Cherelle Parker’s (D) victory in Philadelphia’s mayoral primary over a progressive challenger who drew extensive media coverage has underscored the divisions within the Democratic Party on how to handle concerns around crime and safety within big cities.
Parker, an establishment favorite who ran on a tough-on-crime platform, won against rivals who called for a more lenient approach to address the city’s public safety concerns, significantly cramping liberals’ slams in major urban areas.
Her success is the latest example of how crime has polarized Democrats, with some in the party siding with more moderate politicians like her and New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), and others boosting left-wing candidates to win in cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.
Centrist Democrats, for their part, are seizing on Parker’s victory as a sign of their strategy’s success.
“The trend seems unmistakable. With a handful of exceptions, there has been a wholesale repudiation of the far-left, progressive ‘defund the police’ movement in urban America,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the center-left think tank Third Way.
“It’s worth noting that many progressives running in urban areas are shedding their previous ‘defund’ positions as quickly as they can,” he said.
On Tuesday, Parker’s win positioned her to become the first Black and female mayor of Philadelphia, a major point of distinction from dozens of white and male predecessors.
“There is another unmistakable trend that very few have noticed: the rise and success of a new generation of centrist, African-American urban politicians. Eric Adams, Justin Bibb, Cherelle Parker, Colin Allred,” Kessler said. “We may be seeing the future of the Democratic Party among these notable elected officials.
Parker, a former state representative and City Council member, will compete against David Oh, a Republican, in the general election, but it is not projected to be a close race. The likelihood that she will win in November has put a spotlight on her crime prevention platform, as Pennsylvania is poised to be consequential in 2024.
Democrats acknowledge crime is one of the toughest things to discuss effectively. Most agree that more needs to be done to make Americans across the country feel safe, but there are wildly different views on how to do that in a way that doesn’t alienate or insult people.
Democrats want to present an obvious contrast with Republicans, who many believe are wrongheaded and inhumane in their approach to crime. They see it as a winnable issue for their side, and are eager to hammer out the kinks in their messaging.
So far, centrists and progressives seem to agree that they’ve had some positive outcomes when compared to the GOP.
“In a lot of those places [Republicans] aren’t seeing the success they thought they would with crime attacks,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist.
“A lot of [Democrats] have found a very good balanced response of acknowledging there are areas with more crime and people’s concerns, but it’s not an either/or choice between having effective policing strategies while also backing criminal justice reform for police and prosecutors,” he said.
While the victories have been encouraging in some areas, many believe there’s still room for improvement. The scattered mayoral primary results across big cities, which has become more pronounced in recent weeks, shows areas where the party is still disjointed.
“It’s important to properly fund and support law enforcement,” said Cullen Tiernan, an activist who was a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016.
But Tiernan and other progressives suggest there are layers of complexity to the issue where the party is missing the mark. He sees crime and policing as interconnected to other quality of life issues, and should be addressed in a more holistic way.
“A labor focus that improves quality of life, that addresses mental health issues and that makes our world a safer and fairer place, should be the focus of Democrats,” he said.
That wasn’t necessarily the case in Philadelphia, where Parker’s platform was considered tougher than most of the crop of Democrats all looking to reduce the city’s growing safety concerns.
She called for an amended version of the controversial “stop and frisk” policy that many criminal justice advocates have long said is outdated and hurtful to residents, particularly people of color. Neither of her main primary opponents, Helen Gym and Rebecca Rhynhart, supported her position.
She ran on the premise of adding hundreds more police to patrol Philadelphia and wants to significantly increase funding for officer recruitment, areas that have put her in opposition to many progressives.
The starkness is particularly apparent in the post-George Floyd era of politics, where Democrats on both sides of the spectrum have said they are committed to rethinking policing as instances of brutality continue to devastate communities.
Progressives and some centrists hoped that Gym and Rhynhart’s softer platforms would inspire residents to think differently about ways to mitigate crime and invest in their community. In Chicago, Brandon Johnson’s (D) victory provided a rough blueprint: He ran to the left of his police union backed-opponent Paul Vallas, an older white man who even some centrists concede made a series of mistakes.
After Parker’s victory, however, Democrats were again tasked with looking at what factors went into her victory and if they should make adjustments for future races. A top Democratic polling firm linked to a key ally of President Biden released an analysis showing more subtly than what was perhaps captured at the ballot box.
“In yet another major-city municipal election where crime and public safety dominated the issue agenda, voters once again showed an understanding of these issues far more complex and nuanced than the political discourse and conventional wisdom would have suggested,” the analysis from Lake Research Partners and Vera Action found.
“The most traditional ‘law and order’ candidate, endorsed by the Philadelphia Fraternity of Police, won less than 10 percent of the vote. The winner of this election—Cherelle Parker—as well as the two other leading candidates—Rebecca Rhynhart and Helen Gym—responded to voter enthusiasm with platforms that offered a comprehensive approach to preventing crime and delivering safety.”
But it also noted a warning for Parker in addressing her residents’ concerns.
“72 percent of voters prefer an approach to safety that focuses on preventing crime and addressing its root causes. In fact, fewer than one-quarter of all respondents (22 percent) prefer ‘tough on crime’ policies,” the survey read.
Democrats say that in city races, the size and candidate composition matters, perhaps even more so than the slant of the policies to the middle or left.
“The simplest explanation might be the size of the field,” said Vale. “In NY and Philly [the] vote was fractured among enough candidates that their tougher message was enough to win.”
What worked in New York and Philadelphia “doesn’t appeal to enough in a smaller field or head-to-head race,” he added.
It also doesn’t necessarily translate to non-urban areas. Other Democrats note that while primaries in cities show differences within the same party, it’s an entirely different calculus when looking at the rest of the country.
Democrats should also take that into consideration when looking to message around violence and crime ahead of the fall matchups.
“Dems get caught up in the big city media markets, similar to how we get caught up in the presidency,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked on several recent presidential campaigns. They “don’t realize or accept that local media in small towns … are the reasons we lose.”