Saturday, July 13, 2024

In one of Orange County’s safest cities, voters still think about crime. So do Republican campaigns

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Best known as the birthplace of former President Nixon, Yorba Linda is home to lush golf courses, equestrian trails and ranch-style homes with backyard stables. It has more houses of worship per capita than anywhere else in Orange County.

Residents move to the conservative suburb in search of safe neighborhoods, clean parks and open space. The city, whose motto is “Land of Gracious Living,” is largely removed from many of the crime problems that grab headlines in California’s denser cities.

Yorba Linda, population 68,000, had eight robberies last year, up from three the year before, and 71 residential burglaries, up from 59 in 2020. It hasn’t had a homicide in eight years, crime data show. But even in one of the safest cities in the state, concerns about crime are on voters’ minds in an election that will determine the balance of power in Congress.

A dog waits for its owner outside a barbershop

A dog waits for its owner outside a barbershop on historic Main Street in Yorba Linda.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Though many in Yorba Linda say crime isn’t their top issue, their desire to prevent it in their city ranks among other critical topics including inflation, gas prices and abortion that will help them decide which congressional candidate gets their vote.

“People that live in safe neighborhoods really don’t want crime. They’re the super paranoid ones about ‘who’s walking down my street’ or ‘who’s in my neighborhood’,” said Jimmy Camp, an independent political consultant. “Crime is a strategy and is it probably a little hyperbolic? Yes, but I think it’s effective.”

Nationally, Republicans, who for months have been largely focused on inflation, have seized on crime as a key issue in the final weeks leading to Tuesday’s election as a means to sway independent voters, bring out their conservative bases and deflect focus from abortion. The GOP has been on the defensive since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June and many states have since enacted a range of sweeping abortion bans.

Even as Orange County becomes more politically diverse — diverging from its reputation as a GOP stronghold — the 40th Congressional District where GOP Rep. Young Kim is running against Dr. Asif Mahmood, a Democrat, remains home to some of the most conservative cities in the county. Republicans have a 4.5-point voter registration advantage there.

But that edge will amount to a win for Republicans only if consistently conservative-leaning voters cast ballots, which has likely prompted the increased focus on crime, Camp said.

“Somebody is polling and they’re saying that the intensity of the base is not as strong as we need it to be,” said Camp, who has worked on some of Kim’s past campaigns. “They’re looking at a poll and they’re saying we need to make sure we get out and stir our base.”

When Tamara Schlachter’s Yorba Linda home was burglarized by two masked intruders who broke in through a sliding glass door last month, television news stations across Southern California aired surveillance video of the crime on their evening shows.

Schlachter was out to dinner when she got a notification on her cell from her home security system that an “unfamiliar face” was upstairs. She watched the burglary unfold on her phone.

The video shows two thieves prowling through the home and rifling through the family’s possessions for roughly 14 minutes. The men made off with cash and jewelry, Schlachter said.

News stations also shared photographs of the home’s shattered door and belongings strewn across the master bedroom. The situation was horrifying, but motivating, Schlachter said.

“You don’t realize it but you can’t just make yourself feel safe,” said Schlachter, 51. “What happened really makes me want to get out there and vote.”

Susan Wan-Ross, 59, said she was unnerved when she saw the video of the burglary on the news.

“They were just so casual about it,” she said of the intruders. “If it were my house it would be hard for me to stay knowing someone was in there going through all of my stuff.”

 The arch over Main Street  in Yorba Linda

Historic Main Street in Yorba Linda.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Wan-Ross, the CEO of the Yorba Linda Chamber of Commerce, said crime is one of several issues she will consider when voting. Still, she feels safe overall because of the police presence in the city, she said.

“I know they’re on top of things and it makes me feel better knowing that they’re going to do everything that they can to apprehend the offenders,” she said.

Republicans’ argument that Democrats are soft on crime has historically served the GOP well. Years of polling show voters view Republicans as being more stringent on justice issues.

“I saw someone joking on Twitter that you can tell it’s two weeks before the election because Republicans are talking about crime,” Camp said.

