The two-party system has long dominated the landscape in the world of American politics. Democrats and Republicans have been the major players for at least the past 169 years, leaving independent candidates overlooked and underestimated.
But, the United States was founded on a spirit of independence, and that is reflected in the people who have shaped local governments in small towns and major cities alike throughout America’s history. The first independent candidate to preside over a major American city was James Harper, who was elected mayor of New York City in 1844 under the banner of the Native American Party.
That trend continues into the 21st century. Here are five notable examples of independent candidates who recently ran for mayor and won.
Freddie O’Connell, the newest mayor of Nashville, a Southern city with a population of just over 1.3 million people, was elected in 2023. He has dedicated his political career to limiting the impact of poverty, strengthening neighborhoods, and making sure everyone can participate in the economy as the city grows.
As a member of the Metro Council prior to winning his mayoral race, he oversaw the overhaul of the Metro Homelessness Commission and passed several green energy bills. He also served on nearly every committee in the Nashville community, chairing both the Parking and Transportation and the Public Works committees.
O’Connell is truly a man of the people, and one of the few progressive mayors of a major city in the South. His focus as mayor is to address the needs of his friends and neighbors in Nashville while devising creative solutions to build a better future. His successful campaign addressed pressing issues like empowering his constituents to attain an affordable quality of life. He also plans to tackle the problems of homelessness, infrastructure and transit concerns, and community safety.
His win is also a testament to the power of a solid platform and connection with the people. His campaign was able to take the mayoral contest with only $419,901 raised for his campaign fund. Compare that to the millions spent by his main challengers for the office.
Long before he became a household name as a U.S. Senator and a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders won his first mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont, as an independent candidate in 1981. Burlington, the largest city in Vermont with a population of nearly 45,000, wasn't exactly a liberal stronghold at the time, and Sanders' victory was a testament to his unique approach and unwavering commitment to progressive values.
Sanders ran on a platform of improving the quality of life for the city's residents by focusing on affordable housing, public transportation, and environmental sustainability. His grassroots campaign resonated with the diverse population of Burlington, and he managed to unseat the incumbent Democratic mayor.
Sanders' victory as an independent sent a powerful message that people were ready for a different kind of politics, one that prioritized the needs of the community over party loyalty.
During his four terms as mayor, Sanders implemented several progressive policies, including the establishment of a community land trust, which helped provide affordable housing for low-income residents. His success in Burlington served as a stepping stone to his future political career, demonstrating that independent candidates can indeed thrive in American politics when they connect with the concerns of their constituents.
In 2021, independent incumbent Ron Nirenberg won reelection for a fourth term as mayor of San Antonio with 61% of the vote. He is the first person of Pacific Island descent elected as chief officer of this city of nearly 2.5 million people, the 7th largest in the country, and his tenure has been marked by a commitment to equity and inclusion.
His policies were created with the goal of reducing poverty and providing opportunity for the diverse population of San Antonio. Programs include the SA Ready to Work workforce development project that won 77% voter approval and a Housing Policy Task Force that’s committed to creating affordable housing for all in the San Antonio community.
He’s also a fierce advocate for progressive climate change mitigation policies. The San Antonio city council adopted Mayor Nirenberg’s Climate Action and Adaption plan, and he recently joined 24 other mayors to form the Climate Mayors Steering Committee, a core component of the broader Climate Mayors Coalition.
It’s been said that tough times distinguish equally tough people, and Honolulu mayor Rick Blangiardi proved it through his assistance to the people of Maui during the recent wildfires. This experience led him to reassess Honolulu’s own emergency preparedness. In good times and bad, the chief executive of this city of 912,000 people proves his commitment to making O’ahu a great place for all of its citizens to live and work.
His first term has been marked by a combination of fiscal responsibility and inclusion without sacrificing the level of service to his community. He consistently hosts town hall meetings that bring together the mayor’s office and senior administration officials with citizens to discuss their concerns and devise solutions.
Mayor Blangiardi’s policies prioritize job creation, affordable housing, and reducing crime in Honolulu. Under his leadership, the city has redoubled its efforts toward social justice, diversity, and equal opportunity for all.
Elected as the 42nd mayor of Colorado Springs in June of 2023, Yemi Mobolade is a success story in more ways than one. He’s a Nigerian immigrant who ran as an independent, and successfully won his race to become the city’s first Black mayor.
His was truly a bipartisan campaign, even picking up support and endorsements from prominent Republicans in the community. That could be due to a platform that was a mix of progressive issues like affordable housing and water conservation along with more conservative issues like public safety and lowering the cost of doing business in Colorado Springs.
Before beginning his campaign for mayor, Mobolade became a fixture in the city’s business and faith communities. He established a cultural meeting place in the downtown area and became one of the first entrepreneurs to invest in its revitalization. In 2019, he served the city as a small business administrator.
He found that the people he met on the campaign trail were more interested in solutions than partisanship. They responded well to his emphasis on transparency and serving the needs of the people rather than special interests.
Chicago is the country’s third-largest city, with a population of just over 2.6 million people. It’s also a city that’s known for its politics and partisanship.
However, two independent candidates came very close to breaking the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on the Windy City.
Willie Wilson ran as an independent in 2015 and 2019 on a commitment to improving the lives of the city's residents, particularly those in underserved communities. He is a self-made millionaire from humble beginnings, and his philanthropic work, which includes helping residents pay their property taxes, utilities, and providing financial assistance, resonated with many Chicagoans.
