For several years now, New York City has been the beating heart of the American left ― a place that showed what was possible when progressive reformers, democratic socialists and Black Lives Matter activists actually gained power.
Voters in the nation’s largest city sent Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman to Congress, won some temporary cuts to the police department budget, and elected a new crop of state lawmakers who strengthened rules protecting renters and raised taxes on the rich.
It comes as something of a surprise then that candidates backed by the city’s activist left are now underdogs in the Democratic mayoral primary on June 22. The winner of that contest is all but assured to win the general election in the solid blue city.
The top two contenders for chief executive of the Big Apple are former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams ― moderate Democrats cozy with the city’s business elite and supportive of traditional policing.
Former city sanitation department commissioner Kathryn Garcia got her first lead in the polls on Tuesday two weeks after picking up the endorsement of The New York Times. She too is running in the moderate lane.
There are three main progressive candidates: New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer; former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley; and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales.
The left-leaning contenders have thus far 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 in serious contention.)
Given the number of voters telling pollsters they are still undecided and the unpredictability of the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, progressives haven’t yet given up hope of sending one of their own to City Hall.
But the left’s difficulties gaining traction in the race reflect real challenges for advocates of transformative change in New York City in particular, and the country in general.
Those obstacles include backlash to current mayor and erstwhile progressive, Bill de Blasio; a violent crime wave sparking calls for tougher policing; skepticism of the left’s managerial chops; the failure to develop a clear plan to stop Yang’s and Adams’ rise; and a sexual misconduct allegation against a leading candidate.
“We have a quote-unquote blue city. But we know that 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 “FAQ NYC” podcast about city politics. “New York’s not as progressive as it purports to be.”
The De Blasio ‘Residue’
The election of Bill de Blasio as mayor in 2013 marked a major leftward turn in New York City 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. He ran on enacting universal prekindergarten, taxing the rich and ending the police practice of “stop and frisk.”
De Blasio’s policy proposals and a viral TV advertisement featuring his biracial son Dante gave liberals hope that the reactionary city politics of the 1980s and ’90s were finally coming to an end.
Once in office, de Blasio won praise early on for several major achievements, including the adoption of universal pre-K and a continuously declining crime rate despite reforms like the near-elimination of stop and frisk.
But in his second term, de Blasio received more and more flak for his feckless governing style.
New Yorkers grew frustrated with what they saw as the declining efficiency of city services, the negative effects of his feud with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), multiple official investigations into the mayor’s campaign-finance tactics, a vanity-fueled run for president, and of course, his lengthy daily car rides to Park Slope, Brooklyn, to work out.
“The left’s residue is Bill de Blasio: 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. “The public does not like being shot or seeing garbage on the streets or seeing a general sense of disorder and chaos.”
Conservative forces in the city ― from big business and the police unions to news outlets like the New York Post ― have had it out for de Blasio from the beginning.
Still, the recent uptick in violent crime, part of a national spike, appears to have increased the resonance of these 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 twice ran against de Blasio for mayor.
At the same time, since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis a year ago, de Blasio has also faced fierce criticism from his left for failing to adequately curb police misconduct.
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 comes to reforming policing or making housing more affordable.
But even they concede that those nuances are lost on a segment of the Democratic electorate that already stereotypes liberals as ill-suited to the managerial duties of an executive office.
“The next step for left governance is, ‘We are the thing. We’re running the thing.’”
“He soured people on the idea that progressives can govern effectively,” said a progressive elected official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
What’s more, because of de Blasio’s egocentric style and poor record as a manager, he failed to cultivate a bench of qualified politicians capable of using his legacy to launch their own careers in elected office.
The large field of candidates to succeed de Blasio includes just two alumni of his administration: Garcia and Wiley.
Both women have actively distanced themselves from their former boss. 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 left-wing grassroots, would also make history as the city’s first Black female mayor and Latina mayor.)
Meanwhile, Garcia, who also quit the de Blasio administration in protest and has earned a reputation as a competent manager, is running as a center-left technocrat. She has broken with de Blasio’s more traditional liberalism on matters like public education, expressing support for lifting the cap on the number of city charter schools.
Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a state-level advocacy group, maintains that the absence of accomplished technocrats with more progressive ideals ― say, a left-wing version of Garcia ― reflects the growing pains of social movements more accustomed to pressuring government from the outside.
It’s one reason, Weaver said, that the socialist left, in particular, has had more success to date winning state legislature and city council seats.
“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 NYC 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 are governing institutions.”
The Scott Stringer Mess
As the mayoral election kicked into gear last fall, Stringer, a former Manhattan borough president and state assemblyman for Manhattan’s Upper West Side, quickly locked up 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.
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. Morales and Wiley nabbed the second and third spots, respectively.
The left’s marriage with Stringer was not exactly a union of passion. He’s an uncharismatic white man with a record that is far more moderate than that of many of his farther-left backers.
Still, Stringer’s appeal was clear. He shared de Blasio’s mainstream progressive positions while making fewer enemies than the current mayor and eliciting a reputation for basic administrative competence.
As comptroller, Stringer could point with pride to his divestment of the city’s pension funds from the private prison and fossil fuel industries. 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 for Queens district attorney in 2019.
And unlike Wiley and Morales, Stringer boasted the government experience, established political base, and mainstream credibility that the activist left saw as its most plausible ticket to City Hall.
Then, on April 28, Jean Kim, a lobbyist who worked on Stringer’s 2001 campaign for NYC 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 come forward. He insisted that Kim ― who was in her 30s at the time ― had been a “peer” who had volunteered for the campaign, rather than an “intern” as Kim claimed to have been. He said that they had a brief, consensual romantic relationship, remained friends in subsequent years, and had a falling out only after he failed to offer her job on his 2013 campaign for comptroller. (The day after the allegations, Stringer’s team also provided the press with an email exchange showing she had asked for a job on the 2013 campaign, contrary to Kim’s claims.)
Although a group of women supporting Stringer called for a “full, impartial accounting of the facts and the corroborating evidence,” the WFP and virtually all of the left-wing lawmakers who endorsed Stringer withdrew their support less than a week after Kim made the allegation. (The WFP has now switched to an equal co-endorsement of Wiley and Morales.)
The New York WFP framed its decision as a stand for survivors of sexual assault, but some observers think that the organization had other motives in mind. “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 dismantle patriarchy and you don’t have to worry about quote-unquote bad actors.”
Sheinkopf was more blunt. “He thought he could get away with renting the left for a period of time, but in fact what they did was kill him,” he said.
A few days later, The Intercept confirmed key elements of Stringer’s story and unearthed some information that cast additional doubt on Kim’s. The Intercept confirmed that, contrary to Kim’s claims, she had been an adult volunteer for Stringer rather than intern and remained a dues-paying member of their mutual Democratic club after the alleged incident. The outlet also reported that former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned amid allegations of domestic abuse, had not introduced Kim to Stringer as Kim claimed.
Of course, there is no way to prove or disprove Kim’s claims definitively, and discrepancies in those details don’t mean the crux of her allegations are untrue. In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Kim stuck to her story.
To some progressive veterans of New York City politics though, Stringer’s endorsers backed away too hastily. The WFP, in particular, which prides itself on transmitting institutional knowledge from one generation of progressives to the next, should have waited for more information to emerge before making a decision, these critics lament.
A progressive New York City political strategist who asked for anonymity to protect professional relationships and does not have any affiliation with Stringer, compared the case to other allegations of sexual misconduct that remained inconclusive or withered under scrutiny, such as the charges against President Joe Biden, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Massachusetts congressional candidate Alex Morse.
Each of those cases is unique; for example, it emerged that Morse’s accuser was trying to curry favor with a rival campaign.
But the strategist worried that progressive Democrats in particular are making themselves vulnerable to bad-faith attacks.
“Are we just going to allow any unsubstantiated allegation to destroy any viable progressive?” the strategist said. “If so, the center has a playbook.”
Stanley Fritz, New York state political director for Citizen Action of New York, a WFP member group, rejected the claim that bad-faith allegations are a real threat to progressive interests.
“We should be doing the work to dismantle patriarchy and you don’t have to worry about quote-unquote bad actors,” he said.
