The Big Cities That Could Elect a New Mayor in November
Incumbent mayors are at risk of losing in several big cities. Meanwhile, some voters might elect their first woman or black woman to lead city hall.
This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.
November will bring considerable changes to the ranks of big-city mayors around the country. Incumbents are in trouble in several elections, while voters in half a dozen major cities will be selecting new mayors in open races.
There's no overarching set of issues driving local elections this year, but a number of the mayoral contests have similar themes, such as inequities in terms of growth between downtowns and poorer neighborhoods, and public safety complaints -- whether it's concern about rising levels of violent crime or inadequate responses to officer-involved shootings.
"Crime is one of the few things that's associated with mayors losing," says Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, "in part because it's a core responsibility of cities and also because it's an emotional issue."
In several cities where races are nominally nonpartisan, battle lines have been clearly drawn between Republican and Democratic candidates, with many of the latter seeking to tie their opponents to President Trump.
Spending records have already been broken in a number of cities, including Cincinnati and St. Petersburg, Fla. Nevertheless, turnout in primaries this year has been largely abysmal and isn't expected to get much better for the general elections.
Several prominent mayors will win new terms without problems.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is cruising to a second term. After dispatching with two Democratic opponents in the May primary, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto faces no major-party opposition on Nov. 7. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh is heavily favored over City Councilor Tito Jackson. Buffalo, N.Y., Mayor Byron Brown is on track to win a fourth term.
But several incumbent mayors have already been tossed out this year, in cities including Birmingham, Ala.; Charlotte, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and San Antonio. A few more might be deposed next week.
Here's a look at some of the most competitive races around the country:
Incumbents in Trouble
Former St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Rick Baker, seen here in a local news interview in August, hopes to unseat current Mayor Rick Kriseman, in what has been called "The Battle of the Ricks." (Baker campaign)
There may be no closer race in the country than the contest between two mayors of St. Petersburg. Incumbent Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, is being challenged by former Mayor Rick Baker, a Republican.
Both Ricks took more than 48 percent of the vote in the August primary, with Kriseman nosing ahead of Baker by just 70 votes. That was actually a disappointing result for the challenger. Polling showed Baker ahead in the race before the primary.
"The good news for Kriseman is that going into the primary, he was down 5 to 8 points," says Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. "The bad news for Kriseman is that he was the incumbent mayor and he barely won the primary."
Baker's time in office was generally considered a success, thanks to major redevelopment efforts and tax cuts every year. (Governing honored him as a Public Official of the Year in 2008.) Baker has the endorsement of the Tampa Bay Times, which typically favors liberal candidates.
Kriseman has been on defense on some issues, notably the spill of up to 200 million gallons of raw sewage into the bay in 2015 and 2016. Baker has made an issue of the arrest in 2001 of Kriseman's chief of staff for soliciting underage girls. Kriseman has hit back by seeking to tie Baker to Trump.
In the primary, Baker carried five heavily African-American precincts that are among the most Democratic in the city. But St. Petersburg overall is solidly Democratic, which gives Kriseman a good chance to hold onto his office.
In Cincinnati, no Republican sought to challenge Mayor John Cranley, whose re-election prospects looked solid. But Cranley actually lost the May primary to City Councilmember Yvette Simpson.
She took 45 percent of the vote to the mayor's 34 percent.
The Democratic mayor now needs Republican votes in the general election in order to win. Cranley, who is white, enjoyed substantial support among African-Americans in 2013, but a key question is how much of that support he might lose to Simpson, who is black.
The mayor has described his poor showing in the primary as a wake-up call, and he's clearly sought to build out his voter engagement and turnout efforts, with the help of union support and a superior campaign warchest.
"In the primary, they did not build out the kind of grassroots targeted campaign they're running now," says Alex Triantafilou, who chairs the Hamilton County GOP.
But the primary results show there are a lot of voters dissatisfied with the mayor's performance. Although Cincinnati is doing well, with major companies creating jobs and parts of the city revitalized on Cranley's watch, there are still neighborhoods that are suffering. And even some Cranley supporters concede that while he's been effective on some issues, he can be abrasive.
