Election Day 2021 Preview
For an off year there's a lot going on (get it? huh? get it?)
This is it: Election Day 2021. It’s a busy day, with major cities from coast to coast choosing new mayors and city councils and registered Democrats in one South Florida district choosing their next member of Congress. Such a busy day, in fact, that we had to cleave off most city council races and put them in a subscriber-only special issue, which you can read here. Here we go!
For a House special election in perennial swing state Florida, FL-20 has gotten very little attention. That’s a shame, because it’s a wide-open race with as many as six plausible winners. State Reps. Omari Hardy and Bobby DuBose, state Sen. Perry Thurston, Broward County Commissioners Barbara Sharief and Dale Holness, and self-funding repeat candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick all stand a real chance at getting into Congress via a victory in today’s Democratic primary. Of those, Hardy, Sharief, Holness, and Cherfilus-McCormick seem to be in the top tier of candidates. That’s the general overview; now for the updates.
Since we last talked about FL-20, DMFI PAC came through with its promised expenditures against Omari Hardy, dropping $29,000 on digital ads and phone banking, while Hardy’s own supportive super PAC threw down another $70,000 in TV ads, 314 Action made a $42,500 buy in favor of Barbara Sharief, and 32BJ SEIU kept up its steady flow of expenditures for Dale Holness.
As for the stakes of all this? Cherfilus-McCormick is running on an idiosyncratic but broadly left-wing platform, Hardy is running as a down-the-line progressive, and both Sharief and Holness are running blissfully non-ideological campaigns which will likely be followed by boring (at best) congressional tenures should either win. Hardy winning would be a shot in the arm for the left after a disappointing year of House. Cherfilus-McCormick—with her lack of political connections, bizarre ads, extensive self-funding, and status as a little-known two-time failed candidate—would bring a healthy dose of chaos to Congress. Of the non-Hardy/Cherfilus-McCormick candidates, DuBose (who supports Medicare for All), and Thurston, who has union support, would be preferable. Naturally, their odds are quite bad. Between Sharief and Holness, we’d have to give it to Holness only because he didn’t do Medicare fraud. The nicest thing we can say about either of Sharief or Holness is they’d give House Democrats another vote as a cushion against the antics of Josh Gottheimer and co.
After the surprise retirement announcement of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms earlier this year, a large field quickly developed. The race is nonpartisan, with a runoff if no candidate reaches 50% of the vote in the first round. City Council President Felicia Moore was an obvious frontrunner—she was the second most prominent and powerful politician in Atlanta, and she was already running for mayor, challenging Lance Bottoms to her right on the issue of policing. The other obvious frontrunner was Kasim Reed, former Atlanta mayor who left office under a cloud of scandal in 2017. Even chalking all the federal subpoenas up to one big misunderstanding, Reed’s time in office doesn not inspire. He kept anti-gay positions until well after a big-city mayor should have dropped them, and he balanced the city’s budget on the backs of workers. He’s also the choice of the city’s cop union, which is the reddest of red flags.
The campaign between the two has been negative and dispiriting, opening up the potential for another candidate to make it until the runoff by staying above the fray. Sharon Gay, self funding white moderate tried to run a campaign in the mold of de facto Republican Mary Norwood’s surprisingly close 2013 and 2017 losses, but got nowhere. Antonio Brown is a rare outspoken progressive on the Council, but as a relative newcomer to politics, he lacked name recognition or allies, and he had his own scandal dragging him down. Finally, there’s Andre Dickens, an at-large councilor with more liberal policy instincts than Moore or Reed, and who’s managed to avoid catching most of the dirt flung between the two. He had been languishing with Brown and Gay in the polls, but a final shock poll of the race showed him jumping ahead of Reed into second place.
When progressive Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu announced her mayoral candidacy back in September 2020, it looked like she’d have to work mighty hard to deny Marty Walsh a third term and give the left its highest-profile mayoral victory in quite some time. Then Walsh got nominated to be Joe Biden’s Secretary of Labor, throwing Boston politics into turmoil. When the dust settled, City Council President Kim Janey was acting mayor and seeking a full term, Wu’s fellow city councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George were also running, and Wu had become a frontrunner. Throughout a long campaign, Wu has never given up her place atop the field. In the preliminary election, she not only easily snagged first place in the first round in September, but wound up with the easiest possible opponent for the runoff when Essaibi George narrowly outpaced Campbell and Janey for the second runoff slot. Since then, Wu has built a massive lead in the polls, making Essaibi George’s campaign look more and more like the dying gasp of Boston’s conservative white establishment. Michelle Wu, an unabashed progressive whose campaign has been centered on a municipal Green New Deal, will almost certainly be the next mayor of Boston. It rules.
