The Cloudy Crystal Ball of NYC Politics

New York City held its mayoral primaries yesterday. Republicans nominated 70s/80s throwback Curtis Sliwa, a choice that is likely to have zero impact on the final choice of the next mayor. The real battle took place within the Democratic primary. The winner of the primary and what it means for a run off won’t be clear until mid-July – an almost absurd result of the confluence of ranked choice voting, which is being used for the first time in the city, and generous absentee ballot rules. But the clear leader so far is Eric Adams, a retired police captain who is currently the Brooklyn Borough President. The current results are Adams 32%, Maya Wiley 22%, Kathryn Garcia 20% and Andrew Yang 12%.

Adams is black. He ran on a pro-police, pro-law enforcement platform. Polls suggest his key bases of support were black voters, voters without a college education and voters who don’t reside in Manhattan. He had strong support among the city’s unions and is in many ways a traditional machine politician.

It’s probably the case that Adams being black allowed him to run successfully on a tough on crime platform. Both his race and the fact that he traces his decision to become a police officer to a police beating he endured as a teen both serve to inoculate him from the racialized dimensions of tough on crime politics. It’s hard to imagine a white candidate being able to pull that off in New York City in 2021. But his success shows clearly the salience of tough on crime politics coming out of the pandemic, even in one of the country’s most progressive cities. Perhaps, put a bit differently, it shows the power of running against ‘defund the police’ type activism.

Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney, former DeBlasio advisor and cable TV pundit, was the most prominent progressive candidate and the only major candidate to run on budget reductions for the NYPD. At least so far she appears to be coming in second, just ahead of Kathryn Garcia, another candidate who ran as a somewhat more technocratic/managerial than ideological candidate.

None of these candidates are conservatives, despite what some of Adams critics claim. But they capture a quasi two party dynamic in a generally progressive, majority non-white city. You have a progressive bloc associated with leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and DSA-supported candidates. Those are supported by white progressives, especially in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and younger voters of all races. Then you have older, often home-owning black and brown voters outside of Manhattan with more traditional cultural politics and ideas about law enforcement. Education is also a key driver of the division, much as it is in national politics.

It’s easy to look at this and cast a picture of progressive white liberals dominating the media conversation about city politics and being rejected by a pro-cop black candidate. And, candidly, that is how I see it to a significant degree. But it’s at least more complicated than that. The City Council has drifted left during Bill deBlasio’s mayoralty and progressives appear to be doing better in the City Council races. It’s also worth noting that Adams, while in a strong lead, has only about a third of the vote and – to the extent conventional left-right definitions hold up in this context – most of the other support is arguably to his left.

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