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Five mayoral races to watch on Tuesday


By Maeve Reston, CNN

Voters head to the polls to cast ballots for mayor in key American cities on Tuesday.

Divisions that have played out in Washington between moderate and progressive Democrats are also very much alive in these races in predominantly Democratic cities as the party tries to chart its future.

Overhauling policing procedures has been top of mind for many voters and mayoral candidates after a year of intense advocacy for change following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The fate of a ballot measure in Minneapolis that would create a new department of public safety is likely to color the national debate heading into the 2022 as Republicans look for opportunities to blame Democrats for rising crime.

Mayoral races are typically non-partisan contests, but some of these Democrat-on-Democrat races may offer a preview of the ideological battles in next year’s primary races.

Here are five mayor’s races to watch on Tuesday night.

Minneapolis battles over the police

Perhaps no city has experienced more upheaval over the relationship between the police and its citizens than Minneapolis after Floyd was killed by a police officer, which inspired Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. The mayoral race here has touched on issues like affordable housing, the climate crisis and rent control, but the debate has centered on the historic problems faced by the city’s police department and how to make city government more accountable to residents.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Mayor Jacob Frey, first elected in 2017, is fending off challenges from 16 candidates. The most progressive candidates and allied groups have increasingly framed the race as a referendum on Frey’s handling of the city’s police department and whether he did enough to rein in what critics perceive as over-policing by the department before Floyd’s death.

Frey has been endorsed by prominent Democrats including Gov. Tim Walz, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and state Attorney General Keith Ellison. The winner will be decided by ranked choice voting, which lets voters rank their choices in order of preference. If no one receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to voters’ second choices. That process repeats until one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote.

Progressives have championed Sheila Nezhad, a community organizer, and former Minnesota state Rep. Kate Knuth, both of whom have the backing of US Rep. Ilhan Omar and have joined forces to encourage voters not to rank Frey on their ballots. No candidate reached the 60% threshold required in the DFL’s caucus to notch the party’s endorsement. But in the final round of that group’s ranked-choice voting, Nezhad led with 53.1%, followed by Frey with 40.3% and “no endorsement” with 6.6%.

Differing views on the ballot’s “Question 2” have animated the race. It’s a proposed amendment that would remove the Police Department from the city’s charter and replace it with a new Department of Public Safety. If the city continued to employ police officers, they would be organized under that department. It would also remove a requirement to employ a minimum number of officers and would split authority for the new department between the mayor and city council.

Frey, who currently has executive oversight over the police department, opposes the measure, arguing that it would place daily public safety operations “in the hands of 14 different officials” and “dilute accountability.” He has stressed that the city already has one of the lowest number of officers per capita of any major city in the country and argues that residents would be better served by investing in and hiring more community-oriented officers.

Nezhad and Knuth both favor the measure. Nezhad argues that it would allow the city to move away from spending as much as a third of the city budget on the police department, while fully funding 911 and 311 dispatch systems, violence prevention services, as well as conflict resolution and diversion programs. She has also called for decriminalizing homelessness, drugs, drug use and sex work in Minneapolis.

Knuth told CNN the constant refrain she has heard from voters is, “I just want to be able to call for help and not fear who shows up.” She added that Minneapolis does not need “to choose between justice and safety,” but views the proposed transition to a Department of Public Safety as a “common sense solution to change a system that has been failing many of our neighbors by over-policing and under-protecting.”

Another progressive candidate, attorney AJ Awed, who immigrated to the US at age 5 as the son of Somali war refugees, has outraised Knuth and Nezhad. But he differs with them on the two key measures on Tuesday’s ballot: one giving greater power to the mayor, which he favors, and the second removing the police department from the city charter, which he opposes. Awed underscored that he believes there is “no plan” for the new system described in Question 2 and noted in an email to CNN that “many people still feel comforted by the presence of police.” He said he believes funding policy alternatives within the department “can provide for a policing system that is better prepared to face the public safety challenges of our city.”

With so many candidates on the ballot, it’s likely no one will surpass 50% in the first round of ranked choice voting. Here is the city’s primer on how votes will be counted.

Boston prepares for a historic night

Boston will make history regardless of who wins on Tuesday, with the city’s voters set to elect a Democratic woman of color after a long history of leadership by White men. Polls have shown Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a champion of progressive policies, opening a commanding lead over her more moderate rival Annissa Essaibi George, who also serves as a Boston city councilor-at-large.

Both women have highlighted their family roots as the daughters of immigrants. Wu’s parents came from Taiwan. Essaibi George is the daughter of a Tunisian father and a Polish mother, who was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.

