Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson, who writes frequently for CNN Opinion, is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and a former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He advises corporate and political clients on communications strategies in the US, Africa and Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @ArickWierson. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On November 2, voters across the nation will head to the polls for an array of state and local elections. Although 2021 is considered to be an “off-year election,” there is no shortage of high-profile political positions up for grabs.
In addition to New Yorkers deciding who will take over managing America’s largest city, the races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia will likely dominate the election night media coverage. Pundits will be in overdrive, dicing and dissecting exit polls and voting data in search of clues that might give some indication about what this all means for the pivotal 2022 midterm elections, as well as the 2024 presidential race.
Yet, there may be one issue looming larger than any one of these high-profile races this November: Question 2 on the Minneapolis ballot, perhaps better known as the referendum on “Defunding the Police.”
This controversial ballot measure, sparked by last year’s killing of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, asks voters to decide whether to essentially dismantle and defund the city’s current police department, replacing it with a “Department of Public Safety” which would exert “public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council.”
The measure, supported by a progressive coalition which has branded itself as “Yes on Question 2” explains in “the majority of situations where people need help, a police officer is not the appropriate response,” and the ballot measure will empower the mayor and city council to “remove a requirement for the city to maintain an armed police-only model of safety.”
The City of Minneapolis is a progressive, Democratic stronghold, yet the question will finally bring some clarity to how much mojo the “defund the police” movement really has against the backdrop of a city where gun violence is careening out of control.
For years, long before the death of George Floyd, in many large US cities including Minneapolis, there had been a small, but vocal contingent of racial-justice activists that argued a good chunk of the annual $100 billion in taxpayer dollars used to prop up police departments across the country could be better deployed to reimagine what public safety might look like.
These advocates for reform, led by groups such as Black Lives Matter, believe a reapportionment of the funds – which tend to be the lion’s share of city budgets – could deliver better net outcomes in urban environments if all or a significant portion of funds were directed towards an array of smart community initiatives, after-school programs for students and public housing efforts.
Activists have argued police departments are largely failing in their mission to make communities safer by addressing only the symptoms, namely crime, and not its underlying root causes. Some go as far as arguing police departments are really civilian-led paramilitaries that have exacerbated inner-city problems, especially among communities of color, and the time to curtail or even eliminate the role they play in society is long overdue.
A poll by PBS’ Frontline with other local news organizations last month suggests Minneapolis voters are split fairly evenly on the issue of defunding the police, with a plurality indicating they would just as soon do away with the MPD. Yet how much of this rhetoric translates into actual yes votes on election day is still very much an open question. The ballot effort has even struggled to gain overwhelming support from the majority of Black voters in Minneapolis, according to the same poll.
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I, like so many other Americans of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, was outraged by the full display of police brutality. In my case, it really hit home as I have two small mixed-race children, and Floyd’s death served as a wake-up call about the need for police reform. However, as a liberal but somewhat moderate Democrat, I see practical and political peril in going too far too quickly to address police abuse. And I am not alone.
Politically, the ‘defund the police’ ballot question debate is driving a wedge between Minnesota Democrats. The state’s best-known progressives, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison defend the ballot measure, while other top Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz, strongly oppose it. On a national scale, the Minneapolis ballot question will provide the first test of how much legs the big-city police department restructuring movement really has ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. And for Democrats all along the ideological continuum, the stakes could not be bigger.
The split between the moderate and progressive wings among Minneapolis Democrats reflects a broader gap evident nationwide, as the Democratic centrist establishment faces increasing pressure from a highly energized and insurgent progressive wing. Should Minneapolis voters decide to vote out their police department and replace it with an ill-defined public safety organization, the result could have national repercussions for Democrats already facing an uphill battle in the 2022 midterms.
Republican operatives are already salivating at the thought of shooting TV ads for competitive 2022 House and Senate races that paint Democrats – even when faced with record crime rates – as being a party out of touch when it comes to the basic issues of keeping order and maintaining public safety.
The national political blowback, should the “yes” option to Question 2 on the Minneapolis ballot prevail, could be significant. Fortunately, this is not lost on some Democrats, especially those in purple swing districts targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee for takeback.
Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, from Minnesota’s 2nd District, which includes suburbs of the Twin Cities, understands even though her district doesn’t include Minneapolis, the political runoff from the defund ballot measure into her own election could be significant. Craig has denounced the police defunding referendum as “shortsighted, misguided and likely to harm the very communities that it seeks to protect.”
This much is clear: Although they are extremely vocal, Democrats who support the “defund the police” movement hold views that are frankly frightening to the majority of Americans across the ideological spectrum. If a progressive stronghold like Minneapolis effectively votes to dismantle its police department, it will send shockwaves across the political ecosystem and deliver Republicans a powerful talking point.
Minneapolis will be seen as a city of lawlessness, and Democrats will be blamed. This is a narrative arc that will feed perfectly into the Republicans’ framing that Democrats just aren’t that good at governing anyway.
Need more proof? Republicans will just point to Congress. Despite controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government, Democrats’ internecine dysfunction has already stalled President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. Coupled with the Biden Administration’s disastrous handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan on the foreign policy front, we can see an entire party already bracing for severe voter backlash in 2022.
It’s going to be tough enough already for Democrats in 2022. And “Question 2” on the Minneapolis ballot could make things a whole lot worse.