For several years, New York City has been the beating heart of the American left, demonstrating what was possible when progressive reformers, democratic socialists, and Black Lives Matter
activists won power.
in the nation's largest city elected Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
and Jamaal Bowman to Congress
, negotiated some temporary cuts to the police
department's budget, and elected a new crop of state lawmakers who strengthened renter protections and raised taxes on the wealthy.
It's no surprise, then, that candidates backed by the city's activist left are now considered underdogs in the Democratic mayoral primary on June 22, with the winner virtually assured of winning the general election in the solid blue city.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang
and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams are the top two candidates for mayor of New York. Both are moderate Democrats
who are well-connected with the city's business
elite and support traditional policing.
Former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who is running in the moderate lane, took her first poll lead on Tuesday, just two weeks after receiving The New York Times endorsement.
The three main progressive candidates are New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer
, former mayor's counsel Maya Wiley
, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales.
Thus far, the left-leaning candidates have struggled to break double digits in public polls. (Two other candidates, Citigroup executive Ray McGuire
and former U.S. Housing
and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan
, are not seriously considered.)
Given the number of undecided voters and the unpredictability of the city's new ranked-choice voting
haven't given up hope of sending one of their own to City Hall.
However, the left's struggles to gain traction in the race reflect real challenges for advocates of transformative change in New York City, in particular, and across the country.
Backlash against current mayor and former progressive Bill de Blasio; a violent crime
wave prompting calls for tougher policing; skepticism of the left's managerial abilities; the failure to develop a clear plan to halt Yang and Adams' rise; and a sexual misconduct
allegation against a leading candidate are among the obstacles.
“We have a quote-unquote blue city, but we know there are several shades of blue when it comes to Democrats in New York,” said Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University and co-host of the city politics
podcast “FAQ NYC.”
The ‘Residue’ of De Blasio
Bill de Blasio's election as mayor of New York City
in 2013 marked a significant shift to the left in the city's politics. The former public advocate and city councilman was not only the city's first Democratic mayor in two decades, but also a decidedly progressive Democrat, campaigning on universal prekindergarten, taxing the wealthy, and ending the police practice of "stop and frisk."
Liberals were encouraged by De Blasio's policy proposals and a viral
TV commercial featuring his biracial son Dante, which gave them hope that the reactionary city politics of the 1980s
and 1990s were finally coming to an end.
Once in office, de Blasio was lauded for several major accomplishments, including the implementation of universal pre-kindergarten and a consistently declining crime rate despite reforms such as the near-abolition of stop and frisk.
However, as his second term progressed, de Blasio came under increasing fire for his erratic leadership.
New Yorkers became dissatisfied with what they saw as the city's declining efficiency, the negative effects of his feud with Gov. Andrew Cuomo
(D), multiple official investigations into the mayor's campaign-finance tactics, a vanity-fueled presidential run, and, of course, his daily car rides to Park Slope, Brooklyn, to work
“Bill de Blasio is the left’s residue: corruption, malfeasance, a sense that the city is out of control,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a moderate New York City Democrat and public-relations specialist whose clients include labor unions
, trade groups, and business interests.
From big business and police unions to news
outlets like the New York Post, conservative forces in the city have had it out for de Blasio since his election.
Nonetheless, the recent increase in violent crime, which is part of a national trend, appears to have amplified the detractors' criticism.
“There’s a pendulum swinging the other way, in terms of public policy, and against the left, because de Blasio is seen as a progressive guy,” said Sal Albanese, a Democratic city council candidate in Staten Island who ran against de Blasio for mayor twice.
At the same time, since the police killing of George Floyd
a year ago, de Blasio has been chastised by his left for failing to adequately address police misconduct.
According to these left-wing critics, de Blasio's problem was not that he was too progressive, but that he was not progressive enough, whether it was in terms of reforming policing or making housing more affordable.
Even they admit that these nuances are lost on a segment of the Democratic electorate that already views liberals as unsuited to the managerial responsibilities of the presidency.
The next step in left governance is to say, ‘We are the thing, and we run it.’
Housing Justice for Everyone, Cea Weaver
“He soured people
’s perceptions of progressives’ ability to govern effectively,” said a progressive elected official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Furthermore, due to de Blasio's egocentric style and poor management record, he has failed to cultivate a bench of qualified politicians capable of using his legacy to launch their own careers in elected office.
Only two alumni of de Blasio's administration are among the many candidates running to succeed him: Garcia and Wiley.
Wiley, who is running on a more progressive platform than de Blasio ever did and would be the city's first Black female mayor, boasts that she "voted with [her] feet" when she left de Blasio's team in 2016. (Morales, a Black Latina Brooklyn native who has excited the city's left-wing grassroots, would also make history as the city's first female mayor.)