Essaibi George, who has joked about her thick Boston accent, has tried to make her experience as a lifelong Bostonian a key credential, pitching herself as a small business owner who attended and later taught in Boston schools, coaching softball on the side.

Wu grew up in Chicago and attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where she was a student of then-professor Elizabeth Warren — the Massachusetts senator whom Wu calls one of her personal heroes and her biggest backers. Wu has written extensively about how she was forced to put her career plans on hold in her early twenties to deal with her mother’s mental illness, becoming a caregiver for her mother and younger sisters at the age of 23. She was just 28 years old when she was elected to the Boston City Council in 2013, later serving as council president, and made it a point to tend to some of her duties with one of her young sons on her hip.

Essaibi George has criticized some of Wu’s ideas as too unrealistic and expensive, particularly her fare-free transit proposal, which Wu calls “Free the T.” She opposes rent stabilization, stating in a recent debate that rent control would unfairly impact “our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents — those who have built some legacy wealth for their families” and predicted it would create greater gentrification while driving families farther out of the city. Wu countered that the policy would give struggling renters predictability and a chance to stay in their communities. “I’m not willing to sit back and say this is something that is impossible and we’re not going to fight for what we need,” Wu said during the recent NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston and NECN debate.

Essaibi George has opposed reallocating funding from the Boston Police Department’s budget toward programs to address root causes of crime and said the city needs about 300 more officers. Wu’s public safety plan includes diverting non-violent 911 calls to alternative response teams and “civilianizing” traffic enforcement by having trained, unarmed civilian personnel handle routine infractions like broken tail lights or rolling stops — a change that she says could reduce the risks of armed confrontations.

Wu finished ahead of Essaibi George in September’s preliminary municipal election, but both women dispatched other candidates including Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who replaced Marty Walsh when he became President Joe Biden’s Labor Secretary in March.

Essaibi George’s decision to stake out a position in the center of the electorate helped her stay in the game in the first round by winning over more conservative and moderate White voters, said Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry. But that positioning has presented challenges in her one-on-one race with Wu in a city where most of the electorate is to the left of center.

“It’s not a city divided between the haves and have-nots, but it is a city where there’s a lot of people who have a whole lot, along with a lot of people who are working class and are really just making it because of the high cost of living in Boston,” Berry said. “So, it’s not about poverty, but it is about working-class people and whether or not they can be taken up a level on the economic ladder.”

A former Atlanta Mayor vies for a comeback

Fourteen candidates are vying to replace Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who’s not running for reelection. The contest is happening amid alarm about the spike in violent crime, as well as controversy over an effort by the residents of the wealthy community of Buckhead to break off from the capital and create their own city.

Bottoms announced in May that she would not seek another term after a trying year dealing with vandalism that followed demonstrations over George Floyd’s death, the GOP-controlled legislature restricting voting rights and the rise in violent crime, which she framed — to criticism — as a “Covid crime wave.” Tuesday’s election will be the first since the changes to the state’s election laws, which may offer a window into how those restrictions could impact turnout in 2022 and 2024.

Polls suggest that a large swath of the electorate is still undecided, but the leading candidates — including former Mayor Kasim Reed, City Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Andre Dickens — have put Atlanta’s crime rate at the forefront of their campaigns. Shooting incidents have increased dramatically from 406 at this point in 2019 to 629 this year, according to Atlanta Police Department’s October 23 report.

Crime is motivating some of the Buckhead leaders who are championing the split from Atlanta. Foes say the proposal to break off the wealthy, 25-square-mile area in northern Atlanta would be a devastating blow to the city’s revenues, while proponents say crime has simply become unmanageable and that they are not seeing a high enough return for their tax dollars.

There are also concerns about low morale at the Atlanta Police Department and the number of officers who have departed the force. Tensions were high after Bottoms called for the firing of the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot of a Wendy’s in June of 2020. (The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Brooks scuffled with officers and ran away with one of their stun guns). In June, CNN reported that more than 200 officers had resigned or left the force over the previous year, and only about 60 were hired during that period, according to the department.

Dickens’ public safety plan calls for increasing the police force by 250 officers during his first year in office while requiring new training for every police department employee on de-escalation techniques and racial sensitivity. Moore has proposed police reform measures like requiring the release of body camera footage within 72 hours of every police shooting and requiring officers to intervene when they see excessive force. But she has also spoken at length about the need to address low morale in the department — by promising incentives for retired police officers if they return to their jobs for one to two years, for example.

