New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a rising star in the Democratic Party who might, like his predecessors, end up as mayor of the nation’s largest city or a statewide officeholder, is running this fall against Donald Trump. Williams’s rival in his race for a full term as public advocate is actually Republican City Council member Joe Borelli, but Williams is gleefully reminding voters in the president’s overwhelmingly Democratic hometown that Borelli proposes bringing the Donald Trump Presidential Library to New York.
“Better work fast,” Williams joked in a tweet with the hashtag #ImpeachmentIsComing. Even as he runs a citywide campaign that focuses on housing affordability, expanding mental health programs, and fully funding legal services for undocumented immigrants, Williams rarely misses a chance to rip a president whose agenda the New Yorker promises to “resist at all costs.”
While Trump is not on any November 5 ballot—the busiest Election Day between the fall of 2018 and the fall of 2020—the New York race offers a reminder that his presence has pervaded every political race. In the 2017 odd-year elections, many Democrats ran against Trump rather than their Republican rivals—in suburban Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the Democratic signs mentioned no candidate names, simply announcing: “Vote… Against Trump.” The party won big, taking New Jersey’s governorship, every statewide race in Virginia, and scores of legislative seats and local posts across the country. A similar swing—the latest “blue wave,” if you will—in 2019 will be read as an ominous signal for the president, and by Republicans who are trying to figure out the politics of impeachment and Trump fatigue.
Surely, if Democrats win the governorship of Kentucky, where Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear is tied with Republican incumbent Matt Bevin in the latest Mason-Dixon survey, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will notice. In a state where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 30 points in 2016, a Democratic win would raise doubts about whether the president—who has gone all-in for Bevin—can deliver for his friends. Would McConnell’s determination to thwart the impeachment inquiry that’s been launched by House Democrats waver? And what if Bevin wins big? Do centrist Democrats start to get cold feet?
The fact is that Tip O’Neill was wrong: Politics was never all local. So count on the search for signals amid the rough waters of a moment that this country has never before faced, when an impeached-but-perhaps-not-convicted president could for the first time in history bid for a new term in 2020. Every tea leaf will be read, every nuance will be analyzed from Kentucky and the other states that will elect governors this fall: Mississippi (where Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood is running a surprisingly strong race to replace a retiring Republican governor) and Louisiana (where conservative Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards faces a self-financing Republican millionaire in a November 16 runoff).
So be it.
But a deeper read of the races by progressives will look beyond the top-line results and consider those from down-ballot contests, such as the fight for control of the legislature in Virginia. Anti-Trump sentiment helped Democrats sweep statewide contests in 2017, and wins by a diverse slate of first-time candidates put Democrats within striking distance of legislative control. Wins this year could give the party the upper hand going into the 2021 redistricting process, for the first time in decades. Gerrymandering in the states was a huge hurdle for Democrats in the 2010s; a shift in Virginia could signal that the 2020s will be different.
The deeper read should also look at contests that challenge the cruelty of the moment and seek to define the transformational politics of the post-Trump era. This year, I’m keeping an eye on several contests that highlight crucial issues:
§ A groundbreaking immigrant rights proposal in Tucson, Arizona, where the labor and civil rights activists of the Families Free & Together Coalition are seeking to make their community a sanctuary city where cooperation by law enforcement officers with ICE and the Border Patrol would be limited to guard against harassment, questioning, and detentions related to immigration status. “This is a historic opportunity for Tucson,” says Arizona ACLU Executive Director Alessandra Soler. “The city can send a message to the rest of the state, and the nation, that they welcome and support immigrants—and reject xenophobic policies that violate people’s constitutional rights.”
§ A fight over gentrification and money in politics that has pitted Amazon against Seattle City Council candidates who believe, in the words of Seattle newspaper The Stranger, that “the tech giants that have made billions while exacerbating our housing crisis and deepening inequality [should] finally pitch in to help out.” At issue are efforts to impose modest taxes on the city’s major employers, such as Amazon, in order to fund homeless services and other needs. In a race that tells us much about how tech giants can use their money to influence politics at the local, state, and national levels, Amazon has spent an unprecedented $1.45 million on local races, much of it aimed at beating Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a socialist who championed the city’s pioneering $15-wage ordinance and affordable housing and is now pushing for rent control. Sawant says, “What’s at stake this year is who runs Seattle—Amazon and big business or working people.” She’s right. But the role of the tech giants and their money reminds us that the stakes extend far beyond Seattle.
§ The campaigns of public defenders focused on criminal justice reform,such as San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin and Pittsburgh’s Lisa Middleman, for powerful district attorney posts. Middleman’s platform in her independent race in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County begins with “ending mass incarceration.” Boudin, who is backed by other reformers who’ve been elected as DAs, such as Chicago’s Kim Foxx and Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, proposes “transforming our criminal justice system” with plans to eliminate cash bail, end racial disparities, and, as his campaign announces in an echo of so many local candidates and ballot initiatives this year, “Stand up to Trump on immigration.”
§ A historic New York City vote on whether to adopt ranked-choice voting. Under the plan, which is backed by election reform and good government groups, voters would rank their choices in races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents, and City Council in primary and special elections starting in 2021. “Instead of voting for just 1 candidate, voters can rank their top 5 candidates in our local primary and special elections. If voters still want to vote for just one candidate, they can,” explain supporters of the change. “How will a candidate win future elections? It’s simple: A candidate who collects a majority of the vote wins. Ballots will be counted in rounds, where last-place candidates are eliminated and their voters’ next choices are counted. The candidate with the most votes in the final round wins.” The New York Times says, “Ranked-choice voting is a smart, tested reform that would help New Yorkers elect candidates who have support from a majority of voters. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?” They’re right. So are Common Cause NY; SEIU 1199; Communication Workers of America (CWA); Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); the New York Working Families Party; the Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC; and other groups who have endorsed the change, along with Zephyr Teachout and Jumaane Williams.