How the Left Is Hoping To Reshape the New York City Council
In the wake of the pandemic, New Yorkers are either clamoring for normalcy or restless for change, depending on who’s telling the story. A tide of progressive candidates and their allies have been betting on the latter, working to move the New York City Council leftward with a large slate of formidable campaigns competing in this year’s elections.
All of city government is on the ballot this year. Voting finished Tuesday in the all-important primary elections for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidencies, and City Council. While a handful of races have yielded clear results already, a majority will depend on absentee votes and the ranked-choice vote tabulations, which will take weeks to fully process. All 51 Council seats are on the ballot in the fall, and almost all of them had competitive Democratic primaries. There are only three Republicans in the Council now.
Due to term limits, 32 current Council members are not running again, leaving a large number of seats open. Some incumbent Democrats have been challenged in their reelection bids, including in several cases by opponents from the left.
Various activist groups and other political entities have been backing a long, mostly-overlapping list of progressive candidates for the Council. In a number of races across the five boroughs, there has been a clear progressive frontrunner, while in others there’s been a difficult to predict progressive-moderate faceoff, and in still others a number of competitive candidates who fall at different spots on the ideological spectrum, which itself isn’t always clear across various issues.
Across the city, the Democratic Party’s internal battles played out in the diverse set of City Council districts that make up the most diverse city in the world. A small number of races yielded clear results on primary night, with few candidates able to undoubtedly call themselves victorious based on their margins from in-person votes.
Taken as a whole, early results indicate a relatively successful night for progressives, particularly those running in open seats. But a handful of key district races remain up in the air.
Balance of Power
Even before the pandemic and last summer’s widespread protests against police abuses, progressive groups and candidates were eyeing this year’s elections as an opportunity to move the Council and thus city government further to the left. In some ways, the devastation of COVID-19 has made the message more urgent, while a significant increase in gun violence has undercut some leftward movement on calls to reform and defund the police.
Some now see the pandemic recovery period as an opportune moment to more aggressively pursue equity-driven policies and better fund social services. At the height of the pandemic, widely circulated maps of infection rates and unemployment laid bare the city’s neighborhood-to-neighborhood inequities. The virus hit hardest in low-income, Black, Latino, and immigrant communities, where joblessness rates also soared. Issues like poor pre-existing health conditions, crowded apartments and shelters, underfunded public hospitals, and unequal access to Internet and technology took on new urgency in context of the pandemic.
Progressive politicians have also built off of the energy of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, after the police killing of George Floyd. Police brutality against protesters then led to additional calls for reform and reducing the NYPD budget to reinvest in social work, mental health care, community programs, and more.
A host of community and political advocacy organizations and the candidates they support have placed defunding the police as a top priority this election cycle, even as that push has appeared stalled as the current City Council and Mayor negotiate their final budget, due July 1, amid an ongoing spike in shootings and murders. Progressive groups and candidates argue that the police department, funded at very high levels, has not been able to quell the violence and the answer is more investments in communities, not policing, to prevent gun violence in the first place.
City Council races have taken on a particular significance in this election for progressives, even as many hope that Maya Wiley prevails in the mayoral race despite Eric Adams’ lead after the initial tally of in-person votes.
The Council’s term-limited members include current Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is running for comptroller, meaning that a new leader will take the helm of the legislative body next year, as voted on by the new class of Council members seated in January. With several more moderate candidates Adams and Kathryn Garcia in the final mayoral primary race running alongside Wiley, some on the left are hoping that a wave of new progressive Council members will act as a check against more centrist executive policies.
Progressive organizations put forward various slates of City Council endorsements, often overlapping in their endorsements. In some cases, as with the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists, an endorsement comes with different types of institutional support, from strategy consulting to volunteers to fundraising assistance.
