Connecting state and local government leaders
Plus, abortion rights and pot legalization win in Ohio, Philadelphia elects its first woman mayor, and a falsely accused member of "Central Park Five" joins New York City council.
Democrats scored major victories Tuesday in two states that former Republican President Donald Trump won handily in 2020. Voters reelected the Democratic governor of Kentucky and rebuffed the Republican legislature in Ohio by approving measures to legalize marijuana and protect abortion rights.
Democrats added to their wins by taking control of the Virginia House from Republicans and holding on to the state senate, despite a concentrated effort by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to expand Republican majorities in the state in the hopes that it would bolster a potential presidential run.
But Republicans still netted one governorship overall this year. Democrat Brandon Presley thought he could pull off an upset win in the Mississippi governor’s race, even though the state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in more than two decades. The Republican incumbent, Gov. Tate Reeves, held on, though. In Louisiana, Republican Jeff Landry won the top office in October. He will replace the Democratic incumbent, John Bel Edwards.
At least 9 precincts in majority-Black Mississippi county ran out of ballots, per reports https://t.co/JP7o4Xh9kn— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) November 8, 2023
“It’s just very hard to beat an incumbent governor,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report. Candidates matter more in gubernatorial races than other statewide contests, like those for U.S. Senate, she said.
The few incumbents who lose—like Republican Matt Bevin in Kentucky four years ago or Democrat Steve Sisolak in Nevada last year—tend to have low approval ratings, Taylor explained. And efforts to oust well-liked governors in states that generally favor the opposing party don’t usually fare well, which is why Democrat Laura Kelly in Kansas and Republicans Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland and Phil Scott in Vermont easily fended off challengers.
Tuesday’s elections also underscored the salience of abortion rights among voters. Ohio voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that would protect access to abortion and other reproductive rights on a 57-43 margin. That comes as a rebuke to the Republican-controlled legislature, which passed a law in 2019 to effectively ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. The law went into effect last year, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. After Tuesday’s vote, Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens predicted the legislature would work in the coming year to overturn or limit the new amendment. “As a 100% pro-life conservative, I remain steadfastly committed to protecting life, and that commitment is unwavering,” Stephens said. “The legislature has multiple paths that we will explore to continue to protect innocent life.”
Abortion rights were also central issues in the race for Kentucky governor, control of the Virginia legislature and in a high court contest in Pennsylvania.
“It shows that Republicans still have a ways to go in order to figure out how to talk about these issues,” said Taylor of the Cook Political Report. “These abortion referendums and the issue of abortion have more of a resonance in governor's races [than in federal races], because now after [the 2022 Supreme Court ruling] the decision has been sent back to the states.”
Ohio voters also approved a measure to legalize marijuana, making the Buckeye State the 24th state to pass a similar measure. Residents ages 21 and older will be able to possess marijuana for recreational purposes starting in 30 days. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders opposed the move.
Crime Messaging Gets Mixed Results in Local Contests
Tuesday’s elections had significant impacts on local governments as well, with several groundbreaking candidates advancing in city races.
In Philadelphia, Cherelle Parker was elected the next mayor. She will be the 100th mayor of the city, and the first woman to hold the post. With Parker’s election, New York is the only one of the top 10 most populous cities in the U.S. to have never elected a woman as mayor, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Parker had promised to hire more police to address crime in the city.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, cruised to reelection over a Republican challenger, Jefferson Shreve, who accused Hogsett of being soft on crime. Shreve, a former federal prosecutor, spent more than $13 million of his own money in the race. He also got a boost from Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who recently switched from being a Democrat to being a Republican, but Hogsett prevailed by 20 percentage points.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who switched from D to R shortly after winning re-election this year, campaigned for the GOP mayoral nominee in Indianapolis. Message: Dems are too soft on crime.— David Weigel (@daveweigel) November 8, 2023
Dem Mayor Joe Hogsett won re-election by 20 points.https://t.co/2hOUPlc6jL
Two well-known Democrats will face off in early December to become the next mayor of Houston after emerging from a field of 18 candidates Tuesday. State Sen. John Whitmire led the field with 43% of all votes to head the country’s fourth-largest city. He will face U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who garnered 36% of the vote, in the Dec. 9 runoff.
