BALTIMORE (NYTIMES) - A crowd of several hundred voters listened closely as Wes Moore, a Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, unspooled a soaring peroration about bringing a spirit of unity to state government.
Introduced by a sparkling drum line and a row of local dignitaries on a bright and windy Saturday, Moore promised to deliver a better quality of life for East Baltimore on issues from education to personal safety.
Listening from across a small park was Teresa Armwood, a resident of the neighbourhood. Armwood, 75, said she liked Moore's tone overall but had not yet picked a favourite from the throng of Democrats seeking to lead the state.
One subject was foremost in her mind: crime.
Gesturing to a block of low-rise brick homes a short distance from Moore's bandstand, Armwood traced what she described as a perilous journey from her door to the nearest mass transit.
"I walk from over there to the bus stop, and from the bus stop back over there," she said. "And hope I get that far."
In Democratic strongholds like Maryland, a rise in violent crime has pushed the party's candidates to address the issue of public safety in newly urgent terms. Even before the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, reignited the debate over gun control, day-to-day gun crimes and other acts of violence were rattling the American electorate.
Long seen as a political wedge for Republicans to use against Democrats, crime is increasingly a subject of concern within the Democratic Party and the big cities that make up much of its political base.
And from Baltimore and Atlanta in the East to San Francisco and Seattle in the West, the candidates and elected officials pushing the party to address crime more aggressively are largely people of colour.
Candidates are motivated not mainly by fear of Republican attacks, but rather by mounting outcry from the Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities bearing the brunt of a national crime wave.
Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, a former police captain who made taking on crime the centrepiece of his campaign, has received the most national attention of these figures for his law and order rhetoric - and more recently for his struggles to implement effective anti-crime policies in office.
Yet he is only one of a larger cohort of Democrats who have been campaigning on those themes.
These candidates are casting aside the timidity that characterised Democratic arguments during the 2020 election, when much of the party was focused on root-and-branch reform of the criminal justice system in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder.
Even though violent crime had begun rising during the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic leaders shied away from discussing it directly for fear of offending parts of their political base.
Alarming trends have changed the political conversation. In Baltimore, the city is on track to record more than 300 homicides for the eighth straight year, along with a rise in carjackings, robberies and other serious crimes.
Concerns about police misconduct in the city have not evaporated seven years after the killing of Freddie Gray in police custody ignited protests and rioting, but persistent violent crime has pushed voters' tolerance to the breaking point.
Those developments have transformed the Democratic Party's discourse on matters of law and order, forcing the party to balance its determination to overhaul the criminal justice system with the imperative to protect its most loyal voters from a tide of violence.
Tom Perez, the former Democratic National Committee chair running for governor of Maryland, said crime had moved to the foreground of the midterms. A former labour secretary and a top Justice Department official in the Obama administration, Perez has emphasised his background as both a prosecutor and police reformer on the campaign trail.
"Crime is a real issue for voters in this campaign, and it should be," Perez said. "And it's not just an issue limited to Maryland - it's across America."
Perez said his party needed to reject the notion of a binary choice between protecting civil rights and keeping communities safe.
"You either stop crime, or you respect the Constitution - that's a false choice," he said.
On the other side of the country, Mayor Bruce Harrell of Seattle, a moderate Democrat who defeated a left-wing opponent last year, placed rising crime and a shortage of police officers at the centre of his candidacy.
Harrell, who was inaugurated in January as Seattle's second Black and first Asian American mayor, said voters of colour in his city responded to a message of making the police more responsive but not "militarised or racialised" - an allusion to the heavy-handed and often discriminatory tactics favoured by law-and-order mayors of the past.
Democrats, he said, need to understand that many voters cannot embrace the rest of their agenda if they do not feel safe. "Every community here demands safety," Harrell said.
The Maryland election is a microcosm of the developing Democratic arguments. The top candidates have not exactly lurched to the right on matters of law and order. Even the sternest-sounding crime fighters are mingling their promises to crack down on violent offenders and impose new gun regulations with pledges to advance a progressive agenda on social welfare.
But in seeking support from Democratic primary voters, several Maryland Democrats are emphasising public safety. Their appeals are aimed especially at older voters of colour in Baltimore and the state's dense suburbs, who are typically more moderate than the activist base.
During his speech in East Baltimore, Moore, 44, a military veteran and former philanthropy executive, called for the police to battle crime with "appropriate intensity and absolute integrity".
He promised that as governor he would overhaul the state's parole system to rein in repeat offenders and increase funding for state law enforcement agencies to help police at the local level.
"We're going to focus on public safety and ensure people feel safe in their own neighbourhoods, in their own homes and in their own skins," Moore said, drawing energetic applause from the crowd.
Moore is one of several Democrats, including Perez and Rushern Baker, the former executive leader of Prince George's County, who are vying to overtake the early front-runner, Peter Franchot, the long-serving state comptroller who is the only major white candidate in the race.
Baker has promised to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore and pour state police resources into the city. In early May, he unveiled a television commercial vowing to "stop the slaughter of young Black men" in the city and decrying what he called the state's indifference to crime victims there.
"Because they're Black, nobody gives a damn," Baker says in the ad.
A study published in April by the Pew Research Center found that Black Americans were likeliest to name violence or crime as the top concern facing their communities, followed by economic issues and housing.
Eugene Tetteh, 51, was among the Moore supporters who said public safety was a top-of-mind issue, along with education. Tetteh, who lives in suburban Howard County but does business in Baltimore, said he had been alarmed by how "overwhelmed" the police seemed in the city. Young people, he said, were especially vulnerable on disorderly and dangerous streets.
"There has to be more to it for these kids out there than that," he said.
In 2020, Democrats faced a barrage of attacks from Republicans branding them as indifferent to violent crime and tying the party as a whole to a progressive criminal-justice agenda that included directing money away from police departments and scaling back prosecution of low-level offences.
A report compiled in 2021 by three major Democratic interest groups, including the centrist organisation Third Way, concluded that Democrats had spent the last election "stuck on defence" on crime. The party, the report stated, needed to have "a proactive story about necessary systemic changes to policing that would stem the violence and still prioritise and provide public safety."
President Joe Biden has highlighted the public safety funding in his US$1.9 trillion (S$2.6 trillion) coronavirus relief bill that allocated huge sums of money for state and local services.
Last month, the president held an event with police chiefs urging cities to spend pandemic-aid money on strengthening law enforcement before an anticipated summer spike in crime. And Thursday evening, he made a direct appeal in a televised address to the nation for Congress to act on gun legislation.
In the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, national Democrats have once again rallied behind gun control proposals, though it is unclear whether any of them has a chance of making it through the split Senate.
Many left-leaning Democrats remain sceptical of traditional law enforcement methods, viewing police departments as irreparably biased against people of colour. Other party leaders worry that shunning progressive policies on crime could fracture their coalition, angering progressive activists and younger liberals.
Yet demands for safer neighbourhoods from voters of colour have made it impossible for Democrats to keep talking around the issue.
For voters, Moore said, crime was "very personal." "You need to listen to what people are telling you," Moore said. "And they're telling you that this issue is a prime issue."