Political Earthquake: Black candidates rack up city wins

WASHINGTON (thehill): Voters are turning to outsider candidates to run their cities in a political earthquake that has ousted incumbents and shattered expectations across the country.

Municipal elections are always rife with local intrigues and upheavals. But this year, many of the outsider candidates who are winning, often over the opposition of the entrenched political class, share a specific trait in common: They are Black.

By the end of this year, there are likely to be more Black mayors among the nation’s 50 largest cities, 12, than there are Republicans, 11. Three of the nation’s four largest cities — New York, Chicago and Houston — will be run by Black elected officials.

Voters in New York City on Tuesday gave more than half of their first-choice votes, in the city’s first experiment with ranked choice voting, to Black candidates.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (D) won almost 32 percent of the first-round vote in the Democratic mayoral primary, making him the odds-on favorite to win once the remaining rounds of preferences are counted. The only candidate with even an outside chance at overcoming him is Maya Wiley, a former top city official who claimed 22 percent of the initial vote.

If either Adams or Wiley go on to win in November, as expected in the heavily Democratic five boroughs, he or she would be the second Black mayor of the nation’s largest city.

But they would not be alone among a class of first-term American mayors that is far more diverse than previous city executives.

Upstate, voters delivered two more knockout blows in primaries: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D) lost his bid for a fifth term to India Walton (D), a self-proclaimed socialist and activist. And Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren (D), beset by scandals, lost her bid for a third term to City Councilman Malik Evans (D).

All four leading candidates in Buffalo and Rochester are Black. But Walton and Evans, like others who have won this year, ran as change agents against an old guard they portrayed as out of touch with their cities in a time of upheaval.

To the south, two more Black candidates upset white incumbents in primary elections in Pennsylvania last month.

State Rep. Ed Gainey (D) pulled off a surprise upset of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) as the incumbent sought a third term. In Harrisburg, City Council President Wanda Williams beat Mayor Eric Papenfuse in the Democratic primary.

The more recent rush of a new and more diverse class of American mayors comes after two critical turning points, political observers said: The first was the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, whose campaign was built on grassroots organizing meant to circumvent entrenched party interests and to capitalize on the emergence of social media as a political powerhouse.

“This started with Barack Obama,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and a former contributor to Hill.TV. “It’s clear over the last 10 years, new people have come into the process, new infrastructure is supporting them, and barriers to entry are falling.”

The second factor was the social upheaval of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic coupled with the protests over police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd put a new spotlight on embattled mayors who were at times overwhelmed by their jobs.

“That is an anti-incumbent environment. That is a change environment,” said Lee Harris (D), the mayor of Shelby County, Tenn. “The young up-and-comers might have an advantage because they are more consistent with that change being in the air.”

Even before 2020, Black elected leaders were making substantial progress at the local level. The Democratic nominees, all of whom are favored to win in November, will join a host of big city mayors of color already in office. 

Baltimore and St. Louis both elected new Black mayors to replace retiring incumbents in the last several months. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D), 36 when he took office, is among the youngest ever to run his city. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones (D) is the first Black woman to win the job in her city. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) won her city’s top office in 2019. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) won reelection the same year. Dallas; San Francisco; Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; and Washington, D.C., are all run by Black mayors. Kim Janey (D), the president of the Boston City Council, has served as acting mayor since Marty Walsh resigned to become President Biden’s Labor Secretary; Janey has said she will run for a full term later this year.

The roster of newly elected mayors does not fit an easy ideological framework: In Rochester, Walton would be the first self-described socialist to win election in an American city since a young Bernie Sanders became mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1981. In New York City, Adams, a former police officer, was seen as the more conservative, law-and-order choice among a huge field of Democratic contenders.

But most represented substantial change from their predecessors, whether by moving past old scandals, putting a new focus on police misconduct or simply turning the page from lackluster management of a pandemic — and voters’ interest in change now transcends racial lines.

“The first generation of Black mayors were elected in highly racially polarized elections, if you go back to the 1970s,” said Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. “These Black mayors are getting elected in many of these communities with coalition politics. It’s Black voters plus others.”

Some observers said they saw a parallel with another candidate who benefited greatly from the support of Black voters: Joe Biden. Biden advisers credit his showing among those most loyal — but not the most liberal — Democratic primary voters for his come-from-behind victory in the South Carolina primary in February 2020, a win that catapulted him to his party’s presidential nomination.

“That explains the Biden effect too,” Harris said. “Even if you view him as stable, he’s still the opposite of what you had before.”