Current Affairs

The Path to a Progressive America Runs Through The Cities

Municipal politics wields huge influence in transit, housing, and policing policy. It’s time for progressive groups to invest in Mayoral and City Council races.

In an era where the far-right controls all three branches of the federal government, lackluster municipal governance may seem like a minor concern. Since Trump’s inauguration, “Vote Blue No Matter Who” has become a rallying cry for liberals, a plea for unity among the opposition with the goal of removing Trump from office. But we already have good proof that voting blue without regard to “who” is insufficient. The wave of protests following the state murder of George Floyd have exposed the failure of American cities, mostly run by Democrats, to respond to the crises of police brutality and other injustices. 

Trump’s disturbing response to the protests has been met with justified scrutiny. What has gone largely undiscussed, however, is why Democratic-controlled cities feature phenomena the party claims to oppose: Rampant police violence, unaffordable housing costs, general material deprivation, and government corruption. While many mainstream liberals have used this moment to urge protestors to vote, what is “Vote Blue No Matter Who” supposed to accomplish for the Black Lives Matter movement?

In New York City, the location of Eric Garner’s murder, a whopping 48 out of 51 city councilmembers are Democrats along with the city’s mayor. In Chicago, the number comes out to a similar 46/50; in Los Angeles, 14/15. With a handful of exceptions, like Jacksonville and Fort Worth, virtually every large city in America is firmly controlled by the Democratic Party. As a result of its dominance in city elections, almost every candidate irrespective of ideology runs under the Democratic banner. This can be best illustrated in the case of the New York City Democratic Party, which features everyone from right-wing billionaires like Michael Bloomberg to socialists and tenants rights organizers with politics similar to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While the need for leftists to run for office at both the congressional and state legislative level has been established, little attention has been given to the pressing need for progressives to run for mayor and city council.

Municipal socialism in the United States has a long tradition. The “Sewer Socialism” that dominated Milwaukee’s government during the early 20th century yielded major gains for working-class people. In the 2010s, arguably starting with the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, the Left has slowly but surely established itself as a force in municipal politics in many major cities. For instance, despite not having a single member on the body just five years prior, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now comprise more than a tenth of the powerful City Council following the 2019 elections, firmly establishing the city’s Left as a major force in local politics. The wave of decarceral district attorney candidates getting elected in cities like Philadelphia (Larry Krasner), San Francisco (Chesa Boudin), and Austin (José Garza) is another promising sign of the Left’s viability in municipal politics. 

Even in cities that overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders like Minneapolis and Seattle, however, the Left has thus far failed to win power outright. Despite the boost Sanders’s 2016 campaign gave to America’s progressives, just a year later both cities elected centrist mayors allied with their cities’ developers. While progressives mounted major campaigns for the mayoralty of both cities, the failure of national groups to coalesce around a candidate led to the elections of Jacob Frey and Jenny Durkan. Fortunately, 2021 provides a major opportunity for the Left in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, and Boston. As such, national progressive groups should make sure not to let the opportunity in these cities go to waste. 

Seattle has a reputation as one of the most left-wing cities in America. The passing of a $15 minimum wage bill in 2014 thanks in part to the efforts of socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant was a historic victory for the Left that foreshadowed the potency of the first Sanders campaign two years later. Seattle politics is hardly a left-wing monolith, however. The growth of giant companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing in the region has given rise to a corporate-infused brand of liberalism that disguises its defense of the status quo with a progressive veneer. Amazon attempted to effectively buy a city council election in 2019 versus Sawant, and ended up losing by a hair. However, the local chamber of commerce was able to elect an anti-homeless, pro-corporate candidate over high-profile socialist insurgent Shaun Scott

The 2017 mayoral election was a mess. Jenny Durkan, a millionaire former U.S. Attorney most notable for failing to pursue the prosecution of Washington Mutual despite strong evidence of criminal misconduct, was elected with the help of $350,000 from Amazon. The nonpartisan primary for the post featured a plethora of candidates vying for the “Left” mantle. These included a former mayor, a state senator, a state representative, and a very impressive organizer by the name of Nikkita Oliver who received third place in the election.

Going into 2021, Durkan is absolutely beatable with the right challenger. After spending four years in office fighting attempts to tax Amazon, fumbling the city’s response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and engaging in factional war with the city’s Left councilmembers, Durkan is weaker than she was in 2017. Given how polarizing of a figure Sawant is, it is unfortunately unlikely that she would be able to defeat Durkan. Instead, the Left should look to progressive city council president Lorena González or labor activist-turned-councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda for 2021. Seattle hasn’t reelected a mayor in almost fifteen years, and either Bernie-supporting councilwoman would have a solid chance at unseating Durkan.

Similar to Seattle, Minneapolis is an ostensibly progressive city that nonetheless is controlled by moderate Democrats beholden to the interests of developers. In the 2017 mayoral race, centrist city councilman Jacob Frey emerged victorious over a field that included progressive state representative Raymond Dehn, who would’ve been the second formerly incarcerated person to serve as mayor of a major American city, . Despite Frey’s triumph, that year saw the election of multiple progressives to the city council.

It’s unclear how vulnerable Frey will be in 2021. Despite the wholly undeserved national liberal fanfare he’s received for his spats with Trump, he’s received criticism from progressives in Minneapolis for being beholden to the city’s real estate developers. 

