The victory of Ben Walsh in the Syracuse mayoral race is drawing headlines around the country because it’s so unusual. Walsh won as an independent in a Democratic city. He becomes one of the few candidates able to pull off such a feat.
Walsh got 54 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent for the Democratic candidate Juanita Perez-Williams. Perez-Williams won the Democratic primary with 52 percent of the vote, far ahead of the second-place candidate, who had 38 percent of the vote.
Elections are complicated, and it’s tough to point to one factor that led to Walsh’s victory. He’s a member of a political dynasty in Syracuse. He got endorsements from prominent African American leaders. He had a positive message that avoided partisan politics.
One thing made this race different from what we saw in Rochester. It continued through November. The media didn’t stop coverage. The candidates participated in multiple televised debates. The main newspaper even endorsed Walsh. No one treated the contest like it was over.
Until now, the Syracuse Democratic primary had been the de facto election for mayor because of the city’s heavy Democratic enrollment. That’s how the system still works in Rochester. Could that ever change? It’s worth discussing.
Syracuse’s Democratic enrollment stands at 55 percent, compared to 65 percent in Rochester. That makes it an easier hill for a non-Democratic challenger in Syracuse.
Yet there are reasons to believe a true general contest in Rochester could one day lead to different results.
First, we can look to the special election of 2011. There was no primary in that contest, which meant all voters could participate. Tom Richards, who appealed to white voters and Republicans, won. Richards, however, couldn’t defeat Lovely Warren in the 2013 Democratic primary. Math wasn’t on his side.
Second, we can look to the 2017 election results. Warren won the primary with 61 percent of the vote. She won the general with 57 percent, a slight drop off. Republican Tony Micciche won Charlotte. Sheppard got almost as many votes as he got in the primary without campaigning. Forty-three percent of voters came out to vote against Warren in an election that the media reported would make no difference and had virtually stopped covering.
What would it take for a meaningful general election contest? We would likely need candidates, even Democratic challengers, to skip the primary and head straight for November. The primary consumes a tremendous amount of money and attention. Candidates can’t bounce back from a hard primary defeat. What if Sheppard saved his $350,000 for a November contest? What if Micciche had more media attention and voters had believed the election wasn’t already over?
This kind of play would probably work better for an open seat. Defeating a sitting mayor enjoying the advantages of incumbency, including a giant war chest (in Warren’s case, two war chests) filled by vendors and staff, is a tall order.
A meaningful general election contest would be good for the community. This would enfranchise all voters. It would level the playing field for other candidates. It could encourage donors to spread money around. Who knows, we could end up with a mayor like Ben Walsh, who bucked special interests, powerful politicians and conventional wisdom to win.