On Tuesday, Democrats miraculously avoided the sort of major rout at the polls normally associated with a new president’s first midterms. Most surprisingly, Democrats still have a narrow path to maintain control of the House of Representatives if a few outstanding races swing their way. That path would be even wider if not for a disappointing set of losses in New York. Ryan Grim speaks with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, about what went wrong in the state.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: It’s Saturday. And as you may have heard, there were midterm elections back on Tuesday. And we still don’t know who’s going to control the House of Representatives.
Democrats — still — shockingly, have a very narrow path to maintain their majority in the House. If you want to check in over the weekend on how a few key races are going, the ones that will decide the fate of the House of Representatives, pause this and go get a pen.
Here are the races to watch: Democrats need to win just four of the following elections. The longest shot that’s still possible is California 27. That’s Mike Garcia versus Democrat Christy Smith. The DCCC left her for dead — and even worked against her during the primary, and she’s down by just 16,000 votes. If they break hard enough for her there’s still lots out there to count and she could potentially win.
Then there’s California 45, 22, 3 where the Democrats are all down by less than 10 percent. In Oregon 5, Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner is down just two points with a very narrow path to victory despite the fact that The Oregonian has called that race. We’ll talk about her race in a moment with the head of the Working Families Party, Maurice Mitchell, whose organization did the lion’s share of the work on her behalf.
In Arizona’s 6th District — that’s Tucson and southeast Arizona — Democrats are behind by just two points with a lot left to go.
In Syracuse, that’s New York’s 22nd District, Democrats are down 1.5 points. Now, back in California, two races are within a point and very much winnable for Democrats. That’s California 41 and 13. And then, of course, there’s Lauren Boebert, the MAGA of all MAGAs, who is up roughly 1,000 votes and probably going to a recount in Colorado.
So if they win four of those and hold all the ones that they currently lead, they will have a 218 to 217 margin.
Now the painful part for Democrats is that if they hadn’t done so badly in New York, they’d have an even easier path to the majority. Democrats started the race with an 11-seat margin in New York. But next session, it’ll be down to just a four-seat margin if they lose the last race still being counted, as it looks like they probably will.
Now, this week, I asked Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez what she made of the disaster that was New York State:
Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I mean, New York, I think, is the glaring aberration. And what we see in this map. I mean, [laughs] I have a front-row seat to what was going on here. So I think it’s natural for me to gravitate towards that. But I think even nationally, what happened in New York really bucks a lot of the trends in what we saw nationwide. And I think that that’s kind of like the glaring hole in where we did not perform as strongly as other areas on the map did.
RG: What were those key differences, do you think, between the way they were run in New York and elsewhere?
AOC: I think policing was a big one. I think the choice among certain Democrats to validate Republican narratives and amplify Republican narratives on crime and policing, running ads on it, validating these narratives, actually ended up hurting them much more than a different approach. I think that what we saw in other races is that they were able to really effectively center either their narratives and the narratives that they wanted to run with, whether it was abortion rights, whether it was democracy, whether it was, you know, other key and top priorities. I think Democrats in New York did a couple of things: They ran ads that were explicitly very anti-defund, which only served to re-invoke the frame and only served to really reinforce what Republicans were saying. And then even what we see is that if we’re going to talk about public safety, you don’t talk about it in the frame of invoking defund or anti-defund. You really talk about it in the frame of what we do on gun violence, what we’ve done to pass the first gun reform bill in 30 years. Our alternatives are actually effective electorally without having to lean into Republican narratives. I think that was one prime mistake.
And I think another prime mistake is that in New York State, Cuomo may be gone, but his entire infrastructure — much of his infrastructure and much of the political machinery — that he put in place is still there. And this is a machinery that is disorganized, is sycophantic, it relies on lobbyists and big money. And it really undercuts the ability for there to be a forming grassroots and state-level organizing across the state. And so when that languishes and there’s very little organizing happening, yeah, I mean, basically, you’re leaving a void for Republicans to walk into. And so I actually think a lot of these Republican gains aren’t necessarily as strong as they may seem. I think it’s really from an absence. It’s a testament to the corruption that has [been] allowed to continue in the New York State Democratic Party.
I mean, we saw that with India Walton.