"What he has shown is a unique capacity to offend people who are otherwise on his side in terms of policy," says David Niven, who teaches politics at the University of Cincinnati. "He made it through the primary to face another Democrat from the city council who is on his side in terms of most policies, but thinks that he is somehow fundamentally unacceptable."
Chris Seelbach, a member of the city council and a Simpson supporter, echoes that viewpoint. "John Cranley is one of the most divisive elected officials elected to a mayorship in the U.S.," Seelbach says.
In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges has appeared to be in trouble all year, but she might be saved by a couple of factors. One is that she faces a wide field of serious challengers. They would split the anti-incumbent vote in any case, but since Minneapolis uses ranked-choice voting, Hodges may survive if she is most voters' second-favorite candidate.
Hodges has had real problems. She shook up her senior campaign staff not once but twice this year. She came in third in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement process and also ranks third in terms of total fundraising. Her numerous opponents include City Councilman Jacob Frey; former Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds; former downtown improvement district leader Tom Hoch; and state Rep. Raymond Dehn, who has the backing of Our Revolution, an independent group that emerged out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
Hodges has emphasized some national issues, such as climate change and her opposition to Donald Trump. Her opponents have taken her to task for her handling of a highly publicized police shooting, as well as management issues with the rebuilding of the downtown Nicollet Mall.
Attacking Hodges largely from the left, her opponents haven't found an issue that distinguishes them clearly from the mayor or from each other. Minneapolis is a progressive city, but there are lots of votes to be had from moderates and business interests. The city is booming and it's not clear that any of Hodges' opponents have demonstrated widespread appeal.
"She will probably lose precincts," says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, "but it's not clear who can consistently do as well."
Hodges' superior name recognition, along with the quirks of ranked-choice voting, leaves her with some reasons for optimism heading into next week.
"Ranked-choice voting and low turnout give her a decent chance of winning re-election, despite the fact that she's taken a lot of criticism as mayor," says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University.
Anyone's to Win
Seattle mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan (Durkan campaign)
Several cities are seeing close races to fill an open seat in which the incumbent isn't running.
Charlotte is set to select its seventh mayor in eight years. Mayor Jennifer Roberts unexpectedly lost to Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles in the September Democratic primary.
The long and highly publicized controversy over Charlotte's battle with the state of North Carolina against discrimination protections for LBGT individuals led to what some Charlotte Republicans called "Jennifer fatigue." Roberts was also criticized for her handling of an officer-involved shooting and subsequent protests last year, with The New York Times describing her as "largely at sea and distressingly out of touch."
Roberts sought to make opposition to Trump a centerpiece of her general election campaign. Lyles doesn't mention the president. Instead, she focuses on issues such as affordable housing and economic mobility.
"Vi Lyles is very well qualified and she quickly became a very attractive candidate to the business community [in the primary]," says Edwin Peacock, who was the GOP nominee for mayor in 2013 and 2015.
But Lyles came out of the primary campaign with virtually no money in the bank. Pre-election polls show a virtual tie between Lyles and Republican City Councilman Kenny Smith. The polling results bode well for him, since Peacock ran ahead of the polls in his recent races.
"If he's within the margin of error in a poll and Republicans are more likely to show up in an off-year election than Democrats, that's certainly in his favor," says Heberlig, the UNC Charlotte political scientist.
Lyles would be the first black woman elected as Charlotte mayor, which may help boost African-American turnout in her favor. (Smith is white.)
The real question is whether voters on the whole want the city to move in a different direction. Democrats have led the city for a decade, a period of overall growth that was not shared equally in all parts of the city.
The turnover rate in Seattle isn't quite as high as in Charlotte, but Seattle voters will elect their fourth mayor in as many contests. Ed Murray resigned in September, after having earlier chosen not to seek a second term amidst sex abuse allegations, which he has denied.
Former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan came out on top of September's 18-candidate primary in Seattle, taking 28 percent of the vote. Community activist Cary Moon narrowly made the Nov. 7 runoff, taking 17 percent of the vote.
Durkan's superior showing in the first round of voting and endorsements from most of the Democratic Party establishment has made her the favorite. The Seattle Times has taken Moon to task for having a thin resume, as an opponent of a viaduct project and self-employed urban designer who said last month she's taken a "sabbatical" from paid work in recent years.