The WFP told HuffPost that the group’s officers had reached the decision unanimously after it became clear that Stringer’s planned response was to try to discredit Kim.
“We approached the moment with the deliberate reflection, discussion and input from members and leaders it required, and our officers came to a unanimous decision that we feel is in the best interest of our membership and our city,” Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York WFP, said in a statement.
A Stringer ally disputed the suggestion that the campaign sought to discredit Kim.
“We never once commented on Kim’s character, on her motivations, or on anything besides the allegations she made and what she said about her connection to Scott ― but there were multiple, demonstrable falsehoods in those statements,” said the Stringer ally, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
For his part, Stringer retains the support of Rep. Jerry Nadler (D), American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and the city’s teachers union. He has also picked up the endorsements of several more labor unions since the scandal broke.
And while none of the Stringer supporters who abandoned him have returned to his side, Bowman told a group of progressive activists that he “sometimes” regrets the decision, according to an article in Politico on Wednesday. Ramos, the first lawmaker to withdraw support from Stringer, told Politico that Stringer is “still the most qualified person running for mayor.”
Some critics also wish that New York’s progressive institutions had at least developed a clearer strategy for blocking Yang or Adams. The 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 altogether.
In Bowman’s comments to activists, he seemed to be hoping for an alternative plan to stop Yang that is not forthcoming. “I hope that we’re able to get to a place where we can figure something out so that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Nnaemeka of the New York WFP did not answer directly when asked why the group had not listed its fourth and fifth choices for mayor.
“New Yorkers will have the option to vote for multiple progressive candidates on election day, and we are using our multicandidate endorsement as an opportunity to educate voters about ranked-choice voting, what to expect, how it will work, and why ranking progressive candidates is so critical,” she said.
Silver Linings For The Left
Several left-wing New York power brokers insisted that the poor standing of their preferred candidates in the polls is not entirely unexpected.
“We always knew that this work was going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Fritz said.
After all, the post-2016 left’s biggest wins have been in districts that comprise smaller, more progressive sections of the city.
And for all of de Blasio’s flaws, no progressive candidate in the current field is in a position to replicate his success uniting college-educated liberals, Black voters, and members of labor unions behind the same candidate.
“Is it the case that we don’t have progressive institutions with the combination of power, a breadth of support, enough discipline, and an ability to navigate the coalition that we have in a way to contest strongly for majority support in New York City?” the official said. “It’s hard not to look at the moment we’re in and not conclude that that’s true.”
It’s one reason why New York City’s DSA chapter decided to sit out the mayoral race this cycle. The organization, whose strength is in its army of door knockers, does not think it has the resources to compete in a citywide race defined by expensive 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 NYC DSA.
In addition, the left’s success in Albany has taken some of the pressure off of city politics. For years, the city government was at the mercy of Cuomo, who seemed to relish using the state’s control over taxing and spending policy to deprive the city of essential resources.
With Cuomo weakened by scandals and Democrats enjoying veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers, the state legislature expanded funding for public schools and other priorities by increasing 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,” Weaver of Housing Justice for All said. “I think we’ve done a tremendous job.”
At the city level, the WFP and other left-wing lawmakers are still hoping that Brad Lander can win the primary for comptroller, and that Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney and Muslim, can clinch the Democratic nomination for Manhattan district attorney.
Although polling is scarce in those races, election watchers believe that Lander is an underdog against the better-funded city council speaker, Corey Johnson. Aboushi is also 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 host of labor unions and liberal Manhattan elected officials.
In the 51-seat city council, though, where term limits have prompted numerous retirements and smaller districts play to the left’s strengths, progressive fortunes are looking up. DSA is backing six candidates and the WFP has endorsed 28 candidates, including four people that the DSA is backing as well. For example, Cabán, the former DA candidate, is in a strong position to fill an open council seat in Astoria, Queens, with both organizations’ support.
Even Sheinkopf concedes that the next city council is likely to be a major force in city governance.
“Mayor Yang or Mayor Adams will be dealing with a restive, left-wing city council with a very different agenda,” he said. “I’m not convinced the left is done yet.”