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2022 Midterms: Local Government Elections to Watch

Los Angeles and Austin will elect new mayors; Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is facing a Republican challenger; and San Francisco will get a new D.A. after recalling its last one. These are the local races to watch next week.

Los Angeles Democratic mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass gesturing with one hand while speaking into a microphone held in the other.
Los Angeles Democratic mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass.
(Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)
All eyes are on the congressional midterms next week, with major implications for the control of the Senate and the prospects for President Joe Biden’s agenda in the second half of his first term.

Well, most eyes, anyway.

Around the country, there are dozens of local contests with broad implications for a nationwide housing crisis that’s especially acute in big cities, and ongoing debates about public safety and policing. Here are a few to watch.

Mayoral Races Focus on Housing and Public Safety 

The people of Los Angeles haven’t elected a mayor in five-and-a-half years. Since then, the average rent has gone up by about $500 a month, and the homeless population has increased by 10,000 people. So it’s fair to say that housing is on the ballot — just like it is in so many other big cities.

For Angelenos, the choice for mayor comes down to two people: Congresswoman Karen Bass, a former community activist and speaker of the California State Assembly, and Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate tycoon. Caruso has been registered as both a Republican and unaffiliated voter in the past, but both candidates are running as Democrats in the officially nonpartisan election.

Bass and Caruso emerged as frontrunners in the June primary, leaving behind a field of what Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a former member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, describes as “distant also-rans.”

Both have made housing, homelessness, and public safety central to their campaigns. Their rhetoric around the issues has been pretty similar, in Yaroslavsky’s view. But, “In terms of life experience and different upbringings and different places they come from, there is a real choice between the two,” he says.

On housing, Yaroslavsky says both candidates have “made promises that are going to be hard to keep.” As the Los Angeles Times has reported, Caruso has proposed housing 30,000 people experiencing homelessness in his first year in office by creating tiny homes and temporary “sleeping pods,” and has proposed housing more than 17,000 people through a combination of emergency vouchers, master leases, public purchases of existing buildings and new temporary housing units on public land.

If it were easy to house that many people in a year, Yaroslavsky notes, somebody might have done it already. But the L.A. mayor’s powers are limited. Housing is the domain of not just L.A. city officials, but also the county, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and a variety of state and federal programs. Yaroslavsky says if someone came to him with a good idea for addressing homelessness, it wouldn’t be clear who to tell them to talk to.

“What the next mayor is going to have to do is learn how to navigate this balkanized minefield of authority,” he says.

The voters of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH in 2016, directing $1.2 billion to spend on housing projects in the city. This year, they’re also voting on Measure ULA, a citizen ordinance that would raise fees on homes that sell for more than $5 million and put the revenue into housing and homeless services. While officials have broad support to do something about housing in L.A., they also often face stiff opposition to doing anything in a specific place. As the L.A. Times recently reported, both Bass and Caruso say they support increasing the overall housing supply, but waver when it comes to building new housing in single-family neighborhoods.

A few recent polls have shown a fairly close race between Bass and Caruso. But a potential wild-card factor in the election is the recent scandal involving a leaked audiotape of several L.A. City Council members speaking bluntly about redistricting and using racist language about, among other things, their colleagues’ children.

The tape, which led to the resignation of City Council President Nury Martinez, has highlighted the racial tensions within L.A.’s ruling political coalition. It’s not clear how it will affect the city’s increasingly diverse electorate, or whether it might benefit or harm either of the mayoral candidates — whether it will motivate voters to “kick out the bums” or feed their cynicism and suppress turnout altogether, Yaroslavsky says.

“You have a city that has changed and a population that is willing to elect people that don’t necessarily look like them and then this happens, and the danger is that people revert back to their camps,” he says. “It’s really one of the most confounding elections I can remember.”

Aside from the sudden reckoning with racial divisions, it’s much the same story in other big-city mayoral elections this year. Issues of housing and policing tend to anchor campaigns all across the country.

In Austin, six candidates will appear on the ballot to replace term-limited Mayor Steve Adler. Two candidates are seen as frontrunners, according to local reports: Celia Israel, a Texas state Representative, and Kirk Watson, who served as mayor of Austin in the late 1990s and early 2000s and as a state senator between 2007 and 2020. The major issues in the campaign have been housing, homelessness and development, including a long-running controversy over the city’s attempt to rewrite its Land Development Code.
Kirk Watson gesturing with one hand in front of a microphone.
Kirk Watson is a frontrunner in Austin’s mayoral race.
Candidates have also weighed in on the city’s renegotiation of its contract with the police department. Policing and homelessness have overlapped as issues as well; last year, Austin voters decided to reinstate a ban on camping in public places, undoing the work of the Austin City Council, which had voted to overturn the ban a few years before that. Because voters recently approved a charter change that would schedule mayoral elections at the same time as presidential elections, they’ll elect a mayor again in two years.

