In May, a Feast of Mayoral Elections

Big city mayors often are rising political stars, generally command powerful political machines and invariably make important policy decisions. The national media ignores them almost ...
by | May 5, 2009

Big city mayors often are rising political stars, generally command powerful political machines and invariably make important policy decisions. The national media ignores them almost entirely.

So, it comes as no surprise that no one has noticed that we're about to enjoy a splendid week of mayoral elections. Voters in eight of the nation's sixty-five most populous cities will elect new mayors over the next week. Here's a rundown of the action.

In Anchorage today, Republican Dan Sullivan squares off with Democrat Eric Croft. Sullivan scored far more votes in the first round, but that was largely because Croft split the Democratic vote with two other candidates (who have now endorsed him). I'd say this one is a toss up.

Gov. Sarah Palin is an active Sullivan backer, although it's probably a stretch to call this election a test of her political heft. The real importance may be for the Democrats. The two most successful Alaska Democrats in recent memory, former Gov. Tony Knowles and Sen. Mark Begich, both started as Anchorage mayors.

In Detroit today, local businessman and former basketball star Dave Bing faces Mayor Kenneth Cockrel, who took over when Kwame Kilpatrick left for jail. The candidates, both Democrats, haven't taken dramatically different positions on the issues, but there is a key stylistic difference. Bing has never served in government, while Cockrel is a longtime insider. A recent poll showed Cockrel ahead just 39%-33% (the rest were undecided -- this is a runoff), so the result should be close.

Next up, five major cities in Texas vote on Saturday. Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck and El Paso Mayor John Cook appear to be safe bets for reelection. Fort Worth Mayor Michael Moncrief faces a challenge from a former member of the city council, but he's confident enough that he skipped out on a recent debate.  Although all of these offices are non-partisan in name and largely in spirit, Cook and Moncrief are Democrats, while Cluck is a Republican.

The more interesting contests are in San Antonio and in Austin. In San Antonio, the favorite is Julian Castro, although if he were to be upset, it wouldn't be the first time. Castro was the frontrunner for mayor four years ago at the age of 30. In fact, he was such a rising star that some observers were calling Castro (who was educated at Harvard and Stanford) the Hispanic Barack Obama.

Thanks to the surprisingly strong candidacy of Phil Hardberger and a bizarre mini-scandal that involved his twin brother, Castro lost. This time around (with Hardberger term-limited), Castro, who is popular with organized labor, has worked to broaden his support in the business community. He's a strong favorite to win (and still should be regarded as a rising star), although if he doesn't crack 50% there will be a runoff (runoffs are also possible in the other Texas races).

In Austin, the biggest name in the field isn't the top contender. Carole Keeton Strayhorn, one of Texas' most prolific politicians over the past three decades, is running for her old job. Strayhorn was first elected mayor of Austin in 1977. She's held office as a Democrat and a Republican and most recently ran for governor as an independent in 2006.

Strayhorn, though, may be a bit too conservative for 21st-century Austin. She's raised less money than Brewster McCracken or Lee Leffingwell, two members of city council. McCracken, who's looking to promote green jobs (who isn't?) "seems to be leading the pack," according to the Associated Press.

Finally, one week from today, we get a true partisan showdown in Omaha, where Republican Hal Daub and Democrat Jim Suttle face off in the race to replace term-limited Democrat Mike Fahey (correction: Fahey chose not to seek reelection). This is a comeback bid for the controversial, colorful Daub, who lost his reelection bid to Fahey in 2001. A recent poll put Daub ahead 42%-39%, with the rest undecided. This race will test Democrats' gains in Nebraska's largest city, after Barack Obama won the Omaha-based 2nd congressional district in November.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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