In several states, Democrats running in competitive areas are working to push back against the ‘Defund the Police’ movement embraced by far-left activists, with some forced to try to explain past associations with the controversial slogan . President Biden has kept his distance by touting federal funding that can be used to put more officers on pace amid an increase in violent crimes, instead of reducing their numbers.
In the left-leaning cities of Minneapolis and Austin, voters last year have embraced more conservative policing and homelessness policies, as have mayoral candidates this year in the nation’s second-largest Democratic city, Los Angeles.
In San Francisco, the latest battle between Democrats over how far the party should go came to a resounding conclusion as voters this week fired three school board members who veered too close to the edge, even in a city which is a bastion of liberal activism.
Among their actions: Officials moved to rename schools honoring figures like Abraham Lincoln they deemed flawed, sought to end merit-based admissions to diversify an elite high school with a majority Asian American student body and white and imposed a long pandemic absence from in-person learning. Even the city’s Democratic mayor supported their recall.
“I’ve always considered myself a progressive — until recently when I look at this situation,” said Siva Raj, 49, who spearheaded the San Francisco recall effort with her partner, Autumn Looijen. “I’m shocked – like, how can progressives be for something like this? It is not me. These are no longer the stocks I buy.
While slogans like “Abolish ICE” and calls to ditch Lincoln have never been representative of the broader Democratic Party, Republicans have weaponized them deftly, branding all of their opponents with attacks that resonated in part because Democrats have often been reluctant to respond directly lest they highlight their own divisions, party strategists said. The combination of Biden’s low approval ratings and a history of early midterms being difficult for the president’s party has added more urgency to Democrats’ desire to find an effective backlash.
But many on the left reject the idea that their ideas on education, policing, racial equity and other issues are a liability for the party. They blame the party’s political problems on more moderate Democrats who have stood in the way of the president’s ambitious agenda, a challenge that has set the stage for an uphill battle in the months to come.
At rallies over the weekend for candidates in Texas, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) blamed Democratic woes on centrists such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.), who blocked Biden’s domestic spending plan.
“If you’re upset with Build Back Better, you can elect Jessica Cisneros,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to Biden’s proposal and a Texas congressional candidate trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent.
Yet his side of the party schism is unmistakably under siege. High profile far-left candidates in last year’s race for mayor of New York and in a special election for the US House in Ohio were beaten by more moderate Democratic opponents.
The party’s next leadership test will come on March 1, when moderate Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar – whose home and campaign office was raided by the FBI earlier this year – will face off against in a South Texas primary rematch against liberal challenger Cisneros, whom he narrowly beat in 2020 and drew high-profile liberal endorsements. Cuellar said the investigation would show “no wrongdoing” on his part.
At weekend rallies with Cisneros and Greg Casar, an Austin city councilman running for Congress, Ocasio-Cortez singled out centrists who opposed radical Democratic plans. “We know it’s not just Manchin,” she told a rally in San Antonio.
Cuellar sought to cast Cisneros as weak on immigration and border security, issues that have long fueled debate within the Democratic Party.
Some Democrats argue that issues that divide left and more moderate party forces were mediated by Republicans to win votes. Former congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, running for governor of Texas, said in an interview that Republicans are “pitting parents against teachers” with campaigns to keep some documents about race and sex outside of schools.
“The driver for most people is the type of job they have or want to have, and whether it’s going to be an opportunity for them – whether their child’s school gets the resources [it needs]whether their child’s teacher is paid enough,” he said.
But other Democrats say the party erred in seeking to deflect such attacks rather than confront them head-on. “I think if there’s a bigger lesson here for all Democrats, left-wing or moderate, it’s that we have to define what we stand for,” said Celinda Lake, who was one of the top pollsters of Biden in 2020. “We start in the middle of the conversation and we start in response rather than showing what we’re good for.
The Democratic schism is ideological and often generational, as younger, more liberal challengers take on established Democratic incumbents. Team Blue PAC, a political action committee led by a trio of House Democrats, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.), an early frontrunner to become the next House Democratic leader, announced its first approvals this week. Four of the five candidates had challengers who had previously been endorsed or recruited by Justice Democrats – a liberal organization that has sought to unseat certain Democratic incumbents. Team Blue PAC is primarily aimed at protecting incumbent members of Congress in safe Democratic seats that are not the focus of the House Democratic campaign.
Some of the candidates now trying to silence more liberal voices are having to contend with the rhetoric they once used themselves. After New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi announced a race in the state’s new 3rd Congressional District, which connects New York’s suburbs and has solidly backed Biden in 2020, the New York Post highlighted a social media post she sent that year with the hashtag #defundthepolice.
In an interview, Biaggi said she was proud to stand with racial justice activists after the murder of George Floyd. She said she would continue to advocate for putting “more resources into social welfare programs, into education, into mental health resources, into gun violence prevention programs,” but no longer used the slogan “defund”.
“Unfortunately, the phrase doesn’t fully capture that, and it’s been so politicized and so many people think it’s just about cutting funds from police departments,” Biaggi said. “Using that phrase at the time was an act of solidarity. And I’m not ashamed to use that phrase, because that was what the world was going through emotionally at that time – and frankly, it still is. .
In Wisconsin, US Senate candidate Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes distanced himself from some supporters who had adopted the slogans “Defund the police” and “Abolish ICE”, a reference to the US agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement .
Many Democrats fear that Republicans will take advantage of their divisions to capitalize on the anger of elected Democrats over education, an issue on which they have always had an advantage. Pandemic school closures, masked terms and debates over curriculum and critical race theory have been flashpoints in the 2021 elections in Virginia and elsewhere in which Republicans have been successful.
“They can’t moderate on CRT, race,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the curator American Principles Project. “They can’t even say that parents should have control over their children’s education. They locked themselves in a box.
Some Democrats say the party has done a much less convincing job than Republicans of persuading parents they are allies – in part because a local party officials have adopted ideas that are disconnected from the priorities of many parents.
One of the starkest indicators of a backlash against the left has occurred in San Francisco, one of the most Democratic enclaves in the country.
The campaign to recall the three school board members was born out of frustration over a series of board decisions it struck even locals as excessively catering to the far left. They included measures to cover up Depression-era murals, which some considered offensive to African Americans and Native Americans, renaming dozens of schools and replacing a merit-based admissions system at the coveted Lowell High School by a lottery, hoping to better represent the city’s black. and Hispanic students.
Some of the moves were canceled or called off, but the reaction was intense nonetheless, and has been compounded by budgetary and the long absence of in-person learning that many San Francisco students have faced during the pandemic, even as schools in other areas have reopened more fully.
In an interview at home where they ran the campaign, Raj and Looijen described being thrilled when Biden defeated President Donald Trump in 2020. Looijen, 44, said defeating the more left-leaning members of the council, President Gabriela Lopez and Vice President Alison Collins, would spare the party deeper political problems down the road.
“I don’t want Alison Collins and Gabriela Lopez to be the face of the progressive movement,” she said.
The White House, which seeks to set the tone for Democratic candidates this year, was cautious in its comments following the San Francisco callbacks. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden “trusts the role of teachers and educators across the country and the type of program they deliver,” but also sought to show sympathy for parents in difficulty.
As for San Francisco’s verdict, she called it a “local decision about local school board leaders.”