Cities Embrace New Mayors, Liberal Policies

Voters in a number of cities chose new mayors and supported ballot measures that were either green or worker-friendly.
by | November 5, 2014

At the local level on Tuesday, voters ushered in a number of new leaders, as well as giving their stamp of approval to some liberal ballot measures addressing the environment, transit and workers' rights.

In the race most directly affected by the events in Ferguson, Mo., Democratic County Councilman Steve Stenger won the multimillion-dollar race for St. Louis County executive by less than a full percentage point.

Democrats have dominated the county for years, but a number of African-American officials endorsed Republican state Rep. Rick Stream, in large part due to Stenger's close ties to Robert McCulloch, the county prosecutor in charge of the Michael Brown case. McCullough angered Ferguson protesters when he refused to remove himself from the case; many felt he could not handle it fairly given his close relationship with police. Support for Stenger from Lacy Clay, an African-American member of Congress, proved crucial, however.

Buddy Cianci, who twice had to resign his position as mayor of Providence, R.I., due to felony convictions, fell short in his latest comeback attempt. Running as an independent, he managed to take 44 percent of the vote to Democrat Jorge Elorza's 53 percent, finishing well ahead of Republican Daniel Harrop.

Harrop had announced that he would vote for Elorza in hopes of heading off a Cianci win. “While we have many policy differences, I do not fear that an Elorza mayoral administration will make Providence the laughing stock of the nation," he wrote in an email to the Providence Journal. "Corruption is inimical to growth and hostile to job creation, and we cannot let City Hall again become a center for criminal activity in the city."

Oakland, Calif., City Councilwoman Libby Schaaf has built up a sizable lead against Mayor Jean Quan, who has been unpopular since her handling of the city's Occupy encampment three years ago. There were a total of 15 candidates in the race -- Oakland uses ranked-choice voting -- but the endorsement of Gov. Jerry Brown helped Schaaf sag first place in the vote count.

In San Jose, Calif., City Councilman Sam Liccardo appears to have narrowly defeated Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese. The race was seen as a referendum on outgoing Mayor Chuck Reed's efforts to scale back pension plans for city workers, with Reed supporting Liccardo and Cortese winning the backing of the police union.

In Phoenix, voters rejected a measure that would have frozen the city's pension plan and replaced it with a 401(k)-style plan to which city workers would have had to contribute more.

Separately, union support helped fuel the apparent victory of former California legislator Sheila Kuehl over former Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan. The two competed in what proved to be a multimillion-dollar campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

Reno, Nev., voters elected Councilwoman Hillary Schieve over Ray Pezonella, who had the backing of term-limited Mayor Bill Cashell. The two had been the top finishers in a wild primary that featured 16 other candidates, not including one who dropped out and another who died.

Some urban leaders won easily. Muriel Bowser, who had unseated Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray in a Democratic primary, had no problem defeating two independents. In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer won in a cakewalk.

A total of 75 candidates ran for city council in Austin, thanks to a new district-based system. In the race for mayor, eminent domain lawyer Steve Adler and City Councilman Mike Martinez outpaced the field of eight and will head for a runoff. Outgoing Mayor Lee Leffingwell has endorsed Steve Adler as his successor.

Voters in Austin also rejected a proposed $1 billion rail and road bond measure. Kansas City voters soundly rejected two sales tax hikes, one meant to fund public transportation and the other for infrastructure.

Seattle voters embraced tax increases to pay for more public transit, although they rejected an expansion of the monorail. The Atlanta area's transit system, known as MARTA, will grow the boundaries of its service area for the first time, following approval of a 1-cent sales tax increase in Clayton County.

A number of other progressive policy initiatives met with success. Mandated paid sick leave for private-sector workers won approval in Trenton and Montclair, N.J. (not to mention Massachusetts). Oakland voters approved a sick leave plan that's designed to be more generous to workers than California's new law, which was passed in September.

In San Francisco, a proposed tax on sugary beverages fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, but a similar measure passed easily across the bay in Berkeley. The American Beverage Association spent nearly $10 million fighting the measure in San Francisco but considerably less in Berkeley, which will now have the nation's first soda tax.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the anti-tax campaigns, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he doubted the result in Berkeley would start any sort of a trend. "I don’t think people would look at Berkeley’s results and say, 'Oh, that's what the rest of the country would do,'" he said. "Berkeley is a city that gives away free pot to poor people. It's not exactly mainstream."

Voters in a few communities approved bans on fracking -- Denton, Texas, and Mendocino and San Benito counties in California. A more high-profile ban in Santa Barbara County, Calif., was defeated, however.

Bans on the use of genetically-modified crops were approved in both Humboldt County, Calif., and Maui County, Hawaii. Those votes follow the success of similar measures in Oregon last spring.

In Sacramento, voters rejected a ballot measure to move to a strong-mayor form of government.