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But progressives also scored some key wins. Experts caution that off-year elections typically do not serve as a great barometer for the nation's political leanings.
Republicans stole the show on election night Tuesday, winning Virginia’s gubernatorial election in a tight race. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the incumbent Democratic governor eked out a win, with the call coming Wednesday evening.
But in local races, moderate Democrats carried significant victories, including the Buffalo, New York mayoral race where the incumbent mounted a successful write-in campaign against a democratic socialist who ousted him in the primary.
“Even though the democratic establishment, nationally headed by Biden, is taking quite a hit, in some ways the moderates struck back here in Minneapolis or in Buffalo,” said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
In Minneapolis, which uses a ranked choice voting system, incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey was declared the winner Wednesday afternoon. Frey’s win wasn’t for lack of progressive choices. He bested 16 candidates, including progressive challengers Kate Knuth, a former state representative, and Sheila Nezhad, a community organizer.
“There was plenty of progressive meat that was on the ballot,” Ostermeier said.
The municipal election garnered national attention as the city, which erupted in protests after police there killed George Floyd last summer, also considered whether to replace its police department. That ballot measure was rejected.
In Seattle, moderate progressive Bruce Harrell had a commanding lead over M. Lorena Gonzalez, who the Associated Press classified as a leftist activist. New York City also confirmed its new mayor would be a moderate Democrat as former police captain Eric Adams cruised to victory over his long-shot Republican opponent.
Voters in Buffalo, rejected democratic socialist India Walton, handing Mayor Byron W. Brown, a centrist Democrat, a surprise victory. Walton had beat Brown in the Democratic primary and the sitting mayor mounted a successful write-in campaign to retain his seat.
“We introduced Buffalo to bold, transformative ideas … and earned tens of thousands of votes for our vision,” Walton said in a statement Wednesday. “One major accomplishment of ours is ending the era of complacent Buffalo politicians. No longer can they feel confident that they can rest easy in their seats of power.”
Firsts for Progressives
Other cities recorded notable firsts for progressive candidates.
Boston voters elected City Councilor Michelle Wu as mayor, making her the city's first woman and person of color to hold the post. Wu, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, defeated Annissa Essaibi George, a self-described first-generation Arab-Polish American who ran on a more moderate platform.
Aftab Pureval triumphed as Cincinnati’s first Asian-American mayor, garnering more than 65% of the vote. Pureval, the 39-year-old son of Indian refugees, is a former county clerk of courts who campaigned as the “change” candidate seeking to replace David Mann, an 82-year-old two-time mayor and former congressman. Both ran as Democrats.
Nearby, Cleveland voted in a new mayor for the first time since 2006, electing 34-year-old former technology executive Justin Bibb, who is Black, over City Council President Kevin Kelley, who is white. Bibb, who won more than 60% of the vote, told supporters in his victory speech that he planned to spearhead a coalition form of government rather than sit as a figurehead.
“It’s going to take a people-powered movement to change our city,” he said in his victory speech. “When I take that oath in January, I’m not taking that oath by myself. We, the people, will take that oath.”
In Atlanta, the mayor’s race will be decided through a runoff election Nov. 30. Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore emerged Tuesday as the leader in the mayor’s race with about 40% of the vote. It remained unclear Wednesday whether she would face off against either City Council member Andre Dickens or former Mayor Kasim Reed in the second run-off spot.
Off-year elections typically have little implication for future national elections, said elections experts. Voters in off-year elections tend to skew more white and conservative than those who turnout in presidential or midterm elections, said Adam Dynes, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
But Tuesday’s results do send a message about the political state of the country as a whole: it continues to be divided, said Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.
“I don't think this means anything for national or statewide elections, but I do think it suggests something about geographic polarization,” Cooper said. “It’s possible to have a country that’s trending a little red in the short run, but has pockets that are becoming bluer. We've got a divided America, but that doesn’t mean we have a purple America—it means we have a whole lot of blue, and a whole lot of red, and I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing here.”
In addition to mayoral races, voters in several cities also considered ballot measures on police reform and reparations.
In Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd last summer ignited nationwide protests against police use of force, voters rejected a charter amendment that would have disbanded the city’s police department and replaced it with a new department of public safety. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after a white police officer pinned the man’s neck to the ground using his knee. The city police department is facing federal investigation and the officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Minneapolis’ rejection of the measure, which would have done away with minimum police staffing requirements, comes after the collapse of congressional negotiations that sought to change federal policing standards.
Voters in two other cities considered more modest police reform measures. In Cleveland, voters OK’d a ballot initiative to create a Community Police Commission, which would work with an existing civilian review board to oversee police conduct investigations, report and advise on police relations with the community, and oversee training and recruitment. Under the terms of the proposal, the commission must be “demographically representative of the city,” and members of the existing review board will now include “attorneys with experience defending victims of police brutality.” Nearly 60% of voters supported the proposal.
In Austin, Texas, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have added more local police officers, requiring a minimum of two on duty for every thousand residents. The measure would have also required police to undergo an additional 40 hours of training each year on issues like active-shooter scenarios, and would have provided extra pay for officers who were “proficient in non-English languages” or were recognized for honorable conduct. Less than a third of voters supported the proposal, according to data from the county.
Taken together, the results of the three contests suggest that cities continue to grapple with the notion of police reform, Cooper said.
“We’re finding a policy path forward on police reform, and it is clearly not all the way to defunding the police, as we saw in Minneapolis, but it is also not increasing funding of police, as we saw in Austin,” he said. “This Cleveland model represents this middle path that I think is more politically palatable.”
Several cities allowed residents to weigh in on the issue of providing reparations to Black residents for historic racism, discrimination and the lingering effects of slavery. The issue has taken hold in the past year, beginning in March when Evanston, Illinois became the first city to offer financial payments to eligible households. Dozens of others have since followed, either committing money to the issue or agreeing to study it in further detail.
Initiatives before voters on Tuesday embraced the latter tactic. In Detroit, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to form a reparations committee that will have the authority to “make recommendations for housing and economic development programs” to begin to address “historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit.” The resolution was backed by the Detroit City Council, which could have created the task force on its own but opted to give residents the choice to approve it.
Voters in Greenbelt, Maryland, also approved a reparations initiative, agreeing to create a 21-member committee that will study and make recommendations on reparations there.
Those contests are evidence that the idea of reparations is spreading, Cooper said, but it’s unclear how effectively they’ll address the issue at hand.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent and Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter.