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Public Safety on the Ballot in Portland

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Public Safety on the Ballot in Portland

A poll suggests that lawlessness may be hurting Democrats in the City of Roses. October 28, 2022
Politics and law
Public safety

Is one of the nation’s bluest states about to elect its first Republican governor since 1982? A new poll released last weekend has Oregon gubernatorial Republican candidate Christine Drazan one point ahead of Democrat Tina Kotek. The poll helps explain why: residents of the state’s largest, most left-leaning city are fed up with crime.

Portland has changed since 2018, when its most populous county supported the outgoing Democratic governor Kate Brown by 74 percentage points in a race she won statewide with only a bare majority of the vote. While still to the left of the rest of the state, Portlanders are not only signaling strong dissatisfaction with public safety and quality of life but also attaching these issues to the Democratic officials who presided over their city’s decline. According to Data for Progress, 48 percent of Portlanders now hold a negative opinion of Governor Brown, while only 25 percent take a “very favorable” view of Kotek, her former advisor and would-be replacement. More than eight in ten Portland residents disfavor Democratic mayor Ted Wheeler, and 42 percent feel similarly about the Democratic Party itself.

Portland remains Democratic, but the marginal shift toward Drazan—who has been campaigning on law and order and remains untainted by association with the outgoing administration—suggests broader trends. While Portland’s main county broke for Joe Biden in 2020 by over 79 percent, the new poll shows 35 percent of Portlanders now hold an unfavorable view of the president. Further, only 55 percent of Portlanders trust Democrats over Republicans on crime, and 25 percent of Portland residents ranked crime as their top concern.

An explanation isn’t hard to find. In the first seven months of 2022, homicides in the city increased 121 percent over that same period of 2019—from 28 to 62—and weapons offenses were up by almost one-third. Nonviolent offense rates have shot up, too, including vandalism (up 91 percent), car theft (71 percent), prostitution (85 percent), human trafficking (53 percent), and robbery (nearly 50 percent).

Portland’s experience may be convincing some residents that the progressive criminal-justice policies they championed in 2020 have failed. The once mild-mannered city has become considerably less inviting. Indeed, 87 percent of Portlanders think Oregon has worsened over the past two years; 77 percent think crime has gone up, 74 percent say the same about violent crime. The same share of respondents believe that graffiti, litter, and homeless encampments have all increased. These feelings translate into policy preferences: 61 percent feel that police should boost enforcement against offenses like graffiti, public urination, littering, and homeless encampments, while 63 percent would like to see more local police officers.

That’s a significant shift. In 2020, Portland was the national epicenter of anti-police protests and riots. The city saw over 100 consecutive nights of chaotic, often destructive—and in one case deadly—protests. In June 2020, the city council and Mayor Wheeler cut $15 million from the police budget, while school resource officers, transit police, and a gun-violence reduction team were disbanded.

Two years later, residents seem to be wondering whether this worsened rather than solved racial inequities. Around 2 percent of Oregon residents, and less than 6 percent of Portlanders, are black. Yet, in the first half of 2022, black murder victims outnumbered white ones by 150 percent. Between 2019 and mid-2021, around half of Portland’s homicide and shooting victims and perpetrators were black; the number of black murder victims rose by 250 percent. A lack of proactive policing likely contributed to these trends. Of Portland’s victims and perpetrators of homicides, a recent California Partnership for Safe Communities report found that around 70 percent had prior criminal-justice involvement and nearly 60 percent had prior felony convictions.

Racial gaps widened in other areas, too. As transit cops disappeared, traffic deaths rose by 29 percent between 2019 and 2021, with deaths from hit-and-run crashes (often associated with criminal driving) more than doubling. Ten percent of the victims of traffic deaths were black, and 60 percent of crashes occurred at just 8 percent of intersections, many in black and minority neighborhoods. (Seven in ten pedestrian deaths afflicted the homeless.)

Portland is slowly coming to want stiffer law-and-order policies. Last November, the city added $5.2 million to the police budget. Last week, Wheeler mandated a sweeping ban on homeless camping in much of the city. This iconic progressive city’s policy reversal on crime may represent a bellwether in this year’s midterms. After a period of chaos and violence, Oregonians—and perhaps the nation—seem eager to change course.

Photo by ANKUR DHOLAKIA/AFP via Getty Images

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