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2023 Electoral Preview: Mayoral Races

Big races in the big cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston

Here at Hill Heat’s US Climate Politics Almanac, we are ringing in 2023 with a look at the year ahead in electoral politics. There will not be federal elections this year, but consistent with our credo that all politics is climate politics, 2023’s state and local elections will have major climate implications. While the 117th Congress appears unlikely to make much progress on climate, state and local elections held in 2023 will help determine the leaders responsible for implementing climate policies approved by the 116th Congress. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates will be looking to 2023 state legislative outcomes and election results as they test their strategy for making anti-climate demagoguery known as “woke capitalism” the “critical race theory of 2023 and 2024.”

Here is our look at 2023’s most consequential US climate mayoral elections.1

Chicago Mayor (February 28/April 4 runoff)

Rep. Chuy García (D-Ill.) standing behind Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in October. Credit: Pat Nabong

When Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s climate-undermining first chief of staff, announced in 2018 that he would not seek a third term as mayor, it set off a wide-open race to replace him. Former US attorney Lori Lightfoot was criticized for soft-pedaling her documentation of Chicago Police Department (CPD) abuses under Emanuel, but ultimately progressives mostly rallied around her in a lop-sided 2019 runoff victory over Cook County Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle.

A reputation for thin-skinned leadership, a pandemic-driven crime increase, and a failure to curtail CPD abuses have left Mayor Lightfoot with middling approval ratings, producing a long list of challengers as she seeks re-election. Though Lightfoot has listed a 100% clean energy procurement plan among her progressive accomplishments, progressives fault her for a lack of climate investments, including reneging on a 2019 promise to establish a Department of the Environment.

The candidate who appears to have the best shot of beating Lightfoot is Rep. Chuy García, a Green New Deal champion whose losing 2015 campaign against Emanuel galvanized the Chicago teachers union (CTU) and progressives nationally. García entered the race after CTU had already backed Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is supported by labor groups and progressives for his work to crack down on housing discrimination.

A pair of center-right perennial candidates— former Chicago Public Schools head Paul Vallas and businessman Willie Wilson— round out the field of candidates with decent name recognition, though there are other potential contenders. The latest polls show García advancing to a runoff against either Lightfoot or Vallas.

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Philadelphia Mayor (May 16 primary/November 7 general)

Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery explosion, June 2019

Mayor Jim Kenney is termed out, creating a crowded field to determine his successor, which will almost certainly be decided in the May 16 Democratic primary. Among the major contenders, the candidate with the most progressive track record is Helen Gym, whose activism against a school privatization scheme led to her 2016 election as an at-large council member, the restoration of local control over Philly’s schools, and the passage of a strong fair scheduling ordinance. Also running in the progressive lane are former Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez and former Comptroller Rebecca Rhynart (there are lots of “formers,” as incumbent officeholders are required to resign to run for mayor).

The more centrist candidates in the field are former Councilmember Derek Green, who has supported Philadelphia’s strong movement toward establishing a public bank; former Councilmember Cherelle Parker, who is expected to win support from several labor organizations; wealthy former Councilmember Allen Domb; and rich grocer Jeff Brown, a critic of Kenney’s “soda tax” who has already begun advertising on TV with support from well-heeled donors.

Houston Mayor (November 7 general)

Houston underwater from Hurricane Harvey flooding in August 2017.

Mayor Sylvester Turner is termed out after leading the “energy capital of the world” through two terms, which have been punctuated by (sometimes controversial) oversight of responses to numerous climate disasters. Flood mitigation is expected to be one of the major campaign issues in the race to succeed Turner. The candidate with the most money is state senator John Whitmire, a “tough on crime” type who has served in the legislature since 1973, and has accumulated a slightly above-average climate voting record. Another notable candidate is former Councilmember Amanda Edwards, who touts her experience aiding in several climate disasters, and was regarded as a moderate option in the 2020 Democratic primary for US Senate. Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is best known for his efforts to expand voting access during the pandemic. Hollins is currently overseeing a $7 billion transit expansion plan, and has said “regional prosperity relies on Houston maintaining its dominance in global energy, but creating the energy jobs of tomorrow.” Closing out the field of declared candidates are former Marine Robin Williams and oil and gas attorney Lee Kaplan.

1 This preview focuses on the most competitive elections with the biggest climate ramifications, and it is not a comprehensive overview of 2023 elections in the US. In addition to the elections featured here, elections will be held this year in numerous major municipalities, including Dallas, Indianapolis, and Denver, as well as swing state cities such as Tucson, Charlotte, and Madison.

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