Democratic officials and strategists in New York tell CNN they are bracing for what could be stunning losses in the governor’s race and in contests for as many as four US House seats largely in the suburbs.
With crime dominating the headlines and the airwaves, multiple Democrats watching these races closely are pointing to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, accusing him of overhyping the issue and playing into right-wing narratives in ways that may have helped set the party up for disaster on Tuesday.
“He was an essential validator in the city to make their attacks seem more legit and less partisan,” said one Democratic operative working on campaigns in New York, who asked not to be named so as not to compromise current clients.
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Other Democrats argue this has it backwards. While they accuse Republicans of political ploys they call cynical, racist and taking advantage of a situation fostered by the pandemic, they insist candidates would be in better shape if they had followed Adams’ lead in speaking to the fear and frustration voters feel.
But going into Election Day, New York Democrats worry about a double whammy from how they’ve struggled to address crime: Swing voters turned off by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and suburban House Democrats go vote Republican, while base Democrats in the city, dejected by talk of how awful things are, don’t turn out at all.
“Crime today has been compared to the ’80s and the ‘90s, and the fact of the matter is that crime is lower now than it was then,” said Crystal Hudson, a Democratic New York City councilwoman from Brooklyn. “That’s emboldened the right to use crime as their narrative and put Democrats in a bad spot for these midterm elections.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin, Hochul’s GOP opponent, has taken to regularly invoking Adams on the campaign trail, to the point that some Democratic operatives have grimly joked that Zeldin could just run clips of Adams talking about crime as his closing ads.
There are national ripples: Democratic groups like the Democratic Governors Association are moving in millions of dollars to prop up Hochul in a deep-blue state instead of spending that on tight races elsewhere, with Vice President Kamala Harris flying in on Thursday in one of her own last campaign stops and President Joe Biden heading to Westchester County, north of New York City, on Sunday to rally with the governor. Republicans, meanwhile, are seizing opportunities to pad a potential House majority by targeting seats that Democrats had been counting on as backstops.
Adams was elected mayor last year on a tough-talking, tough-on-crime message, then embraced as such a hero among many Democratic leaders that rumors circulated he might be eyeing a 2024 presidential run himself. In office, he’s often talked about the bad shape the city is in, including citing statistics he says demonstrate connections between the rise in crime and a 2019 progressive-led state law change that barred judges from setting cash bail for all but the most serious offenses.
Multiple top Democrats argue that Adams could have used his credibility to buttress Hochul – whom allies point out is in a tricky political spot talking about crime in New York City as a 64-year-old White woman from Western New York – instead of loudly pushing the governor to call a special session of the legislature to roll back more of the new bail laws. Hochul also seemed to be caught surprised by the attacks and unsure of how to defend her record, with several elected officials and operatives saying she appeared to be balancing between different factions of the party rather than setting a firm agenda of her own.
That’s fed an increasingly tense relationship in the campaign’s final weeks, though Adams recently appeared with Hochul at both an official government event announcing she’d allocate state money to pay for overtime for police patrolling the subways and at a campaign stop in Queens as she seeks to prove to voters that she’s taking crime seriously. Adams has also shifted to blaming the media for sensationalizing the crime problem.
Appearing on “CNN This Morning” on Friday, Hochul said there’s never been a governor and mayor in New York with as strong a relationship as the one she has with Adams. While she acknowledged that violent crime is up and that the issue was rooted in voters’ sincere fears, she said Republicans were “not having a conversation about real solutions.”
She cited her record of getting more cops and cameras on the street and help for the mentally ill, and Zeldin’s opposition to gun control.
“Crime has been a problem,” she said. “I understand that. Let’s talk about real answers and not just give everybody all these platitudes.”
‘People want to feel safe first’
Rep. Kathleen Rice, a retiring moderate Democrat from just outside New York City and a former Nassau County district attorney, said at first she was encouraged by Adams. As a former police officer, he understands the problem, she said, but “the general consensus is that he hasn’t shown he has focused on the issue enough for it to have made a difference.”
Rice said she’s heard from constituents from just outside the city who are turned off by reports of Adams spending late nights at pricey private restaurants juxtaposed with stories about murders on the subways and other horrific incidents.
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“People want to feel safe first before they go to a club,” Rice said.
Rice’s seat is one of two Democratic-held seats on Long Island now seen at risk. Democrats are also in danger of losing two seats north of New York City – one held by Rep. Pat Ryan and the Lower Hudson Valley district of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“It is an issue for voters, but it is not because they have personally experienced crime in the Hudson Valley or their neighbors are talking about crimes committed in the Hudson Valley as much as it is the narrative pushed by the industrial fear machine at Fox and the New York Post describing New York City as a lawless hellscape,” Maloney said in an interview. “That, understandably, is raising concerns among suburbanites.”
Months ago, Maloney warned other House Democrats, in conversations and in a March memo sent around by the DCCC and obtained by CNN, to be ready to respond and rebut attacks for being weak on crime. The guidance started with telling candidates to be firmly against calls to “defund the police” but also to talk about the more than $8 billion Democratic lawmakers had secured for law enforcement in bills such as the American Rescue Plan.
