Last Week’s Local Elex Results Send Mixed Signals About Where Democratic Party Is Headed

The national political climate shaped municipal races across the country and two key issues – crime and housing – galvanized voters, but in opposite directions.
BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 28: India Walton (in foreground on right), the Democratic Party nominee in the 2021 election for mayor of Buffalo, NY, walks to a polling place with supporters Thursday, October 28, 2021. (Photo... BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 28: India Walton (in foreground on right), the Democratic Party nominee in the 2021 election for mayor of Buffalo, NY, walks to a polling place with supporters Thursday, October 28, 2021. (Photo by Matt Burkhartt for The Washington Post via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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In overwhelmingly Democratic big cities, local races are usually between corporate Democrats and progressive Democrats. Both wings of the party scored victories in citywide races and ballot questions last week, including several wins for tenants’ rights activists. 

President Joe Biden’s declining approval rating — influenced in part by the Democrats’ inability to pass his popular legislative package because of opposition from Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) — has been pegged by pundits as a clear factor in the race for governor in Virginia, where Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin prevailed in a state that went for Biden last year with 54 percent of the vote.

The national political climate also shaped municipal races across the country. Two issues — crime and housing — galvanized voters, but in opposite directions. Centrist Democrats typically ran on law-and-order rhetoric and attacked their opponents as proponents of “defund the police,” an unpopular idea among every income and racial group. Calls to reign in police abuses and reform the biased criminal justice system captured wider appeal. Progressives made headway on housing issues, as most cities have faced fast-rising rents and widespread evictions, symptoms of out-of-control gentrification and the hardships facing renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In Buffalo, incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, a business-friendly Democrat, defeated India Walton, a democratic socialist, nurse and community activist (who was also the Democrats’ official candidate) by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin. 

In June, Walton defeated Brown in the Democratic primary in a city that has a mostly Democratic electorate. Brown then mounted a write-in campaign to hold onto the job he’s held since 2005, and whose tenure had been mired in corruption and financial mismanagement. The FBI even raided one of his city hall agencies in 2019. 

The state Republican Party and the Buffalo News editorial board endorsed Brown, who is Black, as is Walton. Brown won handily in Buffalo’s white, affluent, and Republican areas. Between the June primary and last Tuesday’s general election, Walton more than doubled her total vote (from 11,718 to 23,986), but Brown more than tripled his (from 10,669 to 34,273), made possible by large donations from real estate developers and big business lobby groups. He used that war chest to red-bait and smear Walton, a mother of four who had to give up her job with a nonprofit group in order to run for office and was living on loans from her mother and a part-time job delivering food for DoorDash while she was campaigning for mayor.

Had she won, Walton would have been the first woman — and first Black woman — to lead Buffalo, the state’s second-largest city — one that has been plagued by job and population loss for decades, and one that has recently seen an upsurge of grassroots community organizing among its minority and immigration population. 

The Erie County Democratic Party endorsed Brown in the primary but switched its support to Walton after her primary victory over Brown. Walton also had the support of the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, many labor unions, community and environmental groups and high-profile names like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). But she could not overcome the united front of the city’s business and political power structure to defeat Brown a second time. 

But Walton was hurt not only by the war chest that business groups provided Brown — who is the former chair of the state Democratic Party — but also by the failure of big-name Democrats to get behind her campaign. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a centrist Democrat who took office after Andrew Cuomo resigned, remained neutral, refusing to endorse Walton in the general election, despite her being her party’s official nominee. Nor did Jay Jacobs, the chair of the New York State Democratic Party, get behind his party’s official candidate. Asked to explain the failure to embrace Walton, Jacobs said that the state party doesn’t necessarily endorse a candidate just because he or she wins a primary, arguing that logic would mean the party would have to endorse former KKK leader David Duke if he moved to New York and won a Democratic primary. Jacobs later apologized for the remark, but the damage was done. New York’s two Democratic senators — Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — also waited until late October to endorse Walton. 

