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‘Defund the Police’ became a Republican weapon in suburban Philly | Maria Panaritis

Let's hope Democrats learn a lesson from this.

Mike Ewall of Northeast Philadelphia holds a "Defund the Police" sign at a demonstration against racism - and for justice for George Floyd - in Northeast Philadelphia on June 9, 2020.
Mike Ewall of Northeast Philadelphia holds a "Defund the Police" sign at a demonstration against racism - and for justice for George Floyd - in Northeast Philadelphia on June 9, 2020.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The calls began a few weeks before Election Day. Each time, they aggressively aimed at one thing: persuading their target to vote for Donald Trump. In this case, that target was a Black Democratic woman with a home address of Upper Darby Township, Delaware County.

The pitch she received upon answering the phone was a brass-knuckles doozy.

“The cities will burn if Biden gets into office,” the caller proclaimed. She had received similar-sounding warnings in campaign texts and video messages sent to her cell. “You’ll have no police.”

The woman on the receiving end was State Rep. Margo Davidson. She got several of these calls in the month before Nov. 3. She played along to hear everything the caller had to say. The allusion to street violence after racial justice demonstrations this year was a glimpse, she knew, into how Republicans were trying to defeat her party up and down the ballot, starting with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

“Would you vote for Biden if you knew he was going to defund your police department,” the caller hammered, “and allow criminals to run recklessly through your streets?”

In the same township but on a different phone line, Democratic County Councilwoman Monica Taylor, who is also Black, was getting pro-Trump and pro-Republican text messages, too. So many, in fact, that they outnumbered the texts she received from campaigns representing Democrats.

“The messages from the right were talking a lot about things the president has done that are viewed as good for our country,” Taylor told me, “but also talking about the civil unrest and protecting our police officers ... or our economy and the governor.”

These are just two accounts from two elected officials whom I just happened to call after the election to hear what they thought of the most consequential — and still-unfolding — race of our lifetimes.

Imagine for a moment how many other calls like those happened elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

You have to wonder if, even though Biden emerged the winner, messages like these contributed to Democrats losing seats lower on the ballot. They lost several statewide row office races and legislative contests that would have given them long-sought control of the General Assembly.

Clearly, those calls were manipulating public opinion of the violence that followed demonstrations nationally in support of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police. A blaring slogan from those protests, “Defund the Police,” was being used as a bludgeon against Democratic candidates here and elsewhere. The party even lost seats in the U.S. House.

“I had friends of mine saying they had mothers who were concerned how violence in the city would carry over into the suburbs,” Bucks County Democratic Committee Chair John Cordisco told me when I called, one day after Election Day, to see how things looked to him as votes were still being tallied.

Who were those mothers? I asked.

“Democratic seniors,” Cordisco said. They had absorbed this impression thanks to aggressive misinformation, he said, pushed by Republicans.

For all the party’s top-down talk during the campaign of Trump’s bombast and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, it was law and order that became paramount, Cordisco said, and the pandemic secondary.

In Bucks County races, he said the No. 1 issue being promulgated by Republicans against Dems was the “Defund” message that originated from the party’s far-left activist realm.

People will and are debating that. But let’s face it: You don’t get power without effective persuasion. Effective persuasion requires shrewd messaging.

As a message, Defund the Police was not smart.

Democrats cannot win a majority without moderate voters taking their side. It may have helped if they had been under less pressure to tiptoe around “Defund” for fear of alienating progressives. Even South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, a civil rights leader, had been warning for months that the slogan could backfire.

“I don’t know of any person who ran for state legislature who was in favor of defunding the police,” Cordisco said, meaning they did not campaign on it verbatim. “And yet, that message blanketed the [down-ballot] candidates.”

Factions within the party have been sparring over the last two weeks over the extent to which that slogan, or poor campaigning, or incredible turnout for Trump, were more to blame for their down-ballot losses.

Turnout for Biden in Philadelphia, we now know, was lackluster but strong in the suburbs. Trump saw his share of Black men and Hispanic voters actually grow in Philadelphia. He also galvanized huge numbers to come out for him all across Pennsylvania.

Despite winning the big prize, Biden had no coattails for lower-level Democratic candidates. His party, it seems, was not the winner in the hearts of voters, as Davidson sensed even in her very blue district along the border of West Philadelphia.

“I tried to sound the alarm,” Davidson said. “I was having a lot of conversations with young Black voters. They were saying they weren’t that excited about Biden; they liked Trump’s bravado.”

Similarly, she sensed that Hispanic voters were lukewarm for Democrats, too, from conversations she was having in the district.

“Defund,” which became a darling of some in the mainstream media, did not appear resonant with them.

» READ MORE: Defunding police would be the first step in building a city where Walter Wallace Jr. would have survived | Opinion

Is it any wonder why?

Literally, the words suggest disbanding police forces. Several prominent Black public figures rebuked it, and understandably.

One Inquirer story noted the muddy meaning: “Depending on who you ask, the answer may be different. Some supporters advocate for abolishing entire police departments. But most say it’s about reallocating money away from police departments and putting it toward social services, and reexamining the role police play in society.”

» READ MORE: What does ‘defund the police’ mean, and what would it look like in Philly?

It may be repugnant that Republicans used that slogan to sway voters. There is obvious race-baiting at play there. But Democrats can’t win by whining. They can only win by agreeing on what they mean, meaning something that a majority would support, and then saying it well.

“There need to be some real tough conversations,” Davidson said.

Let’s hope the party learns from this.