AOC: We saw it loud and clear. There were a lot of canaries in the coal mine from the state ballot initiative. I mean, the Republicans put millions of dollars into defeating the redistricting ballot measure last year that would have protected the map, that would have put us ahead. And so I really believe that we would have won Democratic seats, potentially gained Democratic seats in New York State, but Republicans put millions of dollars against this ballot measure, they organized against it, and the New York State Democratic Party didn’t drop a dollar in making sure that we got this thing passed. And this was in an off-year election! This was in 2021. We could have done this. And the fact that that happened, and there still was no implication for the state, and for state party leadership, I mean, a lot of this was really about these calcified political machines being asleep at the wheel, and there being a complete lack of desire to hold any of it accountable.
RG: And you called for Jay Jacobs to resign? What leverage do you and other progressives in the state have to make that happen? Is there anything being done organizationally, to push that? What kind of structure would you see replacing the structure of the former Cuomo folks?
AOC: Well, I think, right now, the New York state Democratic Party, the way that it is currently structured is very reliant on the governor. And I think that between Cuomo resigning late last year; Hochul, then, very unexpectedly taking the gubernatorial seat, then immediately dealing with a natural disaster, having to contend with a potential primary, and then a general, I just don’t really think that there’s been as much breathing room to address that issue in that whole environment.
But it’s very clear that the New York State Democratic Party was designed under Cuomo to be very reliant on the governor’s seat; like the governor very much determines who the state party chair is, et cetera. And I think that, given how progressives really organized and help deliver that margin, I think that there very much is room for a conversation to be held here about how we can restructure how the party is selected and established in perhaps a more decentralized way, or perhaps in a more democratic way, that is more representative of communities and more encouraging of engagement across the state — and less meddling, to be frank.
Because these little cuts really do build up, whether it was the failure on the ballot initiative, whether it was the refusal to recognize and respect when progressive candidates do win Democratic nominations outright that the party doesn’t work against its own nominees, which is what happened in Buffalo Or I can say, I’ve been in Congress for four years, I have never had a conversation with the New York State Democratic Party chair ever.
AOC: And, in fact, he’s done nothing but attack progressive Democrats all across the state. And so what he has done is created an environment where the only quote-unquote — or the main quote-unquote, legitimate Democratic candidates worthy of support — are those who fight both progressives and Republicans, which is clearly not a winning strategy, especially not in the state of New York.
And so when he has invested so much energy into demoralizing the grassroots and making sure that a lot of this grassroots energy gets busted up all across the state, of course, we’re going to see these margins swing towards Republicans. And so I think there really is something to be said here about a change in leadership and a change in the structure of the state party — because, I mean, in 2018, when Cuomo was running against Cynthia Nixon, the state convention, first of all, like didn’t even invite really any progressives that were there, even after I won my primary. But beyond that, it voted to endorse Cuomo by a margin, something like 97 percent —
RG: [Laughs.] Mhmm.
AOC: — which is nowhere near what the primary was right. It was like a banana republic.
AOC: And so it really just solely exists to just reaffirm the image of the governor as opposed to actually investing in infrastructure that promotes Democratic organizing. And so, you know, I think that there’s a lot here; a lot of it is also driven by big money, and both the real estate and charter lobbies invest very heavily and have an enormous amount of influence in terms of what candidates get Democratic support in the state and which ones don’t.
RG: And one of the key players in that kind of real estate-charter school state party apparatus that you’ve talked about is Hakeem Jeffries. Do you think that there ought to be a reckoning for what his role is in this? It looks like he’s going to make a bid for party leader if Pelosi steps down. What do you think the repercussions are of how New York played out for that?
AOC: Well, I think what we should really do is like — I think there are quite a few figures who really affirmed and really pushed this playbook. And it’s not even just this year. I think there has been a multi-year strategy to try — it’s essentially been a campaign within the Democratic Party — to try to undermine progressive politics and try to mischaracterize it as toxic. And I think a continued insistence on that is going to hurt the party.
Because I think one of the big things that we learned last night is that not only is it not true but that candidates who refuse to overcompensate and overly tack right, were actually rewarded for sticking to their values while doing their best to represent their communities.
And so, you know, I personally do think that there should be a political cost to being heavily backed by big money. That, to me, is just a primary concern. And regardless of who it is in this discussion about generational change in the Democratic Party, I think we also need to be looking at donor bases. And we shouldn’t be shifting in a direction where the party or our party leadership becomes even more dependent on large donors and corporate backers, not less dependent, especially in a time when more Democrats are being elected independent of that, and where the infrastructure for small dollar fundraising has only grown and become more vibrant.
