Crime is a ballot 'vulnerability' for California Democrats after Schiff, Bass break-ins

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A trio of crimes involving Democratic lawmakers has put the spotlight back on public safety in the Golden State, an issue on which experts warn the party’s candidates could be vulnerable in November.

In the span of a week, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass was the victim of a burglary at Getty House in Windsor Square, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) had his suitcase stolen out of his car in the Bay Area, and a plainclothes police officer protecting San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan was punched by a pedestrian during a television interview.

All three incidents were ready-made fodder for Republican critics who often lambast California’s approach to public safety. They have also renewed concerns that how California voters think about crime could affect some Democrats in swing districts in November.

“Voters are thinking: You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist. “Adam Schiff isn’t safe, Karen Bass isn’t safe — if they’re not safe, who is?”

Property and violent crime rates in California both rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, but remain far below the peaks of the 1980s and 1990s. When it comes to campaigns, though, what the statistics show is less important than how voters feel, Sragow said.

Crime is “definitely one of the top issues on voters’ minds right now,” said Mark Baldassare, the survey director of the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, a nonpartisan think tank that regularly surveys Californians about their views on public policy issues.

The economy, homelessness and housing affordability are still top concerns, Baldassare said, but the share of likely voters who are concerned about crime appears to be growing. In December, the PPIC found that 8% of likely voters described “crime, drugs and gangs” as the most important issue facing the state. Two months later, 12% of likely voters said that crime was the most important issue for Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to address in 2024.

Those numbers are particularly high among voters who described themselves as independents: In February, 17% of likely independent voters said crime was the most important issue, up from 8% in December.

“The thing about crime is, it doesn’t take much — it just takes one or two things that people notice and makes them scared,” Baldassare said.

Recent high-profile attacks, including the shooting of an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputy stopped at a traffic light in West Covina, and a spate of stabbings on the L.A. Metro system, can leave uneasy Californians wondering “whether everything is falling apart,” Sragow said.

The job of Democratic candidates, Sragow said, will be “to address how people feel, that people have to feel safe when they walk outside.” Republican challengers, he said, will try to make a case for tough-on-crime policies, crafted subtly enough to try and appeal to “disaffected independents, and maybe some Democrats.”

Some of that tough-on-crime talk is coming from Democrats too. A shift in how state lawmakers in Sacramento are talking about public safety is proof that crime is “clearly a vulnerability” for Democrats in tight races, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist.

He said voters’ concerns over crime probably won’t make a difference in the Senate race, where polling shows Schiff with a commanding lead over Republican challenger Steve Garvey. But, Stutzman said, those concerns could make a difference in more competitive districts, including the handful of California swing seats for Congress that could help decide control of the House of Representatives in November.

“The pendulum is swinging, and it’s dragging them with it,” Stutzman said of Democrats.

Democrats are a ripe target, given that the party has a firm grip on political power in California. Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers of the state Legislature. Republicans have not won a California statewide election since 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection and Steve Poizner became insurance commissioner. Registered Democrats also outnumber Republicans by almost 2 to 1 in the state.

Newsom has sent dozens of California Highway Patrol officers to Oakland and to Bakersfield this year in an attempt to address rising crime rates. The governor said this week that authorities in Kern County, home to Bakersfield, have made 211 arrests, recovered 127 stolen vehicles and seized four firearms in the first six weeks of the CHP enforcement effort.

A package of bills from Assembly Democrats, endorsed by Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), are designed to address retail theft by, among other proposals, allowing restraining orders to keep people who steal away from certain stores and letting prosecutors aggregate the value of thefts across multiple incidents in determining criminal charges.

The “root cause of so much of the chaos and decay” is Proposition 47, said Yolo County Dist. Atty. Jeff Reisig in a post on the social platform X. California voters approved the ballot measure in 2014 to reclassify some felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors and to raise, from $400 to $950, the amount for which theft can be prosecuted as a felony.

“Many friends and family who live and work in the urban core of our big cities no longer feel safe even walking to lunch,” Reisig said after the scuffle involving the San Jose mayor’s security detail on live television. The attack, he said, was “more stark evidence that California’s urban centers have been turned into dangerous places.”

He said he hoped voters would get the chance to reform Proposition 47 in November. Mahan and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, both Democrats, have endorsed an effort to increase criminal penalties for fentanyl dealers and repeat organized retail theft rings, as well as provide mandatory treatment for drug users.

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