Metropolis

What the Great Pushback Against Urban Progressives Is Really About

It’s not crime.

Tents set up by homeless people are seen on a corner street as people walk by, in San Francisco's Tenderloin.
San Francisco’s Tenderloin in March 2020. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On Tuesday, voters in San Francisco recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive prosecutor whom critics accused of allowing crime to flourish. Meanwhile, voters in Los Angeles sent Rick Caruso to a November runoff for mayor; the luxury-mall magnate ran on a promise to rid the city of crime and disorder. Earlier this week, Henry Grabar wrote about why crime is dogging progressive politicians, and why their failure on homelessness is in part to blame.

If the polls are onto something, Californians will veer right on Tuesday. San Francisco will likely recall the progressive prosecutor it elected district attorney in 2019, and Los Angeles will send a billionaire shopping-mall magnate promising to “clean up L.A.” into a November runoff election for mayor.

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Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco D.A., is facing near-certain defeat in an up-or-down recall vote. Mall man Rick Caruso—a former Republican who became a Democrat for this campaign—has spent $34 million blanketing Angelenos’ phones, computers, and televisions with his face, and is polling at 32 percent in a wide field.

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If these results play out, the voting will be seen as part of the same backlash against progressive urban policy—and in particular, the “Defund the Police” slogan—that began with last year’s election of the ex-cop Eric Adams in New York City. Fair enough. In all three cities, the race was run on a single issue, urban disorder, its two components so closely linked in the public imagination they are often part of the same breath: crime and homelessness.

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“Can you imagine running a small business and you’re worried about crime, and you also have an encampment in front of your business?” Caruso said in an interview with the Associated Press.

“How do we fix this crime and homeless problem?” a Wall Street Journal opinion column asks of San Francisco, beneath an image of a homeless man on a bench. (The answer, according to the columnist: Replacing the district attorney.)

Crime and homelessness are not, in fact, the same issue at all. They are not meaningfully correlated; they do not share causes; they do not share solutions. But in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Democrats’ inability to address the homelessness crisis is going to cost them generational progress on criminal justice, as the forces for reforming the police go into retreat.

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It’s tough to watch. Reformers like Boudin (and the left wing of the Democratic Party generally) are right on principle and in practice to dismantle the system of unaccountable police, cash bail, and long prison terms for petty offenses. But they’re going to lose their chance to make it happen, because Democratic leaders have proved themselves so inept in confronting an issue that can easily be conflated with crime.

The elision between crime and homelessness is a clever trick for pro-cop politicians, but progressives brought the confusion upon themselves. Mayors like Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles and Bill de Blasio in New York used their power to make big but toothless proclamations on national progressive issues, while throwing their hands up at thorny local problems well within their means to solve, like building more shelter beds and getting homeless residents to use them.

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Boudin has tried to distinguish one issue from the other in several interviews: “It’s not wrong or unfair for people to feel [unsafe around homeless people],” he told the New York Times Magazine, “but the connection with me is an explicitly political one driven by the recall.” And to New York Magazine: “Homelessness is another issue of frustration… There are lots of city departments, some overseen by the mayor, some by the Board of Supervisors, that deal with housing and housing policy. My office is not one of them.”

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As the San Francisco supervisor Hillary Ronen told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, “Chesa Boudin is the scapegoat in The City for anything that happens that isn’t positive.”

To put it more bluntly: Boudin prosecutes criminals. But homelessness, which is not a crime, is the most serious concern for San Francisco voters, according to a recent San Francisco Examiner poll. His critics have done their best to muddy the distinction. Writing about Boudin, the conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens used a typical sleight of hand to blame the state of the city on the prosecutor. “Click this link and take a brief stroll through a local train station to see how these sorts of policies work out,” he wrote, in 2021. The link is to a video from 2018, before Boudin had even run for office. Of course, many of Boudin’s opponents aren’t confused about homelessness and crime at all: They want a DA who will use prosecutorial powers to cull the homeless population by imprisoning people for the misdemeanors associated with living on the street.

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The United States is in the midst of a gun-violence epidemic that has put policing at the top of the Democratic agenda. But contrary to popular perception, rising crime rates are not the exclusive purview of cities run by Democrats. Jacksonville, Florida, the largest GOP-run city in the country, has a murder rate three times higher than New York; GOP-run Oklahoma City has a murder rate twice as high as Los Angeles. Jacksonville, by the way, spends a third of its budget on policing, and yet the murder rate has risen in nine of the last 11 years.

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In some of America’s biggest cities, moreover, crime isn’t the issue it’s been made out to be.

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In San Francisco, violent crime is lower than at any point since 1985, according to the Chronicle. Property crime is elevated, though Boudin says that is more the police’s problem than his: Just 2 percent of reported thefts in San Francisco result in arrest.

Nor can the apocalyptic political rhetoric in New York and Los Angeles be justified by crime rates. In L.A., Caruso has been favorably compared to the city’s last GOP mayor, Richard Riordan, who was elected after the L.A. riots—hardly an analog to storefronts smashed last year at the Grove, Caruso’s flagship town-center mall. L.A. had more than twice as many murders in 1992 as it does now, despite growing by 10 percent since then. In New York, Mayor Adams said last month, “I have never in my professional career, have never witnessed crime at this level.” Short memory: at the time Adams served on the force, the city counted five times as many murders each year as it does today, despite the arrival of more than a million additional New Yorkers in the interim.

