Primary School 11/18
In 2018, a local attorney and healthcare executive ran a quixotic, unsuccessful campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, an institution in South Florida politics. In 2020, she challenged Hastings again, once again hitting him from the left on issues like climate change and healthcare. In 2021, after Hastings’s death, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick ran again. She got her lowest vote share yet—23.8%, compared to 26.2% in 2018 and 30.7% in 2020—as well as her lowest vote total yet. But this time, she won. By five votes. After a machine recount, a manual recount, and legal wrangling over disputed provisional and overseas ballots, Cherfilus-McCormick stands with 11,662 votes to Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness’s 11,657, and her win was certified Tuesday by the state of Florida, likely foreclosing any path for legal action. With the help of some serious self-funding and a lot of TV ads, Cherfilus-McCormick just barely edged out Holness, putting her on top of a field that included two Broward County Commissioners, a state senator, and two state representatives.
Florida’s 20th district is overwhelmingly Democratic and majority-Black, so the January 11 general election is a formality. (Especially because the Republican is ineligible under Florida law, though state attempts to impose restrictions on who can run for federal office are generally unconstitutional.) In other words, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is all but guaranteed to be sworn in as a member of Congress in January.
While some progressive groups had been hoping for state Rep. Omari Hardy to win, leery of Cherfilus-McCormick’s self-funding and unusual campaign style, her policy positions include Medicare for All, universal basic income, a Green New Deal, and a $20 hourly federal minimum wage, and she’s promised to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Her win is great news, and if she sticks to her campaign platform, she’ll give progressives their first real foothold in the Florida congressional delegation—three CPC members currently represent Florida, but none of them really make waves in the House or take particularly bold stances. Her victory is also historic: she’ll be the first Haitian-American Democrat and only the second Haitian-American in modern times1 to serve in Congress.
New Orleans’s municipal elections were held this past Saturday, and the big headline is that the city’s longtime sheriff Marlin Gusman now faces the fight of his life.
Gusman has been the sheriff of Orleans Parish, coterminous with the city of New Orleans, since 2004. One of his office’s primary responsibilities is the oversight and administration of the city’s prisons and jails, including the notorious main facility: the Orleans Parish Prison. The city’s jail has been nothing less than a crime against humanity for decades; it is one of the United States’s most violent, least secure, and deadliest prisons. During Gusman’s first term in office, the prison was essentially abandoned when Hurricane Katrina hit. As the city was evacuated in accordance with a mandatory order, Gusman decided that prisoners would not be evacuated. Staff used force to get inmates back into their cells as the storm bore down on New Orleans, locking prisoners in while officers themselves made desperate plans to flee. Hundreds of inmates were stranded for days as floodwaters and sewage rose; when the sheriff’s office finally returned, inmates were beaten, maced, tased, and bitten by dogs. To this day, nobody knows how many OPP inmates died, or how many went missing.
Marlin Gusman belongs behind bars for what he did during Katrina. Instead, he’s still sheriff—and conditions at OPP, today called the Orleans Justice Center, are still horrific. The jail has been under a DOJ consent decree (a type of legal agreement mandating federal oversight of particularly abusive police departments and corrections offices) since 2012, but the jail is still extraordinarily deadly because DOJ consent decrees are insufficient by nature—real change comes from the agencies abusing the public and the governments funding them, not from federal monitors. That’s part of what prompted Susan Hutson to challenge Gusman: she had been the independent monitor of the city’s police department (under a separate federal consent decree), but grew frustrated with her inability to change things herself. She stepped down as independent monitor and launched a campaign against Gusman, with goals including removing private contractors from the jail, reducing the jail population, halting a proposed jail expansion, and, above all, making the jail something other than the death trap a federal judge once described as “an indelible stain on the community.”
In Louisiana, all elections are held under the jungle primary system, in which candidates of all parties run on one ballot. If a candidate gets a majority of first-round votes, they are elected; if not, they advance to a runoff with the second-place finisher. Gusman got 48% of the vote, sending him to a runoff with Hutson, who got 35%. Hutson faces an uphill battle, and merely losing an election is far better than Gusman deserves, but if she pulls it off, it could save countless New Orleans inmates from death, illness, injury, and abuse. If she loses, Gusman’s bloody reign will continue.
