The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In mayoral elections nationwide, voters opt for pragmatism over ideology

In Buffalo, the Democratic nominee for mayor was a self-proclaimed socialist. In Seattle, one of two main mayoral contenders once backed slashing the police budget by half. And in Minneapolis, the strongest challengers to take city hall supported abolishing the police department altogether.

All lost on Tuesday.

In big-city elections from coast to coast, voters had the option to elect candidates advocating the sort of revolutionary change promoted in recent years by protesters on the streets and left-wing lawmakers in Congress.

Instead, they largely opted for more consensus-minded candidates who may back progressive values and policies, but who have emphasized less divisive and dramatic tactics to get there.

“The message for the political class is that voters want quality of life. They want politicians to solve problems,” said Aseem Prakash, a political science professor at the University of Washington at Seattle. “They don’t want division. They don’t want finger-pointing. And they have faith in reforming institutions, not abolishing them.”

The results in mayoral votes this year have been closely watched for clues about the future of the Democratic Party at a time when the party’s Washington lawmakers are split between moderate and progressive factions.

Tuesday’s elections came as cities have been jolted by last year’s widespread racial justice protests, by the covid-19 pandemic and by a national crime wave that has sent murder rates soaring.

But amid those convulsions, there appeared to be a limit to how much urban voters wanted to shake things up.

In cities such as Detroit, Albuquerque and Miami, voters easily reelected incumbents who have avoided the political extremes. The incumbent in Buffalo, Byron Brown, appears to have won as a write-in candidate, having been earlier defeated in the Democratic primary by India Walton, who would have been the nation’s first socialist big-city mayor in decades.

Voters in Seattle and New York both chose moderate candidates for open seats over more ideologically minded rivals.

[The New York mayoral primary is a reminder that Black and Latino voters are pragmatic]

And even in places where progressives notched victories — including Boston and Cleveland — the victors homed in on improving quality of life for residents, rather than the most politically combustible issues.

Boston’s Michelle Wu, for instance, won a landslide victory over a more moderate opponent by focusing on spiraling housing costs, public education and the city’s opioid crisis. One issue that was relatively absent was crime: Unlike many other major American cities, Boston has not experienced a rise in gun violence and homicides this year.

Wu deployed a “playbook that the rest of the Democrats across the country could use,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant in Boston. Wu, Marsh said, “made it clear what she wanted to do as mayor and what a difference it was going to make in people’s lives,” whether through free public transportation or rent control.

Cleveland’s winner, 34-year-old Justin Bibb, had faced persistent attacks during the campaign that cast him as an ally of the “defund the police” movement.

But the first-time candidate denied that he wants to take resources away from law enforcement, and the criticism apparently failed to land, with Bibb easily defeating city council president Kevin Kelley.

Opponents of progressive candidates “push the notion that you can’t have more police accountability and enhanced public safety, that the two are mutually exclusive,” said Cleveland State University urban studies professor Ronnie Dunn. “They aren’t. And that’s what Justin Bibb so astutely refuted.”

Cleveland has suffered a spike in violent crime as well as repeated high-profile cases of civilians being shot by police officers. Bibb emphasized restoring trust between the police department and the communities it serves as a path to solving both problems.

In his election night address, he invoked Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African American boy who was shot dead by Cleveland police in 2014, saying, “we cannot afford more of the same in policing in America. And Cleveland will lead the way.”

In addition to electing Bibb, voters in Cleveland passed Issue 24, a ballot measure to create a civilian oversight board for police.

In Minneapolis — a city still reeling from the police murder of George Floyd — voters defeated a police reform measure with potentially much further-reaching consequences.

The ballot question would have replaced the long-troubled police department with a new department of safety that would include police officers “if necessary.” The measure was supported by numerous mayoral challengers, but strongly opposed by Mayor Jacob Frey (D).

That position angered liberal activists, while Frey also felt the wrath of residents who accused him of not doing more to combat rising violent crime.

Nonetheless, Frey saw a comfortable victory, one boosted by high turnout in southwest Minneapolis, a more White, affluent area of the city — as well as support in north Minneapolis, the heart of the city’s Black community, and in areas with large Somali American populations. Both groups have accused the police department of racism and brutality but have also felt the brunt of the city’s rising violence.

On election night, a buoyant Frey called on the city to put division aside and embrace the hard work of achieving “true and transformational change” in public safety.

Reform, Frey argued, is “going to require that we stop speaking in absolutes and recognize that the most difficult situations of our society have multiple truths associated with them,” he said.

Seattle Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell had a similar election-night message, warning against extreme positions and arguing that the city can focus on eradicating “racism and unreasonable force” from the police department while also improving public safety.

Harrell, a former city council president, defeated current city council president Lorena González following a campaign notable for its vitriol. “We’ve got to bring Seattle back together,” Harrell pleaded.

While González had preached transformational change, Harrell had focused on concrete measures to address crime, homelessness and the economy.

In a measure of just how determined Seattle voters apparently were to avoid the political extremes, the Democrat-dominated city chose a centrist Republican as city attorney over a police abolitionist.

“Seattle is the place where you would least expect this message of moderation,” Prakash said. “But it resonated.”

Minneapolis rejects measure to replace police department in first major test of reform movement

Although most big cities are dominated by Democrats, not all faced a choice among shades of blue.

In Miami, Republican Francis Suarez was reelected Tuesday in a landslide.

On Florida’s opposite shore, in St. Petersburg, voters faced a choice between a Democrat and a Republican, and chose Democrat Ken Welch, who became the first Black candidate elected mayor in a city that is 70 percent White.

“We have made history,” Welch, whose father was the first Black member of the city council, said as he declared victory.

Other historic firsts came in Cincinnati, Seattle and Boston, which all elected their first Asian American mayors. Pittsburgh elected its first Black mayor. And Dearborn, Mich., elected an Arab American mayor for the first time.

“My name is Abdullah Hussein Hammoud and I am Dearborn’s next mayor,” said the 31-year-old state legislator, who thanked Allah in his victory speech.

One potential first that did not come to pass Tuesday was in Erie County, Pa., where Democrat Tyler Titus lost his bid to become the nation’s first openly transgender county executive.

Walton’s Buffalo bid would have made history, too.

Walton, a 39-year-old community organizer, had won a stunning upset in June’s Democratic primary. Brown then mounted an unusual write-in campaign to keep his job. Walton acknowledged she likely lost the race Wednesday, after Brown declared victory Tuesday night.

Tuesday’s results in Buffalo have national ramifications, Brown said in an interview at his party headquarters as his jubilant supporters celebrated around him. It shows “first of all, that Democratic voters and voters of all party persuasions don’t want police defunded,” he said.

More broadly, Brown said, it shows that “mainstream Democrats need to stand up and fight back” against what he described as an “intolerant” far left that is unwilling to compromise. “It’s making it more difficult to get things done at the national level and it’s not good for the country,” Brown said. He said Buffalo’s election was a “firewall” against candidates motivated by ideology.

But Walton was unbowed, and predicted more candidacies like her own.

“How is it possible that a person who was largely unknown until a year ago has been able to raise a million dollars and be competitive with a giant like Byron Brown?” said Walton in an interview with The Post on Monday. “This can be replicated.”

Bailey reported from Minneapolis and Slater from Buffalo.