Bruce Harrell
Bruce Harrell, who defeated Lorena Gonzalez in the race for mayor of Seattle, waves after speaking to supporters, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, on election night in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

On the night of November 3, progressives in Boston were celebrating. Voters had elected a staunch progressive, Michelle Wu, to the mayor’s office in a historic race. That celebration, however, was an outlier. For progressives across the country, a very different story unfolded.

In Seattle, long considered to be one of America’s most liberal cities, voters chose moderate candidates over progressives in three out of four city elections, including mayor. Meanwhile, in Buffalo, a self-proclaimed socialist who won the Democratic primary lost the general election to the moderate incumbent, who mounted an aggressive write-in campaign.

Both elections were seen as proxy battles between moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party, especially on the issue of police reform. In Seattle and in Buffalo, progressive candidates advocated for reallocating police budgets toward other social services and other community programs.

Yet their losses are a clear signal that progressives will have to alter their messaging on policing—and be prepared to better counter the inevitable scaremongering that will come from their opponents—if they want to avoid more defeats in 2022 and eventually win offices so they can implement needed reforms.

Last summer, Seattle saw some of the most vehement protests in support of Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. For 23 days in June 2020, protestors occupied a six-block area in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. That same month, 85,000 people attended a silent march in support of the movement. Polls later that year showed that Seattle voters mostly supported the protests and calls for change.

Protestors had demanded that the city defund Seattle’s police department by 50 percent and reallocate that spending to social programs—and a majority of city council members at the time agreed. One of those members was M. Lorena González, who lost the November race for mayor by nearly 20 points, even after she received endorsements from national progressive leaders like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal, who represents much of Seattle.

The winner of that race instead was Bruce Harrell, a former city council member who spent much of his campaign attacking González for her prior support for police defunding. In contrast, Harrell pushed to hire more officers and increase police training.

In one of two Seattle City Council races, as well, voters chose a candidate who was pushing for more moderate police reforms. Sara Nelson, a brewery owner, beat out the lawyer and antiracism activist Nikkita Oliver, who supported the 50 percent cut in police funding and was heavily involved in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. Nelson, meanwhile, opposed police defunding.

The most stunning defeat for progressives, though, was the police abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy’s loss to Ann Davison, the first Republican candidate to win a Seattle mayoral election in more than three decades. Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender, had run on the premise that the city attorney’s office should be used to support social justice. She called for abolishing misdemeanor prosecutions and said the current city attorney was too tough on crime. Davison, on the other hand, said he wasn’t tough enough.

“I think the far left has different rhetoric that didn’t connect well with the mainstream on policing,” says Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Fuse, a Washington State progressive organization. “They didn’t come together on that in a way that we could, and often do, in Seattle.”

The same rhetoric to remake the local police department hurt India Walton, the 39-year-old community activist who looked poised to win the mayorship in Buffalo after beating incumbent Byron Brown in the June primary. If she had won, she would have been the first socialist mayor of a major U.S. city in more than a half century.

Walton launched her campaign with a plan to reform policing and reduce crime in the city. She specifically pushed to reallocate $7.5 million of the police department’s budget for affordable housing, job programs, and education reforms. She also wanted to stop police from responding to most mental health calls and to stop arrests for low-level drug possession.

Brown, a business-friendly moderate, had other plans. After losing the primary, he ran a successful write-in campaign ⁠that was funded largely by real estate developers with whom he has close ties—many of whom are also Trump backers.

“In ads and interviews, Brown started painting Walton as a ‘radical socialist’ out to defund the police as homicides were on the rise,” Eric Cortellessa wrote for the Monthly in October. At one fund-raiser, Brown told a crowd, “My opponent’s plan for people who commit sexual assault, sexual predators, is no jail time,” which was blatantly false. The New York Republican Party even funded mailers supporting Brown and attacking Walton, claiming that she wanted to “fire 100 or more Buffalo police officers, most of them women and people of color.”

Walton tried to push back against the attacks, which were clearly manipulative and leveled in bad faith. “To some extent, [Walton] did a better job of saying she wanted to free up police officers to do their job⁠—fighting crime—and use some of those resources on mental health and other social services to keep people safe,” Jack O’Donnell, a political analyst in Buffalo, says. “But that was not a strong and consistent message.”

Indeed, messaging is the key issue here.

In both Buffalo and Seattle, moderates essentially characterized the choice as between order and chaos. In Seattle, most voters supported last year’s protests, but they also saw businesses struggle in areas of unrest. In both cities, crime and gun violence increased over the past year. Moderates tapped into these fears to paint progressive police reforms as dangerous, and it’s telling that, even on a local level in two very liberal cities, progressives struggled to overcome that fearmongering.

“There is salience and there is relevance for voters, but it has been weaponized so effectively by the right and by corporate Democrats to be such a firepan issue,” Sochie Nnaemeka, New York state director of the Working Families Party, says. “We have to bring it down to ground a little bit and point materially … when we’re talking about police reform, what does it actually look like?”

After all, the vast majority of Democrats agree that policing should be reformed, especially in terms of conduct. An April Vox/Data for Progress poll found that 84 percent of all likely voters supported body camera mandates and 71 percent supported a federal ban on chokeholds, with those numbers even higher among Democrats. In terms of funding, 83 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents supported reallocating some police funding for social services, like first responders for mental health.

And yet, when asked about specifically “defunding” the police, those numbers dropped. A March USA Today/Ipsos poll found just 34 percent of Democrats supported “defunding,” as opposed to 67 percent who supported “reallocation.”

It’s that distinction in language and tone—and core messaging—that set up Bruce Harrell and Byron Brown for success. Both González and Walton tried to position themselves in favor of reallocation, but they had allowed their opponents to set the narrative and paint them in favor of defunding the police—which in turn scared too many of the city’s residents into thinking they would be rendered vulnerable by losing police protection. (To be fair, Walton was also wildly outspent by Brown.)

It’s clear that as long as attacks on police reform keep working, moderates and conservatives will keep using them. If progressives want to convert police reform’s general popularity into electoral victories and tangible changes, they’ll need to adopt language and rhetoric to keep voters on their side—even in the most progressive places.

“The job of our elected officials—our candidates⁠—is to translate urgent cries, moral cries of movement into actual policies and something that voters can hold on to and grasp,” Nnaemeka says. “We have to continue the conversation and perfect our messaging, because we know that these [policies] are actually popular when messaged appropriately.”

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Jakob Cansler

Follow Jakob on Twitter @jhcansler. Jakob Cansler is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.