The biggest news of the week is that Democrats have an open Senate seat. Yes, for real! The famously geriatric Senate Democratic caucus is losing one of its octogenarians because Pat Leahy, despite being only 81 years old, and serving in the Senate for but a brief 48 years, is retiring next year. Meanwhile, 88-year-old Dianne Feinstein, who appears to be dead set on besting Strom Thurmond’s record for oldest serving senator (as well as his record for loving the Confederate flag) is furious that anyone would ask her to retire.
While we wait for Dianne Feinstein and the rest of the Democratic Youth Caucus to finalize their 2036 reelection plans, we can examine the emerging field of candidates to succeed Leahy. Or, rather, the emerging field of candidate.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the sprightly 74 years old powerhouse in Vermont politics, is already telling his colleagues he plans to run. Welch is a natural parliamentarian like Leahy, and if he plays his cards right, he may even make Senate leadership in 30 years!
Welch starts out as an immense favorite for the Democratic nomination. He’s a pretty standard Democrat, and Vermont can do better; however, it’ll be very hard for anyone to compete with Welch, the state’s lone U.S. Representative since 2007. Still, Vermont’s congressional delegation hasn’t changed since Welch took office, so there’s a lot of pent-up ambition among Vermont Democrats. Potential candidates, either for the Senate seat should Welch stay put or the House seat if he doesn’t, include:
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, a standard liberal
State Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, who is ideologically somewhat opaque but was supportive of the state’s single payer push.
State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who seems at least somewhat progressive
State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, who has said she wants to run for Senate but won’t if Bernie Sanders endorses Welch; Vyhovsky, a democratic socialist, is a first-term state representative from the left-leaning Vermont Progressive Party, but would run in the Democratic primary, as Progressive Party members do in most statewide races
Mary Powell, the former CEO of Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest electric utility; she appears to be just about the only electric utility CEO who isn’t despised by environmentalists, because she oversaw efforts to decarbonize the state’s electric sector and now heads a solar company
Two Vermonters who likely won’t be running are House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Attorney General TJ Donovan; months ago, both said they planned on staying put if Leahy retired. They could change their minds, but their statements didn’t leave much wiggle room (both said they wanted Vermont to elect its first woman to Congress in the event of a vacancy; Donovan is a man, and Krowinski specifically said she hoped other women, not her, would run.)
Rep. Jackie Speier is retiring, opening up her congressional district, which contains just over 100,000 residents of San Francisco, and another 600,000 south of it in the county of San Mateo. Speier has one of the more unique political origin stories in Congress—shortly after joining the staff of Rep. Leo Ryan, she accompanied him on his trip to check up on the Jonestown compound in 1978. After the trip was finished, as they were attempting to fly out with some defectors aboard, the cult gunned down the entire party, killing Ryan and 4 others, and leaving Speier bleeding on the pavement with 5 bullet wounds for an entire day until more help arrived. While Speier and other survivors lay gravely wounded on the tarmac, the infamous Jonestown mass suicide/massacre occurred. Speier recovered and ran for the special election prompted by Ryan’s murder, but finished a close third in the primary. She went into state politics after that, finally winning her ex-boss’s old congressional district in 2008.
The most obvious candidate for this seat is whoever holds the mostly-overlapping state Senate district (indeed, that’s what Speier held before 2008). Right now that’s Josh Becker, but he’s unusually weak for someone in his position. He was only elected in 2020, winning less than 30% of the Democratic vote, and held no prior political office. Even though he’s been generally progressive in the Senate, he was the moderate choice in that election, endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the police union, beating old-school Bay Area lefty Sally Lieber.
We also have to consider the guy who held that seat for 8 years before Becker, Jerry Hill. Hill got into politics in the 80s to stop apartments from being built in his wealthy suburb, and counts among his greatest accomplishments as mayor of San Mateo blocking a homeless shelter from being built in a nice part of town and supporting a ballot measure to essentially ban dense housing. Hard pass.