Durkan, who is openly gay, may win support from LGBT voters, who make up more than a fifth of the Seattle electorate and may still be smarting from Murray's demise.
"Durkan is strong on the ground, with a record 3,700 donors," says Joel Connelly, a longtime columnist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Moon is struggling financially and has not built up the big volunteer operation needed to counter big money."
But Moon has strong support from many progressives in the highly-liberal city, including a good share of its many recent transplants.
"The Times is the establishment paper," says Chris Vance, a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party. "The Stranger is the voice of left-wing Seattle, and they are all in on Cary Moon."
Wait and See
In some places, the outcome of the mayoral race won't be determined until after Nov. 7.
Atlanta voters will go to the polls next Tuesday, but it will likely be just the first round of voting for mayor. With a large field, no candidate is expected to attain the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff in December.
Mary Norwood, who is a member of the city council and was the runner-up against term-limited incumbent Kasim Reed in 2009, has enjoyed a polling lead all year. The question remains which candidate makes the runoff with her and how competitive that race will end up being. Polling shows "undecided" as the second-most popular choice.
The favorites to make the runoff include Keisha Lance Bottoms, a member of the city council and Reed's pick to succeed him; Peter Aman, the city's former chief operating officer; and City Council President Ceasar Mitchell.
Atlanta was the first major city in the South to elect a black mayor, back in 1974, and hasn't had a white mayor since. Norwood and Aman are white, while Bottoms and Mitchell are black. Depending on who makes the runoff, race could become an issue, as it was during the Reed-Norwood race eight years ago. Undecided African-American voters may determine who makes the runoff.
For now, the major concerns have been sharing the city's growth and prosperity more widely. Norwood has not been able to build on her early polling advantage. "I think Mary is stumbling," says emeritus Georgia State University political scientist Harvey Newman. "There have been missteps in several of the forums and debates and she's not looking as strong."
In Albuquerque, Mayor Richard Berry is not seeking a third term. He will be succeeded following the city's Nov. 14 election either by Democratic state Auditor Tim Keller or Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis.
The race is technically nonpartisan, but the two candidates have made their party inclinations clear. Keller is pledging to resist the Trump administration on immigration issues. Lewis has made public safety the centerpiece of his campaign, with violent crime up 16 percent in Albuquerque over the past year.
In the Oct. 3 primary, Keller took 39 percent of the vote, while Lewis garnered 23 percent. Progressive Democrats are trying to overcome "voter fatigue" and increase turnout. If they succeed, that should be enough to boost Keller. Voters in the party that doesn't control the White House should be more motivated, says Timothy Krebs, who chairs the political science department at the University of New Mexico.
That worked to elect Republican Berry to the office in 2009, and should work in Keller's favor this time around, he says. "You've got a progressive Democrat running against a conservative Republican in a largely Democratic city," Krebs says.
In New Orleans, where white Mayor Mitch Landrieu is term-limited, the city is certain to elect its first woman mayor in the Nov. 18 runoff. Both City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet are African-American Democrats.
Cantrell took 39 percent of the vote in the Oct. 14 primary, with Charbonnet taking 30 percent. Cantrell not only finished first, but appears to be a better fit for supporters of third-place finisher, former Judge Michael Bagneris, who took 19 percent of the primary vote, says Ed Chervenak, a pollster at the University of New Orleans.
But Charbonnet has won citywide, while most of Cantrell's support comes from within her city council district. Charbonnet's supporters may be more avid, which could make a big difference in a low-turnout election being held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, says Gary Clark, a political scientist at Dillard University.
"In my view, it's Charbonnet's to lose," Clark says. "In a low turnout election, she's able to get out her energized base."
The race has turned ugly, with charges that Cantrell used city credit cards for personal purchases. Cantrell repaid the city for the charges. She is now seeking an ethics probe against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, a Charbonnet supporter Cantrell charges with politicizing the issue.
"Will these accusations be enough to knock Cantrell out of her lead spot?" asks Jeremy Alford, editor of the political newsletter LaPolitics Weekly. "It's looking nasty. It's been a very kind of dirty race."
This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.