This primary election has been fascinating on many levels. In my last post I argued that the election hinged on two universal political rules: 1) Challengers must convince the electorate to fire the incumbent in order to have a chance at success, and 2) Incumbents wear out their welcome over time and are rarely given the chance at 3, 4 or more terms (except for those who achieve one-name status, like Mayor Mary). As I analyzed the campaign it was my sense that the challengers had not made a strong enough argument against the mayor, but neither had the mayor settled on a simple message that explained to voters why he was needed for another 4 years, and that led me to conclude that the mayor would just barely make the runoff.
But I also began to think that this election had the feel of a generational change, with the younger (30-40) African American professional class and civic leadership declaring their right to take the reins of government from an older generation, now in its sixties, that has governed for the last 20 years, and that this feeling was most notable in Mr. Lee’s campaign. His original campaign slogan “It’s our time for greatness!” functioned on a number of levels, and one was that it communicated a sense of “out with the old and in with the new” (leaders).
Still, it’s taken me a week to digest last week’s results, and what they mean. My pre-primary analysis was that while Mayor Johnson was weakened, and was fending off challenges from both the left (Lumumba) and the right (Lee), and perhaps even from the middle (Quinn), he would still be able to garner 25-28% of the vote, which I thought would get him into the runoff. I was right about that figure being enough to get into the runoff, but instead of Mayor Johnson it was Councilman Lumumba who achieved that threshold. Mayor Johnson had been down this road before; in 2009 he ran a close primary race with then councilman Marshand Crisler, and then beat him easily in the runoff. It’s as if he saw the primary as a time trial; run just fast enough to get into the finals. But that strategy depends in large part on knowing exactly how good the competition is; there’s always the risk that a newcomer will come out of nowhere and smoke you in your heat. And then you’re out.
In the last week leading up to the primary I heard chatter that the mayor was losing ground, and that Mr. Lee was leading in the polling. It was all anecdotal, and I never saw any poll data to verify that, though in hindsight that polling proved accurate. Given the massive advantage Lee had in fundraising and spending (approximately 4:1 over Johnson and perhaps near double that over Lumumba), and factoring in the television blitz that the Lee campaign aired the last few weeks of the campaign, I thought he had a good chance of besting Councilman Lumumba and getting into the runoff with Mayor Johnson. The fact that he got 35% of the vote was surprising.
A word of caution to the reader: don’t bet the house when it comes to my predictions. For those of you who studied Latin or served as altar boys or girls, mea culpa. For the rest of you, my bad. Thankfully for all of you the Kentucky Derby, like the primary, has been run, or else I would have passed along my tip that Goldenscents looked really good to me as a can’t miss bet. By the way, no one else in the local political prediction business got it right, but here at All Politics Is Local and the JFP we aspire to a higher standard.
So last Tuesday the answer to the “fire the incumbent” question was answered, though perhaps not as resoundingly as it appeared at first glance on election night. The mayor received about 22% of the vote, just a few points below that 25% threshold, and it would not have been much of a stretch to see him getting there if either of the two candidates who finished below him were out of the race. It seems clear in the end that all of the opposing candidates were speaking to an electorate that was absolutely ready to fire the mayor, and that they single-mindedly concentrated on explaining to the voters why they were justified and right in doing so. I attended almost all of the debates, and I cannot think of one instance where any of the mayor’s opponents criticized each other. It’s tough to win a 4 on 1 dodgeball game.
Lest we forget, Mayor Johnson was the first African American mayor of the city, a tremendous accomplishment, and he was reelected by the electorate twice more. In the past 16 years in this city, it is his 12 years of governing that for all its faults were, by comparison, a model of sober management of the city and careful administration of its resources and services. In my estimation, the public’s opinion of him will grow as the years pass, even as they acknowledge what his flaws and limitations were during his terms of office. His election in 1997 was transformative, but he was miscast if people expected him to be a transformational leader. He was and is a manager and a planner in a city that over time has come to see its salvation, perhaps its only salvation, in a dynamic figure who can lead it, even post-Melton. Having restabilized the city after the Melton administration had destabilized it, the evidence is now in that Mayor Johnson’s efforts were only appreciated by 1 out of 4 primary voters. Politics is a cruel game.
Tomorrow I’ll turn my focus to the runoff between Mr. Lee and Councilman Lumumba, and the question that now confronts the voters. Which one can lead them to the promised land?
It’s going to be a wild week.