Assemb. Kevin Mullin, a former Speier aide and the son of ex-South San Francisco mayor Gene Mullin, has been consistently mentioned for the office. Redistricting would make reelection a shaky proposition for him, and he’d be termed out after 2022 anyway, so the incentive to run for Congress is strong.
Congressional candidate and community activist Jahmal Cole says he was shot at last week, escaping the gunfire by diving under a car. Incredibly, when telling this to the local press, he also mentioned that that it was his second time being shot at in as many weeks, and that the first time he was actually hit in the arm by a bullet fired from an automatic rifle, something that he’d reported to the police but not gone public with because he’d been shaken by the incident. While it’s possible that he’s being targeted for his political activity—that does happen, after all2—it’s more likely that he was caught in two unrelated incidents, two particularly harrowing examples of the gun violence problem he’s running to solve. Our first concern is that he stays safe, of course, but in terms of relevance to his upcoming election, if he’s trying to pitch himself as more involved in helping the community than incumbent Bobby Rush, it’s hard to think of a more powerful example.
Chicago Ald. Gilbert Villegas is the first, but assuredly not the last, announced candidate for this new seat stretching from Chicago’s North Side to suburban DuPage County. State Sen. Omar Aquino helped draw this district, and expressed interest in running a while ago; the Chicago Tribune says state Rep. Delia Ramirez and Metropolitan Water District Commissioner Eira Corral Sepúlveda are also interested. And one of Villegas’s colleagues looms large over the left’s aspirations for this seat: democratic socialist Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a prominent voice in Chicago politics.
Villegas was first elected in 2015 by beating a machine-backed candidate with the help of progressives such as now-Rep. Chuy García, but opted against joining the Progressive Reform Caucus. He recently pushed for and helped pass a guaranteed income pilot program for Chicago, giving $500 a month to 5,000 of the city’s neediest residents for the duration of 2022. As his most recent and prominent legislative accomplishment, it will likely factor into Villegas’s campaign.
Confirming what we first reported as a possibility weeks ago, former state Rep. and 2018 LG candidate Litesa Wallace is running for IL-17. Wallace might have the left lane to herself, despite being a registered lobbyist for a natural gas company, because IL-17 doesn’t have much of a progressive bench and her track record is otherwise solid—running on a ticket with progressive state Sen. Daniel Biss in the 2018 gubernatorial election, endorsing Bernie Sanders in 2020, and being deeply involved in Rockford’s Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd. Also entering the race this past week was TV meteorologist Eric Sorensen, who has made weather forecasts for TV stations in IL-17 media markets for more than 20 years, presumably giving him name recognition. Wallace and Sorensen join Rock Island County Board member Angie Normoyle and Rockford Ald. Jonathan Logemann in the race.
Carleah Summers, the Executive Director of the Rainbow of Love Recovery Foundation, a nonprofit that runs addiction recovery and reentry programs in Frederick County, launched a campaign for Congress on a progressive platform including Medicare for All, taxing the wealthy, and demilitarizing the police. The seat is currently held by moderate Rep. David Trone, a man with infinite money and an eye on higher office, who nonetheless had a comparatively weak 72% - 28% primary showing in 2020 against an opponent with no real campaign offline.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a key ally of Nancy Pelosi, is retiring. Maybe the reason is age (he’s 74) or simply a desire to move on (he’s been in Congress since winning a 2004 special election.) More likely, though, is what North Carolina Republicans did to his district: they drew an egregious racial gerrymander plainly prohibited by just about every interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, turning his rural northeastern North Carolina district—previously numbered NC-01, now NC-02—into one that is barely Democratic-leaning and won’t reliably elect Black voters’ candidate of choice. The district shouldn’t hold up in court, but courts move at a glacial pace, so the chance that this district stands through the 2022 elections is reasonably high. That means Butterfield would have to run a real campaign, which he hasn’t done since 2004. He chose to head for the exits instead.
At least one candidate is already interested: former state Sen. Erica Smith, who is currently running a longshot Senate campaign after doing the same in 2020 and losing to DSCC favorite Cal Cunningham, of “historically sexy” fame.
Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, who launched her campaign last week, put out her first list of endorsements this week, including all three at-large Durham City Councilors—Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero—as well as Carrboro city councilors Danny Nowell and Sammy Slade, and Durham County Board of Education Member Matt Sears. Many other community activists are on that list, including AJ Williams, who narrowly lost a Durham City Council race this month.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Valerie Foushee announced a campaign Wednesday morning. She’d remained publicly quiet about her plans until now; when we did a rundown of potential candidates last week, no one in the local press had even mentioned her. With that said, she was the only state senator from the district not being talked about, so maybe we should have seen this coming.
Foushee is a pretty average Democrat ideologically for North Carolina. She was an early Biden endorser, and while her voting record is consistently opposed to Republican initiatives in the state, she’s never shown the appetite to push for any particularly ambitious policies. She could be a strong candidate who threads the ideological needle between overtly progressive Allam and more moderate state Sen. Wiley Nickel, especially if she remains the only major Black candidate, but she also starts at a geographic disadvantage, representing Orange County, which is barely ⅕ of the district, and which contains the college town of Chapel Hill, full of voters inclined to support leftist candidates like Allam. Foushee’s campaign was endorsed by state Sen. Natalie Murdock, who had been mentioned as a possible candidate.
After weeks of hinting he’d run, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is finally officially running for governor of New York. He enters with the support of some big names: Brooklyn Borough President-elect Antonio Reynoso and New York City Comptroller-elect Brad Lander, both former colleagues of his on the city council and both members of his gubernatorial exploratory committee. This complicates things for state Attorney General Tish James, who like Williams hails from Brooklyn; it makes things significantly easier for Gov. Kathy Hochul, whose easiest path to reelection involves New York City’s Democratic primary voters being split between multiple candidates, allowing Hochul to skate with a plurality by sweeping upstate.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer more or less told City and State NY that he’d like to be Tish James’s running mate in the Democratic primary.
City and State: It almost sounds like you’d be willing to consider a lieutenant governor campaign?
Latimer: Well, you know, LG is a different thing. LG, generally the way I look at it, is a decision by a gubernatorial candidate who they want to ask to run with them. You could be a self starter LG candidate. I […] don't see that as a plausible way to go. So, you know, Brian Benjamin is lieutenant governor. He's obviously Kathy's choice. I know Brian. We served in the Senate together. So that's one side of it, and I think it's Tish’s choice to make as to who she wants to run with. You know, look, I'm not stupid. I've seen the speculation like everybody else has. I don't think I’m the only name that’s been speculated. So my attitude is it's Tish’s choice to make the phone call to whom she wants to make, and I wouldn't presume until and unless the phone call rang and my end of the line. So I'm just taking the attitude of—sounds like BS—but I've taken the attitude I had a great job and just got reelected to it. We just dropped the budget, I got other stuff to do. I expect to be involved in the 2022 year in some capacity, whatever that is, and we'll see if it's one capacity or another.
Now, that’s not quite begging, but it’s damn close.
Latimer has led the affluent suburban county of just over one million residents since 2018; while nowhere is a better geographic base in a New York Democratic primary than the city itself, Westchester casts a lot of Democratic votes, too. If Latimer joins a ticket with James, he’ll be challenging Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who Hochul appointed after she vacated the office to become governor; previously, Benjamin was a severely ethically challenged state senator from Harlem. But governors and LGs are nominated in separate primaries (then elected jointly in the general election), so a ticket is more informal in the primary, and James doesn’t actually have to find a running mate.
Zephyr Teachout had already said she’d run if Tish James didn’t, but she’s now officially in, with early endorsements from several state legislators and a long list of local elected officials, particularly from upstate. While Teachout has never won an election, the connections she made in her 2014 gubernatorial run, her 2016 congressional run, and her 2018 AG run built her a statewide network and a deep reservoir of goodwill on the left. She’s a formidable candidate and probably the left’s best hope of winning this race. If she wins, a committed progressive will have the authority to investigate Wall Street and corporate power writ large; AG Teachout could strike fear into the hearts of corporate crooks everywhere.
