By Sam Joyce, Political Director
Local politics can often feel entirely disconnected from what goes on in Washington. Only three mayors have gone on to be President, and only Grover Cleveland, the former Mayor of Buffalo, had less than a ten-year gap between his time in municipal office and the beginning of his term as President. But like every other mayor-turned-President, Cleveland still had to become governor of a state (in his case, New York) before he was treated seriously as a candidate for the Presidency. More recently, Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for President fizzled out after a third-place finish in the Florida primary, while rumors of an independent campaign by New York’s Michael Bloomberg amounted to nothing in both 2012 and 2016. From single-payer healthcare in California to legalized marijuana in Colorado, states are frequently taking the lead on issues of national importance, and state legislatures are attracting national attention—and national donors—accordingly. Outside of major cities, however, local elections have not been similarly nationalized.
Two main factors help to prevent partisan influence in local elections. The first is simply different party systems. In parts of the country where one party is historically dominant, party affiliation is typically seen as less meaningful. In many small communities throughout the South, the historical power of the Democratic Party is such that most elected officials remain Democrats, even though the county or city may be solidly red when it comes time to vote for President. In Liberty County, a small county in the Florida Panhandle, Trump took 77% of the vote in 2016 compared to only 20% for Hillary. However, voters delivered landslide victories in the same election for the Democratic candidates for State Senator, Sheriff, Property Appraiser, and County Commissioner, continuing a lengthy period of unbroken Democratic control over every county office. This isn’t because Liberty County is a hotbed of liberalism; rather, it’s a historic vestige of the county’s days as part of the Solid South, when Democrats were effectively the only party at any level of the state. In my home county of Pinellas, a similar dynamic is evident: Pinellas has historically had a strong Republican Party, and though in national elections the country typically votes slightly more Democratic than the rest of the state, Republicans hold every countywide elected office save three seats on the Board of Commissioners.
In many parts of the country, one party simply holds all the power, making the party primary tantamount to election. The power of incumbency weighs heavy, even in a place like Liberty County where Republicans win comfortably at the national level. Every local office holder has always been a Democrat, and every office holder’s father and grandfather has always been a Democrat, and even if you don’t like the party in Washington you (along with 75% of Liberty County’s registered voters) are probably a Democrat too. Regardless of the condition of the national party, these are the folks you go to church with and see around town. It’s also common knowledge that whoever wins the primary wins the general election, and as a result everybody who’s anybody runs in the Democratic primary. The Democratic organization has strong relationships with the town’s prominent citizenry, and has built the operation necessary to get its candidates elected every time. The Republicans, meanwhile, have no money and no organization, and there’s never been any reason to treat it as anything more than a joke. The Democratic primary, of course, is still tantamount to election, and you’d have to be a fool to pass up the real election in order to run as a Republican in the general. The Republicans have no membership, no organization, no money—even if you’re deeply conservative, you run as a Democrat, because that’s how you win elections.
Beyond the advantages of incumbency, however, this system is able to remain in place as a result of the difference between local and state or national issues. Louis Brandeis called the states “laboratories of democracy,” and the allocation of distinct and separate powers to states and the federal government mean that a political party has to operate at both the state and national levels to effectively enact a policy vision. There is no similar mandate at the local level, as localities only have so much control as the state chooses to allow them. While municipal issues certainly sometimes overlap with national debates, such as Seattle’s recent minimum wage hike, there is none of the guaranteed overlap as there is with state governments. As a result, most local elections are fought over issues with no connection to the platforms of the major parties. In my hometown of St. Petersburg, one of the most important issues in the 2013 mayoral election was about the design of the new city pier. While a pressing question, as the pier is one of the city’s architectural landmarks and the new construction would require a large portion of the city’s budget, it’s also an effectively nonpartisan one. There is no particular partisan position favoring one design over another, and neither party’s platform comments on waterfront redevelopment in St. Petersburg. This effect tends to grow stronger in smaller communities, where the municipal government is less likely to tackle “big issues” like immigration or gun control.
As cities grow larger, however, party affiliation becomes more important, as it becomes a better indicator of a candidate’s policies. A party label is important insofar as it serves as a shorthand for a candidate’s values; a Democratic candidate, for instance, is likely to be in favor of things like raising the minimum wage or creating a “sanctuary city” policy, while a Republican candidate is likely to oppose those ideas. This generates interest in the municipal election for people outside of the community itself; I’ve never been to Seattle, for instance, but I’ve followed their debate over the minimum wage. This outside attention necessarily includes the attention of national parties, who see an opportunity to advance their agenda that may not be present in smaller cities. The emergence of national issues can provide the circumstances by which the first barrier to partisanship in local elections, incumbency, can be undermined: outside assistance begins to come to the party out of power, a county party gets organized, a slate of good candidates gets recruited, and suddenly the primary is no longer the general election. This is an uncertain process, of course; Miami, for instance, remains heavily Republican at a municipal level despite typically voting for Democrats for national office, while other cities like Atlanta simply end up overwhelmingly favoring the same party at all levels, but despite some outliers there is a clear and noticeable relationship between a city’s size and the influence of partisan politics.
This process serves a further purpose for state and local parties: municipal offices are essential to forming a bench for future elections. In Florida, mayors like Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer, and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum have become an essential component of the party’s bench. At the state legislative level, city councilmembers and county commissioners—candidates with a proven record of winning elections—are often the first place a party looks when recruiting candidates for higher office.
The extent to which partisan politics influence municipal elections largely varies based on one factor: the city’s size. Larger cities can command national attention and make policy that directly relates to national issues, and attract outside spending and influence accordingly. In smaller communities, where elections are fought on local issues and the power of incumbency weighs heavier, the influence of state and national political parties is typically weakened—and, as a result, lessening the meaning of party labels.