This year, the Working Families Party endorsed 30 candidates in 27 districts for City Council races. In a memo, the organization declared its City Council slate “the largest, most diverse and most progressive group in party history.” In three Council races, the Working Families Party endorsed multiple candidates — sometimes with ranked recommendations and sometimes without. Progressive activist group Citizen Action of New York endorsed 22 candidates in 15 districts, taking full advantage of the ranked choice system by offering suggested rankings in a number of races. And, in another of many examples, New York Communities for Change endorsed 25 candidates, with just one dual endorsement in Brooklyn’s District 39.
The New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), meanwhile, supported only six candidates in separate Council districts, concentrating resources on those who explicitly identify as socialists and noting that “12% of the City Council could be socialist.”
Those candidates are the 22nd district’s Tiffany Cabán, the 23rd district’s Jaslin Kaur, the 14th district’s Adolfo Abreu, the 35th district’s Michael Hollingsworth, the 38th district’s Alexa Avilés, and the 39th district’s Brandon West. Cabán has emerged victorious, while the other DSA candidates are still awaiting results, though Abreu appears unlikely to prevail.
These and other leftist organizations have generally issued aligned endorsements — with some exceptions. One outlier is in Brooklyn’s District 39 race, where the two leading progressives — West and Shahana Hanif — received diverging endorsements from DSA and the Working Families Party, respectively. Both candidates won support from New York Communities for Change and Citizen Action of New York. While no winner has been determined in that race yet, Hanif and West are the two frontrunners based on initial results, having received 32.42% and 22.52% of the in-person votes, respectively.
Organizations have coalesced around favorites like District 22’s Cabán, who narrowly lost a high-profile race for Queens District Attorney in 2019; District 26’s Amit Bagga; District 32’s Felicia Singh; District 33’s Lincoln Restler; District 16’s Althea Stevens; District 34’s Jennifer Gutiérrez; District 38’s Avilés; District 13’s Marjorie Velázquez; and District 23’s Kaur, among others. A vast majority of endorsed candidates among these organizations are people of color, and a significant percentage are women.
The endorsements reflect a strategic focus on Brooklyn and Queens Council seats this election cycle; for each of the above organizations, the majority of backed candidates are running in those two boroughs, where progressive activism has thrived in recent years, especially in certain areas, and a number of leftist candidates have won state legislative seats, including a DSA caucus of sorts that now counts five members of the Senate and Assembly from Brooklyn and Queens.
More Initial Tallies
Early results show at least five definitive victories for progressives, including several women of color: Cabán declared victory with 49.4% of the in-person vote, plus Stevens, Velázquez, Gutiérrez, and incumbent Carlina Rivera in Manhattan’s 2nd district. (WFP-backed incumbent Council Member Justin Brannan of Brooklyn did not face a primary in his reelection bid.)
One progressive attempt to take out an incumbent appears to have been successful. In Brooklyn’s 37th district, insurgent challenger Sandy Nurse has received 51.58% of tallied first-choice votes so far, according to the New York City Board of Elections’ unofficial tally, almost sure to beat incumbent Council Member Darma Diaz. While Nurse herself hasn’t declared a win yet, the Working Families Party has counted her among victorious candidates in its press announcements.
In two Brooklyn races awaiting ranked-choice vote tabulations, progressive favorites are ahead. In the 33rd district, Restler is comfortably leading with just over 48% of in-person first choice votes. And in the 38th district, Aviles has captured 43.46% of reported in-person first choice votes, with the rest split among her five competitors.
A handful of Queens districts, meanwhile, are too close to predict. In the 26th district, Bagga is neck in neck with Julie Won. In the 32nd district, Singh has a narrow lead with 36.25% of in-person first choice votes, barely ahead of Michael Scala’s 34.96%. And in the 23rd district, Kaur has garnered 26.37% of reported in-person first choice votes, currently behind frontrunner Linda Lee.
Meanwhile, in at least three districts, insurgent candidates who challenged incumbents in the primary from the left lost their bids to unseat incumbents.
Insurgent Moumita Ahmed lost to incumbent Jim Gennaro in Queens’ 24th district; Juan Ardila lost to Bob Holden in Queens’ 30th district; and Anthony Beckford lost to Farah Louis in Brooklyn’s 45th district.
