The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We're seeing that in New York City’s hotly contested Democratic mayoral primary where crime, once again, is the predominant issue, if polls are correct.
It’s been a while since public safety was the top concern of New Yorkers. We’d gotten used to feeling secure. But, bit by bit, with the dismissal of proactive policing policies like stop-and-frisk and "broken windows," enacted under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and expanded under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city’s hard-won sense of security slipped away.
In raw numbers, crime is still dramatically lower than it was 30 years ago, but it’s the feeling in the air that matters, not to mention the data trajectory. There’s a sense of lawlessness on the streets again, and New Yorkers who’ve learned that the city is actually manageable are in an uproar about it. They refuse to accept as normal afternoon shootings in Times Square or nightly chaos in Washington Square Park.
What’s both startling and unsurprising is how quickly the conversation about crime has changed since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers a little over a year ago. In the weeks following Floyd’s death, cops were broadly painted as public enemy number one. Calls to defund them were ubiquitous, and 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates Joe Biden and Bloomberg came under siege for past public safety policy positions. They backpedaled on them. Bloomberg went so far as to apologize for stop-and-frisk, a policy he once brought to federal court to defend.
Then came the sometimes violent street demonstrations. And the shootings. People started remembering what it’s like to be scared. Albany’s controversial cashless bail parole reform came next. It added to public nervousness.
Now, New York City mayoral candidates are falling over one another to convince voters they’d be toughest on crime. Former police officer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was first to capitalize on this; it might just win him the Democratic nomination. Further-left candidate Maya Wiley was roundly blasted for hesitating when asked whether guns should be taken away from NYPD officers at a recent debate. Ray McGuire, an African-American candidate, got into an enviable kerfuffle with candidate Dianne Morales last week for insisting that more, not fewer, police officers are necessary in "Black and brown" communities. It was one of McGuire’s best exchanges in a campaign that has gained little traction.
If this all sounds familiar it’s because we’ve been here before, at least those of us who remember the Big Apple pre-Giuliani. Liberal New York City, as the saying goes, got mugged by reality in the 1970s and '80s, and in the end, city residents weren’t quite so progressive when it came to crime and public safety, electing Republicans Giuliani and Bloomberg to five collective terms. As long as they kept the city safe, New Yorkers would back them, even in a city in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 6-1.
Little surprise then that Curtis Sliwa of Guardian Angels fame is leading among Republicans going into Tuesday’s primaries, according to polling. Should Sliwa defeat business owner Fernando Mateo, expect the crime conversation to further dominate the general election debate, as it well should.
All people hate being afraid. How could New York pols have ever forgotten that?
Opinions expressed by William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, are his own.