Meanwhile, Garcia, who left the de Blasio administration in protest and has earned a reputation as a capable manager, is running as a center-left technocrat, breaking with de Blasio's more traditional liberalism on issues such as public education
, expressing support for lifting the city's charter school cap.
Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a state-level advocacy group, believes that the lack of accomplished technocrats with more progressive ideals, such as a left-wing version of Garcia, reflects the growing pains of social movements that are more accustomed to putting pressure on government from the outside.
It's one of the reasons, according to Weaver, that the socialist left has had more success in winning state legislature and city council seats to date.
“The next step for left governance is, ‘We are the thing. We’re running the thing,’” said Weaver, an active member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter, which has not endorsed in the mayoral race. “We need to become the thing that we’re used to targeting and build institutions that are not just outside of government, but governing institutions.”
Scott Stringer's Debacle
Stringer, a former Manhattan borough president and state assemblyman for Manhattan's Upper West Side, quickly enlisted the support of some of New York's most prominent progressive politicians, including Rep. Bowman and state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi, Julia Salazar, and Jessica Ramos, as the mayoral election campaign got underway last fall.
The New York Working Families Party, a major power base for the city's nascent left wing, followed suit in April
, ranking Stringer first as part of a top-three, ranked-choice ballot endorsement, with Morales and Wiley coming in second and third.
Stringer's marriage to the left was not exactly a love affair; he's an unappealing white man with a track record far more moderate than that of many of his more extreme supporters.
Stringer's appeal, however, was clear: he shared de Blasio's mainstream progressive positions while making fewer enemies than the current mayor and earning a reputation for basic administrative competence.
Stringer could point with pride
to his divestment of the city’s pension funds from the private prison
and fossil fuel industries as comptroller, and as a would-be mayoral candidate on the left, he made a point of endorsing some of the city’s most celebrated and controversial left-wing candidates, including the DSA-backed Salazar and Tiffany Cabán, a far-left defense lawyer who nearly won a race f
Moreover, unlike Wiley and Morales, Stringer possessed the government experience, established political base, and mainstream credibility that the activist left saw as its best chance of winning City Hall.
Then, on April 28, Jean Kim, a lobbyist who worked on Stringer's 2001 campaign for New York City Public Advocate, accused Stringer of kissing and groping her without her consent
during the 2001 race.
Stringer immediately denied the allegation while affirming Kim's right to speak out, claiming that Kim, who was in her 30s at the time, was a "peer" who volunteered for the campaign, rather than an "intern," as Kim claimed. He claimed that they had a brief, consensual romantic relationship, remained friends
in subsequent years, and had a falling out only after he failed t
Although a group of women
who backed Stringer called for a “full, impartial accounting of the facts and the corroborating evidence,” the WFP and nearly all of the left-wing lawmakers who backed Stringer withdrew their support less than a week after Kim made the allegation. (The WFP has since switched to an equal co-endorsement of Wiley and Morales.)
The New York WFP justified its decision as a support for sexual assault
survivors, but some observers believe the organization had ulterior motives. “I don’t think their heart was in it for Scott,” said a progressive New York policy consultant who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. “Clearly, none of them really felt any loyalty to him.”
We should be doing the work to deconstruct patriarchy, and you shouldn't be concerned about bad actors.
Citizen Action New York's Stanley Fritz
Sheinkopf was blunter: “He thought he could get away with renting the left for a while, but in the end, what they did was kill him.”
The Intercept confirmed key elements of Stringer's story and unearthed some information that cast further doubt on Kim's. The Intercept confirmed that, contrary to Kim's claims, she had been an adult volunteer for Stringer rather than an intern and remained a dues-paying member of their mutual Democratic club after the alleged incident.
Of course, there is no way to definitively prove or disprove Kim's claims, and discrepancies in those details do not imply that the core of her allegations are false. Kim stuck to her story in a subsequent interview
with The New York Times.
Stringer's supporters, according to some progressive veterans
of New York City politics, backed away too quickly; the WFP, in particular, which prides itself on passing down institutional knowledge from one generation of progressives to the next, should have waited for more information to emerge before making a decision, these critics say.
A progressive New York City political strategist who requested anonymity to protect professional relationships and has no affiliation with Stringer compared the case to other allegations of sexual misconduct that have remained unresolved or withered under scrutiny, such as those leveled against President Joe Biden
Attorney General Keith Ellison
, and Massachusetts
congressional candidate Elizabeth Warren
Each of those cases is distinct; for example, it was discovered that Morse's accuser was attempting to curry favor with a rival campaign.
However, the strategist is concerned that progressive Democrats, in particular, are putting themselves at risk of being targeted in bad faith.
“Are we just going to let any unsubstantiated allegation demolish any viable progressive?” the strategist asked, adding, “If so, the center has a playbook.”
