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Young Progressives of Color Win Many (But Not All) Mayoral Contests

The cities of Boston, Cincinnati and Cleveland all elected new mayors of color who are still in their 30s. Progressives didn’t win everywhere, however, with more moderate Black Democrats prevailing in Buffalo and New York City.

Pennsylvania Rep. Ed Gainey makes acceptance speech after a historic mayoral campaign in Pittsburgh. (Nick Childers/PublicSource)

Michelle Wu
Boston At-Large city Councilor Michelle Wu is now mayor-elect.

Jacqueline Tempera/jtempera@ma/TNS
Local leadership around the country just got younger, more progressive and less white.

For the first time in its long history, Boston elected a non-white female as mayor, with voters selecting City Councilor Michelle Wu, a 36-year-old woman of Taiwanese descent. Aftab Pureval, a 39-year-old former county official of Indian-Tibetan descent, was elected mayor in Cincinnati. In Cleveland, 34-year-old Justin Bibb, a former technology and nonprofit executive who is African American, beat City Council President Kevin Kelley, who is white.

State Rep. Ed Gainey beat Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto in the May Democratic primary by running to his left on issues such as housing and policing. On Tuesday, he formally won election as the first African American mayor in the city’s history. In St. Petersburg, Fla., former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch will serve as the city’s first Black mayor, succeeding term-limited Rick Kriseman.

These candidates pledged to be more progressive than their opponents or the incumbents they’re replacing, on issues such as housing, racial equity and transportation. They often overcame opposition not only from more conservative voters but downtown corporate interests as well.

Progressives Had Their Limits

Progressives didn’t win everywhere. It appears that Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has survived a challenge brought by candidates to his left who sought to turn the race into a referendum on policing in the city where George Floyd was killed last year. Frey was well ahead in the first round of voting but fell short of an outright victory. He should prevail when the city’s ranked-choice voting process is complete.

Byron Brown
Byron Brown returns to the Buffalo mayor’s office after Tuesday night win.
India Walton, a 39-year old Democratic Socialist who was a novice candidate, defeated four-term Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in the June primary. But Brown ran as a write-in candidate and beat her in Tuesday’s rematch.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was elected mayor in New York, a result expected ever since he narrowly won the Democratic primary in June. Adams signaled he would take a more moderate to conservative approach than term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio on issues such as policing and education.

“At least stylistically, he’s clearly not the champion of the progressive wing of the party,” says Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at City College of New York. “What’s interesting about Adams is that he’s reassembled the outer-boroughs coalition, now comprised of Blacks and Latinos and other groups, against the Manhattan liberals.”

Big City Turnovers

Heading into Election Day on Tuesday, there had already been considerable turnover in the ranks of big-city mayors, who are predominantly Democrats. The mayors of Atlanta, Seattle and St. Louis all decided to step down after serving a single term. Other cities electing mayors Tuesday include St. Paul, Minn., St. Petersburg, Fla., and Detroit, where Mayor Mike Duggan was elected to a third term.

In Atlanta, City Council President Felicia Moore is heading to the Nov. 30 runoff, where she'll face either former Mayor Kasim Reed or Council Member Andre Dickens, who were caught in a tight battle for the second spot.

With downtowns still largely empty around the country, newly elected mayors and their colleagues will quickly face challenges about rebuilding local economies. Commercial property values are hurting and central cities that rely on wage taxes partly paid by suburban commuters are worrying about permanent declines in revenue.

They also face other problems, including continuing debate against policing reforms and the ongoing pandemic. On these issues and others, much of the electorate is angry enough not only to protest but to do so loudly outside of mayors’ homes. “There are definitely some places where public engagement has turned into a continuing spectacle of sorts,” says Andrea Benjamin, an African American studies scholar at the University of Oklahoma.

New York mayors have complained for decades that they hold the second-worst job in the country. Now, that distinction is shared by mayors all over, says Bruce Katz, who runs an urban finance lab at Drexel University.

“COVID has exacerbated longstanding challenges such as poverty, homelessness, gun violence and digital divides, while accelerating market dynamics — remote work — that undermine the basic rationale for the cores of urban economies,” Katz says.

New Leadership in Boston

In Boston, a city long ruled by a rotating cast of Irish or Italian-American men, the mayor’s race came down to two women of color. Both would probably be considered well to the left of center in much of America, but Michelle Wu became the standard bearer for progressives in the race.

“Boston has come together to reshape what is possible,” she said in her victory speech. “ We’re the city of revolution, civil rights, marriage equality. Boston has always been that city that punches above our weight.”

Wu defeated fellow Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, running on a big-ticket policy platform. Some of her proposals will require approval or substantial help from the state Legislature, including rent control and making public transit fare-free.

Wu consistently polled ahead of Essaibi George, who ran on a more moderate platform. Although the two agreed on many of the fundamentals on issues such as worker protections and safe streets, Essaibi George sought to highlight her background as a small business owner and an education advocate. She also critiqued Wu’s more aggressive policy ideas, saying they are unrealistic.

But Wu easily cruised to victory Tuesday night with 61 percent of the vote. Now comes the hard part, as she will seek to deliver on the promises of her pathbreaking candidacy with policy proposals of a piece with the wing of her party represented by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a mentor and supporter.

