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Larry Donnelly: What might Tuesday’s elections in the US hold in store?

Voters in a number of states and municipalities will choose officials to represent them at a range of different levels.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

WHAT MIGHT TUESDAY’S elections in the US hold in store?

This Tuesday, 2 November, voters in a number of Americans states and municipalities will choose officials to represent them at a range of different levels. Ahead of next year’s congressional midterm contests, Republican and Democratic strategists are looking on keenly in the interest of discerning the national mood.

Given that the United States is diverse in every conceivable way and the oft-propagated – and almost universally subscribed to – portrayal of its citizenry as hopelessly polarised when it comes to politics, widely divergent dynamics will dictate the results of the races now in their final hours.

The disparate perspective of Americans is evident when two campaigns that I have been following are juxtaposed. One is to succeed Martin Walsh as mayor of Boston, the city of my birth. The second is the hard-fought battle to be the next governor of Virginia.

Boston, of course, is a one-party city, where a Republican has two chances – slim and none – of winning an election. Virginia, meanwhile, has morphed into a blue state where Joe Biden prevailed over Donald Trump by ten percentage points in 2020.

Boston

In September, the field of candidates seeking Boston’s mayoralty was winnowed from five aspirants to two: city councillors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George. Both are the daughters of immigrants and describe themselves as women of colour. Wu’s parents came from Taiwan; Essaibi George’s father is Tunisian and her mother Polish.

Indeed, 2021 marked a milestone in Boston’s famously rough and tumble political history: there was neither an Irish American nor an Italian American major contender for the top job. Many astute observers of the scene there have posited that Mayor Walsh, the son of Connemara emigrants, will be the last Irish American to hold the position in a place that has changed utterly in a very short period of time.

The Boston politics I grew up in and around was dominated by ethnic Catholics, who were typically men and moderate to conservative Democrats. They found favour with the large middle and working class families who were well-known in their neighbourhoods and, hence, a crucial component of the electorate.

This state of affairs is no more, eroded initially by exodus to the suburbs and subsequently dealt a fatal blow by gentrification. It is not the Boston that so many Irish people came to know and adore in decades previous and it does not remotely resemble the hardscrabble backdrop of a litany of films praised by global audiences.

In this context, what was once unthinkable looks as if it will probably transpire. Wu, an outsider who hails from Chicago and is the darling of the hard-left wing of the Democratic Party, is far out in front in the polls. Essaibi George has run slightly to her right, but is a million miles more progressive than the caricature constructed by foes who claim she would do the bidding of what remains of recalcitrant “old Boston” and would oppose the further comprehensive reforms they argue are necessary.

There has been a most unfortunate, related charge that Essaibi George’s strong Boston accent is itself a “dog whistle” that hearkens back to the bad old days of racial unrest during the forced busing crisis of the 1970s. This is a contemptuous allegation, yet is indicative of a mind-set in certain quarters in a city I still love with all my heart, a word I will continue to pronounce unapologetically in the vernacular to the consternation of naysayers who would have us deny who we are.

It appears that, absent a miracle, Michelle Wu will soon lead Boston. Notwithstanding my personal preference for Annissa Essaibi George, I believe that Wu is an exceptionally capable person. She could be a great mayor.

The work she will take up in a city struggling with deep income inequality and other problems, however, is extraordinarily difficult. I may – please forgive my inescapably instinctual, albeit possibly misguided, sense of nostalgia for the past – lament what is well and truly the end of a political era to some extent, but I wish Wu the very best in tackling significant challenges.

Virginia

Approximately 500 miles to the south, Virginians will decide whether to give Terry McAuliffe, who served as their chief executive from 2014 to 2018 and is a loyal ally of the Clintons, a second, non-consecutive stint or to send Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy businessman and first-time political candidate, to the Executive Mansion in Richmond, the state’s capital. Democratic victories in Virginia have been routine in recent years, but polls show Youngkin and McAuliffe are neck and neck.

This is not entirely surprising in that “early midterm” elections like this one can prove troublesome for the incumbent president’s party. And national political realities are to the fore in this state which has liberal pockets in heavily populated areas in its northern tier, near to Washington, DC, and a conservative heartland in its south and southwest.

McAuliffe, as well as former President Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden, has sought to tie Youngkin with some success and not without some justification to Donald Trump and to the “big lie” that a second term was stolen from him and that he should actually be in the White House.

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Youngkin and the Republicans have returned to the politically fertile ground that is the culture wars and assail McAuliffe and his party colleagues as defenders of leftist indoctrination that is rampant in the school system and proponents of policy objectives rooted in critical race theory that are anti-American and perpetrate reverse discrimination.

McAuliffe has endeavoured to assuage trepidation on this front and has accused the GOP of cynically trying to exploit people’s worst fears for its own gain. At the same time, progressives fret that a wealthy, middle aged white male and consummate political insider, such as McAuliffe, cannot inspire enough young voters and women and men of colour, who were instrumental to triumphs in places like Georgia, to tip the balance.

The RealClearPolitics.com aggregate of opinion surveys has McAuliffe up by just .8%. The old trite saying that it will come down to turnout is absolutely fitting for this fight that is on a knife edge.

As one conservative activist predicts – and as this writer keeps shouting from the rooftops – if Youngkin can pull off an upset in “blue Virginia” (or even if McAuliffe barely shades it), “the 2022 midterms are going to be all about critical race theory, transgenderism and these culture wars that Democrats now want to back away from.”

Again, the campaigns in Boston and Virginia illustrate that fellow citizens of a country that calls itself the “United States” nonetheless see things in stark contrast. Consequently, they pick very different public representatives to serve their communities.

There is one commonality, though. In Virginia, which provides a reasonably good flavour of the national picture in 2021, and in Boston, which is a microcosm of urban America in 2021, there is an abundance of the drama and intrigue that endlessly fascinate those of us who love electoral politics. Another long night awaits on Tuesday.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. His new book – The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family – is available now in bookshops throughout the country.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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