Mayor-to-Be Eric Adams and the New NYC City Council
To begin with Adams himself, his decades of shape-shifting doubtless contributed both to his victory and to the difficulty in characterizing him politically. At times, and in the case of The New York Times, in the same story, the media has painted him as both the establishment and anti-establishment candidate, police critic and police defender, Reagan-era Republican and Biden-era Democrat, working-class tribune and the go-to guy for the real estate lobby. Each of these characterizations has some merit, though some have a lot more merit than others. I’m partial to one that Adams himself offered, when asked about his ties to the city’s powerful (actually, hegemonic) real estate industry. “I am real estate,” Adams answered.
That could mean he owns property himself. It could mean he’s receptive to the industry’s requests. It could mean he’s signaling he can be bought and sold, just like, well, real estate.
My fear is that the third option rings the bell. Throughout his career as an elected official, Adams has been eager to do Big Real Estate’s bidding and has received Big Real Estate’s big money for his campaigns, most especially his current mayoral bid.
But one semi-distinctive identity that Adams carved for himself during the campaign was the Democratic version of a Republican trope: that liberal cultural and economic elites were seeking to impose their politics on working-class voters who didn’t share them. He focused, as Republicans do, on the “defund the police” battle cry that, in actuality, very few Democratic elected officials espouse.
To explain the resonance this attack had with Adams’s mostly working-class voters, a look at who occupies New York’s public spaces, and who doesn’t, may prove helpful. It’s disproportionately the working class who ride the subways and live in neighborhoods where crime is more of a threat. It’s disproportionately the working-class elderly who fear being trapped in these spaces and unable to flee.
Adams was sufficiently politically adept to exploit these fears, highlighting the kind of identity politics that would most appeal to such voters. He was the Black cop on the beat, a neighborhood fixture who presumably wouldn’t threaten Blacks because they were Black. He didn’t particularly highlight economic issues, because his status as a Democrat had that sufficiently covered with all but the most progressive voters, whom he wasn’t targeting anyway. And he’d been in the public eye long enough so that his core voters believed he was a known quantity, though the various deals he’d been involved in—none of which had really been subjected to widespread media scrutiny—suggested that there was a lot about him his core voters (and not just his core voters) didn’t know.
In a sense, Adams reminds me of a long-vanished species of New York pol: a Tammany guy. Not that he’s part of a machine that is supported by graft and employs and rewards its supporters; such machines vanished in the middle of the last century. But like Adams, Tammany’s elected officials were devoid of discernable ideology. They based their appeal not just on that of Tammany itself, but also on ethnic solidarity, on working-class resentment of good-government elites, and on being established figures in their respective communities, though they generally had to be prodded by non-Tammany progressives to support economic policies that actually benefited those communities. (The greatest of Tammany bosses, Charles Murphy, had to be persuaded by a young reformer named Frances Perkins—who would later become FDR’s labor secretary—that supporting wage and hour legislation would actually help the organization’s electoral prospects. She was right; it did.)
Adams hasn’t been alone in bringing Republican-sounding attacks on progressives into the Democrats’ discourse. South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn has periodically excoriated the Squad and others of his Democratic congressional colleagues for being wedded to theory rather than the hard realities that are part of Black working-class lives, even though those Black working-class lives would be literally and figuratively enriched by the far-reaching economic reforms progressives are proposing (see: Charles Murphy and Frances Perkins, or for that matter, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders).
Given his susceptibility to the lure of the realtors and other mega-monied interests, it’s by no means clear that Adams will embrace progressive economic policies as Biden has. Securing such an embrace will require constant pressure from the city’s progressives, from its more liberal unions; groups like Make the Road, the Working Families Party, and DSA; perhaps the Times editorial pages (progressive on policies though not always on candidates); the left wing of the city council; and the two other citywide elected officials, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and newly elected Comptroller Brad Lander, who repeatedly showed during his tenure on the council that he’s the smartest and most strategic progressive in any American city government.
Did progressives blow the mayoral primary? The fact that both Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer mounted credible candidacies until Stringer’s imploded meant that key progressive leaders (like AOC) and institutions (like the WFP) didn’t give full-throated support to Wiley until very late in the game. The young, upstart democratic socialists who won elections throughout the city’s five boroughs were likely too young and too upstart to mount a mayoral campaign at this time.
Looking at America’s three mega-cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—it’s clear that today’s left can win numerous council seats and sub-mayoral citywide positions, but not yet the mayor’s office. That office may remain out of reach until the left can convince more unions and more working-class voters that its economic policies would really improve their lives, and that its other policies wouldn’t threaten them. Convincing workers, and not just in cities, that a conversion to a green economy can actually be beneficial will require formulating and publicizing detailed economic-transition policies that still need a great deal of work. Convincing working-class voters that policing can be transformed, though not abolished, will require a great deal more thought within the left as to what, exactly, that actually means, and what a critical mass of working-class voters of all races will actually support.
Until progressives have figured this out, we may see more latter-day Tammany Dems like Adams in mayor’s offices.
Used with the permission. © The American Prospect, Prospect.org, 2021. All rights reserved.
New York City, a global immigration hub, has never had a person of South Asian descent on the City Council. No openly gay Black woman has ever sat among its 51 lawmakers, even as the city has become a beacon for L.G.B.T.Q. people of color. And though women made gains in politics nationwide in the 21st century, their numbers on the City Council actually dropped over the last two decades.
But now, with the Council facing significant turnover because of term limits and retirements, New York’s legislative body is poised to be one of the most progressive in the city’s history, with a diversity that mirrors the city it represents.
“Across the board, you were seeing a group of candidates that more clearly reflected the people that needed to be represented,” said Tiffany Cabán, a queer Latina and progressive candidate who won her Council primary in Queens. “That’s really huge, and I think that drove a lot of the success.”