So I do hope that there really is reflection on some of the strategies that went awry in New York, and how that was different from other places in the country. And I do hope that there is a reflection on being outwardly antagonistic towards a very enthused progressive base, especially one in which young people delivered these wins.
If you look at the difference between Rep. Tim Ryan and Rep. John Fetterman’s races, some of the preliminary data is suggesting that they had the same turnout in almost every demographic except young people. It’s not to say that everybody has to be holding the same line on progressive causes dependent on their community. But I do think that this is a signal that being outwardly antagonistic — including trying to defeat progressive candidates, trying to demoralize those bases — is not healthy for the prospect of Democratic gains.
RG: That was AOC. And if you want to read the full Q&A that I did with her, that’s over at theintercept.com.
Now, the Working Families Party, meanwhile, had a hell of a cycle. WFP started out in New York, but it’s been slowly expanding across the country largely playing in local races.
This cycle, they expanded in earnest to the federal level, both House and Senate, and helped usher in a new class of Squad members including Rep. Greg Casar in Austin, Rep. Summer Lee in Pittsburgh, and Rep. Delia Ramirez in Chicago.
Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party, and he joins us now.
Maurice, welcome to Deconstructed. Thanks for joining me.
Maurice Mitchell: It’s good to be here.
RG: So I wanted to talk a lot about New York and the catastrophe that was over there.
RG: But first — it’s Friday afternoon, this will come out Saturday morning. Votes are still coming in, we probably still won’t know when people start listening to this, what the outcome is in the House. And some of that depends on California, some of it depends on Lauren Boebert. Some of it depends on Oregon 5.
I want to zero in really quickly on Oregon 5, which is a race that we covered a bunch, you guys played heavily in. This was where Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive, took on Kurt Schrader, the former chair of the Blue Dogs, who was a very vocal opponent of the Build Back Better agenda, even was one of the few Democrats who was willing to kind of say he was against it.
MM: That’s right.
RG: Rather than play cute and be like: No, no, no, I’m for it. I just would love it to be a little bit different.
Like privately, in a call we obtained with No Labels, he said straight up that he was going to focus on killing it.
MM: That’s right.
RG: So he loses. And now, where are we now?
How did you guys decide to get into that race? And tell us about Oregon 5, where that stands?
MM: Sure. So, I think it’s pretty well-known that progressives formed a legislative united front with the Biden administration to pass Build Back Better. And progressives, I think we’re really the most loyal and thoughtful strategists and played a really great inside-outside game in order to pass the Build Back Better agenda.
Now, in the final sort of yards, we had a group of sort of turncoat Democrats in the House. And, you know, Rep. Schrader is a great example of that, sort of become chaos agents and throw the whole agenda into seemingly unending chaos with their objections.
And he, specifically — and you have to understand one of the planks of the Democratic Party’s platform that is resoundingly popular with most people, is the plank around controlling the cost of prescription medicines.
MM: And this was an area where there is no constituency for this, right?
RG: Right. [Laughs.]
MM: There’s a broad-based constituency to control the cost of prescription medicine. He chose the position where there’s no constituency. The only constituency is the pharmaceutical companies, where he objected to that. Right. And so —
RG: And he even said, if he didn’t do that, he wouldn’t be able to fund his campaign. Do you remember that?
MM: That’s right. It couldn’t be more clear that he was aligning around corporate interests against the clear interests of the majority of people in the country, and certainly his constituents.
And we understood, coming out of that process, that we had to use the primaries as an opportunity to give a rebuke to these turncoat Democrats that were disloyal to the agenda and disloyal to the president. And he was on the top of our list. And we had a really amazing candidate in Jamie McLeod Skinner, who I think presents to us the avatar of what it looks like for a progressive to run in a populist way that brings together the entire community, including some Republicans and independents, as well as people who identify as progressive, on a populist, pro-people agenda. And Jamie is one of the best communicators for that, in a district that is largely rural in a district that has a purple district, Jamie routed him. And it’s important to note that Jamie was outspent five to one. And he got the President’s endorsement after being disloyal to the President, and with the President’s endorsement, and being spent out with outside money, including some of that pharmaceutical money, five to one, Jamie routed him.
RG: And tell me, it felt like it was extra unusual because she had almost the entire local Democratic party apparatus, all of the different county operations, decided to reject their incumbent Democrat and endorse her and actually work pretty hard for her. Usually, if progressives are trying to unseat an incumbent, they also have to go up against some of the local Democratic machines because they’re aligned with the incumbent. But he had broken so far, that she not only had the kind of national progressive support and local progressive support but even like party support across the district.