Moderate and liberal Democrats always expect liberals and progressives to fall in line when the party nominates centrist candidates, but when a progressive wins the party’s nominations, the moderates don’t close ranks. 

In New York City, voters elected Eric Adams, a former police captain and centrist Democrat, as the city’s second Black mayor. Adams won the Democratic nomination in part because a number of liberal and progressive candidates split the vote, but also because a spike in crime persuaded voters that his law-and-order ideas might be necessary. Adams was embraced by the real estate and Wall Street establishment, running on a pro-business, pro-charter school platform. 

But on the same day, two progressive candidates also won citywide races in NYC. Brad Lander won a landslide victory, with 69 percent of the vote, for city comptroller. Lander, who represents parts of Brooklyn on the City Council, is a former community organizer, housing activist, and founder of Local Progress, a national network of left-leaning municipal office holders. Jumaane Williams, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, was re-elected as the city’s public advocate with 76 percent of the vote. He is considering a run for governor next year in what will be a crowded field that will include Hochul, the incumbent, and possibly Letitia James, the state attorney general. Lander and Williams will be progressive voices to push back against Adam’s cautious centrism. So will Alvin Bragg, a progressive civil rights lawyer who was elected as Manhattan District Attorney, and two DSA members (Tiffany Caban from Queens and Alexa Aviles from Brooklyn) and other progressives elected to the City Council.

Boston voters chose progressive Michelle Wu as the first woman and first person of color elected as the city’s mayor. She defeated moderate Annissa Essaibi George, a fellow member of the City Council. Wu, a protégé of Sen. Warren, got 63 percent of the vote. Both Wu and George are Democrats, but Wu had the support of the city’s progressive activists and most voters of color. Her platform included Green New Deal environmental policies, eliminating fares on the region’s public transit system and rent control. 

In 1994, a landlord-backed state referendum eliminated Boston’s authority to adopt rent control. But with 59 percent of Boston voters saying they support the idea, Wu pledged to fight to reverse the state preemption law. George claimed that Wu wanted to “defund the police,” but that was not part of Wu’s platform — she only called for reallocating resources within the police department. First-time candidate Kendra Hicks — a 31-year old Black woman, community organizer, and DSA member  — also embraced rent control and police reform in her successful campaign to represent District 6 on the Boston city council. Running for an open seat, Hicks defeated Mary Tamer, a former school board member who was endorsed by an outgoing council member. Hicks will be the first person of color to represent the diverse district that includes Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury. In neighboring Somerville, a city of 81,000, two DSA-backed candidates (Willie Burnley and Charlotte Kelly) were elected to city-wide at-large seats on the city council, joining two other DSA-backed incumbents on the 11-member body. Their campaigns focused on reforming police practices and tenants rights, including support for rent control and expanding affordable housing. 

A year ago, voters in Portland, Maine passed ballot measures supported by People First Portland — a coalition of labor unions, housing and environmental activists, and Black Lives Matters — to adopt rent control, a $15 minimum wage with hazard pay, a municipal Green New Deal, and a ban on the use of facial surveillance by the police. They also elected two progressives (April Fournier and Andrew Zarro) to the city council, who joined progressive Pious Ali on the nine-member body. But the majority of the city council members were backed by business and real estate interests and they refused to carry out the voters’ wishes, even going to court to block some of the winning policies. That will soon change after progressives in the city of 66,000 — Maine’s largest —  last week secured a majority on the city council. Progressives Victoria Pelletier and Anna Trevorrow replaced conservative council members who didn’t run for re-election. If Roberto Rodriguez, the current school board chair, wins a hand recount against Brandon Mazer, it will expand the progressives’ majority to 6 to 3. As of Tuesday night, Rodriguez was ahead by 35 votes (8,547 to 8,512), but 37 ballots were still in dispute. 

In Atlanta, two Black women running for mayor came in first and second and will face each other in an upcoming run-off. Both city council President Felicia Moore and council member Andre Dickens focused their campaigns on crime, citing the almost 60 percent increase in homicides in Georgia’s largest city. They both bested Kasim Reed, the former mayor who was trying to make a comeback despite the corruption scandals that enveloped him while he served in that office.

