Hours after a majority of Minneapolis City Council members announced plans to dismantle the city’s police department, the idea reverberated in campaigns from Minnesota to Washington.
President Donald Trump went on the attack Monday, his campaign calling on Democrats to denounce the “radical” move, which Republicans say will only create more chaos in cities already damaged by riots. “We’re already seeing leading Democrats join this movement, and indeed it is consuming the entire Democrat Party, as the most extreme elements have the loudest voices and demand acquiescence,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden responded immediately in a campaign statement saying that while there’s “urgent need for reform,” he does not support defunding the police. “He hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change, and is driven to ensure that justice is done and that we put a stop to this terrible pain,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.
In a pivotal election year, Democrats in Minnesota also were forced to grapple with how far police reform efforts should go, with some swing-district Democrats weighing the mood of their more moderate constituents against the anger of an activist base mobilizing in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who represents Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs, told protesters at a rally to defund the police over the weekend that she supports the move from the council. But outside of Minneapolis, Democrats in Minnesota were hesitant to fully embrace the movement on Monday, instead directing attention to a series of police reform proposals they’re supporting in the Legislature and in Congress. Neither package includes a push to defund or dismantle police departments.
“There’s no doubt that the criminal justice system is failing black communities and communities of color at disproportionate rates,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. She described dismantling the Minneapolis police as a local issue that the Legislature shouldn’t dictate. Kent is leading Senate Democrats as they attempt to reclaim a narrow majority from Republicans this fall.
While the Legislature’s top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, has invoked the fears of suburban moms watching the cities in flames, Kent said outrage over Floyd’s death extends beyond the cities’ limits. “What I am comfortable with is making sure we are fighting for all Minnesotans, and right now what I’m hearing loudly and clearly from suburban moms and others is we need to do a much better job of protecting our black communities and our black neighbors,” she said.
But the issue of dismantling the Minneapolis police in some form will be particularly challenging for Democrats in rural districts that lean Republican. Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, represents a rural district in northwestern Minnesota where he said the police department is respected in the community.
“I’ve always had concerns about painting things with a broad brush, and I do feel that in greater Minnesota and our rural communities, law enforcement is integrated into our communities and very involved in our communities,” Eken said. “I don’t want to see a situation where the state takes over implementing statewide approaches that are all based on what’s happening in Minneapolis. I’ve always been an advocate of more local control.”
Republicans in the Legislature are calling on Democrats in control of the House to hold hearings on the proposal to dismantle the police during a likely upcoming special session on Friday. And in campaigns, they are using the push in Minneapolis to paint all Democrats, from top to bottom, as “extreme.”
“It’s rare that a statement by a single City Council can reverberate not just through state politics but through national politics so rapidly,” said Steven Schier, a retired Carleton College political science professor. “It’s going to be an issue in state politics and you can bet that Republicans are going to be bringing it up time and again.”
Facing a crucial election year, with control of the Legislature up for grabs, as well as a U.S. Senate seat and all eight congressional seats, both sides will be navigating a new mood in racial politics and voters’ perceptions of policing.
Republican candidate Tyler Kistner, running against DFL U.S. Rep. Angie Craig in a suburban swing district this fall, called on her to denounce the move by the Minneapolis City Council, saying law enforcement “deserves our support, not to become the target of extreme ideas and ridicule.”
Craig is serving her first term in Congress and represents a district Republicans have already been targeting. “When it comes to protecting Minnesota’s families and neighborhoods — we very much need our firefighters, police officers and first responders,” she said. “We need real reform, but eliminating them is not the answer.”
In the state’s U.S. Senate race, Republican candidate Jason Lewis said Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s “silence on the issue can only mean that she stands with Ilhan Omar and the City Council in wanting to abolish the police.”
Smith said in a statement Monday that she doesn’t support abolishing police departments. “But it is clear that we need to reimagine policing in a way that emphasizes de-escalation and community engagement,” she said.
While Republicans clearly see a wedge issue in defending law enforcement, Democrats sense a seismic change in attitude that they say can’t be ignored.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of a Minnesota House public safety committee, said he’s open to discussing the Minneapolis proposal during the upcoming special session as part of a broader conversation about how to reimagine policing, not just in Minneapolis but across the state.
He rejects the idea that this is an “urban-only reality.” He notes that the suburbs are growing more racially diverse each year, as are many rural cities where immigrant communities have planted roots and are growing.
“When folks came out to protest in large numbers, they came out from everywhere. You had suburban moms protesting in our cities and they were racially diverse. You saw actions in greater Minnesota towns, you had rallies,” he said. “This is Minnesota’s issue. This is not just south Minneapolis’ issue. This whole divide-and-separate us out is an old tactic that Minnesotans are not going to buy.”