The mayoral race in Portland, Maine, was close enough to require election officials to conduct an instant runoff Wednesday morning. The city uses ranked choice voting in its mayoral contests. Mark Dion, who earned 40% of first-round votes Tuesday, emerged as the victor as he took 51.5% of the vote in subsequent runoffs. Dion, a veteran politician, advocated for sweeps of homeless camps and using law enforcement to compel people without homes to use shelters.
BREAKING NEWS: Portland Councilor Mark Dion has won the mayorship after 5 tabulations of vote tabulations.— Jack Molmud (@jmolmud) November 8, 2023
He says the first issue is tackling the homelessness issue, has been huge on disbanding encampments around the city. pic.twitter.com/3NEZ3Ai7oZ
The mother of a student who died during a mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, lost her bid to become the town’s mayor. Kimberly Mato-Rubio had called for stricter gun control after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in May 2022. She took only 33% of the votes in the mayoral election, losing to former mayor Cody Smith.
Likewise, activist Misti Allison of East Palestine, Ohio, fell short in her mayoral bid in the village that suffered a freight train derailment and chemical spill in February. Allison appeared on national television and before a U.S. Senate committee to highlight her concerns about the lasting effects of the pollution on the city’s residents. She echoed those concerns in her mayoral campaign, as well. But incumbent Mayor Trent Conaway prevailed, as he asked residents to help him finish the work he started after the Norfolk Southern crash.
Yusef Salaam had no opponent in Tuesday night’s contest, but his election to represent a Harlem district on the New York City Council was a remarkable turnaround for someone who had been falsely accused and later convicted of a 1989 assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park that drew international attention.
Salaam was 15 years old when he was prosecuted as one of the “Central Park Five” and served nearly seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. During the uproar over the Central Park rape, Trump, then a flamboyant real estate developer, took out full-page ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York in response to the crime.
Salaam talked frequently about the Central Park Five case—including Trump’s involvement in it—during his campaign for city council. Now, of course, the former president faces many criminal charges of his own. “Karma is real,” Salaam told The New York Times, “and we have to remember that.”
In Minnesota, the voters of St. Paul appear to have elected a city council made entirely of women. The newly elected members will wrestle with how best to implement a rent control law that voters passed two years ago as well as policies on child care, taxes and garbage collection.
Don Scott, the leader of the Democratic caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates, is set to become the first Black speaker of the chamber. He is the front-runner for the post, which will be determined in an election Saturday. His ascension comes as every seat of the legislature was up for grabs, following once-a-decade redistricting in the state. Democrats stressed the importance of abortion rights in the campaign, while Youngkin called for a ban on the procedure after the 15th week of pregnancy.
Democrats in the Michigan House had a good night, even though they’ve temporarily lost control of the House majority. Two of the chamber’s members won mayoral elections. Democrats had a 56-54 majority in the House, so control of the chamber will be split with Republicans until their seats are filled in special elections in the coming months.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats won a contest for an open seat on the state supreme court, which could prove pivotal in future cases on voting rights and access to abortion.
Houston voters had a rare chance to reshape the organization that directs much of the flood control and transportation spending in the area, as they approved a measure to give Houston residents more power on a 13-county governing body. The amendment to the city’s charter would require the Houston-Galveston Area Council to use a voting system that takes into account the populations of the areas its members represent. Advocates for the change say that suburban officials routinely overrule Houston requests, even though Houston and Harris County have more residents.
And finally, voters in Maine passed up a chance to upend the power industry in the state. A referendum to oust two unpopular investor-owned utilities and replace them with a public utility failed on Tuesday, after a deluge of advertisements and spending against the measure. While a public takeover of the power grid has happened before at the local level, Maine’s referendum was the largest effort in decades and the first-ever push for a statewide public power company.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.