MM: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think a lot of Jamie’s race challenges the mainstream or centrist orthodoxy around progressives, right? This idea that the progressives can’t build broad coalitions — like, Jamie built that. And I think it’s it’s exemplified in the fact that you had the Democratic Party infrastructure, cutting ties with the incumbent, as well as many in labor organizations and others choosing, in this moment, to align with her because he had gotten so far right and so, so deeply connected to and so nakedly cynically aligned with the corporate line, that it was unconscionable to support him. And it showed in the outcome, and I think it demonstrated for us, it vindicated our belief that progressives could run and win in any context.
So coming out of that primary win, we made sure to communicate to anybody who would listen, that you should put your smart money on Jamie, that this race would be close, that she was the right candidate for the seat. And, unfortunately, the National Democrats did not invest in the race.
And, Jamie, as we’re talking, we’re still counting votes in Jamie’s race; it is going to be razor-thin, whatever the outcome is. And if Jamie wins, it will be a win for progressives without a question. If Jamie loses, then a lot of those national Democrats are going to have to do some serious soul-searching — and shame on them, for, and we’ll talk about New York later, but for pulling $6 million of national resources into Sean Patrick Maloney’s race, for example, and not a dive into Jamie’s race.
RG: So I was talking to some national Democratic operatives who were pleading their case today. Some of them pointed out well, DCCC put about $1.8 million across the race. But it is also true that in the remaining weeks, both the DCCC and House Majority PAC, which is a super PAC, kind of tied to Democratic leadership, just pulled out.
One operative said: The data just wasn’t there.
They were arguing: All we can do is look at the data and the data wasn’t there.
They want to say it wasn’t ideological, because there is a lot of suspicion among progressives that one of the things that goes into the calculations that these national Democrats make is not just straight-up who is going to be most likely to win, but who is the more centrist, pro-corporate Democrat, and if this is somebody who knocked off a corporate Democrat, that it might be a little harder for them to get a hearing in Washington that their race is worth supporting.
MM: I don’t buy that argument. I will say this: I want to engage in a good-faith debate with folks. And I think people could differ around strategy. And people that I differ with around strategy aren’t immediately corrupt — I don’t want to at all assume that. But I do want to push back on this argument that there just simply wasn’t any data to suggest that. I mean, we were regularly in conversation — we don’t just talk to progressives when we’re running in the general election, we talk to anybody, including folks that we usually aren’t aligned with on a number of issues, because we have a shared interest in having a House majority for Democrats. And so we were providing countervailing evidence that suggested that she was close. And people made up their minds based on what was strategically relevant for them.
I think it’s clear that our analysis was closer to reality than theirs. And we weren’t just basing it on feels and vibes; we were basing it on data as well.
RG: Right. And then the numbers are bearing that out. The people I know out there say the chances that she’s going to make up the gap are very slim — not impossible — but it is going to be very close.
MM: That’s right.
RG: No matter what.
Do you have any insight into California before we go to New York? Did you play in any of those? Or did you watch any of those races? Because of that, it looks like the House is going to be decided there.
MM: Yeah, I have less visibility into the California congressional races. We played more heavily in the assembly races and some of the municipal races. So I’m more of an observer as it relates to the California races.
RG: You’re refreshing the New York Times or AP with everybody else?
MM: [Laughs.] Exactly.
RG: So in New York —
RG: — how far back would you go to pinpoint this immediate catastrophe?
MM: Well, I don’t want to take you into the recesses of Gov. Cuomo’s strategic mind, so, but this is what I would say, because it’s multifaceted, right? And Gov. Cuomo, for anybody who doesn’t know, a former Democratic governor, who governed in a very, very top-down, one-man-rule sort of way, even at the detriment of his own party, even at the detriment of the members of his own party, and famously empowered Republicans in the state senate in order to form an alliance that allowed him to decide what legislation got passed, and basically to foil progressives — and to specifically foil the Working Families Party, right?
MM: And we became his almost singular obsession, figuring out how to topple us for cycle after cycle. So, Gov. Cuomo, a lot of his infrastructure is still in place, like a lot of his appointees and judicial appointees. So Democrats drew lines through the redistricting process, and Republicans sued, it went up to Gov. Cuomo’s appointees in the judiciary, and those appointees threw a grenade into the process. And they decided on the side of the Republicans, and totally redrew the lines, and made them less favorable to Democrats. So that is one aspect of this sort of perfect storm that we’re in, right?