Maloney pointed to his votes for legislation to fund programs for body cameras and plate reading technology for local police departments in his district, as well as for the gun control measures enacted over the summer.
He also stood by a remark he made last July – catching several Democratic operatives’ attention at the time – when he stood with Adams on the steps of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and called him “a rock on which I can build a church.”
“What I meant is that I like his combination of respecting good policing and understanding the need for public safety with a genuine passion for justice and fairness in our system,” Maloney said in an interview. “He may not get everything right, and it may not be everything I would do. But he recognizes that we’re not where we should be. And I support his efforts to clean it up.”
Others have not been convinced.
“The concern over crime is real. It is acute,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones, a progressive Democrat who lost a primary to represent parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn after Maloney opted to run for a redrawn suburban seat that also included parts of Jones’ district. “But once this election is over, I hope people have an honest conversation about how Democrats like Eric Adams have validated a hysteria over crime that is uninformed and that has been debunked.”
Suburban statistics don’t match New York City
Conversations about crime in New York are bound up in the debate over reforming the bail laws, and in well-worn internal political power struggles among officials. In phone calls and meetings at the beginning of the year, Adams urged top officials in Albany to change the laws, warning them that crime would likely be a major political liability in the fall, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Legislative leaders have already passed two partial rollbacks, including one supported by Hochul earlier this year. But they have resisted doing more, despite warnings from suburban members.
Adams has charged that the “insane broken system” of bail laws now puts criminals back on the street who then tend to get back to committing crimes. According to figures from the New York Police Department, in the first half of the year, 211 people were arrested at least three times for burglary and 899 people were arrested at least three times for shoplifting, increases of 142.5 percent and 88.9 percent, respectively, over the same period in 2017. The mayor’s office also pointed to statistics that show double-digit jumps in recidivism for felony, grand larceny and auto theft.
Still, crime statistics don’t tell as simple a story as what shows up in political ads. Suburban counties are reporting safer streets and communities – a report in February by the Westchester County executive from just north of New York City, for example, showed a 26.5 percent drop in its crime index.
Murders and shootings are down in the city from last year, but rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft are all up, by over 30 percent from 2021 in several categories, according to New York Police Department data.
But those are the stories which play on the same local news – and campaign ads during the breaks – that reach into the homes of suburban voters who may not have been crime victims themselves, or even spent much time in the city for years. And that’s left Hochul and Democratic House and state legislative nominees leaching support in Long Island, Westchester and the northern New York City suburbs.
“A lot of the story that’s being told is of New York City crime,” said Democrat Bridget Fleming, a former prosecutor who’s been endorsed by police unions in the House race for much of the area Zeldin currently represents on Long Island. “We’re making sure law enforcement is supported – and other than gun crime, we’re keeping crime down here.”
Evan Roth Smith, a pollster working on several local races, said Adams “may be a drag on Democratic trustworthiness on crime.”
But Adams spokesman Maxwell Young said the mayor’s job isn’t to put a rosy spin on things in a way that could benefit Hochul’s or any of the other candidates’ campaigns.
“We can’t, and won’t, ignore the reality,” Young said. “Those who claim we aren’t making progress or, conversely, that we’ve been crying wolf aren’t paying attention and have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Trying to break a decades-long paradigm
Evan Thies, a top Adams political adviser, said he wished other Democrats had taken lessons from the mayor’s win last year.
“You have to convince people you’re worthy to lead by following their lead on issues and meeting their urgency, not by disagreeing with them,” Thies said. “The mayor became mayor by listening to and advocating for people in high-crime communities – he’s not going to abandon them now.”
Democratic Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose district covers Upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, points to how many systemic, as well as larger societal and economic issues, are involved in making a real impact on crime – and that Adams has only been on the job for 10 months.
“He’s really trying hard. This is not easy,” Espaillat said. “It’s going to take some time.”
Biden had his own bromance with Adams, from hosting him in the White House weeks after he won his mayoral primary to offering him half of his peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich as they rode together in the limo in February during a presidential visit to New York to talk about gun violence. White House chief of staff Ron Klain praised Adams for tapping into the same coalition of pragmatic, working-class and African American voters, which won Biden the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Through an aide, Klain did not respond to questions about how he and the president view Adams these days.
But what many Democrats are left with as they approach the end of campaigning in New York is a potentially devastating example of failing again to break a decades-long paradigm of Republicans capitalizing on calling them soft on crime.
“The paradox here is: Crime is high in some of the reddest parts of the country where they have the weakest gun safety laws. We needed to tell that story and done so loudly to neutralize the issue. You can’t sit idly by and wish it away,” said Charlie Kelly, a political adviser to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s gun safety group Everytown and former executive director for the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC.
In New York and beyond, some Democrats are already hoping for a post-election recognition and realignment that pushes their party both toward a tougher attack on Republicans and a more forceful deflection of their own left flank.
“We can’t dismiss people’s concerns,” said Justin Brannan, a New York City councilman from a moderate district in Brooklyn. “It’s another thing to be a Republican, to say, ‘If you go outside, you’re going to die.’”
“It’s both true that crime is down from the 1990s and that it has been increasing and that people feel uncomfortable,” said Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president. “Democrats have to be able to talk about that and offer real solutions.”