Election 2009: Economic woes challenge incumbent mayors
Incumbent mayors are facing tougher-than-usual reelection bids due, in part, to a struggling national economy.
The lingering effects of the recession are bringing an unusual degree of uncertainty to mayoral races across the country.Skip to next paragraph
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Typically, incumbents enjoy a significant advantage over other candidates. But in many of the 603 cities with mayoral elections this year, national economic woes are dominating local agendas. Tight city budgets have heightened perennial campaign issues, such as crime, education, and transportation – and given challengers a boost in their bids to unseat incumbents.
Already, incumbents have fallen in Albuquerque, N.M., and Seattle, and even popular New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is facing a tougher campaign than many experts had forecast. "It's tough sledding right now for incumbents because of unemployment," says Ed Cochran, executive director of the US Conference of Mayors, noting that the national unemployment rate is hovering just under 10 percent.
New York. Mayor Bloomberg, a former Republican who is now an independent, would seem to be a shoo-in. He has high approval ratings – 58 percent, according to a poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Moreover, he has outspent his Democratic opponent, comptroller William Thompson, by a ratio of at least 14 to 1.
Yet the race has been close. In early October, a SurveyUSA poll had Bloomberg leading Mr. Thompson by only 8 percentage points, though a more recent poll shows Bloomberg with 52 percent of likely voters to Thompson's 36.
"The economic crisis and a Republican incumbent would speak to an advantage for a Democratic challenger," says Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York - a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 6 to 1.
Albuquerque, N.M. Richard Berry will be Albuquerque's first Republican mayor in 24 years after he defeated incumbent Democrat Martin Chávez in October. Mr. Berry garnered just enough support – nearly 44 percent of the vote, according to unofficial estimates – to avoid a runoff.
The slow economy was a factor in Mr. Chávez's defeat, says Timothy Krebs, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who specializes in urban politics. But he also says Democrats split the vote by having two candidates against one Republican and that the threshold to avoid a runoff election – 40 percent – is fairly low.
Seattle. Mayor Greg Nickels didn't even make it out of last month's primary.
"Nickels was troubled by a buildup of issues," says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. He notes the mayor's unpopularity was largely due to local issues, like letting the SuperSonics, a professional basketball team, move to Oklahoma City, and how he handled a major snowstorm last winter.
But the backdrop of a bad economy "didn't help him," Mr. Barreto says.