How Progressives Could Lose New York’s Mayor’s Race—But Win the City

“The whole city is up for grabs”: from office of the comptroller to the city council, progressives could pull off a wave of critical victories.

Akash Mehta and Sam Mellins   ·   June 21, 2021
Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman (not pictured) join Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, comptroller candidate Brad Lander and Council candidate Tiffany Caban for a get-out-the-vote rally. | Akash Mehta / New York Focus

This article was published in partnership with The Nation.

From the vantage of New York City’s left, the city’s mayoral election is a mess. In April, many prominent progressives hastily suspended endorsements of Scott Stringer, at the time the leading left-leaning candidate, after he was accused of sexual harassment. In the aftermath, many progressives tried to drum up enthusiasm for the non-profit executive Dianne Morales, despite reservations over her shallow roots on the left—only to see her campaign implode last month after she fired four staffers leading a unionization drive.

The front-runner in the race is currently Eric Adams, an ex-Republican ex-cop bankrolled by real estate; he is trailed by Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner fiercely in favor of charter schools and opposed to higher taxes on the wealthy except as a last resort. Andrew Yang, the political neophyte whose campaign is run by a powerful lobbying firm with deep ties to police unions and former mayor Michael Bloomberg, still has a shot. In an attempt at warding off the three moderates, prominent progressives have consolidated around former de Blasio official Maya Wiley, initially the Working Families Party’s third pick, who is rising in the polls but remains an underdog.

“The mayor’s race has been crazy,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who endorsed Wiley on June 5, told New York Focus at a rally in Astoria, Queens for comptroller candidate Brad Lander and City Council candidate Tiffany Cabán. “Because of all the turmoil, it took until the last minute for us to really decide where we were going to go, and we decided on Maya.”

Still, even if the top spot ends up out of reach, New York’s 2021 primaries, which run through June 22, may not turn out to be the bust progressives fear. Further down the ballot, progressives may yet pull off a wave of transformative victories. Thirty-five of the 51 current City Councilmembers are term limited, meaning the Council will see a turnover of at least two-thirds of its members. Progressive groups have recruited candidates in most of those open races, from stars of the city’s left like Cabán, who gained national prominence during her 2019 run for Queens DA, to less familiar names running in terrain far from the left’s strongholds, like Adolfo Abreu, a longtime community organizer running as a socialist in a Bronx district currently held by an anti-abortion Democrat with a record of anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

“The whole city is up for grabs. It’s a tremendously powerful position to be in,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, which has endorsed 30 Council candidates that she called “the most progressive, most diverse, most ideologically coherent candidate pool we’ve probably ever seen.”

Elsewhere on the ballot, progressives have pinned their hopes on Brad Lander, a veteran of the City Council who is now one of the leading candidates for the powerful office of comptroller. In Manhattan, meanwhile, several candidates with solid progressive bona fides are running for district attorney—a strong field, but one that threatens to split the vote and hand the election to a one-percenter, Wall Street-friendly moderate.

All these races are being fought on ground considerably to the left of where they were just a cycle ago, perhaps giving the lie to one of the more persistent narratives that has emerged from the mayoral race: that progressive ideas have begun to lose their appeal in New York City. Moreover, should a bloc of progressives prevail, they could have substantial impact on the contours of New York’s recovery from the pandemic, along with a host of other challenges and injustices that have long faced the city.

“We have a really exciting opportunity to have the most left Council in New York City in probably a century plus,” said Grace Mausser, who leads the New York City Democratic Socialists of America’s electoral work in Brooklyn. DSA is running a slate of six Council candidates. The group’s considerable influence in Albany comes from controlling just three percent of the state legislature’s 213 seats, Mausser noted; if it repeats last year’s feat and wins all its local races, it will control nearly 12 percent of the Council.

The Council’s powers are limited—the mayor plays the dominant role in city budgeting and policymaking, and the state largely controls key areas like taxation and public transit. But a robust cohort of progressive new members could turn the Council into a bolder, more effective institution, particularly if progressives win enough races to select the chamber’s next Speaker. “The Council has a lot of power that they just never use. They could really play hardball with the mayor,” Mausser said. “There’s a real opportunity for people to come in ready to fight with the mayor and with the really powerful political interests.”

Reducing the police budget is front and center for many progressive candidates running for City Council. These include Brandon West, a Brooklyn Council candidate who helped organize last summer’s occupation of City Hall and is among a cohort of candidates that has criticized the Council for passing a budget last summer that did not significantly reduce police department funds. In what advocates see as a positive sign, representatives from 41 Council campaigns attended a policy briefing by the grassroots advocacy organization VOCAL-NY on its proposal to shift $4 billion from the police, courts and jails to housing and social services.

Progressives have taken note of how pandemic-era increases in gun violence have fueled Adams’ poll numbers in the mayoral race, and are trying to persuade voters that they have the better answer—that well funded social services better address the root causes of crime than bloated police departments. “Everybody say: ‘Progressives are tough on crime,’” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams roared last weekend, leading Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, Cabán and Lander in an unlikely chant at the rally in Astoria. “Progressives are tough on crime! But we do it with justice and equity.”