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Los Angeles' Rick Caruso (left, smiling) and San Francisco's Chesa Boudin (a bit mopey).
Los Angeles’ Rick Caruso (left) and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Rebecca Minkoff and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Crime is a phenomenon that most voters experience through the media, rather than firsthand, which is one reason there’s a huge spread between the share of Americans who say crime is a national issue and those who say it’s an issue for them personally. The emerging tough-on-crime urban Democratic coalition is multiethnic, and some of those voters obviously have felt the impact of the surge in shootings or a wave of hate crimes. For the rest, big-city homelessness bridges that gap, operating as a visible, personal manifestation of all that danger you hear about on the nightly news.

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In New York, centrist Democrats like Adams and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo have often talked about homelessness and crime in the same breath. They’ve managed to use homelessness as an excuse to ratchet up police spending, though the police do not build houses, as other city services suffer cuts. Of more than 9,200 residents removed from the subway during a recent 12-month period, fewer than one in 10 were to be found in shelters afterward.

Reducing crime is always a worthy goal, but it’s a complicated one. How much emphasis should be put on root causes like bad schools, poor access to jobs, and untreated mental health? How can police departments be reformed to boost their clearance rates from a 50-year low? What kind of policing strategy can prevent crime and build trust in minority communities? How do you balance harsh punishments for illegal gun possession with the drive to end mass incarceration?

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Homelessness, by contrast, is simple: Its incidence has little to do with poverty, mental health services, or illegal drug use. It’s a product of high housing costs, which is why the cities with the most people living on the street are also the country’s most expensive: New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Boston. The cities with higher crime rates, meanwhile, typically do not have serious affordability and homelessness problems—Cook County, which includes Chicago, has about 80 percent fewer homeless people per capita than King County, which includes Seattle. Crime and homelessness do not have the same causes.

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They definitely don’t have the same solutions. Compared to their 20th century predecessors who fought vicious battles over public housing, today’s big-city mayors have it easy. In fact, you could argue that one reason cities have become such Democratic monocultures is that Democrats with local power have given up on ambitious social ideas that divide their electorate.

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Homelessness, unfortunately, is an issue that demands a bit of political courage. It is associated with disturbing misdemeanor offenses like public urination and open drug use that are natural consequences of living on the street, but it is not primarily a policing problem. Housing the homeless may require clearing encampments in vital public spaces like parks or subways, risking the ire of progressive activists. It may require forced medical treatment for gravely disabled residents who won’t accept help, a concept that civil libertarians reject outright. Most of all, it requires standing up to angry neighbors in order to build places for people to sleep, and fast. No city has been up to the task. New York spends a fortune to guarantee a court-ordered “right to shelter,” placing families in hotels and crowding existing facilities. But leaders seem incapable of establishing new ones.

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In Los Angeles, the situation is no less depressing: Voters have opted twice in recent years to allocate billions of dollars to housing their homeless neighbors. But the results have been meager—after five years, just 1,000 of a promised 10,000 units had materialized. Audits slammed the program for being too slow and too expensive. Council members resisted construction in their own districts. Under a wishy-washy settlement, the city pledged this spring to house 60 percent of its homeless population within five years—but with a freeway-sized loophole omitting residents with serious mental illness, substance abuse disorder, or physical disability.

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Obviously, that inaction is primarily a problem for homeless people themselves. But it is also dogging the campaign of Rep. Karen Bass, the establishment Dem candidate to Caruso’s left. Bass understands why voters are frustrated on the homelessness issue and has put it at the center of her campaign. “It’s an exasperation with leadership,” Bass told the Washington Post last week. “People tax themselves and have seen nothing in return.” She is counting on her long record in the city and connections in Washington, and promises to house 15,000 homeless Angelenos in her first year in office.

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Bass is running neck-and-neck with Caruso, who says he will build 30,000 beds in his first 300 days, perhaps on Skid Row, the city’s homeless ghetto south of downtown, and force the homeless to accept temporary housing or face arrest. “You have to do temporary housing,” he told ABC7 recently. “So, you’re going to offer the bed once. You’re going to offer the bed, maybe twice. The third time, you’re going to say, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve now broken the law.’”

Caruso’s impossible ambition to build the beds is attractive, even if the details are sketchy and the reality might not be different from Bass’s commitment or the city’s aforementioned settlement promise. What is new with him is his approach to the police: Caruso says he’ll hire 1,500 new officers, step up the prosecution of misdemeanor offenses, and roll out a no-tolerance, broken-windows strategy that emphasizes small, quality-of-life issues.

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If that’s the policing revolution Los Angeles gets two years after George Floyd, it will be because leaders spent so much time dithering on housing the homeless.

Elsewhere in the state, politicians are hashing out compromises out to stave off radical ballot initiatives, where Californians have a habit of circumventing their legislators with extreme solutions. In Sacramento, for example, mayor Darrell Steinberg has agreed to a “right to housing”—and, if housing is available, an obligation to accept it. As long as the city has available shelter beds, camped-out residents will be forced to sleep in them.

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“We are over a barrel here,” Steinberg said in April. The ballot issue would have required the city devote 15 percent of its budget to building shelter beds, and permit 6,400 beds in 60 days—a virtual impossibility, the city says, which would just result in them being sued for failure to comply.

But those are the sorts of choices you face if you do nothing for long enough. You end up with an ex-cop mayor, a recalled progressive prosecutor, and a mayoral frontrunner like Rick Caruso. And whatever long-awaited police reforms were expected two years ago look further and further away.

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