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The Racial Mix That Wins Elections in Cities

The winning combination these days is Black and Hispanic voters aligned with white progressives with college degrees.

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Philadelphia mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker.
(David Kidd/Governing)
In  Brief:
  • White working-class voters were key to municipal elections during the 20th century.
  • That vote has mostly moved to the suburbs.
  • College-educated white and minority voters are now central to urban success.

  • Only two of the nation’s 10 largest cities have mayors who are white men. Next month, one of them may well be replaced by a woman of color.

    Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is term-limited. Three of the leading candidates in the all-important Democratic primary on May 16 are women, including two women of color. The two leading white male candidates are busy attacking each other, with one of them, Jeff Brown, facing fresh campaign finance allegations.

    The outcome in the huge primary field is impossible to predict at this point, but if one of the women wins, it will be confirmation of a recent trend in urban politics. Older, more conservative white male candidates have fared poorly, because the type of voter who used to favor them — what used to be described as the white ethnic vote, comprised in various cities of people of Polish, German, Irish or Italian ancestry — no longer lives much in central cities.

    “Blue-collar white ethnics living in cities, owning their first home, were really pleased with where they were economically,” says Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “They wanted to retire to blue-collar suburbs, where it was more prosperous and safer in their eyes in terms of law and order, and frankly more homogenous.”

    In short, they moved out. In their place have come more Black, brown and Asian residents, as well as affluent whites who’ve been drawn to city living. In the recent Chicago mayoral race, whites without a college degree — the current political science shorthand for white working-class voters — made up just 13 percent of the electorate. By contrast, whites with college degrees made up the largest voting bloc, at 35 percent, followed by Black Chicagoans at 29 percent.

    “The white, blue-collar urban voters that supported law-and-order Democrats for decades after the 1960s no longer seem to be a significant force in big-city politics,” says Timothy Lombardo, author of a biography of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. “They were never the only reason that law-and-order candidates had more success in the past, but their absence seems to be a determining factor in their decline.”

    That was illustrated dramatically this month in Chicago. Paul Vallas moved to an early lead in the mayor's race with a law-and-order message that seemed tailor-made for a city where public safety was the dominant concern. But the tenor of his campaign, along with the sense that he was allied with conservative forces, drove him to defeat in a city where neither progressive white nor Black voters warmed to him.

    He didn’t lose by much to Brandon Johnson, a more progressive Black candidate. But the outcome was in keeping with a noticeable trend in recent mayoral contests. That coalition of Black voters and progressive white voters has led to the election of mostly younger progressives of color against older, white, more conservative candidates in cities including Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

    This is not to say that candidates running on messages of public safety and support for businesses and downtown can't win, especially if the progressive vote is split. In Denver, the failure of progressives to coalesce around a candidate in the April 4 primary means one of two moderate white candidates will be the next mayor.

    For the most part, though, contemporary cities are supporting progressive candidates. “It’s clear that the rise of a younger, more diverse urban voting bloc is the most significant reason that progressive candidates keep winning these elections,” says Lombardo, a historian at the University of South Alabama. “But the decline of a core of white, blue-collar Democratic voters seems to be an important second.”

    Police and Dog Whistles

    In elections in Philadelphia over the past decade, “race and class are the strongest predictors of voting patterns, even in Democratic primaries” according to an analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    In 2020, only a handful of the city’s 69 wards supported Donald Trump for president. Those wards — known as the River Wards, for their proximity to the Delaware River — are home largely to white working-class voters who are receptive to a law-and-order message. Their state representatives were the only Democrats from the city to support last year’s impeachment of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney. “The River Ward electorate is not going to vote for a self-described progressive,” says Mustafa Rashed, a Pennsylvania political consultant. “They’re not going to do it.”

    As recently as Kenney’s first election in 2015, an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police was something all Democrats coveted, Rashed says. Now, it’s something progressives shun in order to maintain credibility with their core constituencies.
    A street in Fishtown, one of Philadelphia's River Wards and longtime home to the city's dwindling, white ethnic electorate. (Tim Kiser/Wikipedia)
    Jeff Brown received the police union's endorsement on Thursday. That will help mark him as a certain kind of candidate — as did his recent comment during last Tuesday’s debate, when he suggested he didn’t care about pollution in Chester, a neighboring, majority-Black city. “That response is the same way you treat the Black and brown community,” said Cherelle Parker, one of his opponents and a Black woman.

    In Philadelphia, as in most other large cities, it’s Black and brown communities who bear the brunt of violent crime. But it’s very difficult for a white candidate to talk about safety — or certainly use the slogan law and order — without it sounding like a dog whistle, Rashed says. “A lot of that has to do with the messenger,” he says.

    Pronouns matter. Candidates who can talk about “we” and “our” will fare better than someone who says “them” or certainly “those people.” That’s one reason why some of the mayoral candidates who have run successfully on the law-and-order message lately have been Black men, including Jerome Prince of Gary, Ind.; Sheldon Neeley of Flint, Mich.; and, most notably, Eric Adams of New York.

    “It’s rare that a Black candidate gets pegged with the lock ‘em up label,” Rashed says. “Whenever a white candidate who is inartful tries to do it, it’s a tough line to walk.”

    The Case of Bob Donovan

    Philadelphia may soon elect its first-ever woman mayor, joining Boston, which had never in its long history elected a mayor who was not a white man before Michelle Wu in 2021. In addition to the two white men — Kenney and Matt Mahan of San Jose — the current mayors of the 10 largest cities include three Black men, two Black women, one Hispanic man, one man of Asian Pacific descent and one white woman with a Hispanic surname and former husband (Kate Gallego of Phoenix).

    The decline of the urban white working-class vote is one of the long-term effects of white flight, the migration of white residents out of the cities starting in the 1950s and 1960s following school desegregation. “As the city has diversified, part of it is not just that more Black, brown and Asian residents have moved into the city — white voters have typically left,” says Andrea Benjamin, an expert on urban politics at the University of Oklahoma.
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    Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee’s first elected Black mayor. (David Kidd/Governing)
    David KIDD

    Those voters have not disappeared, they’ve just moved further out. Perhaps no one exemplifies this trend quite like Bob Donovan. A former member of the Milwaukee Common Council and outspoken supporter of the police, he actually moved out of the city himself, but moved back to run for mayor last year. His problem was not enough of his supporters returned to the city with him. He retained a core of white working-class support large enough to make the runoff, but only took 28 percent of the vote in the final tally against Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee’s first elected Black mayor.

    Donovan himself recognized his political future lay in the suburbs.

    “The day after losing the election in Milwaukee, he resumed his residency in Greenfield and got elected to the state Assembly,” says Lee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor. “He’s now in office representing the suburbs. That really visualizes the phenomenon.”
    Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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