California Voters Sent a ‘Message’ on Crime to National Democrats? Not So Fast!

National media calls election results a sign state is swinging right—but that's misleading.

PUBLISHED JUN 16, 2022 3:52 P.M. UPDATED JUNE 13, 2022
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Crime in California cities may not be quite the voting issue the national media says it is.

Crime in California cities may not be quite the voting issue the national media says it is.   Magraphy / Shutterstock   Shutterstock License

As election results came in on Tuesday from San Francisco and Los Angeles, two results stood out. In the Los Angeles mayoral race, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso—who switched parties from Republican to Democrat just six months earlier— led five-term Democratic congressional rep Karen Bass by 5.1 points. [UPDATE: As of June 14, with 85 percent of votes counted, Bass had pulled ahead of Caruso, and led with 41.1 percent of the vote to Caruso's 38.3.] And in San Francisco, voters recalled their progressive, reformist district attorney Chesa Boudin, whom they just elected in 2019, by a stark 60-40 margin. [UPDATE: As of June 13, with 85 percent of the ballots tallied, the margin had been cut in half, with the recall leading 55 to 45.]

National headlines told a clear story of what the results were supposed to mean. “California Sends Democrats and the Nation a Message on Crime,” blared the New York Times

“California voters send a stark message to Democrats on crime and homelessness,” proclaimed

The Atlantic wondered, “Is This the End of the George Floyd Moment?” while the Los Angeles Times asked, “Will California voters’ fears over crime and homelessness carry over to November?” even set the narrative in advance, declaring in a headline the night before election day that “Los Angeles and San Francisco voters may rebuke left in primaries.”

It was a tempting tale to tell. In the 2020 presidential election, California voted for Democrat Joe Biden over Donald Trump by more than 29 percentage points. In Los Angeles County, the margin was even more decisive, with Biden taking almost three of every four votes and trouncing Trump by 44 points. San Francisco’s blue ran even deeper than that. Biden won 85 percent of the vote to a paltry 13 for Trump.

What a great story if, indeed, the 2022 results proved that “The Backlash Has Begun,” as New York Magazine put it. Could two of the most liberal, capital-D Democratic regions in the state—and the country—be so alarmed by crime and homelessness that they were swinging to the right, sending a flashing red warning light to Democrats in Washington D.C. and across the United States? 

Not so fast. A closer look at the results and context of the L.A. and S.F. elections tells a story somewhat more complex than those national media outlets would have their readers believe.

San Francisco Sends Boudin Packing

While it is clearly true that San Francisco voters were done with their 41-year-old, first-term D.A., recalling him from office with almost 75,000 San Franciscans wanting him gone to just 50,000 voting to keep him in office (with about 70 percent of the vote counted).  But according to a Public Policy Polling survey taken about a month before the election, voters actually favored Boudin’s progressive criminal justice policies—they just didn’t like Boudin.

While 48 percent said that they would vote to recall Boudin, in the poll, 65 percent supported Boudin’s Innocence Commission designed to review possibly wrongful convictions; 55 percent supported the Workers Protection Unit he created; and 46 percent favored Boudin’s policy of not prosecuting minors as adults (30 percent were opposed and 24 percent “not sure”). 

Boudin’s personal support, however, has always been a different story. In 2019 he barely eked out an election, winning by a razor-thin 1.6 points over Suzy Loftus—who was appointed to the post by Mayor London Breed just a month before the election and only one day before voters received their mail-in ballots. Loftus replaced George Gascón who resigned to run for, and win, the D.A.  post in Los Angeles County. Her sudden appointment was widely viewed as a ham-handed attempt by Breed to give her preferred candidate a leg up in the election, and voters apparently rebelled.

Reform Candidates Who Aren’t Boudin Did Well

Perhaps the most telling contradiction of the national media narrative, however, is that in races outside of San Francisco, voters on Tuesday favored criminal justice reform candidates. In Alameda County, civil rights lawyer Pamela Price led Assistant D.A. Terry Wiley 40-31, and will likely face the prosecutor in a November runoff.

In Contra Costa County incumbent D.A. Diana Becton, also a progressive reformer and the only African-American to hold a D.A.’s position in any of the state’s 58 counties, trounced her law-and-order challenger, Mary Knox, who has been a prosecutor and victim’s advocate in the county for 37 years. 

Down in Los Angeles County, tough-on-crime Sheriff Alex Villanueva was elected in 2018 on a reform platform, but quickly took a hard-right turn. Villanueva had railed against the county’s civilian sheriff’s oversight commission, refused to enforce COVID safety regulations, and denounced county supervisors as “woke.” Voters Tuesday showed they weren’t too keen on his approach, forcing Villanueva into a runoff against retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

Caruso Pours Millions of His Own Bucks Into Campaign

The state’s largest city, Los Angeles, has not elected a Republican mayor since 1997, when Richard Riordan won his second term. Perhaps with that in mind, 63-year-old Republican real state tycoon Caruso, whose personal worth is estimated at $4.3 billion, registered as a Democrat in January of 2022, as he geared up to run for mayor. 

Caruso calls himself a “centrist.” He previously served as president of the city’s Police Commission, and his campaign platform is centered on increased funding for the police. With about 60 percent of the city’s ballots counted as of Thursday, Caruso led Bass by 42.1 percent to 37. [UPDATE: by Monday, June 13, Caruso led Bass 40.5 to 38.8.] But how impressive was that showing, which appears certain to result in a November runoff between the top two vote-getters? Does it really mean that L.A. voters are panicking about crime and homelessness—another core issue for both candidates—and ready to take a right turn?

Probably not, considering the media blitz Caruso—developer of L.A.’s ritzy mall, The Grove— financed almost entirely out of his own deep pocket. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Caruso spent a staggering $40 million on his campaign, mostly on TV and online advertising, as well as mailers. His massive spending advantage—which appears certain to continue over the four months between the primary and general election in November—shattered the previous record for a Los Angeles mayor’s race, set in 2013 by current, outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti who shelled out $10.2 million on that campaign.

Liberal Bloc Took More than 50 Percent

Bass spent about $3.2 million on her campaign for the primary election. But in the November runoff she will square off against Caruso one-on-one. The three candidates who finished behind her are all liberals, and one has already endorsed Bass. That would be L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer.  

Political newcomer Gina Viola, an activist and business owner who describes herself as “the infamous ‘defund the police’ candidate” and has an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America-Los Angeles, placed fourth with 5.2 percent. She came in behind District 14 City Councilmember Kevin de León, a liberal Democrat who is also the only Latinx candidate among the top finishers, and who garnered 7.5 percent of the vote.

Neither Viola nor de León have committed to supporting Bass. Viola said after the election that she was discussing an endorsement of Bass with her supporters, while de León said he would back “has the strongest plan to build pathways into the middle class for the workers who make this city go.” But according to 8th District Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a Bass supporter, de León and Bass are “more alike than not.”

Combined with the 2.6 percent of the vote that went to Feuer, who had already dropped out of the race to back Bass, the liberal-left candidates captured 52.3 percent, a total which would seem to contradict the narrative that Los Angeles is ready to swing to the right.

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