With some outstanding ballots left to be counted, the Board of Elections released new results for primary elections on Tuesday that paint a clearer picture of the incoming Council. While a number of incumbents won their primary races and are expected to win re-election in November, they are joined by dozens of new faces.
They include more than two dozen women, who will be positioned to take a majority of the Council’s seats, for the first time ever. There are several activists from working-class backgrounds, several L.G.B.T.Q. people of color and at least six foreign-born New Yorkers.
Many — though not all — of the victors are backed by progressive political groups and lawmakers who hope they can push the city’s policies further to the left.
But in trying to advance its agenda, the next Council will have to contend with the considerable powers of the mayor in New York City government. Eric Adams, who won the Democratic primary and is heavily favored in the general election, ran as a business-friendly centrist who rebuffed key progressive policy ideas as out of touch with average New Yorkers.
The Council will also be inexperienced, which may give the politically seasoned mayor an upper hand, political experts have said. Fewer than 20 Council members will be incumbents or lawmakers returning to seats they previously held. And four of those won special elections earlier this year and have yet to serve a full term.
The current Council speaker, Corey Johnson, is among those leaving office. His replacement, who will play a key role in setting the Council’s agenda and negotiating with the mayor, is not guaranteed to be a progressive.
“Honestly, that’s the biggest factor as to whether we are able to execute the things that we campaign on,” Ms. Cabán said. “Will we have a speaker that is going to prioritize that agenda?”
The ranked-choice results released on Tuesday are not yet official; there are still affidavit votes to be counted, as well as 880 defective absentee ballots that voters can still resolve within the next week. In races where margins are tight, those votes could shift the outcome, and The Associated Press has not yet called three Democratic City Council primaries.
The victors in Democratic primaries will also all have to compete in the general election. But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly seven to one, most of them will be heavily favored.
In those races where Democrats are heavily favored in November, 26 of the likely future Council members are women. Three more women are leading in races that have not yet been called. Only 14 women currently serve on the Council.
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One of the closest contests is in a primary in Harlem, where Kristin Richardson Jordan, a poet and teacher, came from a 525-vote deficit in first-choice votes and ended up 100 votes ahead of the incumbent, Bill Perkins, after a ranked-choice tabulation was run.
In a district in Queens where Democrats are hoping to flip the borough’s sole Republican seat on the Council, women are likely to be on both sides of the ballot. Felicia Singh, a former teacher backed by the Working Families Party, was just 440 votes ahead of her opponent, Michael Scala, in the most recent tally. The winner of that primary will face off against Joann Ariola, the chairwoman of the Queens Republican Party.
If Ms. Singh and Ms. Jordan were to win, they would join more than 20 women of color who are expected to take seats in the next City Council.
“It’s not just women,” Sandy Nurse, a carpenter and community organizer who beat an incumbent to win her primary in Brooklyn, pointed out. “There are cross-cutting identities. You’ve got a lot of different identities with a lot of diverse experiences, and that’s significant.”
Shahana Hanif, a former City Council employee who won her primary in Brooklyn, is expected to be the first Muslim woman elected to the Council in its history. Ms. Hanif, who is Bangladeshi-American, will also be one of the first members of South Asian descent, along with Shekar Krishnan, who won his primary in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, in Queens.
Mr. Krishnan, a civil rights lawyer, said the lack of diversity on the Council was part of what motivated him to run, especially after seeing the pandemic devastate his neighborhood.
“Communities like mine, we’ve never had representation in our City Council,” Mr. Krishnan said. “And what that means is the voices of our South Asian communities aren’t being heard.”
Crystal Hudson, who also won a competitive race in Brooklyn, also said her identity had played a role in her candidacy. She and Ms. Jordan could be the first out gay Black women on the City Council.
Ms. Hudson said that as someone who sat at the intersection of several marginalized groups, she saw how the neediest New Yorkers often get left behind.
“Every issue is an L.G.B.T.Q. issue. Every issue is a woman’s issue. Every issue is a Black and brown issue,” Ms. Hudson said. “For those of us who live on the margins, we can fully understand and appreciate the value of policy changes that actually impact our day-to-day lives.”
She is one of a number of L.G.B.T.Q. candidates expected to take a seat on the City Council next year. They include Ms. Cabán; Chi Ossé, a 23-year-old who won a primary in Brooklyn and would be the youngest person on the new Council; Lynn Schulman, who won a primary in Queens; and Erik Bottcher, who won a decisive victory in Manhattan.
Ms. Hudson is also part of the incoming wave of progressive Council members. Of 30 candidates endorsed by the Working Families Party, 14 were on track to win. A number of other candidates, like Ms. Hudson, have adopted progressive policy planks and received endorsements from left-leaning organizations and elected officials.
Progressives also scored a victory in the comptroller’s race, where Brad Lander, a City Council member from Brooklyn, was projected to win.
At the same time, several races exposed the challenges facing the city’s political left, in which progressive candidates often ran against each other. Ms. Hudson’s chief opponent, Michael Hollingsworth, ran even further to her left and was one of six candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.
The six candidates faced significant opposition, including from Common Sense NYC, a pro-business super PAC backed in part by real estate money that purchased ads attacking four of the D.S.A.’s contenders. (The PAC also backed a dozen other candidates who appear to have won their primaries.)
Of the six people on the D.S.A. slate, only two appeared headed to victory — Ms. Cabán and Alexa Avilés, both of whom were also backed by the Working Families Party. Ms. Cabán said that she thought the D.S.A. slate was nevertheless successful in setting the agenda in those races.
“We build and build and build on all of our organizing efforts,” she said.