Portland DA’s defeat underscores challenges Democrats face on crime

The defeat of a progressive prosecutor in an Oregon district attorney’s race this week is underscoring the delicate dance Democrats face on the issues of crime and public safety ahead of November.

Prosecutor Mike Schmidt, who served in the Portland area, was ousted from his role after a primary challenge from one of his own colleagues, who pitched himself as tougher on crime than his boss and ultimately won by a margin of roughly eight points.

It was a remarkable rise-and-fall for an official who was elected to the office on a progressive platform months before the outbreak of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Since then, deep-blue Oregon has weathered rising crime, notched the third-highest rate of homelessness in the country and seen growing tensions over drug decriminalization efforts and an ongoing fentanyl crisis.

His loss also comes as Republicans have hammered Democrats over those issues heading into the election. For many observers, the race underscores the degree to which crime is resonating as a key issue even in deep-blue pockets of the country.

“It has to be a both-and conversation,” said Portland-based Democratic analyst Jake Weigler, “that you can talk about racism and systemic inequalities within the justice system, but if the public doesn’t have confidence that they are still able to enforce the law and create accountability, that their patience for trying to innovate and reform the system is going to decline quickly.”

Schmidt’s defeat this week is just one of several recent examples suggesting Democratic voters are seeking distance from progressive policies four years after Floyd’s killing led to a surge in calls for police reform and some on the left to amplify calls to “defund the police.”

In Seattle, voters in 2021 picked a Republican to be city attorney, passing over a candidate who called for abolishing the police. Two years ago, voters in San Francisco booted Chesa Boudin, who had run on progressive reforms in 2020, from the DA role.

This year, in California’s Alameda County, a progressive district attorney is facing a recall vote as detractors argue Pamela Price is “failing us in her responsibility to enforce the law, prosecute criminals and keep violent offenders off our streets.” Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon has also faced recall efforts that failed to make it to the ballot.

Since the tumultuous summer of 2020, Democratic officeholders have sought to outright reject the “defund the police” slogan. President Biden, meanwhile, has been walking a careful tightrope on the issues of police reform and crime.

On Friday, in recognition of the four-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, the White House published a fact sheet highlighting the steps it had taken to enact police reform, including Biden’s signing of an executive order intended to increase police accountability.

But Biden has also made a concerted effort to praise law enforcement. Earlier this month, he attended a memorial for fallen police officers, where he touted both the work of the police and his administration’s handling of the issue.

“It’s no accident that violent crime is near a record 5-year low,” Biden said at the event at the Capitol. “It’s because of extraordinary effort by all of you and your communities, together with historic steps taken to support you.”

The president has also moved to fund the police and hire new police officers.

The moves come as Republicans have repeatedly blamed his administration for rising crime rates. But while Donald Trump and his campaign frequently hammer Democrats over the issue, government data suggests violent crime has actually dropped in recent years, which Biden has touted as he runs for another four years.

Since 2021, concerns about crime have grown on both sides of the aisle, according to Pew Research Center – and earlier this year, almost 60 percent of Americans said that reducing crime should be one of the “top political priorities” in the country this year. A Gallup poll from late last year found personal safety fears at a three-decade high nationwide.

Against this backdrop, the DA race in Oregon was seen as a barometer for where the public — in a blue stronghold, no less — stood on the issues of crime and public safety, which became front and center heading into Tuesday’s primary.

Vasquez, Schmidt’s challenger, ran on a platform that stressed that “even ‘petty’ crimes, like theft, vandalism, and littering, public use of illicit drugs and public highs, all contribute to the overall feeling of safety and wellbeing of a community.”

His candidacy came as Oregon saw rising homelessness amid the pandemic and the 2020 passage of a first-in-the-nation ballot measure, which the DA supported, that decriminalized personal-use amounts of hard drugs like heroin, methamphetamines, fentanyl and cocaine.

Measure 110 aimed to use the police as an on-ramp to rehabilitation for drug users, but advocates say state leaders failed to shore up the infrastructure needed to make that work. Oregon saw spikes in overdose deaths in the years since its implementation.

Adding to Schmidt’s challenges was the fact that he was tied to the social unrest that occurred in the city in the wake of Floyd’s murder. The DA announced at the time that his office wouldn’t go after many who were arrested during the demonstrations, and he contended at the time “we will undermine public safety, not promote it, if we do not take action to bring about immediate change.”

By 2024, “the dye was set,” said John Horvick, senior vice president of the Portland-based polling and analysis firm DHM Research, of the DA’s race. He pointed out that Schmidt still came within single-digits of reelection against Vasquez in Tuesday’s contest, but underscored the uphill climb for the progressive prosecutor amid the changing Portland landscape.

“If you’re the top law enforcement officer in the community [and] you have rising crime, you have unaccountable open-air drug use, you have 100 days of protest where people feel like there’s no accountability — it’s pretty tough in that environment to win,” Horvick said.

This April, Oregon effectively reversed Measure 110, re-criminalizing small-quantity possession.

“The sentiments around safety rose so dramatically, they just went through the roof,” said Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Metro Chamber, of the last few years in the city. “[Schmidt] was hired to do a certain job, and then the job changed. And so I think that’s why the appetite for change in leadership of the county’s top prosecutor was so significant.”

Vasquez has lambasted Measure 110, knocked Schmidt’s 2020 protest policy, and criticized his boss for “dysfunction” in the district attorney’s office, “from a lack of prosecution to chaos in our community, record homicides to rampant drug trafficking.”

The Oregonian’s editorial board endorsed Vasquez, lauding Schmidt for spearheading “thoughtful initiatives to counter inequities in the criminal justice system” but labeling the incumbent “disappointingly passive” on issues of public safety.

“People want their communities to feel safe, and they certainly are open to the idea that we need to make our justice system more equitable and responsive to the needs of the community, but that can’t come at the cost of basic livability and quality of life in the community,” Weigler said.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s Tuesday primaries also saw the success of an establishment-backed Democrat in a race for a key House seat, and the failure of the progressive sister of Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D) in another.

Hoan, whose office endorsed Vasquez for the DA position, argued the primaries were a “refining” of progressivism, rather than an outright rebuke in the blue state — a signal that candidates have to be practical, rather than “purely ideologically progressive.”

Though data has shown Portland crime rates were on the mend in 2023, over half of Portlanders in a December poll said they’d consider leaving the city if they could afford to, and more than two-thirds said the city is on the wrong track.

“They’re seeing drug deals happening right in front of their homes or schools or coffee shops. And I think they’re just feeling that lawlessness pretty aggressively,” said Justin Matheson, a Republican consultant based in neighboring Washington, of the landscape in Multnomah County. “And even in some of the deepest, most progressive regions … we’ll probably see a lot of swings to the candidates that want to be more law and order.”

The Portland DA race adds to mounting evidence, observers said, that Democrats need to focus on public safety and reconfigure their messaging as the issue surges to the spotlight in cities across the country.

“The lessons learned that could be extrapolated across all public safety-related conversations is that you can hold your progressive values, you can be a Democrat, and you can prioritize public safety and being on the side of victims,” said Hoan of what the Portland DA race tells Democrats moving forward. “These are not mutually exclusive.”

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