In Minneapolis, where last year a local cop killed George Floyd, triggering a national protest movement, voters rejected a ballot measure to overhaul the local police. More than 56 percent of voters rejected a plan to dismantle the police department and replace it with a new Department of Public Safety that would have reduced the number of police officers and focused funding on public health and other community-based social programs.  Minneapolis’ largest Black neighborhoods, as well as Republican-oriented areas, rejected the plan, while areas populated by white liberals embraced the measure. The opposition campaign was primarily funded by local businesses. Voters elected three DSA members (Robin Worlobah, Jason Chavez, and Aisha Chughtai) to the Minneapolis City Council. 

On the same day that Minneapolis voters rejected police reform, they approved a ballot question that would allow the city to adopt rent control. More than 53 percent of voters supported a city charter amendment to permit the City Council to enact limits on rent increases, although it did not specify the amount. In neighboring St. Paul, the state capitol, 53 percent of voters approved an even more progressive ballot measure that would cap annual rent hikes at 3 percent, starting in May. Real estate interests from around the country poured money into anti-rent control campaigns in both cities, but voters, who have seen skyrocketing rents and home prices, embraced the idea of imposing regulations on landlords. 

In another victory for tenants’ rights activists, Montgomery County, Maryland — a suburban area outside Washington, D.C. with over one million residents, one-third of them renters — adopted a bill to prevent large rent hikes. The new policy will not allow landlords to raise rents any higher than 1.4 percent until May 2022. County officials said the plan was intended to help many low-income families, people with disabilities, seniors, and people living on fixed incomes who have suffered during the pandemic and are far behind on their rent. 

In Seattle, former city council president Bruce Harrell (a moderate who is both Black and Asian American and a former University of Washington football star) defeated current city council president Lorena Gonzalez (a progressive Latina) with 62 percent of the vote for city mayor. Both are Democrats. The business-backed Harrel pledged to clear homeless people from parks and sidewalks and to increase the number of police officers.  He attacked Gonzalez, who worked as a civil rights attorney before running for office, for wanting to “defund the police,” although that was not part of her campaign platform. Last year, a majority of the city council, including Gonzalez, voted to cut the police department’s budget in half.  During her campaign for mayor, she  did call for diverting some funds from the police department to social services, while Harrell said he opposed such large cuts but wanted to “change the culture of the police department.”

The daughter of migrant farmworkers who was backed by the city’s labor unions, González gave priority to taxing big business and the wealthy to help pay for more affordable housing and services for the homeless.  She also embraced proposals to protect tenants from eviction. 

In the race for Seattle city attorney, Ann Davis, a former- Democrat-turned-Republican, defeated left-wing candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender who called herself a “police abolitionist,” by 55 percent to 44 percent. 

The two candidates offered voters a stark contrast. Davison, who campaigned as the law-and-order candidate, had the support of the city’s real estate developers and major businesses as well as some high-profile Democrats who viewed Thomas-Kennedy’s views as too extreme. Although Thomas-Kennedy did not actually call for abolishing the police department, her website said that she’d like to “divest from policing and reinvest in the community” and “end the criminalization of poverty and disability.” She pledged to hold the police accountable for abuses, refuse to prosecute minor drug crimes and sex workers, and work to end the system of cash bail which entraps low-income people in jail even if they haven’t committed a crime.  

Thomas-Kennedy explained, “my goal as a prosecutor would be to dismantle [the system], not to try to fit it into some sort of a softer punishment system” — rhetoric that turned off most moderate and many liberal voters. 

In recent years, progressive candidates for county and municipal prosecutor (district and city attorney) in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Corpus Christi, Chicago, St. Louis and other cities have won their races by calling for reform of the criminal justice system — including cops, courts and prisons — for being biased against the poor and people of color. Thomas-Kennedy wasn’t able to follow in their footsteps.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”

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