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Progressives Increasingly Challenged in Local Politics

Concerns about crime and homelessness have made urban voters more open to centrist appeals, even in liberal strongholds such as Seattle and Boston.

Former Pennsylvania state Rep. Sara Innamorato is a candidate for Allegheny County executive, a post long controlled by Democrats, but she faces a tough fight on Tuesday. (Facebook)
In Brief:
  • In Tuesday's elections, more moderate candidates are likely to prevail in cities such as Houston and Philadelphia.

  • Incumbent mayors of cities such as Spokane and Wichita face serious challenges.

  • All of this reflects voter frustration with crime, empty downtowns and other post-pandemic problems.

  • Democrats have controlled the post of Allegheny County executive for the past 20 years. That could change following next week’s elections.

    The Democratic nominee is former state Rep. Sara Innamorato. Republican Joe Rockey, a bank executive, warns she’s too liberal for the job. He claims she’s soft on crime and has repeatedly dinged her for her past association with the Democratic Socialists of America, particularly in light of the group’s recent positive statements about Hamas. (Innamorato condemned the comments.)

    Democrats in the Pittsburgh area are still confident that Innamorato will win, but recognize she’s in a tight race in a county they’ve typically carried by 20 points or more in recent elections. “There’s this shift for voters in the county where the party has moved so left in many ways that they’re starting to entertain more moderate Republicans,” says Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political scientist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

    Across the nation, Democrats have long dominated local politics. A new generation of more progressive and often more diverse officeholders shifted their stances notably to the left during the Trump presidency, including the election of Democratic Socialists to city councils in places such as Chicago and Philadelphia. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 led to so-called racial reckoning and calls to restrict police and their budgets.

    It’s possible that this march to the left is now being slowed, if not entirely stopped. In next week’s elections — including those being held in some of the most liberal cities in the country — highly progressive candidates are running into opposition from more establishment-oriented or business-friendly challengers. In many of these races, the moderates are expected to prevail.

    “It’s going to be a major change from the previous four years,” says Nick Licata, a former member of the Seattle City Council. “Even with the more liberal candidates now running for the empty seats, if they get elected, they won’t be as aggressive in their progressive positions as the council has been.”

    In Boston, two progressive members of the City Council already lost their seats during the first round of voting in September, although both were embroiled in personal scandals. In next week’s voting, progressives backed by Mayor Michelle Wu are running into opposition from more centrist candidates, including some endorsed by former Mayor Marty Walsh.

    That’s not to say that progressives are strictly playing defense. In Philadelphia, where two council seats are reserved for parties other than the majority party (aka, non-Democrats), it’s possible that both will be captured by the progressive Working Families Party instead of Republicans. In Minneapolis, progressives are angling to win a veto-proof majority on the council. “I have over 30 years of progressive politics,” said Andrea Jenkins, a Black, transgender woman who serves as council president and is being challenged by a Democratic Socialist. “I’ve served on every progressive LGBT board in the city of Minneapolis.”

    There are still plenty of progressives left in city hall, including younger millennials of color elected over the past couple of years in cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Milwaukee. But more moderate candidates have been winning lately, including the election of Denver Mayor Mike Johnston in April. Cherelle Parker, who is essentially guaranteed election as mayor of Philadelphia on Tuesday, prevailed over more progressive opponents in May’s Democratic primary.

    And the tone has started to shift. Rather than talking about abolishing the police (or cutting their budgets), local Democrats like Parker are talking about the need to hire more officers. In Houston, voters are expected to choose as their next mayor John Whitmire, a relatively conservative Democrat still remembered in some circles for providing a quorum 20 years ago to Texas Senate Republicans who wanted to draw a more favorable congressional map for their party.

    “Today, there are three virtual certainties regarding the Houston mayoral election,” says Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. “It will go to a December runoff, the runoff will be between state Sen. John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and Whitmire will win the runoff by a double-digit margin.”

    Tough Time to Be Mayor

    This has been a rough period for local officials seeking re-election. They’ve been saddled with blame for all the problems that have flowed out of the pandemic, including the hollowing out of downtowns, the proliferation of homelessness and mental health needs, and in many jurisdictions, increases in theft and violent crime.

    Over the past couple of years, mayors in Atlanta, Nashville, Seattle and St. Louis all called it quits after a single term. In February, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot not only lost her job but failed to make the two-candidate runoff.

    On Tuesday, incumbent mayors face serious challenges in cities including Aurora, Colo.; Boise; and Spokane, Wash. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, is still likely to prevail but will not enjoy the easy ride he had four years ago. Republican Jefferson Shreve has devoted more than $13 million of his own money to the race, saying the city needs to hire more police for citizens to feel safe.

    Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple barely made it through the first round of voting back in August. He faces Lily Wu, a former broadcaster who has shattered local fundraising records thanks to support from casino billionaire Phil Ruffin and other heavy hitters, including lots of help from Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by oil billionaire Charles Koch. “There are very few situations where you have an incumbent who is massively outraised by a challenger, and it’s not like she’s spending her own money,” says Neal Allen, who chairs the political science department at Wichita State University.

    Whipple was elected four years ago thanks largely to a corruption scandal involving his predecessor. In that race, Whipple had the support of the local police union, but that group has turned strongly against him this time around, while Wu has been hitting him hard on the crime issue. “A very strong progressive is a tough sell in Wichita,” Allen says. “Whipple’s probably the closest we’ve ever had.”

    Potential Backlash in Allegheny County

    As Pennsylvania has maintained its status as a presidential swing state, Pittsburgh has been an anchor of Democratic support. In 2020, Joe Biden won nearly 150,000 more votes in Allegheny County than Donald Trump, which was well more than his margin in the state as a whole.

    There was a time when conservatives were something of a force in local Democratic politics, since all the real competition took place within party ranks. In recent years, voters have elected more progressive leaders, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Summer Lee, a former Democratic Socialist who joined the progressive “Squad” on Capitol Hill after winning election to Congress last year. “There was a lot more emphasis on having diverse candidates,” says Sweet-Cushman, the Chatham University political scientist. “A lot of women were elected when historically the city had only male leadership, and white male leadership.”

    Now, not only is Innamorato in danger of losing the county executive election, but Democrats could lose the district attorney’s race as well. Stephen A. Zappala Jr., has been the DA for a quarter of a century. He lost the Democratic primary in May to Matt Dugan, the former chief public defender in the county. But Zappala then nabbed the GOP nomination.

    With crime and public safety the top concern of local voters, Republicans believe that Zappala can retain office under their party label, maintaining a more traditional “tough on crime” approach to prosecution. “There are a lot of Democrats that are used to pulling the lever for him, and they know him, and they trust him, and I believe he's still gonna get a significant number of votes,” Sam DeMarco, who chairs the Allegheny GOP (and was a false elector for Trump), told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And I don't believe that a whole lot of Republicans are gonna go pull the lever for Matt Dugan.”

    From Suffolk County to Seattle

    Last year, Republicans cleaned up on Long Island. Led by Suffolk County Congressman Lee Zeldin, who gave Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul a serious scare, Republicans won all four House seats on Long Island, along with several state Senate districts. In 2021, Democrats lost both the Nassau County executive race and their majority in the Suffolk County Legislature.

    Dave Calone, the Democratic candidate for Suffolk County executive, is a former state and federal prosecutor, but Republican Ed Romaine, a Brookhaven town supervisor, is claiming Calone would be soft on crime — a dominant concern in the New York suburbs. “He’s running on the Working Families ballot line, which supports cashless bail, defunding the police and clean slate for felons,” Romaine said during a debate last month.

    Across the country, Republicans are claiming Democrats are soft on crime, if not socialists, describing them as “far left,” “extreme left” or “radical left.” Democrats in many races are bringing up abortion — not generally an issue mayors or county officials can address — or trying to tar their opponents by association with Trump or white supremacists. In Carmel, Ind., a longtime GOP stronghold, Democratic mayoral candidate Miles Nelson seized on the use of a Hitler quote by the county chapter of Moms for Liberty, demanding that Republican Sue Finkam denounce the group.

    In Seattle, there’s no doubt that Democrats will remain in control, but the intra-partisan mix might change. Socialist Kshama Sawant, a member of the City Council who became prominent with her fights against Amazon and for a higher minimum wage, is stepping down. There are seven races for City Council on Tuesday, with only three incumbents running.

    This time around, business and real estate interests are far outspending labor unions that have provided significant backing to progressives in the past. Not only are the more centrist candidates getting help from downtown, most of them are outpacing the incumbents when it comes to democracy vouchers, the city’s tool for public financing of elections, suggesting support from voters.

    It's clear that Seattle voters are ready for a change. Polls indicate that most residents believe the city is on the wrong track, with one poll showing only 20 percent approve of the job the City Council is doing, compared with a whopping 70 percent who disapprove.

    “Even with the more progressive candidates who are running, if they were to win, you would not see the same progressive agenda as you’ve seen the last few years,” says Licata, the former council member. “They might have the same beliefs, but I think they’ll pursue them in a much more cautious, more pragmatic fashion.”
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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