Despite tough times, big-city mayors expected to be re-elected

HOUSTON Sun Nov 6, 2011 4:47pm EST

Houston Mayor Annise Parker smiles during a news conference after her first City Council meeting following her inauguration in Houston January 4, 2010. REUTERS/Richard Carson

Houston Mayor Annise Parker smiles during a news conference after her first City Council meeting following her inauguration in Houston January 4, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Richard Carson

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - Voters on Tuesday will select mayors in eight of the nation's 25 largest cities -- including Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Baltimore -- with incumbents expected to win in most cases.

But that doesn't mean voters are happy with their leaders, said Rice University political science professor Bob Stein. Across the country, there is widespread discontent because of the economic downturn, he said.

"Every big-city mayor, every congressman is suffering," Stein said. "But, there are some regions that are doing extremely well."

In Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, Mayor Annise Parker is expected to win her second term in a landslide despite tepid approval ratings. A credible candidate would have been a challenge, Stein said, but Parker didn't draw one.

"They didn't want to be mayor at this time, or wanted to but saw it has not been a good two years for her," Stein told Reuters. "There's no question the economy made a big difference."

Large cities in which the mayor's races are more competitive include Phoenix, where the seat is open, and Indianapolis. Voters will also select mayors in Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; and hundreds of smaller cities.

In Phoenix, voters will go to the polls to replace term-limited Mayor Phil Gordon in what has been one of the most spirited city races there in decades. Vying for the four-year term in the runoff election are Greg Stanton, an attorney and former city councilman, and Wes Gullett, a longtime political consultant and lobbyist.

The non-partisan race has been peppered with debates on issues such as the economy, job creation and making City Hall more transparent to residents in the nation's sixth-largest city.

In Indianapolis, the nation's 12th-largest city, voters will weigh whether to return a former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel to the mayor's office for another four years or elect the first woman to that office.

Republican Mayor Greg Ballard is challenged by Democrat Melina Kennedy, who is helped by the fact that there are more registered Democrats in the county than Republicans. But those numbers didn't save former Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat who lost four years ago to Ballard, then a political novice.

OFF YEAR EXPECTED TO YIELD LOW TURNOUTS

Low turnouts are expected in cities across the country in this fall's off-year elections.

Philadelphia, the country's fifth-largest city, where Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter is expected to cruise to a second-term victory in the heavily Democratic city, is no exception.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center of Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said he expects around 15-20 percent of registered voters to show up at the polls.

Voter turnout was record-low when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake won a September 13 Democratic primary in a landslide, all but securing a general election victory on Tuesday in the 21st-largest city, where 89 percent of registered voters are Democrats.

She seeks her first four-year term after taking over as mayor in February after then-Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned following a plea deal for embezzlement and corruption charges involving ties to developers.

In San Francisco, Ed Lee, the interim mayor appointed in January, is expected to win re-election in the 13th-largest city. The first mayor of Chinese decent in a city where about one in four residents is Chinese American, Lee is a former civil rights lawyer and a career civil servant.

Lee was appointed interim mayor when former Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor last November. Lee vowed not to seek a full term but did so anyway.

STRUGGLE AGAINST CUTBACKS

In Houston, Parker has struggled against budget cutbacks, layoffs and controversial decisions during her two years as the leader of the nation's fourth-largest city. A poll Stein conducted on October 17 showed 50 percent of registered voters

dissatisfied with her performance.

But her five challengers are relatively unknown and poorly financed, and an October 24 poll by a local television and radio station showed 37 percent of registered voters would support her, compared to a combined 12 percent for all other candidates. Half of respondents were undecided.

Like other elected officials around the country, "she was handed a bad situation and she has never been in a good situation," he said. "No one thinks that she's not going to get re-elected; the question is how will she govern."

The first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, Parker was elected in 2009 in a runoff with fellow Democrat Gene Locke.

In Ohio, where the statewide ballot includes a high-profile proposal to repeal a law restricting collective bargaining by public sector unions, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman is expected to win re-election in the nation's 15th-largest city.

Coleman -- who is a Democrat, though municipal elections are nonpartisan -- is likely to benefit by the presence on the ballot of the repeal, which has strong support from Democrats. Nearly six in 10 Ohio voters want to repeal the law, according to a poll by Quinnipiac University released October 25.

Charlotte, North Carolina, a Southern banking capital that is home to Bank of America, has been hit hard by layoffs in the financial industry. But first-term Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, is riding high from Charlotte's landing of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, expected to fill hotels and restaurants and create temporary jobs.

Foxx has vastly out-raised Republican opponent Scott Stone, an engineering executive, and led Stone by more than 20 points in a Public Policy Poll released November 2. Charlotte is the nation's 17th-largest city.

Other cities electing mayors include Salt Lake City (Mayor Ralph Becker's opponent didn't raise money); Des Moines, Iowa (Mayor Frank Cownie is running unopposed); and Tucson, Arizona, where the incumbent Republican is not seeking re-election (Democrat Jonathan Rothschild led Republican Rick Grinnell in a recent survey).

(Additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, David Schwartz in Phoenix, Brad Poole in Tucson, Jim Leckrone in Columbus, Jason Tomassini in Baltimore, Dave Warner in Philadelphia, Bob Bernick in Salt Lake City, Edwin Barnett in Raleigh, and Susan Guyett in Indianapolis; Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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