Ingrid Gomez appears to be losing her leftist challenge to incumbent Francisco Moya in Queens’ 21st district as well; in that district, 83% of votes have been counted so far, of which Moya has garnered over 52%.
Reshaping Post-Pandemic New York City
For progressive groups whose members are predominantly immigrants, low-income families, and people of color, the pandemic posed a number of barriers to political organizing.
Theo Oshiro, the co-director of Make the Road Action, a political organization with over 23,000 largely working-class and immigrant members in the Greater New York City area, said his organization ordinarily relies on relationship building and face-to-face communication in its advocacy. “We’re very much an organization that runs on being in spaces with our people together, talking about the issues, breaking bread together, building relationships, and engaging in our electoral process in an in-person, personal way,” he said. “The pandemic has put up some barriers in our ability to convene, to get information out to the community.”
As more of Make the Road’s members struggled to make ends meet, organizing work grew more difficult. “It’s extremely hard to think about who will be your next Council member when you’re not able to put food on the table,” Oshiro said.
Despite these challenges, progressive advocates have been energized in the wake of what the pandemic revealed about city leadership.
The pandemic “put in strong focus a lot of injustices and inequalities that exist in our communities,” said Oshiro. “They are inequalities that have long been simmering in our neighborhoods” — but they became more visible than ever when COVID-19 swept across the city.
Sochi Nnaemeka, the director of the Working Families Party’s New York chapter, noted that the collision of the pandemic with protests against police brutality put the city’s budgetary priorities into relief. Confronted with “the fragility of our city infrastructure as we tried to navigate our way from COVID… New Yorkers were reckoning with the years of disinvestment and austerity that our communities have faced,” she said. In contrast, as the NYPD responded to Black Lives Matter protests with riot gear, “we saw this overfunded militarized police presence,” Nnaemeka said.
This combination of events led to calls for more profound change on issues like criminal justice, healthcare, and housing. “Voters were ready to talk about transformation and ready to reject the piecemeal, reformist, patchwork policies [from] establishment candidates,” Nnaemeka said.
Notably, Nnaemeka pointed out, progressive candidates have spoken of a city in “crisis” for years, referring to everything from the threats of climate change to the affordable housing shortage and crumbling public housing to the lack of universal health insurance and well-resourced schools. COVID-19 put a stronger sense of urgency to those crises, she said.
While the pandemic has in many ways made political involvement more difficult, the spring elections were occurring as vaccination rates were rising, covid rates plummeting, and the economy reopening. “We’ve had a massive surge of enthusiasm,” said Michael Whitesides, a spokesperson for the New York City Democratic Socialists. A wave of new volunteers signed up with the DSA over the past year, they said.
“Our community members are resilient,” Oshiro emphasized.
From Mutual Aid to a Government that “Cares”
One of the launching points for many progressive political newcomers during the pandemic was the groundswell of mutual aid networks across the city — groups of neighbors, often formed on social media, that helped one another meet urgent needs, created community fridges and pantries, and sometimes mobilized for political action. Mutual aid stepped in to fulfill basic needs — like food or educational support — that government failed to meet. Mutual aid networks enact a miniature version of the resource redistribution that progressives call for; they make the project of sharing assistance and assets among neighbors immediate and tangible.
A handful of City Council candidates this election season started mutual aid efforts in their communities, including Crystal Hudson in the 35th district, Gómez in the 21st district, and Nurse in the 37th district.
The philosophy underpinning mutual aid — the notion that sharing resources with one another is an intrinsic part of community, rather than an act of charity — has bled into many candidates’ platforms. Terms like “co-governance” — referring to community-driven policies rather than top-down decision-making — and “community care” — an expanded version of the term “self-care,” linking personal well-being to communal health — have popped up in a number of Council races. And the slate of progressives running for City Council is promising to expand social services and fund safety nets, pledging to close the gaps that mutual aid networks have filled over the past year.