In Louisville, Republican Bill Dieruf and Democrat Craig Greenberg are facing off in an election that has focused on the role of the Louisville Metro Police Department. In March 2020, Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor in the course of a drug operation, and in the following months, protests over her death — and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — ignited racial uprisings around the country. The election has drawn donations from national groups, WFPL reported, including support for Dieruf from a PAC with ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A recent poll from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce shows a close race between two candidates, Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao, in the 10-candidate field for mayor of Oakland, Calif. The city’s ranked-choice voting system has led to allegiances between several of the candidates as well. A three-way race for mayor of Raleigh, N.C., including incumbent Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, has turned on issues of housing affordability as well. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is expected to cruise to a rare third term, despite criticisms from some residents over the district’s ongoing housing crisis.

County Executive Positions Up for Grabs

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo — executive of Houston’s home county, one of the biggest counties in the U.S. — edged out the Republican incumbent in 2018 and quickly was seen as a rising Democratic Party star. Now, she’s fighting for re-election against Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer. It’s likely to be a close election, says Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University who has studied and conducted surveys on Harris County politics.
Lina Hildago.
Lina Hildago (Facebook)

For one thing, Hidalgo’s campaign hasn’t been able to buy enough TV ads to successfully counter the Republican narrative of out-of-control crime, even though Stein says most measures are trending downward in Harris County. Democrats have a registration advantage in Harris County, like they do in most other big cities, and Stein says he doesn’t anticipate many ticket-splitters will show up to vote. Early voting turnout has been higher in Republican districts than Democratic districts, Stein says, though not necessarily high enough for Republicans to overcome the Democrats’ advantage.

The race could be affected by how much Democratic turnout is driven by the race for governor between Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Greg Abbott. But still, Stein says, some reliably Democratic voters may face “ballot fatigue” before they finish filling out all the circles on the ballot, which has around 100 individual contests.
Alexandra del Moral Mealer.
Alexandra del Moral Mealer (Facebook)
“It is the longest ballot in the galaxy,” Stein says.

Hidalgo and other Democrats have been in a standoff with two Republican county commissioners, who have skipped votes to prevent a quorum during consideration of the county budget. She’s also tried to fight off accusations from Abbot and other Republican officials that her administration has “defunded the police.” On the sample ballot, Hidalgo’s name shows up on Page 6 of 22.

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Republican Lee Weingart and Democrat Chris Ronayne are facing off in an election to succeed the outgoing county executive. The campaign has turned on a controversial proposal to build a new jail, with both candidates saying they want to reduce the population of an existing, aging county jail. They’ve also discussed transportation and mobility issues, and the presence of armed police on mass transit. In Jackson County, Mo., home to Kansas City, Republican Theresa Cass Galvin is challenging incumbent Frank White Jr., a Democrat, for the county executive’s office. And zoning and development have factored into county executive races in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Whither the Progressive Prosecutors? 

Former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin wasn’t supposed to face voters again until next year, after being elected to a four-year term in 2019. But after a mounting backlash against certain criminal justice reform policies, like efforts to end cash bail and reduce prison populations, coupled with growing concerns about urban crime, voters recalled Boudin earlier this year.

Running to replace him are Brooke Jenkins, who was appointed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed to take Boudin’s place until the special election; former police commissioner John Hamasaki; and civil rights attorney Joe Alioto Veronese. The outcome there, and in nearby Alameda County, could signal where the “progressive prosecutor” movement goes from here.
Brooke Jenkins.
Brooke Jenkins (Facebook)
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner — a progressive who has clashed with police and taken criticism for a range of policies and practices — is not facing re-election. In fact, Krasner was easily re-elected in primary and general elections just last year. But the Republican-led state Legislature is attempting to remove him from office by impeachment anyway. The grounds they claim for impeachment are general “dereliction” charges that GOP lawmakers say are tied to a rise in crime and homicides.

One recent study suggests there’s no causal link between increases in homicides in big cities and the election of progressive prosecutors. The study, which analyzed homicide and robbery data in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, didn’t show significant changes in the trends before and after the election of those cities’ prosecutors.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
(Monica Herndon/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Todd Foglesong, a fellow-in-residence at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, says he was motivated to do the study after reading comments from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who referred to progressive prosecutors as “legal arsonists” inviting crime into their cities. The data on homicide and robbery doesn’t support the rhetoric of chaos and bedlam that attaches to progressive prosecutors, he says. And he questions whether the backlash against them — including the attempted impeachment of Krasner in Philadelphia and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent removal of a state attorney — are genuinely rooted in a broad-based discontent among city residents.

“My belief is that these are elite campaigns,” Foglesong says. “They’re not actually about the activation of a kind of democratic suffrage that is suffering form the work of progressive prosecutors.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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