What she’ll be able to do will be determined by the council that Boston elects on the same ballot. At-large incumbent Julia Mejia and at-large candidates Ruthzee Louijeune, Carla Monteiro, and David Halbert, along with Ward 3 challenger Stephen McBride and Ward 6 candidate Kendra Hicks, are carrying the progressive banner in hotly-contested races; each one of them that wins expands the range of possibilities available to Mayor Wu.
This is one of those races where it’s hard to imagine you could be subscribed to this newsletter and not have already been hearing about constantly from other sources, so we’ll keep it brief. Buffalo mayor Byron Brown, running for his 5th term, blew off a primary challenge from democratic socialist India Walton. Walton, with help from a few local groups—but let’s be honest, mostly the Working Families Party—scored a surprise upset in the primary.
Brown, unwilling to accept defeat, immediately began working on a write-in campaign, funded by local developers and Republicans, openly supported by the local GOP in conjunction with the worst elements of the state Democratic Party (at one point state party chair Jay Jacobs compared her primary victory to David Duke winning), they’ve spent large amounts of money (much of it financed by local rich reactionary crazy person Carl Paladino) to promote Brown and tar Walton with anything they can think of. Local media has been part of this assault, reporting on her car getting towed and her forgetting to report her income on welfare paperwork over a decade ago with all the salaciousness they never mustered for the decades of actual corruption in City Hall. Walton has the support of the local county Democratic Party, as well as the left in NYC. Even though US Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand came through with a last minute endorsement, Walton’s financial disadvantage and the media onslaught she’s suffered has meant the few polls of the race are showing her down. She pulled off one miraculous upset in the primary, but winning the general will require another.
This is a runoff between Hamilton County Clerk of Courts (and unsuccessful 2018 congressional nominee) Aftab Pureval and City Councilman David Mann, who’s been in and out of various Cincinnati elected offices since the 70s. All signs point to Pureval, the standard liberal Democrat, winning handily against moderate Mann. Pureval beat Mann 39% - 29% in the preliminary round, and has since then outspent Mann greatly while being backed by essentially the entire county party. Mann has...Jerry Springer. OK, that’s not entirely fair to Mann, who does also have the police union and most of the centrist independent caucus on the city council. But his desperate, flailing campaign is the sign of someone who knows he’s behind, badly.
2021 may be the year that Cleveland finally got tired of its political establishment. Not revolted, not overthrew, not fought against, but simply got tired of it. On paper, City Council President Kevin Kelley should be in fantastic shape. He’s a scion of the machine, and has been for years. His business-friendly status quo campaign is supported by outgoing mayor Frank Jackson, as well as multiple Council members, the county prosecutor, and every machine-aligned union. But outside of that group there’s a palpable sense of exhaustion. Everyone with a pulse who isn’t a tried and true member of the county establishment has endorsed nonprofit director Justin Bibb. Bibb is a bit of a blank slate—one of those bright young wonks with pages of detailed policy plans no one actually reads, nor is expected to. He should do well in the city’s majority Black east, while Kelley will run stronger in the whiter west. That’s an arrangement which should lead to a Bibb win unless Kelley makes significant inroads with Black voters, and it doesn’t look like that’s happening.
Detroit City Clerk
Detroit DSA-endorsed candidate Denzel McCampbell, a staffer for Rashida Tlaib and an elected member of the city’s charter commission, faces an uphill battle against longtime Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey. He got just 15% of the first-round vote to Winfrey’s 70%. But Winfrey’s 70% was unusually high for her, and there’s always going to be widespread frustration with her office’s legendary incompetence to fuel challengers like McCampbell.
Mayor Steven Fulop is quite likely to win a third term over opposition from his vaguely progressive-branded opponent, Lewis Spears—who was a Republican for 11 years. The council races are more interesting, though; in particular, DSA-backed Ward B challenger Joel Brooks’s campaign has the potential to put a dent in the armor of the vaunted Hudson County machine.
King County, WA
King County Executive is a pretty powerful position—how could it not be in a county of 2.3 million? Unfortunately, incumbent Dow Constantine has been reticent to actually use much of that power in his 12 years in office. State Senator Joe Nguyen, one of the body’s most progressive members, points to Constantine’s inaction on climate and homelessness, as well as his decision to spend large amounts of money on a new sports stadium and jail in the county. It’s a long shot, for sure. Constantine won the preliminary round 52-33, with the remainder going to Republicans. On the face of it, the math looks impossible for Nguyen. But he’s earned the endorsement of a surprising number of Democratic legislative district organizations (LDs are the basic unit of official party organization in Washington) and Constantine seems at least a little concerned even though he’s swamped Nguyen in spending.
