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Washington's public safety struggles turn D.C. into tantalizing new GOP target

"We're the perfect foil," D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told Yahoo News.

Police gather at the scene of a shooting on a bus in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 11, 2023.
Police at the scene of a shooting on a bus in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 11. (Craig Hudson for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — After a spate of retail thefts at high-end stores in central San Francisco near the end of 2021, former President Donald Trump offered a solution: Send in the National Guard.

Throughout much of the following year, the city’s struggles with open-air drug use, homeless encampments and property crime were regularly invoked by Republicans across the nation who argued that Democrats' social justice agenda had gone too far. Some frustrated moderates agreed, with the Atlantic magazine declaring San Francisco a "failed city."

The sometimes hyperbolic law-and-order attacks helped the GOP win back the House, though not the Senate and key governorships. While San Francisco continues to battle crime and social disorder, Republicans have found a more enticing target ahead of the 2024 presidential election — a city as liberal as San Francisco but as constrained in its self-determination as a high school student government: Washington, D.C.

Political battles are waged daily in Washington, D.C. Rarely, however, are those battles about Washington, D.C.

That changed last month, when Republicans exercised long-dormant powers of congressional control over district affairs with surprising effectiveness, moving to block a revision of Washington’s criminal code, which had remained unchanged since 1901. They did so with the help of 31 Democrats in the House, 33 Democrats in the Senate and, perhaps most surprising of all, the assent of President Biden, who said he would not veto the measure when it came to his desk.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds a bill enrollment ceremony to nullify the D.C. crime bill in March.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds a bill enrollment ceremony to nullify the D.C. crime bill on March 10. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

It was only the first time since 1991 that Congress had so decisively moved to counter a local Washington law, but more such clashes are almost certainly coming. Those clashes are likely to keep the focus on policing and prosecution but could also expand to other contentious social issues.

"We're the perfect foil," D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. "We anticipate more of that this session." She pointed out that congressional disapproval of D.C. legislation requires only a simple majority, which Republicans already have in the House. Democrats enjoy a slim majority in the Senate, but centrists like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have frequently been courted successfully by the GOP.

"Once they do what they did with the criminal code, they won't stop," warns Julius Hobson Jr., a native Washingtonian who served as a top liaison between the city’s government and Congress in the 1990s. In a telephone conversation with Yahoo News, Hobson said that once Republicans decided to focus on the district’s legislation, they could likely find ways to undo or undermine other laws that had previously failed to attract scrutiny.

"These people are going to come up with something you haven't even thought of," Hobson said. He also had a warning for D.C. legislators, whom he charged with failing to appreciate the local and national political climate: "You’re poking the bear. You better watch it."

House Republicans are already moving to counter two police reform bills passed by the D.C. City Council. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who chairs the House Oversight Committee, has invited City Council Chair Phil Mendelson and member Charles Allen, responsible for many of the recent criminal justice reforms, to a hearing later this month to discuss public safety.

A Washington Metropolitan Police officer puts yellow tape around the Potomac Avenue Metro Station in Southeast Washington in February.
A Washington police officer puts yellow tape around the Potomac Avenue Metro station in southeast Washington in February. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

"This is typical of Republicans. This fuels their culture wars," says Norton, who also sits on the House Oversight Committee. She told Yahoo News that she was prepared to challenge Republican narratives about crime in the district.

Tourists and lawmakers are rarely the victims of violent crime, but that distinction can easily be lost, especially in the age of social media. Last Sunday night, a chaotic shootout on Capitol Hill left two people dead.

The debate over policing comes as Chicago voters prepare to elect a new mayor in a runoff between Paul Vallas, who is ardently pro-policing, and Brandon Johnson, a progressive who has voiced support for directing funds away from law enforcement. The incumbent, Lori Lightfoot, was ousted in the first round of voting, in large part because of public safety fears.

In Washington, Chicago and other cities, the violence almost uniformly affects young men of color, but as in Sunday’s case, it sometimes takes place close enough to the halls of national power to attract undue attention from lawmakers for whom Washington may be only a temporary home.

"When there are shootouts, carjackings and assaults happening in front of the U.S. Capitol, White House and the homes in which officials and their staffs live, you are going to draw bipartisan support against weak-on-crime policies in Washington, D.C," says Republican consultant Rory Cooper. Cooper told Yahoo News that he no longer feels safe taking his children to sports games at Capital One Arena downtown unless he can park nearby to avoid what he calls an unsafe and chaotic streetscape.

