Boston, New York races hint at economic populism strain within Democratic Party

November 6, 2013

Boston Mayor-elect Martin Walsh, right, his girlfriend Lorrie Higgins, center, and Higgins’s daughter Lauren, left, look toward the audience as confetti falls on the stage on after Walsh addressed the crowd at a watch party Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 in Boston (AP/Steven Senne)

In an era in which both political parties are evolving rapidly, voters in New York City and Boston on Tuesday elected two Democrats who represent archetypes of the party’s activist-government, labor-dominated past.

But rather than a return to old-line liberalism, both mayors-elect ran instead on a platform of economic opportunity and fairness — an issue that is beginning to resonate more among Democrats at a national level in the wake of the Great Recession. De Blasio and Walsh share a strain of economic populism that echoes that of some of the party’s more liberal members in Washington, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

New York voters elevated Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D), who won more than 70 percent of the vote after pledging to address the growing wealth disparity between the city’s richest and poorest residents.

And Boston voters opted for Martin Walsh, a Democratic state representative and former top labor leader who edged city council member John Connolly by 52 percent to 48 percent.

The two candidates won by comparing themselves to their predecessors — though in very different ways.

De Blasio outlasted several Democrats with closer ties to business and the city’s financial sector in the Sept. 10 primary, in part by drawing stark contrasts between himself and the policies advanced by incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio opposed the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which Bloomberg championed, and cast himself as a clean break from Bloomberg’s 12 years in office.

Exit polls conducted on Tuesday showed Big Apple voters still approve of the job Bloomberg is doing as mayor, but think that the city should move on. Just 26 percent of voters casting ballots said the city should continue in the direction Bloomberg has set, while 69 percent said the city should move in a new direction. De Blasio won 85 percent of those voters.

And 55 percent said the stop-and-frisk policies were excessive, while just 39 percent said the policy was acceptable.

Walsh, on the other hand, ran to succeed long-time Mayor Thomas Menino, who remained a popular figure across Boston. There were few policy differences between Walsh and Connolly, though Walsh’s common-man story, and support from the top three non-white finishers, helped him appeal to broad coalitions of minority voters in a city that has grown more diverse since Menino won office two decades ago.

In his victory speech at a downtown Boston hotel, Walsh pledged to work for “opportunity, because every woman, man and child deserves a chance,” the Boston Globe reported. Walsh said he would build Boston into a “community of shared prosperity.”

The two elections, observers said, were the first chances for both New York and Boston voters to chart a new direction after decades under familiar rule. Menino served five terms in office; de Blasio is the first Democrat to win a mayoral election since David Dinkins won in 1989.

“There is a lot of uncertainty right now in how big cities will operate, a lot of complicated issues that are still very much being figured out. It is natural for voters to go with candidates that they feel support positions they know and are comfortable with,” said Brian Reich, a communications strategist and managing director of the New York-based little m media. “And in both Boston and New York, there are plenty of voters who fit that liberal label, so their comfort zone is going to look like an endorsement of old-line liberalism.”

Marty Linsky, a former top adviser to Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) and a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said the slow pace of the economic recovery, which has been especially stagnant in big cities and the Northeast — the unemployment rates in both Boston and New York are higher than the national average — may have fueled an appetite for the sort of activist government both de Blasio and Walsh pledged. And the fact that both men got boosts from labor unions will have political impacts, too.

“The public sector unions will have a seat at the table, on the inside, to a degree that has been lacking in both cities for a long time,” Linsky said.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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