Progressives notch mixed success in mayoral races

Progressives notch mixed success in mayoral races
© Associated Press/Pool - Ted S. Warren/Associated Press - Joshua Bessex

Progressive efforts to win control of some of the most liberal cities in the nation stumbled on Tuesday as voters largely opted for more moderate candidates, a mixed record that was especially bleak in cities where liberal challengers backed budget cuts to police agencies. 

In the race to be mayor of Seattle, returns showed former City Council President Bruce Harrell leading his successor, current President Lorena Gonzalez, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. In Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown appeared headed for a fifth term as a write-in candidate as he led self-proclaimed democratic socialist India Walton, who upset him earlier this year in the Democratic primary. 

Gonzalez headed a majority of Seattle’s council in a move to strip millions of dollars from the police department’s budget, a vote that led the city’s police chief to quit. In Buffalo, Brown criticized Walton’s support for a study that suggested the city’s police budget be cut by between $7.5 million and $16 million. 

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Voters in Minneapolis, the site of major criminal justice protests in the summer of 2020, reelected Mayor Jacob FreyJacob FreyProgressives notch mixed success in mayoral races Jacob Frey reelected as Minneapolis mayor in wake of George Floyd protests Twenty-five U.S. cities on track to surpass Paris climate targets by 2025: report MORE (D) over two more progressive challengers. At the same time, 56 percent of voters there opposed a ballot question that would have replaced the city’s police department with a public safety department. 

And in New York, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former New York City Police Department officer himself, skated to a mayoral election win after dispatching more liberal contenders in the Democratic primary. 

But in other cities, more progressive candidates claimed wins: Boston voters elected City Councilor Michelle Wu, backed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren calls on big banks to follow Capital One in ditching overdraft fees Crypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker won't seek reelection MORE (D-Mass.), as the city’s new mayor over a more moderate rival. And Cleveland voters picked Justin Bibb over City Council President Kevin Kelley. 

The two winners, some progressives said, stood out as a model for future contenders who might stand in future elections. Both supported reforms to police departments but stopped short of calls to defund or drastically reduce police budgets. 

“You can’t start with the negative message of defunding the police or cutting the police. You have to start with the alternative of what do you want to see in the world?” said Sean McElwee, who heads the Data for Progress think tank. “Voters really want people in executive offices to be seen to be solving very real problems in their everyday life.”  

Chris Scott, chief political officer at Democracy for America, which backed progressive candidates across the country, said progressives aren’t “running away from defund the police.” 

“I see a lot of progressives embracing it,” he said. 

But Scott added: “It’s still a phrase that turns a lot of people off overall, because they just don’t fully understand it and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Oh you’re trying to get more cops off the streets.’ ”

Opponents of both Wu in Boston and Bibb in Cleveland ran advertisements accusing them of supporting the defund the police movement. But Wu, 36, and Bibb, 34, parried those attacks, McElwee said, by outlining a reform agenda that avoided cutting funding.

“The winning message is a positive view. You have to tell people what you want to build, not just what you oppose. And you have to be able to show, with these executive offices, that you’re someone who can bring different groups together,” McElwee said. “Police cuts don’t really give that same message of we want accountability here.” 

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Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, said both Wu and Bibb represented fresh faces that represented a break with a staid political establishment.

“You’re starting to see a new generation of progressive chief executives emerge. I think that is a sign of the maturation of the progressive movement,” Geevarghese said. “They didn’t speak in abstract terms, they didn’t speak in slogans, they proposed concrete things that were going to make their cities work better.”

Calls to defund the police in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man killed at the hands of a white police officer, have riven Democrats in recent years, even far from the cities where those proposals have made the most headway.

Democratic members of Congress complained after the 2020 elections that Republicans had used defunding the police as an effective cudgel in those races.

Corey Day, a former executive director of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said the election results in Minneapolis would help Democrats move past what has become a thorny divide between progressives and mainstream Democrats. 

“This will take some of the wind out of Republicans’ sails who hammered public safety [and] defund the police in the 2020 election,” he said. “Republicans across the nation would have used it to tap into voters’ fears about their families’ safety.”

The running battles between progressives and more moderate Democrats, playing out in congressional negotiations over the budget reconciliation package, is likely to continue into next year’s primary elections. Progressives have had more success in elections for legislative positions than they have for executive posts. 

“It’s still a very encouraging year for progressive candidates. I think it’s a lot to build off of,” Scott said. “You have to be encouraged with the pipeline that exists in the progressive movement.”