A local bill to study reparations for slavery could also come under congressional scrutiny. Meanwhile, a scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute is urging Congress to move the nation’s capital out of Washington, going so far as to suggest, baselessly, that it "may only be a matter of time before residents demand the city be given a new name — George Washington having been a slaveowner."

Police investigators search a bus following a shooting that occurred on it in January in Washington, D.C.
Police investigators search a Washington bus following a shooting that occurred on it in January. (Craig Hudson for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Both San Francisco and Washington are governed by Black women (London Breed and Muriel Bowser, respectively) who are in frequent opposition to a more progressive City Council. Breed had an easy foil in progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was blamed — unfairly, his supporters said — for a rigid adherence to ideological goals that did not include aggressive prosecution of lawbreakers.

A less than skilled politician, Boudin became a favorite target of Fox News segments and social media attacks. Voters resoundingly recalled him in the summer of 2022, in what many saw as a repudiation of progressive policies on policing and criminal justice that had gained broad acceptance during the racial justice protests of 2020.

Biden called the results a "clear message" from voters.

Washington lacks a figure as prominent and polarizing as Boudin, once called "radical royalty" by the New York Times (his parents were in the Weather Underground and served lengthy prison sentences for a disastrous 1981 bank heist). The district’s closest analog is Allen, the councilman who oversaw work on the criminal code bill. Allen, who is white, also supported keeping schools closed during the coronavirus pandemic; he has emerged as a symbol of how the social and economic progress that Washington made throughout the last several decades — overseen by Black mayors — is now steadily being squandered.

Allen did not respond to a Yahoo News query regarding whether he would comply with the House Oversight Committee’s request to testify on March 29. If he appears, the hearing is all but certain to descend into sharp recriminations between local leaders and conservative Republicans from states like Kentucky and Arizona.

D.C. Councilman Charles Allen speaks during a swearing-in ceremony in Washington, D.C., in January.
D.C. Councilman Charles Allen speaks during a swearing-in ceremony in January. (Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The current confluence of local and national politics is rare for Washington, where debates over how to contain Moscow or Beijing tend to trump concerns about deer overpopulation or bike lanes. But the criminal code revisions seemed to present Republicans with a perfect opportunity to confront national Democrats with culturally charged local matters they would rather avoid.

In the span of a few weeks, House GOP leaders managed to frustrate a plan that began in 2006, when legislators and criminal justice experts first started working to revise and update the criminal code.

The victory has energized Republicans looking for a winning message ahead of the 2024 election, while renewing Democratic unease that the party remains overexposed on criminal justice issues.

"Being seen as soft on crime is a big vulnerability for Democrats," Republican strategist Alex Conant told Yahoo News in an email, "and the DC city council made their problem worse."

The proposed revisions would have ended mandatory minimum sentences and lowered maximum sentences for many crimes. The resulting bill, 450 pages long, was unanimously approved by the City Council last year, but critics argued it was the wrong time for leniency.

As has frequently been the case with criminal justice issues, perception clashed with reality. Images competed with facts.

In San Francisco, retail theft had become the symbol of worsening disorder. Even though Walgreens executives recently admitted that closing stores there may have been an overreaction, the sight of empty shelves proved viscerally powerful to elected leaders, voters and corporate figures.

A pedestrian walks by a Walgreens store set to be closed in 2021 in San Francisco, Calif.
A pedestrian walks by a Walgreens store in San Francisco that was set to be closed in 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In Washington, carjackings occupy the same psychic role. In 2021, an Uber Eats driver died while trying to prevent a carjacking by two teenage girls. Last year, a local doctor died after giving chase to his stolen Mercedes. Several months later, Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson was shot during a carjacking attempt on a busy nightlife stretch.

"Carjackings are a regular fixture on the D.C. crime scene," a local affairs columnist for the Washington Post observed.

Yet the revised criminal code bill lowered maximum sentences for carjackings — and many other crimes — leading to a sharp outcry from the law enforcement community. Proponents of the revisions pointed out that even the new maximum sentence for carjacking would be higher than what judges levied, but those arguments were drowned out by heated rhetoric from both sides, especially since incidences of carjackings continued to rise.