Also new to the race is Dan Goldman, lead counsel to the House Intelligence Committee during the first Trump impeachment; we’re presently rather skeptical that he can compete with a gauntlet of seasoned New York pols like state Sen. Shelley Mayer and movement favorites like Teachout, but he does have an Adam Schiff endorsement, so he’s about to raise stupid amounts of money from liberal Boomers.
Nick Kristof, the sex-negative but sweatshop-positive New York Times columnist who just moved back to his old state to run for governor, has a new endorsement...from a union...that isn’t the cop union. That’s right, Mr. Nicholas “Two Cheers for Sweatshops” Kristof now has the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, which has over 29,000 members across the state. Why? Fuck if we know.
Two candidates have entered the race since our last issue: state Rep. Andrea Salinas, who we’d previously mentioned was likely to enter, and Salem-area doctor and Oregon Medical Board member Kathleen Harder. Harder was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to the Board in 2017, shortly after an unsuccessful campaign for Salem-Keizer School District, the second largest school district in the state. In that campaign she called for more early childhood education and was backed by the local teachers union (good), but was also backed by the Walton family-funded anti-teachers union Stand For Children, Inc. (bad). Amusingly, while she had mostly Democratic supporters in that race, she did have one Republican on her side: Keizer City Councilor Amy Ryan Courser, who is currently running to be the Republican nominee for OR-06 and was the Republican nominee for OR-05 in 2020.
Bexar County, TX County Judge
Nelson Wolff has been the County Judge (Texas-speak for “county executive”) for Bexar County, Texas, home to over 2 million Texans, for over 20 years. Next year, he’ll be retiring. Wolff, a 50+ year veteran of politics, was known as a conservative Democrat with national aspirations until changing statewide partisanship forced him to turn to municipal politics in the 90s, where his base of white voters and business interests, as well as general inertia, allowed him to dominate politically for decades while still remaining far too moderate for a county like Bexar, which voted 54-40 for Hillary Clinton and 58-40 for Joe Biden. He’d be nigh impossible to dislodge if he were running for reelection; now that he’s retiring, a rare open seat presents itself, one that comes with both a lot of real power and a platform to run for higher office later.
The first major candidate to announce was Peter Sakai, a Children’s Court judge of over 20 years. Sakai, a “courthouse fixture”, has made admirable changes to the family court system he oversaw, but was instrumental in blocking the county’s paid sick leave program a couple years ago, and his opening pitch for himself as he launched his campaign was about “civility” and opposing partisanship. The second candidate to enter, also announcing this week, is state Rep. Ina Minjarez. Minjarez, in her third term, has been recognized as a particularly effective legislator, but that’s partly because she has a particular propensity for working with Republicans, part and parcel with a not all that progressive voting record. Overall, neither option is particularly exciting, but there will hopefully be more.
(The first in modern times was Mia Love, a Republican who represented Utah from 2015 to 2019.)
We can’t actually justify it as primary-related, but we really wanted to include this tangent, just because the story is wild: probably the most famous case of a politician murdering their opponent is Byron “Low Tax” Looper. Looper had staffed a few Democratic campaigns and ran unsuccessfully for state House in Georgia, but his career was going nowhere. He packed up and resurfaced a few years later in rural Tennessee, where he ran for Putnam County Tax Assessor as a Republican and won by changing his name to Byron (Low Tax) Looper, running negative ads against the incumbent, and never appearing in public. He then learned there was a clause in Tennessee law stipulating that if a candidate died within a month of an election, they were removed from the ballot and their party couldn’t replace them. So, he launched a campaign for state senate, waited until October, drove to his opponent’s farm, and shot him to death. He was caught because he went to an old friend’s house after that, bragged about the killing, and was shocked to find his friend immediately called the cops. (The widow of the murdered state senator won as a write-in.)
And an even weirder coda: Last week, an internet figure who took the username “lowtax” died. He was best known as the guy who created the Something Awful forums, which, for better or worse, invented much of modern internet culture. For example, his decision to ban anime led to the rise of 4chan, which led to the birth of the alt-right. The name isn’t a coincidence: lowtax chose it because he almost got a job with Looper during the summer Looper was actually running the Tax Assessor’s office before the murder. Yikes.