Somehow Republicans still hold three seats out of nine on the technically nonpartisan County Council. Those races are pretty straightforward. Kathy Lambert in the very Democratic District 3 is about to get, by all accounts, demolished by Democrat Sarah Perry. Meanwhile incumbents Pete von Reichbauer in District 7 and Reagan Dunn in District 9 are fighting for reelection against Democrats Dominique Torgerson and Kim-Khanh Van, respectively. In District 1, Democrat Rod Dembowski’s challenger barely even exists on paper.
The real drama is in District 5, located in southern Seattle and its diverse southern suburbs. Incumbent Democrat Dave Upthegrove has his first left wing challenger ever, and he is pissed about it. He may have most unions and the official King County party endorsement, but that is not enough for him, and apparently he’s been calling up anyone who endorses his opponent to yell at them about how they’re being racist to white guys when they don’t endorse him. Said opponent, Shukri Olow, is running to his left, and appears to have a shot, even if Upthegrove is generally seen as the favorite.
After the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis politics has become oriented around how the city should change in response to the reckoning with racism and policing that followed. Activists succeeded in getting an amendment to the city charter, Question 2, on this year’s ballot, which if approved by voters would dissolve the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety designed by the city council; Question 2 has become the key dividing line in city elections. In the mayoral race, incumbent Jacob Frey opposes Question 2 and bristles at the suggestion that he should’ve done something different with MPD at any point in his tenure. His main opponents, leftist organizer Sheila Nezhad and former state Rep. Kate Knuth, support the amendment. (A third challenger, AJ Awed, opposes the amendment, but hasn’t seemed to gain much traction.)
Thanks to the city’s use of ranked-choice voting, Frey can’t count on his split field of opponents to save him; Nezhad and Knuth have endorsed one another, urging their supporters to rank both women and not Frey, and many of their endorsers have done the same (most notably Ilhan Omar, who represents all of Minneapolis in Congress.) And while Knuth and Nezhad have plenty of differences, they agree on more than the amendment; both are broadly more progressive than Frey on other issues like climate, not just policing.
An internal poll released by a pro-Frey group purported to show Frey in a strong position to win another term, leading Nezhad 44% to 25%, with Knuth in third at 10%. However, if the best a pro-Frey internal poll could find had the mayor mired in the mid-40s, with his two allied challengers combining for 35% and a lot of voters still undecided, we’re not impressed.
Council races also loom large, given that the council will have to shape the Department of Public Safety if Question 2 passes. A number of council candidates promise to push for more radical change and support Question 2; names to watch include Elliot Payne in Ward 1, Robin Wonsley Worlobah in Ward 2, Nick Kor in Ward 7, Jason Chavez in Ward 9, and Aisha Chughtai in Ward 10.
Port of Seattle Commission
The Port of Seattle Commission is one of those surprisingly powerful bodies that you’d be forgiven for forgetting it even existed. The Port of Seattle controls government functions in the airport, seaport, and a large amount of associated real estate, of King County. As such, they command a large budget and have many levers of power at their disposal to affect global trade. Progressives are trying to wield this power to combat climate change, among other goals. Simply put, oil and coal companies need to use ports to transport their goods, and the ports have the ability to say “no”. That’s on top of their ability to negotiate terms with airlines, and tackle pollution by changing practices at both facilities. Hamdi Mohamed (District 3) and Toshiko Hasegawa (District 4) are running against incumbents Stephanie Bowman and Peter Steinbrueck, respectively, and the coalitions behind them are impressive. From labor, to the county party, to Pramila Jayapal and Jay Inslee, a wide variety of big names are behind this effort to remake the Port Commission. Incumbents Bowman and Steinbrueck are mostly propped up by business interests, especially airlines and shipping companies who want favorable terms when dealing with the Port.
Seattle is at war with itself for the future of the city. The left has been growing steadily for years now, but the center has been able to clamp down on it by holding the major citywide offices and not allowing the progressive majority on the Council to get too large. But this year progressives have their most formidable threat yet running for mayor: City Council President Lorena González. She’s facing ex-City Council President Bruce Harrell. In the Position 9, the open citywide Council election (progressive Teresa Mosqueda is going to win reelection in 8 easily) , abolitionist activist and 2017 mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver is carrying the banner for the left against business-backed centrist Sara Nelson. And in the City Attorney election, abolitionist defense attorney Nicole Thomas-Kennedy has found herself not just leading the charge for just a new way of approaching criminal justice, but as the Democratic Party standard-bearer after her radical campaign unexpectedly knocked out incumbent Democrat Pete Holmes and placed her in a runoff with literal Republican Ann Davison.