Byron Brown’s Big Comeback

Progressives in Buffalo, by contrast, were deflated when Walton went down in defeat against the incumbent Brown.

The race has been one of the most dramatic of the year. Walton’s victory in June came after Brown essentially ignored her and did little campaigning. With no Republican running in the race, and Walton’s name the only one on the ballot’s mayoral line, Brown launched a highly unusual write-in campaign.

The city’s first African American mayor, Brown remained popular with older Black voters and with white municipal workers, including the police (which he has historically fraught relations with). He also received aid from the state Republican Party — even though he used to be part of the leadership of New York’s Democratic Party — as well as other labor unions, including the United Auto Workers.

Walton, a former nurse and community organizer, was born in Buffalo. She grew up in poverty and had a son at the age of 14. She says the experience forced her to mature quickly, while a difficult later pregnancy inspired her to become a health-care worker. She became involved in activism around vacant land and affordable housing, eventually becoming a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her involvement in the city’s Black Lives Matter rallies after Floyd’s murder, and the Buffalo police department’s viral assault on an elderly protester, inspired her to run for mayor.

But she was unable to over come Brown's advantage in many of the city's whiter and higher income neighborhoods. While she won many predominantly Black neighborhoods, and majority-white, professional-class areas that have attracted most reinvestment, that combination wasn't enough.*

Brown campaigned heavily on defunding the police and red baiting. “This was not about India Walton’s platform, this was about conjuring up images of fear based on socialism and fear based on the unknown,” says Henry-Louis Taylor, professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo. He attended Walton’s election night party, and says that he wasn’t surprised by the results, but that her followers seemed heartened that their campaign showed that “city halls around the nation are up for grabs.”

A Fresh Face for Cleveland

Justin Bibb in Cleveland was backed by a similiar coalition to Walton's in the primary, but rode an even bigger base to victory in the general election. The civic activist beat better-known current and former office holders in the September primary. The only candidate to rack up votes in the five figures amid low turnout in the earlier race, Bibb faced off on Tuesday against Kelley, the second-place primary finisher.

Justin Bibb
Mayor-elect Justin Bibb gives an acceptance speech in Cleveland.
In the primary, and again in the general, Bibb did extremely well among the predominantly white, professional-class neighborhoods in and around downtown and on the near west side. He split the Black vote on the city’s east side with a variety of other African American candidates in the primary, but beat Kelley (who is white) in those areas in the general election. That coalition gave him an advantage that turned out to be insurmountable.

Bibb will replace four-term incumbent Frank Jackson, whose last years have been defined as sluggish and inaccessible. The multi-decade age difference between the two, and Kelley’s long alliance with the incumbent, made the contrast with the fresh-faced Bibb extremely sharp.  

“White progressives and a portion of the African American community is an alliance that shows up periodically in Cleveland politics [and its very hard to beat],” says Ned Hill, a professor of public affairs at Ohio State University. This result, he says, showed “progressive Democrats saying we’re tired of traditional council politics.” 

Although Bibb does not share Walton’s socialist world view — he has a Pete Buttigieg-like technocratic air — he nonetheless represented a similar backlash against more traditional politics. There’s apparently a strong appetite for that in Cleveland, which has faced extreme economic headwinds in recent years and a generally fraught history since 1950.

“The voters in Cleveland have said we have a mandate for change across this city,” Bibb said Tuesday night.

A Vote for Better Execution for Seattle

By contrast, Seattle has been one of America’s most successful cities of this century by most measures. But over the last year and a half it doesn’t seem to have felt that way for many voters, as the city was convulsed by the pandemic, protests, and an ever growing population of unsheltered people wrought, in part, by skyrocketing housing costs. 

In the midst of all this, incumbent Mayor Jenny Durkan announced at the end of last year that she would not run for re-election. (This cements a pattern of one-term mayors in the city: only one of the last five has been re-elected.)

The election was instead a contest between Lorena González, who got more support from labor unions and liberals, and Bruce Harrell, who secured the support of business groups and more moderate voters. 

González is the current president of City Council, a body which clashed with Durkan frequently over the last 18 months. She won the backing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and emphasized plans to tax the wealthy — a policy that seemed to address the rampant inequality in the city. 

Harrell focused more on concerns about disorder, and recent clashes over the police budget that Durkan lost to the more left-wing council. That appears to have been a winning strategy, as he held a commanding lead over González on Tuesday night. (Mail-in ballots will continue to trickle in, but his lead is sizable enough that observers felt comfortable calling the election.)

“I’m not surprised Bruce is very well-liked, and when you look at the plain old fundamentals he spent more money communicating to the voters and certainly had more money being spent on his behalf,” says Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who works in the region, “it certainly isn’t unusual for the candidate spending the most money to wind up winning.”

Harrell’s platform is strikingly similar to Durkan’s four years ago, indicating that perhaps it was not her policies per se that were unpopular. 

“I don’t know that the city was broadly opposed to what she was proposing, but operationally she failed to execute so many items that she ran on,” says Fincher. Then she had to deal with mass street protests and a global pandemic. “But it’s fair to say that Seattle voters didn’t want a dramatic departure from the status quo in this race.”

*This story was updated on November 4, 2021, with more detailed results from the Buffalo mayor's race.

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of <i>Governing</i>. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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