Election 2009: Economic woes challenge incumbent mayors

Incumbent mayors are facing tougher-than-usual reelection bids due, in part, to a struggling national economy.

John Amis/AP
Mary Norwood (second from left) is leading polls in Atlanta’s mayoral race. If she wins, she will be the first white mayor of Atlanta since 1974.

The lingering effects of the recession are bringing an unusual degree of uncertainty to mayoral races across the country.

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.

Seattle joins other large cities – including Atlanta and Houston – where close races are predicted on Nov. 3.

Atlanta. The struggling economy in Atlanta has hampered candidates' ability to distinguish themselves, says William Boone of Clark Atlanta University. "Any solution any candidate comes up with really raises the question, ‘Where are you going to be getting the money from?' "

Race has also been a factor. The city has had an African-American mayor since 1974. This year, three African-Americans are running. But it's Mary Norwood, a white woman from the suburbs, who's leading current polls.

Houston. Undecided voters are a prominent force in Houston, where 36 percent of voters say they are unsure whom they will vote for.

Four candidates are battling to replace Mayor Bill White, who cannot run again due to term limits. City Controller Annise Parker had been leading, but a new poll shows city councilman Peter Brown may have surpassed her. Mr. Brown – who is favored by 24 percent of likely voters, to Ms. Parker's 19 – has spend $2.4 million of his own fortune on the campaign. Ms. Parker, who is openly gay, has enjoyed the support of Houston's gay and lesbian community but has been targeted by conservative groups.

Generally, "candidates are playing it safe and hoping to get in the runoff," says Marc Campos, an independent political analyst in Houston. "Nobody thinks anyone can win it without a runoff."

Some analysts caution against reading too much into mayoral elections nationwide.

Though "perceptions of the president and national economy impact how voters feel about incumbent mayors," ties to political parties and perceptions of city conditions carry greater weight, says Tom Holbrook, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Boston. Challenger Michael Flaherty is hoping Bostonians have had enough of incumbent Thomas Menino, who has been mayor since 1993. On a recent fall day, he and a handful of supporters gathered outside a local cafe, targeting residents of a trendy Boston neighborhood with promises of more funding for the arts. But Mr. Flaherty is at a huge disadvantage against Mayor Menino, who can boast both name recognition and well-established fundraising networks.

"Typically, mayoral races aren't very competitive if there's an incumbent in the race," says Professor Holbrook.

Elsewhere. In addition to Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, and Minneapolis are among the big cities expected to return their current mayor to office for another term.

Yet Mr. Cochran, of the US Conference of Mayors, sees deeper trends at work in this election, which could have an effect on congressional midterm elections next year.

"If I was a congressmen in the urban or suburban area of Seattle or Albuquerque, with these mayors that are being defeated, I'd have to take note of it," he says. "The people that vote for the mayor and defeat him, they're the same people that vote for the congressmen."


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