Ultimately, these campaigns are linked. The left draws its strength from younger voters, renters, and city’s downtown, while the right is strongest the closer you get to the city’s edge, as property values increase and the electorate’s age does too. The correlation between different races every election cycle is uncanny. The races have all followed similar contours on the issues, too. Defund the police, or don’t? Resume the sweeps of homeless encampments, or build housing for them? End single family zoning to make Seattle the dense, urban oasis it could be, or allow the financial interests of homeowners to cause skyrocketing rents? Even though the only actual measure dealing with these issues got kicked off the ballot, it all feels like a referendum on Seattle’s future.
Of the three, Oliver is the most likely to win. They have name recognition from their mayoral run, and a particularly uninspiring opponent. They also finished with 40% in the preliminary round, the best of the three, even if Nelson was only 1% behind. The City Attorney race is almost impossible to predict. Thomas-Kennedy’s extreme image and incendiary past statements might sink her against a Democrat, but Davison is very much a Republican—she even ran for lieutenant governor in 2020 as one, and her only saving grace is the fact that party designations do not appear on the ballot. They both lucked out in facing an opponent they could win against, but how voters ultimately break is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the mayoral race has seen far more attention than anything else. Labor is spending big on González, and national politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have endorsed her. Meanwhile, business and centrist interests in the state are throwing everything they possibly can at Harrell’s campaign.
As always, remember for the Washington races that the way they count mail-in votes leads to a lot of ballots not getting counted the first day. Late ballots almost always lean left, so keep in mind that González, Oliver, and Thomas-Kennedy (as well as other Washington progressives) will look a lot worse tonight than they actually end up doing when all the votes are counted. (In the first round, late ballots were a boon to all three progressives.)
NYC Council District 32
We normally don’t cover general elections, but this southern Queens district is pretty blue—Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton each won it by double digits—and there are stakes beyond whether Republicans hold their last city council district outside of Staten Island. If Democratic nominee Felicia Singh wins, the large incoming class of progressives on the council will add another member to their ranks, with potentially major implications for who will be the next city council speaker; if Republican nominee Joann Ariola holds this open seat for the GOP, the bipartisan conservative bloc strengthens its hand ahead of a speaker vote, lowering the chances of a speaker who will act as a check on incoming Democratic mayor Eric Adams’s conservatism.
Somerville, Massachusetts is a city of around 80,000, so it’s smaller than what we usually cover. But Somerville could be the first city to elect a DSA majority to its council if candidates Willie Burnley, Jr. (at-large), Eve Seitchik (at-large), Charlotte Kelly (at-large), Tessa Bridge (Ward 5), and Becca Miller (Ward 7) join DSA incumbents J.T. Scott (Ward 2) and Ben-Ewen Campen (Ward 3) on the council.
While technically nonpartisan, most of the big St. Petersburg races are D vs. R contests. For mayor, Democratic County Commissioner Ken Welch, who could be worse considering it’s Florida, is expected to have an easy victory over Republican City Councilor Robert Blackmon. For City Council, which is elected citywide, despite the primaries happening by district (we’re not sure why they do this, but we assume the reason is deeply stupid), there are also a couple of D vs. R races; the Democrats in those are Copley Gerdes (CC-1) and Lisset Hanewicz (CC-4). CC-6 and CC-8 are where the D vs. D (or D vs. centrist independent) action is. In CC-6, centrist incumbent Gina Driscoll is facing down a progressive challenger, Mhariel Summers. However, despite looking interesting over the summer, this contest never took off. Summers raised very little money and was down 49% to 16% in the only recent poll taken of this race. The most interesting race is in CC-8, an open seat. Richie Floyd, running as a democratic socialist, has attracted the attention of a plethora of progressive groups, as well as Brazilian internet users when a post about him looking like a well-known contestant of Big Brother Brazil went viral. Meanwhile, his opponent, former Councilor Jeff Danner, has openly courted Republican support in order to win.
Stamford, CT Mayor
State Rep. Caroline Simmons unseated incumbent mayor David Martin in the September Democratic primary and now faces conservative independent Bobby Valentine, a man who claims to have invented the wrap sandwich (the food item you get when you wrap sandwich fillings in a soft tortilla) and also colorfully managed the New York Mets at the turn of the 21st century. Valentine has gotten money and/or endorsements from a wide range of Republican business ghouls like Linda McMahon, Anthony Scaramucci, and even George W. Bush (who as managing partner of the Texas Rangers fired Valentine as the team’s manager in 1992.) He’s also gotten the endorsement of the local teachers’ union, which is an indication that his support extends beyond the Republican base.
Syracuse, NY Mayor
Democratic nominee Khalid Bey declined to get vaccinated because of an unspecified reason allegedly given by his doctor, then got COVID; independent incumbent Ben Walsh is the son and grandson of Republican congressmen, and is basically a Republican himself (though he’s smart enough not to run on the Republican ballot line in deep-blue Syracuse.) This race is a fucking mess.