Beyond policing, a progressive takeover of the Council could have a significant short-term impact on climate issues, housing affordability, homelessness prevention and harm reduction. Candidates in 37 Council races have signed on to a platform for a “Green New Deal for NYC,” which includes retiring all existing oil and gas infrastructure under the city’s authority and creating public utilities. A progressive Council could also fight to redirect billions of dollars the city spends on real estate subsidies meant to incentivize affordable housing construction, whose extension the state legislature will consider next year, toward investments in social housing. Some candidates and organizers say a progressive Council could go further and implement comprehensive land use planning to build affordable housing across the city; other housing advocates caution that equitable planning would require state or federal subsidies, but point to a Chicago alderman’s success in winning a 100 percent affordable development as a model for what individual Councilmembers could do in the meantime.

Establishment power brokers are taking note of the threat to their hold on the city. Stephen Ross, the billionaire real estate developer behind Hudson Yards, has scaled back plans to raise tens of millions of dollars to oppose progressive mayoral candidates. Instead, he is partnering with Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir who bankrolled Republicans’ failed attempt to fend off a Democratic State Senate supermajority last year, on a PAC spending millions attacking seven progressive Council candidates.

“Those conservative, real-estate backed [interests] might not be as scared about the mayor—but they’re scared that we’re going to have a progressive Council with socialists at the helm,” Mausser said.

"Battalions of progressive fighters"

While a staunchly progressive council could serve as a powerful check on a moderate or right -wing mayor, the offices of district attorney and comptroller can also play critical roles, former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout told New York Focus.

“I am really excited and hopeful for Maya Wiley’s candidacy, but there is a risk of a right wing mayor,” Teachout said. “If you have a right wing mayor, it is one thousand times more important to have a great DA. If you have a mayor who’s connected to real estate, it is one thousand times more important to have a good comptroller.”

District attorneys have a tremendous amount of leeway to determine the treatment of individuals accused of crimes; since his election as Philadelphia DA in 2017, progressive Larry Krasner has cut the county’s incarceration rate by thirty percent and scaled back the use of cash bail and probation. The Manhattan District Attorney, with a staff of over 1,000 and an annual budget above $100 million, is one of the most powerful offices of its kind in the country. 

In a sign of the shifting times, multiple candidates are running as “progressive prosecutors,” determined to change the system from within. But in contrast to the other primary races, voters will not be able to rank their picks for Manhattan DA, and four candidates—Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, and Dan Quart—threaten to divide the progressive vote.

Orlins, a public defender, and Quart, a New York Assemblymember, were ranked the “least harmful” candidates by an organization of criminal defense lawyers. But both are mired in the low single digits in recent polling.

Teachout supports former deputy New York Attorney General Bragg, who polled at 26 percent, in a dead heat with the more conservative candidate Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who recently pumped $8.2 million of her own money into her campaign. Bragg is the only Black candidate in the race—and, Teachout has argued in The Nation, is the only progressive with a “realistic path to victory,” due in part to endorsements from the New York Times, Manhattan Congressman Jerry Nadler, and a majority of influential local political clubs.

“At this moment in time, to have a deeply experienced reformer who has been stopped by the police, experienced stop and frisk, has a first hand experience of what it’s like to be a policed Black man in Harlem—the reason he has so much momentum is because he has both the experience and the progressive vision,” Teachout said.

But civil rights lawyer Aboushi, who polled at just 7 percent, is running to Bragg’s left and has garnered more marquee progressive support. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Working Families Party, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, and Cynthia Nixon—New York’s other recent underdog progressive gubernatorial candidate—have all endorsed her campaign.

“A primary’s not the place to play it safe,” Nixon told New York Focus. “I spend most of my waking moments working on Tahanie Aboushi’s race… if you care about the over-policing and over-prosecution and over-incarceration of people of color, the best way to change that is to elect a progressive DA, a woman of color, and a woman from an impacted family,”

The comptroller is also one of the city’s most powerful positions, responsible for managing nearly $250 billion worth of pension fund investments, auditing city agencies, and reviewing innumerable city contracts. Progressives have consolidated around Brad Lander, whose worker-centered platform, including a massive social housing plan, a public bank, and a robust climate plan, earned him endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and The New York Times.

“The comptroller’s job is to hold the mayor accountable,” Lander told New York Focus. “That’s true whether you deeply agree with them ideologically or you disagree with them ideologically.”

Lander has also won the support of some progressive labor unions. “As labor, we’re most excited about his ideas to shine a light on bad employers,” said Hae-Lin Choi, the political director of the New York Communications Workers of America, which has endorsed Lander, referencing his plan to publish an annual ‘wall of shame’ of exploitative employers. “Brad says all the time, ‘let’s not just clap for workers, but actually do what we can to help them when the spotlight moves away.’”

In a recent poll, Lander was tied for first place with Council Speaker Corey Johnson, with nearly a third of voters undecided.

The prospect of dominating down-ballot races has left progressives hopeful that, no matter what happens in the mayoral race, they can continue to shape the future of New York. “Of course transformation can come from the top,” Nixon said. “But when you have these battalions of progressive fighters—they can band together, and equal or even outweigh the man or woman at the top.”

Akash Mehta co-founded New York Focus and is the organization’s editor-in-chief. He grew up in New York City, and in another life he was a member of his local community board and a policy fellow at the City Council.
Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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