RG: And I interviewed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier this week. And she had mentioned that there was a ballot referendum in 2021, that would have implicated that decision; that the Democrats decided just not to play in at all and Republicans spent heavily on it. Were you guys involved in that? What is she talking about there?
MM: Oh, yeah.
RG: I’ve got to cop to not covering that.
MM: Well, sure. That’s correct.
I mean, the Democratic party apparatus in New York, because it has existed so long as a one-man-rule party is anemic. And the apparatus has missed so many opportunities, including many of these ballot measures. And this is one of them. If that had gone the right way, we wouldn’t be in this situation. If Gov. Cuomo governed like a Democrat, we wouldn’t be in this situation. And if looking at the lines, and looking at the lines in this less favorable condition, if Sean Patrick Maloney, who is a New York Democrat, but also the chair of the DCCC, didn’t operate in one of the most nakedly selfish manners you can imagine for the chair of the DCCC and jump seats — so he left his district, and he pushed Mondaire Jones out of his district because he wanted to be in a safer district —
MM: Right? And what’s fascinating about this, so follow this: He pushed Mondaire Jones out and Mondaire ended up running in a district that covers parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, which was much safer for Democrats. He ran in this district, and he ran to the right; he punched to the left. He called out the defund movement, he was probably the most pro-police candidate.
RG: He got money from the police, even!
MM: Yeah! And he sort of bought into the crime hysteria that was manufactured in part by Republicans, but also some Democrats. And he lost. He lost his race. The chair of the DCCC lost his race.
Directly next to him, in the Ryan race. So Ryan embraced —
RG: Was that the seat he left?
MM: Yes, that’s the seat that he left! The seat that he left!
RG: Right. [Laughs.]
MM: In that seat, the candidate embraced WFP. And he ran as a populist — pro-abortion, and also ran on a number of economic populist issues in a very purple, really challenging seat. And he won!
RG: And that’s a seat that Maloney himself thinks was more difficult to run.
RG: That’s why he left it.
MM: Yes. And the other part of this that actually, you know, it’s a New York story, but there are national implications: because he was the chair of the DCCC and of course yet, you know, he says that he recused himself from all of those decisions. The National Democrats sent $6 million of national resources into his losing campaign. Now just imagine if a fraction of that money went to Jamie’s campaign. Right? We might be having a different conversation about her race. We might not be talking about counting ballots right now.
So, to me, the story is about the New York party and the colossal, strategic, and political failure that was gathering over years of Cuomo rule, of missed opportunities, of weak infrastructure. I’ll give another example: There’s a Brooklyn county party that actually has some capacity. And Brooklyn is one of the most intensely democratic counties. You think if you’re running a statewide race, you would have a major turnout operation; they did not spend one dollar turning anybody out. In fact, by most standards, and you could look at the cover of Long Island’s Newsday, which is no paragon of leftist thought, on the cover of Newsday, when they’re talking about the Hochul win, they credit the Working Families Party as a critical component of that win, because we were doing the traditional voter contact, texting, visibility at poll places, visibility in communities, organizing, phoning people, and building momentum around progressives and others voting on Row D for the Working Families Party, all across the country — all across the state, rather. And most observers agree that the work that Working Families Party did in migrating people towards our line and organizing people to feel excitement around Kathy Hochul and Antonio Delgado is, in part, what made a horrible night for Democrats less horrible in New York.
RG: Yeah, people in Brooklyn and who worked in Manhattan were telling me that they couldn’t really tell that there was an election going on that day if you walked out of your apartment. Was that about right?
MM: That’s right. I mean, I’ve talked to a number of voters that said if they didn’t get voter contact from WFP, they didn’t get voter contact. If they didn’t get mail from WFP, it did not happen.
And you have to understand: There was a lot of money raised and spent. I’m unsure exactly how that money landed.
The other thing I would say, when you factor in all of these factors, and Antonio Delgado is a perfect example, he was an incumbent in a purple seat, right? And the governor, Kathy Hochul, plucked him out of his purple seat and chose him as her lieutenant governor running mate. Right? She could have chosen anybody —
RG: Pretty late — like we’re talking late in the cycle there.
MM: Yes. So I mean, you factor in all of these decisions — independently these are poor decisions; collectively, they create the colossal mess that are the outcomes that folks are still processing in New York, and the one, from our standpoint, as progressives, the one ray of sunshine is how progressives showed up. I mean, the other rap on progressives is that progressives aren’t disciplined, progressives are disloyal, progressives aren’t strategic.