Ilhan Omar’s election to Congress in 2018 is a display of the potential of Minneapolis’s progressive infrastructure. City council president Lisa Bender, generally considered a political progressive, received national attention for her support for abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department. Were she to mount a mayoral bid in 2021, Bender would likely prove a formidable opponent to Frey, though many progressives groups have taken issue with Bender’s support for some of Frey’s more controversial initiatives. Thankfully, Bender is far from the only formidable would-be challenger to Frey from his left. Someone like Councilman Jeremiah Ellison, the son of Attorney General Keith Ellison, or Councilwoman Alondra Cano, could also be viable progressive candidates for mayor. 

New York City last held elections for mayor and city council in 2017. The degree to which the municipal Left in the nation’s largest city has grown since then really can’t be overstated. A year before Ocasio-Cortez shocked the nation with her primary win and leftists like Julia Salazar won legislative seats, socialists struggled to achieve any notable victories in the city’s local elections. The New York City DSA invested heavily in the City Council campaign of Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American pastor who raised significant funds but lost by about 8%. With many members of the 51-member City Council being term-limited in 2021, an organized effort by the DSA, the New York Working Families Party (WFP), and national groups could result in major victories for progressives in the city. 

The 2021 mayoral race will be a crucial test for the city’s emergent Left. As of now, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of the early favorites in the contest, is the most likely major candidate to try and claim the “Left” plank. A supporter of Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential run, Stringer has spent the last few years trying to court the ascendant Left. Stringer endorsed decarceral Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, one of the highest profile elected officials to do so, and this year lent his support to left-wing insurgent Jamaal Bowman’s congressional campaign. 

The biggest variable for both the Left and the general dynamics of the race regard the plans of Jumaane Williams. Williams is a longtime progressive activist and elected official who ran a serious candidacy for lieutenant governor while a sitting city councilman. In 2019, he was elected to the position of Public Advocate, a largely symbolic but high-profile citywide office that often serves as a springboard for future mayoral candidates. Williams is a self-identified democratic socialist who supported both Sanders candidacies and would surely be a formidable mayoral candidate should he run. As of now, he intends to run for re-election to his current post, but it’s entirely plausible that he will choose to forgo it and run for mayor. 

Boston will be challenging terrain for progressives in 2021. Mayor Marty Walsh, a conservative Democrat and ally of Republican Charlie Baker, was handily reelected to a second term in 2017 over a progressive city councilman. The one potential progressive candidate who could prove to be a serious challenger to Walsh is City Council president Michelle Wu. Wu is a staunch progressive supportive of universal housing and mass transit. Wu is considered a very possible, if not probable, candidate for mayor and would surely prove formidable against Walsh. 

The biggest problem progressives face in the realm of municipal elections is that the rhetoric of both leftist and moderate candidates are remarkably similar. It’s all-too-common for city council candidates backed by big developers to talk about “affordable housing” while opposing zoning reform. It’s all-too-common for city council candidates backed by police unions to talk about “community policing” while neglecting to do anything to challenge the carceral status quo. It’s all-too-common for city council candidates backed by wealthy restaurateurs to talk about “opportunity for all” while opposing attempts to raise the minimum wage for waiters. 

In recognizing this, it’s all too easy to approach municipal politics through a lens of cynicism in despair. While understandable, this is simply not the right approach for the Left to take. Municipal governments wield an enormous amount of power, especially in the realm of transit, housing, and policing policy. 

We must ask, then: what should a Left-run city government be reasonably able to accomplish? While the statutory powers of mayoral offices and city councils vary greatly by state, we can look to the platforms put forward by Left municipal candidates to get a sense of how differently cities might operate under progressive administration. 

Nithya Raman, a democratic socialist running a formidable campaign for Los Angeles City Council, has released a viable plan for rent forgiveness at the municipal level that is both legally and politically achievable. Shahana Hanif, a leading left-wing candidate for a New York City Council seat in Brooklyn, has released a comprehensive policing platform with the potential to revolutionize the way the city treats community safety. This program takes into account limitations to changing policing at the municipal level and proposes an array of attainable policies, such as new citywide legislation to prevent police union contracts from including provisions that shield killer cops and the repeal of laws that effectively criminalize survival. To make up for shortfalls in the city budget, progressives on the Chicago City Council broke with City Hall to push for a corporate head tax in the place of proposed regressive tax measures.

Just as we ought to take inspiration from the leftists shaking up municipal politics across the country, we should consider the gains made by the “Sewer Socialists” of early 20th century Milwaukee. Once in power, the Socialist Party under the leadership of mayors Emil Seidel and Daniel Hoan emphasized public health reform and were remarkably successful in their efforts to improve sanitation in Milwaukee. Seidel’s modernization of the Board of Health led to the transformation of the city’s sewage and water filtration systems. Mayor Hoan and his appointed health commissioner led Milwaukee during the 1918 flu pandemic, and largely as a result of infrastructure put in place by Seidel the city had one of the lowest death rates of any city in the country

The municipal socialism of 1910s Milwaukee allowed the city to weather one of the great crises of the 20th century. In the wake of COVID-19, rampant police brutality, and historic economic inequality, social reformers would be mistaken to disregard the role municipal politics has the potential to play in tackling the biggest challenges faced in modern-day urban America. With the mayoralties and city councils of some of the nation’s largest cities on the ballot next year, national progressive organizations seeking real change can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.

This article has been updated to note that Raymond Dehn would have been the second formerly-incarcerated person to serve as mayor of a major American city. The first was Marion Barry, who was incarcerated for 7 months in 1994, prior to his re-election as Mayor of Washington D.C.

Photograph of Kshama Sawant by Shannon Kringen.

Aidan Smith’s Progressive Cabinet Project report is now available from Data For Progress.

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