PHILADELPHIA — Donald Trump is making a last-ditch effort to rattle the suburbs.
In the wake of civil unrest sparked by a fatal police shooting here Monday, the president returned to fear-mongering about big-city chaos and violence, leaning hard on law-and-order rhetoric in the hopes of winning back the suburban voters who have deserted him.
Less than 24 hours after law enforcement officials fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man who was carrying a knife and reportedly suffered from mental illness, the president’s campaign responded by announcing it was airing a national TV ad. The spot falsely accused Joe Biden of “refusing to strongly condemn violence” across the country after similar incidents.
By Wednesday, Trump, who is trailing Biden by 4 to 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania, cast the blame squarely on Democratic Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney: “It’s a terrible thing, what I’m witnessing is terrible, and frankly that the mayor or whoever it is that’s allowing people to riot and loot and not stop them is also just a horrible thing. I saw the event, everybody did — it was on television, it was a terrible event, I guess that’s being looked at very strongly.”
“You can’t let that go on. Again — a Democrat-run state, a Democrat-run city, Philadelphia,” he said, adding that Biden “doesn’t want to condemn them.”
Democrats — both nationally and locally — are well aware of the high stakes of responding to the civil unrest in the biggest city in one of the most important swing states. Throughout the last few months, Biden has maintained the same response to police shootings and civil unrest regardless of where it happens: He has decried the killings and upheld protesters’ right to speak out peacefully, while also condemning any looting or violence that follows.
His approach has been no different this week. The day after Wallace’s death, Biden issued a statement with his running mate Kamala Harris that read, “Our hearts are broken for the family of Walter Wallace Jr., and for all those suffering the emotional weight of learning about another Black life in America lost. We cannot accept that in this country a mental health crisis ends in death.”
While on the campaign trail Wednesday, he added, “What I say is that there is no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence. None whatsoever. I think to be able to protest is totally legitimate.”
In the wake of the shooting in Philadelphia, Biden’s team consulted with local elected officials, including state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who is close to the campaign.
“I know Congressman [Cedric] Richmond is reaching out to people on the ground to hear directly from them about what they need and to talk about some of the things that the V.P. wants to do” to reform policing, Kenyatta said, referring to Biden’s campaign co-chair. “When there are moments of trauma, I think the first thing you need to do is listen. And I think that is what they’ve been seeking to do.”
Trump’s campaign and state Republicans plainly believe looting following protests against police brutality — and Biden’s response to it — works in their favor. Earlier this year, Matthew Wolfe, GOP ward leader in Philadelphia, he said, “Every time a looter smashes a window on Chestnut Street, Trump picks up some votes.”
So far, though, Trump’s hardline approach and months-long attempts to frighten suburban voters have fallen flat. National polls have found that voters trust Biden more to handle public safety and race relations. And a majority of Americans think Trump has encouraged white supremacists, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
A recent Monmouth poll in Pennsylvania also showed that Biden is narrowly more trusted here than Trump to manage law and order. Women, people of color and white college-educated voters are especially likely to put their faith in Biden on the issue.
“There are a couple reasons why the message isn’t resonating so much. Part of it I think is just a fundamental misunderstanding: It’s an outdated view of urban-suburban relationships in Philadelphia,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania. “Trump is making something that would have been a very powerful appeal in the late 1980s, but just has much less of an appeal right now.”
Madeleine Dean, a Democratic congresswoman representing neighboring Montgomery County, said her suburban constituents don’t view police shootings the way Trump does.
“My suburban voters, my constituents don’t see it that way,” she told POLITICO. “They see it as a problem of a Black man should not be gunned down by police, whether it is in the city or the suburbs. And then they also see that the blame game is inappropriate.”
Most Democratic elected officials in Philadelphia have sought to avoid responding directly to Trump’s incendiary remarks about them, treating them as if they’re bait.
“I don’t comment on Donald Trump’s stuff,” Kenney said Wednesday. “We have enough to do in the city. We have enough issues that we have to tackle and he brings no positive help to any situation.”
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration likewise sidestepped the question when asked to respond to the Trump administration’s remarks it might send federal law enforcement to the city. Wolf later mobilized the Pennsylvania National Guard following the request of the city government.
One exception is Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who in a scorching statement accused the Trump administration of throwing “gasoline on a long-burning fire in order to provoke further unrest and violence ahead of an election he is terrified to lose.”
Wolf’s decision to request the Pennsylvania National Guard has led to some disagreement among state Democrats. Isaiah Thomas, a Philadelphia city councilman, questioned whether it is necessary.
“I just think we have to be careful with the message we’re sending to people,” he said. “I think it’s important to recognize that when you look at some of the negative activity and the unrest that happened, there’s often a distinct difference between people who are outside at civil protests and people who are looting and destroying property.”
But Thomas said he is not concerned that the National Guard will affect voters’ ability to cast a ballot or go to satellite election offices: “I don’t think anything is going to deter the citizens of Philadelphia who plan to exercise their right to vote.”
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