I mean, in this case, progressives in New York showed up for a slate that, on a lot of levels, we don’t agree with. But we understood that our prime directive was to defeat a MAGA Republican in Rep. Lee Zeldin and to prevent New York from flipping over to the Republicans, which actually became a more and more credible threat.
MM: That was our number one prerogative. And thank God we have our own ballot line in New York, where we can encourage progressives to feel proud to pull the lever for candidates that they might not necessarily see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. We do see eye-to-eye with almost all Democrats around the question of whether or not we should live in a democracy or whether or not MAGA Republicans should have any power.
RG: And so I was thinking recently, or thinking yesterday, about what would have happened if Letitia James, who had floated a bid against Kathy Hochul for governor, let’s say she runs and she wins a primary, that wouldn’t have necessarily changed a lot of the kind of underlying structures that drove what happened in this race on Tuesday. So you still would have seen a lot of losses in Long Island, Sean Patrick Maloney probably still loses, some of these other races probably go down as well. I was imagining what a kind of celebration of hate there would be for the progressive wing of the party if that had happened. Like it would be — MSNBC, CNN would just be, would just have declared: Well, this shows what happens if you have a progressive on the top of the ticket.
And now, obviously, they can’t do that because she wasn’t on the top of the ticket. And it kind of exposes how empty that rhetoric would be. But do you think I’m right? Am I imagining the correct scenario?
MM: Oh, absolutely. And many people actually don’t know that. The New York’s Attorney General, Tish James began as an independent, not Democrat, but independent Working Families Party candidate.
RG: First ever elected, right?
MM: In a general election against the Democrats, as a Working Families Party candidate. Right.
But absolutely, I think what you’re saying — the intense bias of the media and strategic bias against progressives is real, right?
And so I’ll give an example: I’m not hearing pundits. I’m not hearing anybody use that logic in trying to understand Sean Patrick Maloney’s loss. Right? There’s not a lot of pundits suggesting that the tough-on-crime rhetoric, and this sort of embracing the most maximalist position on policing is what clearly lost it for Sean Patrick Maloney. Nobody’s arguing that his ideological point of view is why he lost. And that’s fair because an electoral loss is multifaceted. It could have been a number of things. It could have been a combination of things. See, when they lose, they’re able to carry nuance. When we lose, the nuance is out the window. And the story is once again progressives lose it all. Right? And so: I do think that that bias has become so ingrained, people don’t even challenge it, right? But it’s real.
RG: And on that crime question, in my conversation with AOC, she also brought that up and she criticized Maloney and others for parroting and really reinforcing Republican talking points on the crime question and not putting forward their own vision. The nuance, or the complication that I would add to that, and I’d like to get your response to this, is that progressives also didn’t really offer a counter-narrative for at least maybe the first year of the kind of national public safety debate. The argument you had here instead was: Well, you’re misreading the crime stats. And some crimes are up, other crimes are down. There seems to be a real reluctance to engage with the fact that crime was up because progressives didn’t want to reinforce what Fox News was saying and what Republicans were saying and so, instead of finding a middle ground, went with: Well, these certain crimes are not up.
So, in hindsight, was that a mistake? And what is the progressive message on crime?
RG: Because if you look at polling from the Center for American Progress, progressives do have messages on public safety and crime that can resonate. But to me, it felt like they weren’t actually making them because they felt like if they validated that, they were validating Fox, and they’re validating the attacks on policing. And so they just stayed away from it and tried to change the subject.
MM: Well, I mean, there’s so much to say here, and I wouldn’t just focus on Sean Patrick Maloney. Any conversation about the failure of Democrats and centrists on this issue has to include Mayor Adams. His whole shtick is constantly scaring New Yorkers, instead of developing a platform, just sort of manufacturing more and more hysteria around crime. And, in doing so, when Democrats do that, our feeling is that they align with the right-wing narrative and what they’re saying is that Democrats and Republicans both agree that Democrats don’t have a handle on violent street crime, right? Which makes it even harder for Democrats to operate successfully, politically.
