a comprehensive message of making “critical investments preventing crime before it happens.” An exit poll of Chicago voters conducted by GQR and Vera Action after the election similarly observed that a majority said “the best way to address public safety in Chicago is to fully fund things that are proven to create safe communities and improve people’s quality of life, like good schools, a living wage, and affordable housing, and do more to prevent crime by increasing treatment for mental health, drug addiction, and cracking down on illegal gun sales,” compared to the status quo approach of more police and stricter sentences.
Earlier this fall, Nashville residents elected Freddie O’Connell mayor, who touted alternatives to policing and comprehensive crime prevention during the campaign, pledging to “work to ensure that our police can focus on crime” by “allow[ing] mental health providers and paramedics to be involved when someone is experiencing a crisis that is not necessarily a crime. Crime prevention means thinking beyond policing—because crime is often borne out of hopelessness.” In Memphis, Paul Young won the crime-centered mayoral race while campaigning on crime prevention and more accountability.
This year’s spring primaries also saw voters in several states endorsing Democratic district attorney candidates who campaigned on reforming the office to advance safety, accountability, and justice. In Virginia, Buta Biberaj, Steve Descano, and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti all fended off tough primary challenges from the right. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, former public defender Matt Dugan overcame longtime “tough-on-crime” prosecutor Steve Zappala in the primary.
However, in the general election on November 7, the same reform DA movement suffered high-profile losses—in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Loudoun County, Virginia; and Broome County, New York. In two jurisdictions, the results seem internally contradictory. In Loudoun County, the Democratic state Senate candidate, Russet Perry, won her general election despite facing some of the same “soft-on-crime” attacks as the incumbent progressive prosecutor, Buta Biberaj. In Allegheny County, Sara Innamorato, the Democrat who won the election for county executive, openly embraced many of the same policies on safety, accountability, and justice as Matt Dugan, the losing DA candidate.
The explanation for this contradiction likely lies in the unique nature of the DA’s role—whose job in the narrow view of voters, is simply to seek convictions and mete out punishment—compared to other elected executive and state legislative positions, who voters may associate with a more comprehensive approach to safety, including prevention. According to recent not-yet-published public opinion research on prosecutors commissioned by the Vera Institute, the public has limited understanding of what it means to “reform” a prosecutor’s office. Biberaj lost even though her office reports that violent crime has decreased 31 percent since her election in 2019. Polling reveals that voters consistently prefer a comprehensive approach to safety over a “tough-on-crime” approach (particularly among independents), but it is clear that DAs running on this platform and their supporters have work ahead in convincing voters that this aligns with the function of the office.
In addition to these hurdles for reform DA candidates, unique circumstances in each of the DA races during the general election phase likely contributed to the losses. Both Dugan and Biberaj spent significant time on the doors and money on ads during their primaries to inform voters about their candidacies and policy positions. In contrast, voters heard more about controversies in the general election cycle—with relentless accusations by the GOP of Dugan’s campaign being “Soros-funded,” and Biberaj’s opponent Bob Anderson highlighting one horrific case under her tenure in which a man murdered his wife with a hammer after being released. And after losing the Democratic primary to Dugan, Zappala switched affiliations and ran on the GOP line in the general election, using bipartisan support—courting Allegheny’s independent and Republican voters—to overcome his nearly 20,000-vote deficit to Dugan in the primary.
A related takeaway from other November 7 losses in races where crime was the top issue is that an “I-too-am-tough-on-crime” message also did not prevail. In New York, where crime has dominated elections as a top voter priority for years, a closely watched race for county executive in Suffolk County (Long Island) between a “tough-on-crime” Republican and a “tough-on-crime” Democrat resulted in a win for the Republican. David Calone, the Democrat in the race, touted his experience as former prosecutor and “tough-on-crime” credentials, spending millions of dollars making his case to Long Island voters. To the extent that any one race is a bellwether for 2024, as some pundits are arguing for the Suffolk County executive race, trying to “out-tough” an opponent is not a winning strategy. And indeed, recent GQR polling found that for Democrats, a comprehensive, solutions-oriented strategy to prevent crime before it happens performed better against Republican “tough-on-crime” attacks than an “I-too-am-tough-on-crime” response that mimics the opposition’s rhetoric.