The new code passed on Nov. 15, 2022. Although the vote was unanimous, there was clearly unease in the chamber. "We have shootouts in the street," said Councilwoman Mary M. Cheh, who at the time represented the district's white and wealthy Ward 3. "And this is not a time, I don't think, to lessen penalties for gun possession."

And then the real drama began.

Mayor Bowser vetoed the criminal code revisions at the start of her third term in office, which she had easily secured. Significantly, her veto came on Jan. 4 — the day after the new Congress was sworn in on Capitol Hill, with Republicans now in charge of the House. But the City Council overrode her veto two weeks later, with only a single dissenter.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks at a press conference on March 8.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks at a press conference on March 8. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post via Getty Images)

By this time, House Republicans had resolved their differences over the speakership election. Committees were seated and ready to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, the contents of Hunter Biden's laptop and other conservative pet causes.

The arrival of D.C.’s crime bill for its constitutionally mandated congressional review amounted to a welcome surprise for Republicans — and a highly unwelcome one to Democrats, who were hoping to tout their economic agenda while avoiding divisive culture war issues that tend to animate conservatives.

Some wondered why the City Council had not introduced the criminal code revisions earlier, while Democrats were still in charge. The legislation could have been taken up during the lame duck session, after last November’s election but before the new Congress was sworn in the following January.

"It was anticipated that this Congress would turn for a while," Bowser pointed out in a recent interview. "We would all be foolish to just approach this work in the same way that we were approaching it with a whole different set of players and a different dynamic."

Others blamed Bowser for essentially siding with Republicans. They also blamed Biden, who has supported D.C. statehood but undermined self-government when it seemed to be expedient for him to do so.

"That was very disappointing to me," Norton told Yahoo News. She said that Biden "simply caved" out of political concerns.

The fractures delighted Republicans. For years, D.C. statehood had been a Democratic cause. Now it would be Republicans using D.C.’s partial autonomy to force Democrats on Capitol Hill into uncomfortable votes.

According to Allen, the city councilman, the crime bill was only the beginning. "Last week it was the criminal code. This week it’s going to be about … accountability in policing," he said in a radio interview. "Next it's going to be about trans kids in our schools, or it's going to be our immigrant neighbors, or it's going to be about LGBTQ community."

Protesters rallied in March against a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new D.C. laws that would overhaul how the nation's capital prosecutes and punishes crime.
Protesters rallied on March 8 against a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new D.C. laws that would overhaul how the nation's capital prosecutes and punishes crime. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

Allen warned that Republicans were launching an effort to "nationalize and weaponize the politics within the district. And they're going to keep coming and coming for different issues."

Republicans say that with public safety matters, they simply want to make the district safe for visitors — and themselves. It may be harder to justify meddling in laws pertaining to other areas, like recreational drug use or reproductive rights, but given how national American politics has become, that may not make a difference.

"There's no blowback from constituents," said former legislative liaison Hobson. "It's a free shot."

Will Reinert, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged that soft-on-crime attacks were effective. His group has already launched an advertising campaign against Democrats who voted in favor of the criminal code revisions in the House. Many of those Democrats represent districts hundreds or even thousands of miles from Washington, but Reinert argues that the message resonates.

"House Democrats' extreme position on crime — highlighted by the DC vote — puts them in agreement with the most radical, cop-hating wing of their party," Reinert told Yahoo News in a statement. "You better believe we will tell voters they cannot feel safe in their own homes if they vote for a supporter of this bill."

Inside the White House, officials are watching warily as D.C. becomes a new culture war target. They believe the development is a result of Republicans’ lack of substantive policy ideas, as well as the paucity of news-making revelations from hearings that had been billed as explosive.

"It’s pretty clear that this is a stretch," said one Democrat familiar with White House thinking. "Republicans are trying to distract from the hammering they’re taking on Social Security and Medicare." Republicans, she said, were "grasping at straws."

Siding with the Republicans on the criminal revisions bill was difficult enough, but what will Biden do if both chambers block D.C. legislation concerning police reform or slavery reparations?

Democrats hope those questions will never have to be answered.

"We’re vulnerable," Norton told Yahoo News. "We're fodder for whatever ails them." She said there was only one surefire way to insulate Washington from Republican attacks: statehood.