But to your other point, number one: Absolutely. I believe strongly that progressives should lean into the debate around public safety and policing. And there are strong, popular progressive messages around that. We’ve done our own testing on this. We’ve done our own research and polls, and we feel strongly that a message that, number one, acknowledges how people are actually feeling and also then pivots to the things that we know most people agree with progressives works: Most people, independents and Republicans as well agree with the basic notion that the roots of crime lie in things that police can’t generally solve, like mental health, and chemical addiction, and homelessness, people actually understand that. And when you talk about the investments that need to be made in order to make us all safe and in order to create public safety, a lot of people — progressives, independents, and Republicans — actually get that. It makes sense to people. What we also learned is a few things: Number one: The hysteria — yes, people are concerned about crime. But the hysteria around crime somehow superseding all the other issues that people care about, we weren’t seeing that. It was a prevailing issue, but inflation, and abortion continued to record very highly in all of the polling that we were doing. So we understood that people were dealing in an environment where they had multiple things that they were wrestling with.
The other thing I would say is that when you see the data on crime, and you see the number of voters that suggests that x percentage of people are concerned with crime, within that number, our country is very racialized. We’re in a very racially segregated country. Within that number are Black people who live in urban communities where street crime is actually more of a real day-to-day reality. Those voters also have factored all of that in and pretty consistently, percentage-wise vote, for Democrats. So their concern around crime doesn’t also somehow suggest that they might shift to vote for MAGA Republicans.
MM: And they’re part of that overall percentage of people that are concerned around crime. So there’s a lot of nuances there: how people are prioritizing that concern, the types of communities they live in, their actual lived experience with street crime, or violent crime, or inter-community violence, and then how the political calculus is working for them in order to decide whether or not to vote generically for a Republican or a Democrat.
And the last thing I’ll say is: We want to see Democrats and progressives not be afraid of their shadow when it comes to policing, and when it comes to crime, and public safety, and our hope is following what I think most people would agree is a historic election for Democrats that some of the hysteria might be able to break, and we can engage in a more rigorous policy-based conversation about what actually needs to happen. And there, I actually think that progressives have a lot of solutions that are very, very popular and progressives should absolutely lean into it. Our research suggests that progressives could win over people based on a pro-investment-in-communities-response to public safety.
RG: Yeah, and I also wonder if Rikers is, itself, driving crimes. Rikers has always been awful. Like, always, but it feels significantly worse in the last couple of years. And I wonder if there’s something about the utter collapse of Rikers, that is then having a boomerang effect in making the streets less safe for a variety of different reasons, some of which I could probably put my finger on, some of which I couldn’t, but just kind of feel right. And that just feels stuck. You’ve got the left saying we need to shut Rikers down, but then you’ve got all these communities rejecting all the alternatives to Rikers. And it just seems like this complete hellhole and ongoing human rights catastrophe that is Rikers is just sitting there, and just getting worse and worse and worse.
MM: Yeah. I can’t speak on it based on direct experience on those campaigns, although I have relationships with folks who are deeply involved in the Rikers campaign. I can say generally because I do have some depth in general on the subject of policing and the criminal legal system, I do think that Rikers is actually a helpful example of everything that’s wrong with our criminal legal system.
And I want to get back to the point that I made earlier: There’s actually a lot of shared agreement across race and across ideology on a number of core understandings around the criminal legal system. Most people agree that our criminal legal system is not working. Right? There’s very few people who look at what’s happening on Rikers and think: Yeah, that’s ideal. Things are working, right?
And so, therefore, most people are interested and want to lean into reform of our criminal legal system, including independents and a lot of Republicans. And most people think that police should be held accountable when they do bad things, including independents and a significant percentage of Republicans. That’s after all of the sorts of copaganda, and all of the like wall to wall, Fox News hysteria on defund the police and everything else, that people still understand a very core way that our system, our system of policing, and our criminal legal system, is not operating optimally are operating in line with our values. And I do think that that does give me some hope that after this election, right — I do think that the election and how much hysteria was placed on policing and the system, it almost made it impossible, I think, for any political actors to do anything significant.
But now that the election is over, and now that I think most observers recognize that voters, in as much as they cared about public safety and crime, they also cared about a lot of other things. And this idea that there would be this red wave that the Republicans would serve that was mainly comprised of peoples’ hysteria and anxiety around crime, I think most people understand that that actually isn’t the case. And that’s going to inform people’s both policy and political calculus going forward.
RG: So nearby, over in Connecticut, Jahana Hayes hung on and that made it a sweep of the congressional delegation, she’s a progressive running in a swing district there. But Gov. Ned Lamont, running for reelection, the progressive governor who people might remember who he beat Joe Lieberman way back in 2006, or 2008, or whenever that was, and then Joe Lieberman ran as an independent and stopped him from becoming a senator, he’s now governor of Connecticut, you guys became weirdly a major part of that race. Can you talk about that a little bit?