Similarly, Amara Enyia ran as an independent mayoral candidate in Chicago in 2019. She’s an attorney and community activist who championed a progressive platform that focused on social and economic justice, public education, and criminal justice reform. Although she didn’t win her race, Enyia was able to garner support from a diverse coalition of activists, artists, and residents who are disillusioned with the status quo in Chicago politics.
Around the country, there are a fair few other independents who have won mayoral races. The following three mayors’ accomplishments stand as a testament to the growing popularity of politicians who run outside of the establishment:
Jesse Ventura surprised everyone when he launched an independent campaign for mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in 1991. He proved himself to be a champion of the people outside of the wrestling ring with policies related to government transparency, fiscal responsibility, and reducing crime. He parlayed his experience as head of this progressive Midwest city of 70,000 into a term as governor of the state.
Another well-known indy mayor was Michael Bloomberg. His victory was not just a testament to the potential of independent candidates, but also to the significance of self-funded campaigns. Not many people outside of the establishment could win an election for mayor of a city with the size of and complexities of New York. He went on to serve three terms, making substantial contributions to the city's infrastructure, public health, and environmental policies.
Carolyn Goodman, independent politician and mayor of Las Vegas, is more than just a legacy politician. Although her husband, Oscar, served three terms before her, she has gone out of her way to make her own mark on the city of nearly 3 million residents. Throughout her tenure as mayor, she has championed the cause of equal access to quality education and brought new investment to the city. It’s that kind of dedication that allowed her to win a third term with 80% of the vote.
One thing that each of the above candidates and mayors have in common, outside of a commitment to enacting progressive policies, is their ability to prove that independents can run for mayor and win in larger cities as well as in small-town America.
Now that you’ve been inspired by the remarkable stories of independent candidates who won mayoral elections, are you ready to throw your hat into the ring of local politics?
Before you take the next step, it's essential to understand the role of a mayor and the prerequisites for running for this significant public office.
Mayors play a critical role in shaping the future of their cities, and the path to becoming a mayor is paved with unique challenges and responsibilities.
A mayor is the highest-ranking elected official in a city, town, or municipality. The role of a mayor varies from place to place, but some common responsibilities include:
Serving as the chief executive officers of their cities by overseeing the administration of various departments, such as public safety, public works, and education.
Working with city councils or other legislative bodies to set policies and make important decisions about the city's budget, infrastructure, and services.
Serving as advocates for their cities by representing the interests and concerns of their constituents to higher levels of government.
Being responsible for coordinating responses and ensuring the safety and well-being of their residents during natural disasters and public emergencies.
Participating in local events, supporting community organizations, and fostering a sense of civic pride and engagement.
Running for mayor is a significant undertaking, and candidates must meet certain qualifications and requirements to be eligible for the position.
Here are some of the common prerequisites:
Residency: Candidates typically need to be residents of the city where they wish to serve as mayor. The duration of residency requirements may vary from place to place.
Age: Most cities require mayoral candidates to be at least 18 years old. Some may set a higher age requirement.
Citizenship: Candidates usually need to be U.S. citizens to run for mayor. This requirement ensures that those seeking the position have a vested interest in the community's well-being.
Voter registration: Being a registered voter in the city is often a requirement. This demonstrates a commitment to civic participation.
Clean criminal record: In some cases, individuals with certain criminal convictions may be disqualified from running for public office. It's essential to check the specific rules in your locality.
Filing and registration: Candidates must follow the official filing and registration process, which may involve submitting nomination papers, collecting signatures, and paying a filing fee.
Election and campaigning: Mayoral candidates typically participate in local elections, which may be held during primary or general election cycles. To run a successful campaign, candidates need to secure funding, develop a platform, and connect with voters.
Knowledge of local issues: Understanding the specific issues and challenges facing the city is crucial for any mayoral candidate. An in-depth knowledge of local governance, infrastructure, and the needs of the community is essential.
Leadership skills: The mayor is a leadership position, and candidates should possess strong leadership skills, the ability to collaborate with other elected officials, and a commitment to public service.
It's worth noting that the requirements to run for mayor can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another. Candidates interested in pursuing the mayoral office should consult their local election authority or city government for specific guidelines and deadlines.
Learning about independent candidates who ran for mayor and won in various U.S. elections demonstrates that the two-party system is not an insurmountable barrier to success. Their victories in cities with larger populations, such as Burlington, Brooklyn Park, New York City, and Providence, offer a powerful reminder that voters are eager for fresh ideas, innovative solutions, and candidates who prioritize their needs over party loyalty.
These success stories are not just about individual candidates but also about the resilience of American democracy. They show that, when the political climate is ripe for change, independent candidates can step up to the plate and make a real difference in the lives of their constituents.
Running for mayor requires individuals to meet specific qualifications, display leadership abilities, and engage with the community they aim to serve. Success stories like these also provide hope and inspiration for those who offer a more diverse and inclusive political landscape.
They also serve as a testament to the enduring power of grassroots movements and authentic leadership.
When you’re ready to start your campaign, Good Party will be with you every step of the way. Good Party Academy offers mentorship and assistance with everything from campaign strategy to networking. And when you’re ready to launch your campaign, we offer a wealth of free tools and resources to help you run and win.