Reed, who served two terms as mayor from 2010 to 2018, has pointed to the lower crime rates during his tenure. His public safety plan includes hiring and training 750 new police officers, ramping up implicit bias and de-escalation training and tripling the city’s network of traffic cameras and license plate readers.

Moore and some community activists have raised concerns about the federal corruption investigation that led to indictments of some of Reed’s former aides, which has been exhaustively chronicled by The Atlanta Journal Constitution. In a statement provided to CNN by Reed’s campaign, his attorneys said that during an August 2021 call, two assistant US Attorneys informed the candidate’s lawyers that the federal inquiry was completed and had been closed. The US Attorney’s office did not respond to CNN’s request to confirm those details.

The controversy drew fresh scrutiny recently when Richard Rose, president of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch, issued a public rebuke of Reed on the group’s letterhead — stating that voters deserved better. Reed responded by posting a statement on Instagram that said his campaign was “being attacked because we sought and received the support of the women and men of the Atlanta Police Department at a time when crime and violence is devastating our city.” The general counsel of the NAACP subsequently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rose noting that the bylaws for units of the NAACP prohibit officers from endorsing candidates for office.

If no candidate receives at least 50% plus one, Atlanta will hold a run-off election on November 30 to decide the winner.

Newcomer challenges Buffalo’s four-term mayor (again)

Democratic Socialist India Walton defeated four-term Mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo’s Democratic primary in June, notching a stunning victory for the progressive left as she charted a course to become the first socialist mayor of a major American city in more than 60 years.

But on Tuesday night, the first-time candidate, who is a nurse and activist, will have to defeat Brown again after he mounted an aggressive write-in campaign to keep his job.

The race has attracted national attention as a proxy battle between progressives and moderates over the direction of the party in New York. While some state Democratic leaders like Gov. Kathy Hochul — a Buffalo native — have stayed neutral, many big-name state Democrats have endorsed Walton, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In his endorsement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer noted that Walton candidate “won the Democratic primary fair and square.”

Brown has acknowledged that he miscalculated in the primary by largely refusing to engage with Walton or debate her in what was ultimately a low-turnout election. But the mayor, who was first elected in 2005, has attacked what he views as Walton’s radical agenda, warning that it will slow the city’s recovery from the pandemic. He has maintained that he’ll perform better on Tuesday when a broader cross-section of voters, including Republicans, will weigh in.

In an interview with CNN’s Greg Krieg, Brown attacked what he views as Walton’s inexperience and said her policies would compromise public safety and “create a nightmare for every person in our community.”

Brown has attacked her for saying $7.5 million could be cut from the police budget, but Walton said the Partnership for the Public Good determined those savings could come from eliminating police department positions through attrition, by reducing overtime and by “properly staffing the police department.” She has dismissed Brown’s attacks as misleading and an effort to make people feel afraid of her, arguing in a recent debate that she “hasn’t campaigned on defund the police.” She said that funding can be reallocated to free police officers up to spend more time solving crime and conducting investigations while moving professionals into the roles that sworn officers are sometimes asked to fill as homelessness outreach workers and mental health counselors.

A retired police captain glides toward victory in New York

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is all but certain to become New York City’s next mayor, replacing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio after vanquishing more progressive rivals in the primary. He’s poised to be the city’s second Black mayor, following the late David Dinkins who lost reelection in 1993.

Adams has largely shrugged off attacks from Republican nominee Curtis Sliwa, a founder of the volunteer neighborhood safety group known as the Guardian Angels and a media personality, who’s tried to cast him as a career politician. They have disagreed over issues like the vaccine mandate for city workers, which Adams mostly supports and Sliwa does not.

Adams, a retired captain in the New York Police Department, often returns to the message that helped him win the June primary — that he is uniquely positioned to address the rise in crime in the city and lure back New Yorkers who left during the pandemic, as well as the tourists who are so critical to the city’s economic success.

Adams won that primary by promising to step up policing throughout the city, but he also struck a careful balance: vowing to deal with police misconduct and highlighting his efforts to call out racism within the NYPD, as well as his testimony in the court case that ended the unlawful use of “stop and frisk” policies. (Adams says the tactic should be used, but under lawful guidelines.) He has argued that the current debate over policing has presented a false choice — a with-them or against-them mentality that he says undermines the community’s need for police.

Adams built his primary victory in part on the strength of his base in the city’s working-class outer boroughs, including places like the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Southeast Queens, rather than the most liberal enclaves of Manhattan and Brooklyn. But he has hustled since the primary to try to unify the city’s voters behind him in the hopes of entering office with a strong mandate.

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CNN’s Greg Krieg contributed to this report

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