MM: Sure. So, in Ned Lamont’s last race — and for folks that don’t know, Working Families Party, we’re a lot of things but in New York and Connecticut, we have a ballot line based on something called “fusion,” which I won’t go into, but it allows an independent third party like us to cross-endorse the Democrat, right? So we have that fusion line in Connecticut. And Gov. Ned Lamont won his election with a razor-thin margin and the votes on the Working Families Party line certainly were the margin of victory.
In this election, in 2022, Gov. Ned Lamont had the same general election opponent, right? So it’s the same head-to-head. The difference, though, is that the Republicans chose to hit him really hard on policing and a tenuous relationship to defund the police through the Working Families Party endorsement. And they threw a lot of money and a lot of mail on this particular line of attack. And when all things are said and done, and when all the ballots are counted, the margin of victory had grown between his last race and this race. And so it’s as much of a scientific A/B test as we can on the impact of some of these attacks. Elections are multifaceted, but in as much as people claim that these attacks are just slam dunks, I think there’s enough counterfactual evidence to suggest that’s not true.
RG: Yeah. And Minneapolis elected a public defender to be a prosecutor out there. And you had, in Los Angeles, the comptroller, a lefty, he ran a whole bunch of ads and billboards that were just showing a bar graph of how much money police were getting compared to all the other social services in Los Angeles; seems that he’s going to end up exceeding either of the mayoral candidates in vote totals, cruising to election. And so you did have some races that complicated the narrative that the Democratic position on policing was going to lead to a wipeout.
But at the same time, I was interested to hear you say that Democrats do need to acknowledge the increase in crime, the fact that people do feel less safe out in the streets now than they did a couple of years ago. And that just saying: Well, it’s not as bad as 1995 — that isn’t enough.
So what conversation are you hearing among the kind of progressive leaders who are shaping policy? Are you hearing a lot of people who are using some of these wins to say: We don’t need to talk about this at all, we can just stay the course.
Or are there more people going in your direction and saying: Now that the election is over, we need to think very deliberately about how we’re going forward while completely collapsing in the face of the attacks.
MM: I think people are taking this very, very seriously. And I think there’s three things that people need to do: Organizing 101, you need to meet people where they’re at. And in as much as people feel authentic concerns and anxiety, you need to engage with them in an emotionally appropriate way. If people are feeling anxiety, you don’t bust out a bar graph.
RG: [Laughs.] Right. Yes.
MM: That’s just not how that works.
RG: “Look, crime was worse in 1993, in this city! Why are you scared?”
MM: Yeah. So there’s that. Number two: most people actually think that police are doing way too much. But most people agree that if police focused on — there’s like a lot of agreement that police should do the things that if you stay up too late, and you’re watching either MSNBC or CNBC, all of those shows, police solving murders, that stuff [laughs] —
MM: — people generally accepted that that would be a really good use of policing and their skills. Now, solving for homelessness, and chemical addiction, and youth outreach, and all these other things — and being psychologists? Most people think, like, yeah, we shouldn’t be holding them to that broad, sprawling mandate. And there’s ways of talking about that, where progressives can, number one, engage in an emotionally appropriate way to people who are feeling all types of anxiety, right? And sometimes that anxiety is so multi-layered, right?
Perhaps, there may be less factual evidence, but for example, in New York, with Mayor Adams parroting these lines every single day, if you’re watching the news and you see the most horrible example of street crime on the local news, that’s gonna cause some anxiety, even if you’re relatively safe in your own community, right? That’s real. People’s emotions are real. People’s feelings are real, and debating around that is not necessarily helpful. So that’s number one.
Number two: I think acknowledging that many people do agree that police have a role in doing things like solving violent crimes and solving heinous crimes like rapes and other crimes that should be solved, and there should be accountability. Most people believe in accountability. And I think talking about accountability is actually a progressive value that progressives can really lean into.
And pivoting to the solutions, all of the investments outside of police, that most people agree would make communities safer, I think tying those things together is how progressives can really lean into this debate in ways that are emotionally empathetic and responsive, and also aligned with our values, and also are ultimately good policy solutions.
RG: Well, Maurice, thank you so much for taking some time. I really appreciate it.
MM: Thank you!
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Maurice Mitchell, and that’s our show.
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