The Oklahoman

Dems see political peril in police reform

US, state lawmakers divided over measure

- Steve Karnowski

MINNEAPOLI­S – As activists mobilized this summer to ask Minneapoli­s voters to replace their police department, one of the first prominent Democrats to slam the plan was a moderate congresswo­man who doesn’t even live in the city.

Rep. Angie Craig declared it “shortsight­ed, misguided and likely to harm the very communitie­s that it seeks to protect.” She warned that it could push out the city’s popular Black police chief.

Craig’s district covers a suburban-torural and politicall­y divided region south of the city, but her willingnes­s to jump into the fight next door highlights the political threat that Democrats like Craig see in the proposal.

As a city that has become synonymous with police abuse wrestles with police reform, the effort is sharply dividing Democrats along ideologica­l lines. The state’s best known progressiv­es – U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison – support the plan, which would replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety. Other top Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz, oppose it.

The debate is dominating the city’s mayoral and City Council races, the first since a Minneapoli­s police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020 and sparked a global racial reckoning. Passing the amendment would be a major win for the reform movement – both in substance and symbolism. But many in the Democratic establishm­ent believe calls to “dismantle” or “defund” police cost the party seats in statehouse­s and Congress last year. They’re determined not to let that happen again next year. Defeating the Minneapoli­s measure has become a critical, high-profile test.

“If we talk about reforming the police, people are overwhelmi­ngly in favor of it. When we say ‘defund,’ we lose the argument,” said Colin Strother, a Texasbased Democratic strategist. “Democrats that keep using ‘defund the police’ are only hurting themselves and the cause, quite frankly.”

The ballot proposal asks voters whether they want to replace the Minneapoli­s Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety that would take a “comprehens­ive public health approach” that “could include” police officers “if necessary.” It doesn’t use the word “defund,” and critics say that was a deliberate attempt by a majority of City Council members to conceal their aims.

Ellison, a strong supporter of the proposal, said in an interview that amendment supporters simply want “more tools to guarantee public safety, more than just a police-only model. They want other people who have expertise in mental health, housing, violence reduction and interventi­on” who are better trained to handle situations that armed police now face alone.

But he’s wary of the phrase “defund the police,” which he called “a cry for reform” that comes from “young people who were absolutely outraged by what happened to George Floyd.”

Ellison said he avoids using it, calling it “hot rhetoric, not a policy, not a program” that doesn’t accurately describe what the amendment would do. And he downplayed the idea that Democrats should be afraid of supporting the amendment, saying Republican­s will attack them no matter how the issue is framed.

Minister JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoma­n for the pro-amendment Yes 4 Minneapoli­s coalition, said she’s frustrated by the divisions among Democrats. Those who depict the proposal as defunding the police are using “fear-based rhetoric” and a “right-wing dog whistle” as a distractio­n, she said. Police “most certainly” will be part of the proposed new agency along with profession­als trained to handle situations for which armed officers are not suited, she said.

“The fact of the matter is Democrats, progressiv­es, liberals all across the board want people to be safe and that is what this charter change does,” Bates said.

The ballot question has attracted plenty of money, with glossy mailers showing up around the city and ads filling social media feeds since shortly before early voting began in early September.

The Yes 4 Minneapoli­s campaign has raised more than $1 million in cash and nearly $500,000 of in-kind donations from across the country, according to campaign finance reports filed in August. Its money included $500,000 in seed money from the Open Society Policy Center, which has ties to billionair­e George Soros.

The group has stressed the need for change and sought to reassure voters that the new structure will make everyone safer. It has also disputed suggestion­s from opponents that passage would mean the departure of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s popular Black chief, even though Arradondo said passage would put any law enforcemen­t leader in a “wholly unbearable position.”

The much newer All of Mpls, which opposes the amendment, raised more than $100,000 in its first few weeks, mostly locally. It has been playing up the uncertaint­y over how the proposed new department would work, since the amendment leaves it up to the City Council and the mayor to figure out the details within a short timeframe after the election.

University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs credited the “defund” issue with helping Republican­s hold their own in Minnesota’s legislativ­e races in 2020 despite Joe Biden winning statewide. He said it’s clear to Democrats that “defunding the police” was effective for Republican­s then – and could be again.

New York Rep. Nicole Malliotaki­s flipped a Staten Island seat in 2020 by running against defunding police. Moderate Democrat Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department captain, won New York’s mayoral primary in July on a platform of rejecting activists’ calls to defund police.

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Congressio­nal Campaign Committee, has pushed back against the “defund” rhetoric, highlighti­ng that the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill signed in March contains $350 billion to help support police department­s.

“If this thing does pass, which a lot of people think and assume that it will, there’s going to be massive national blowback, not just in Minnesota,” said Republican strategist Billy Grant, whose clients include Craig’s likely opponent in 2022, former Marine Tyler Kistner.

 ?? JERRY HOLT/STAR TRIBUNE VIA AP FILE ?? Many in the Democratic establishm­ent believe calls to “dismantle” or “defund” police cost the party seats in statehouse­s and Congress last year.
JERRY HOLT/STAR TRIBUNE VIA AP FILE Many in the Democratic establishm­ent believe calls to “dismantle” or “defund” police cost the party seats in statehouse­s and Congress last year.

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