While notions of justice, transformation, and taking on corporate power continue to pervade campaign promises, the Working Families Party has notably reframed its entire platform around the word “care.” On its website, the Working Families Party has framed most of its policy goals within the categories of “Care for the Wronged” (addressing systemic racism), “Emergency Care” (including pandemic recovery efforts), “Care for each other” (including free healthcare and more affordable housing), and “Care for the Future” (referring largely to climate change resilience.) This new language, which in some ways matches pieces of Wiley’s mayoral platform, speaks to a need for comforting leadership as the pandemic leaves behind profound uncertainty and material insecurity. And it suggests a vision of government modeled off of relationship-driven mutual aid efforts.
“What we’re hearing from New Yorkers across the board was that they did not feel cared for by government. We cared for each other,” said Nnaemeka. She called for leaders to “scale up massive mutual aid efforts, not as government leaders but as community organizers.”
One of the clearest examples of what this would look like under progressive leadership has emerged in pledges to defund the NYPD by billions of dollars and reinvest in communities and social services. Policing is one of the major issues motivating Council candidates on the left, who are calling out police brutality against Black, Latino, and LGBTQ New Yorkers. Candidates are campaigning on visions of alternative first responder groups addressing homelessness, mental health-related calls, and school enforcement. They are also frequently calling for the decriminalization of sex work and marijuana.
Progressives advocate for a shift away from incarceration and toward programs focused on rehabilitation and restorative justice as well. Many support the closure of Rikers Island jails while opposing plans to create four smaller jails in its place.
Oshiro said that Make the Road Action members, many of whom live near the organization’s chapters in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like Bushwick and Jackson Heights, have pressed candidates seeking endorsement especially on the question of whether they would reallocate funding from the police to social services. In addition to unarmed first responder alternatives, Adilka Pimentel, a lead organizer for Make the Road, named adult education, programs for children and teenagers, and health services as areas that the police budget could help fund instead.
Compared to previous years, “City Council candidates are coming in with a clearer mandate about divesting from NYPD and investing in more community resources,” Nnaemeka said.
Organizations are taking up this mandate to varying extents. On their websites, the New York City DSA calls explicitly for a “path to ultimate abolition of the carceral system,” while Citizen Action of New York expresses commitment to “expanded funding of mental health services, substance use programming, affordable housing, public education and supportive community based services to address the root causes of poverty and crime.”
Another key issue is affordable housing development — an issue especially relevant to the City Council, which oversees land use decisions across the city. Progressive organizations have united around calls for more “deeply affordable housing,” arguing that the de Blasio administration’s inclusionary zoning efforts have not required enough affordable units per development and that the affordable housing has not been affordable enough, not has the city sought to create enough affordable housing in white, wealthier areas of the city.
Non-profit development and tenant ownership models have become particularly popular on the left. Through a joint report, a number of local organizations including VOCAL-NY and Make the Road New York expressed strong support for Community Land Trust systems — democratically governed collectives which typically offer long-term renewable leases to low-income residents — and favors non-profit developers over private developers.
In turn, candidates on the left tend to support a tough stance toward private developers, coming out against a culture of “member deference” in which City Council members tend to vote with the Council member whose district includes the development at hand. Critics of member deference argue that the system allows developers to strike deals with Council members without resistance from the rest of the council.
“Our members have been displaced,” Oshiro said. “Our city everywhere is becoming much too expensive for our community members.”
Progressives are also running on tenant power platforms, including pushing for more New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) funding to make sorely-needed repairs and opposing plans to privatize the housing authority in any way. By and large, leftists want a massive infusion of federal funds to repair the crumbling public housing, and call for raising taxes on high earners as needed.
Many progressive candidates have pushed for more rental support for small businesses as well, such as commercial rent control policies.
In addition to housing and policing, the DSA has prioritized labor rights, wary of the potential for a union-unfriendly mayor to influence contracts. “There are mayoral candidates we’re very concerned about,” said Whitesides, who declined to name specific candidates, though Andrew Yang is most-often seen as the least union-friendly leading candidate in the mayoral race.