Stanley Fritz, New York state political director for Citizen Action of New York, a WFP member organization, dismissed the notion that bad-faith allegations pose
a real threat to progressive interests.
“We should be doing the work to dismantle patriarchy, and you don't have to worry about bad actors,” he said.
The World Food
Programme told Stardia that the decision was made unanimously by the group's officers after it became clear that Stringer's planned response would be to discredit Kim.
“We approached the moment with the deliberate reflection, discussion, and input from members and leaders that it required, and our officers came to a unanimous decision that we feel is in the best interests of our membership and our city,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York WFP, in a statement.
A Stringer supporter denied the campaign's goal was to discredit Kim.
“We never once commented on Kim’s character, motivations, or anything other than the allegations she made and what she said about her connection to Scott, but there were multiple, demonstrable falsehoods in those statements,” said a Stringer ally who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
Stringer, for his part, has the support of Rep. Jerry Nadler (D), American Federation of Teachers
President Randi Weingarten, and the city's teachers union, as well as the endorsements of a number of other labor unions since the scandal broke.
While none of the Stringer supporters who abandoned him have returned to his side, Bowman told a group of progressive activists on Wednesday that he "sometimes" regrets the decision. Ramos, the first lawmaker to abandon Stringer, told Politico
that Stringer is "still the most qualified person running for mayor."
Some critics wish that New York's progressive institutions had developed a clearer strategy for opposing Yang or Adams. A progressive NYC political strategist suggested that the WFP and other groups should try to clarify for like-minded voters which of the two candidates is worse for progressive priorities, and whether to rank them fifth on a ranked-choice ballot or omit them entirely.
Bowman appeared to be hoping for an alternative plan to stop Yang in his comments to activists, saying, “I hope that we can get to a place where we can figure something out so that doesn’t happen.”
When asked why the WFP had not listed its fourth and fifth choices for mayor, Nnaemeka of the New York WFP did not respond directly.
“On election day
, New Yorkers will have the option of voting for multiple progressive candidates, and we are taking advantage of our multicandidate endorsement to educate voters about ranked-choice voting, what to expect, how it will work, and why ranking progressive candidates is so important,” she said.
Left-Handed People's Silver Linings
Several left-wing New York power brokers insisted that the poor polling performance of their preferred candidates is not entirely surprising.
“We knew this would be a marathon
, not a sprint
,” Fritz said.
After all, the post-2016 left's biggest victories have come in districts with smaller, more progressive populations.
Moreover, despite de Blasio's flaws, no progressive candidate in the current field is capable of replicating his success in uniting college-educated liberals, Black voters, and labor union members behind the same candidate.
“Is it the case that we don’t have progressive institutions with the combination of power, breadth of support, enough discipline, and ability to navigate the coalition that we have in a way to contest strongly for majority support in New York City?” the official asked.
It's one of the reasons why New York City's DSA chapter decided not to run for mayor this time around; the organization, whose strength is its army of door knockers, does not believe it has the resources to compete in a citywide race defined by costly media advertisements.
“We’re trying to be really strategic and realistic about how many races we can fully participate in each year,” said Sumathy Kumar, co-chair of the New York City DSA.
Furthermore, the left's success in Albany has relieved some of the pressure on city politics. For years, the city government was at the mercy of Cuomo, who seemed to relish abusing the state's control over taxation and spending policy to deprive the city of critical resources.
With Cuomo beleaguered by scandals and Democrats commanding veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers, the state legislature increased funding for public schools
and other priorities by raising taxes on the state's wealthiest households.
Progressives have “spent the last two years laser-focused on getting the legislature to stand up to Cuomo,” said Weaver of Housing Justice for All.
At the city level, the WFP and other left-wing lawmakers are still hoping that Brad Lander, a civil rights
attorney and Muslim
, will win the Democratic primary
for comptroller and Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney and Muslim, will win the Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney
Although polling is scarce in those races, election observers believe Lander is an underdog against the better-funded city council president, Corey Johnson, and Aboushi is struggling to break through against the field's top fundraisers, prosecutor Tali Farhadian Weinstein and former deputy state attorney general Alvin Bragg, who is backed by a slew of labor unions and liberal Manhattan voters.
However, in the 51-seat city council, where term limits have resulted in numerous retirements and smaller districts play to the left's strengths, progressive fortunes are looking up. The DSA is backing six candidates, and the WFP has endorsed 28 candidates, including four people who the DSA is also supporting. Cabán, the former DA candidate, is in a strong position to fill an open council seat.
Even Sheinkopf admits that the next city council will be a significant force in city governance.
“Mayor Yang or Mayor Adams will face a restive, left-wing city council with a very different agenda,” he said, adding, “I'm not convinced the left is finished yet.”