In October, Republicans spent nearly $96 million on more than 450 television and digital advertisements talking about crime to attack Democrats, many using footage from news reports and 911 calls. At the same time, Democrats have spent just over $77 million on ads delving into the issue, according to AdImpact, a political ad tracking firm.

The GOP ads evoke fears that are reminiscent of tactics used in past elections. In 1988, an ad supporting Republican George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign accused his Democratic rival of allowing “first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.”

While political scientists have debated the so-called “Willie Horton” ad’s effect on the election, many argue it helped usher in an era of tough-on-crime strategies.

Crime fears play particularly well in Orange County, experts say.

During this year’s race for district attorney, incumbent Todd Spitzer branded himself as a law-and-order candidate, focusing his messaging on punishing criminals to prevent Orange County from becoming like Los Angeles. He crushed his progressive challenger in the primary and avoided a November runoff.

“Crime can be very successful as a wedge issue for Republican candidates trying to break apart the larger Democratic or undecided coalition,” said Graeme Boushey, an associate professor at UC Irvine who teaches public policy and California politics.

More than three-quarters of voters surveyed across the country said violent crime is rising and is a major problem in the United States, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released in early October.

About 60% of respondents said crime would play a key role when they decide which congressional candidate to vote for ahead of issues like jobs, immigration, COVID and voting rights.

Property crime in Orange County declined in 2021, according to a study published in October by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Though violent crime rose more than 10%, the study showed, Orange County was among the four with the lowest violent crime rate statewide.

But crimes, particularly ones that are captured on video, stick in people’s minds.

In early September, Thomas Huynh’s Yorba Linda restaurant, Monarch 9, was burglarized for the fifth time in six years.

On Facebook he shared security camera footage of a man smashing his way into the business with a rock. Customers were outraged. Several called for “tougher” laws on property crime. “Sad times we are living through,” wrote another.

Huynh, a 46-year-old Republican, said he will vote for Kim largely because of her “tough on crime” stance.

“I think she understands that for small-business owners this is a big deal and it’s hitting us hard,” he said.

Kim has appeared on FOX News in recent weeks to discuss retail crime and legislation she’s proposed to improve coordination between investigating agencies. Last month she told FOX in an interview that it “seems like every week we’re seeing news about another business being broken into.”

She frequently addresses the issue on her social media, blaming increasing crime rates on justice reforms like zero bail initiatives and Prop. 47, an 8-year-old law that reclassified some theft and drug possession violations from felonies to misdemeanors.

Kim’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.

Mahmood said crime is concerning but it’s less of a problem in Orange County than in many places nearby.

A homeless man sits under a blanket on a bench

A homeless man sits under a blanket on a bench near Main Street in Yorba Linda.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“Generally crime has been up everywhere,” he said in an interview with The Times. “Part of that could be the economic situation and part of it could be the COVID crisis. More than crime, I think gun safety is a major issue in our district.”

Some voters say laws regulating the sale of guns and ammunition don’t go far enough and suspect that could be contributing to more crime, he said.

In the Politico/Morning Consult survey, 60% of voters said gun policy would play a major role in their vote for Congress and more than half attributed the increase in crime to a proliferation of guns.

Yorba Linda Councilmember Tara Campbell said part of the city’s appeal is that many residents feel secure in their homes.

“We’re one of the safest cities in the state, but we’re not immune to all crime,” said Campbell, a 29-year-old Republican. “Public safety is always going to be a top priority for us. So I do think it’s going to be a factor in this election, as well as inflation and gas prices.”

Rosemary Moulin was dismayed when she saw on the news the video of Schlachter’s home being burglarized, she said while sitting outside a coffee shop in Yorba Linda.

“I thought, what’s happening to our city,” Moulin, 63, said, shaking her head.

“Yorba Linda is a sleepy town,” she added. “We’ve never had to worry about that kind of thing happening here, but now we do.”

Times staff writer Terry Castleman contributed to this report.

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