The organization has emphasized accounting for inflation in the minimum wage; allowing workers to accept tips without reducing their guaranteed wages; instituting a thirty-hour work week, three weeks of paid vacation, and two weeks of paid sick leave; and bolstering job and wage security for gig economy workers.
Make the Road Action has additionally focused on immigrant rights, pushing for a continued ban on city agencies’ collaboration with ICE and for non-citizen residents of New York to gain voting rights in municipal elections.
And climate change has loomed large, particularly in a handful of waterfront Council districts that are most immediately vulnerable to sea level rise. The Working Families Party has made climate issues a key priority, supporting transitioning away from fossil fuels and investing in environmental resilience with particular attention to low-income communities of color. A number of endorsed candidates have pledged to support local and even district-level versions of the Green New Deal; these plans, like those put forward by Ingrid Gómez and Amit Bagga, combine job training and job creation efforts, infrastructure upgrades, and sustainable development and retrofitting projects. Candidates are also coming out in strong support of renewable energy initiatives and structural protections against rising sea levels.
Other progressive priorities that candidates have pushed for include making CUNY free or less expensive; expanding free or low-cost childcare; expanding NYC Care, the city’s low-cost healthcare program, and public hospital funding; supporting safer transit and biking infrastructure; and in some cases, as with Hanif in District 39 and Singh in District 32, helping taxi drivers survive industry-wide turmoil. Singh has seen the tax medallion crisis firsthand.
The Ranked-Choice Twist
The city’s new ranked-choice voting system has shaken up political strategizing on the left, and it’s difficult to predict how ranked-choice voting will affect progressive candidates’ chances.
Some leftist political groups have supported the new voting system. Make the Road Action’s co-director, Oshiro, told Gotham Gazette that a ranked-choice system lets people vote according to the issues they believe in rather than worrying about the candidate with the most likely chance of winning. “This system really does allow for people to vote with their values,” Oshiro said, rather than encouraging people to “just pick the lesser of two evils.”
Nnaemeka, of the Working Families Party, argued that ranked-choice voting allowed for a more representative slate of candidates to run for office. Women and candidates of color don’t have to worry as much about cutting into each other’s votes under the new system, she said. Establishment Democrats have less influence over who runs, partly because running an insurgent campaign doesn’t come with the risk of splitting the vote.
On the flip side, some argue that ranked-choice voting favors moderate and centrist candidates who are often ranked lower down on the ballots of voters on both ends of the political spectrum. This might hurt some of the more radical candidates running on a progressive platform.
Still, Nnaemeka suggested that ranked-choice voting could hold politicians accountable to a wider swath of the electorate. “It forces candidates to compete for all votes,” she said of the new system. “You can’t just win by having a slice of the pie. You have to compete for everyone’s votes, which means that you’re accountable to far more people, and your base is much broader.”
Oshiro also noted a decline in negative campaigning as a result of ranked choice voting, which he said “counteracted the demoralizing nature of politics.” The collaboration between candidates that ranked choice systems encourage could help excite voters about local races, he said.
Critics of ranked-choice voting say that the system can be confusing or overwhelming, which might particularly affect low-income residents with less time to devote to learning the ins and outs of the new system. While candidates, organizations, and the city itself have made efforts to educate voters about how ranked choice works, two mayoral candidates and a number of council members, including the leaders of Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, have expressed concerns that the system will depress voter participation among communities of color. Data on how ranked-choice voting affects turnout is limited, but there is some indication that ranked choice could slightly increase turnout, particularly among young people.
The Democratic Socialists of America’s New York chapter took a relatively careful approach to ranked choice. The organization has endorsed only six Council candidates, none of whom overlap districts. “New York City will be the largest municipality to ever implement it on this level,” said spokesperson Michael Whitesides. “We’re operating a little cautiously with it.”
The new system is a “big unknown,” they said.
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