The NYC Left Contemplates the Eric Adams Era

In a few months, the New York City Council will elect a new speaker for the first time since AOC’s 2018 shock victory shook up city politics. A strong left bloc in the city council could check mayor-elect Eric Adams’s law-and-order politics.

New York City mayor-elect Eric Adams speaks to supporters during an election victory party at the Brooklyn Marriott on November 2, 2021. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Eric Adams breezed to victory against nominal Republican opposition. In January, he will be sworn in as New York’s 110th mayor, inaugurating a new and unpredictable era for the city. Adams, a former police captain, ran as an unabashed law-and-order moderate, promising to tame rising leftists in the five boroughs. An ally of the real estate industry and the police, he will not be easily combated.

But the Adams victory is not quite the end of election season in New York. One more race must be decided. No voters, though, will get to weigh in. It is, in many ways, the ultimate insider’s contest.

Just as Adams takes office in January, the New York City Council will elect a new speaker. The speaker is the city’s second most powerful elected official, the governing partner with a much stronger mayor. The speaker leads the fifty-one-member legislature, largely Democratic, and shepherds bills into law. Most crucially, the speaker hashes out the municipal budget with the mayor, which now accounts for nearly $100 billion in spending. The city, with a population close to 9 million, outspends most states.

For the broad left, the city council provides a chance to have tremendous influence over city affairs despite Adams’s hostility. City lawmakers are limited to two four-year terms, making the speaker’s race a quadrennial tradition, with the most senior council members vying for the job. Council members select their own speaker. Candidates hustle behind the scenes for votes.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory in 2018 will play a direct role in how this speaker’s race shakes out. For the last twenty years, with a few exceptions, the Queens Democratic Party has played a decisive role in choosing a speaker, whipping Queens lawmakers together to form a bloc. The man Ocasio-Cortez defeated, Joe Crowley, was the leader of the Queens machine, and had helped to elect at least two prior speakers. Crowley’s exit has severely weakened the party, making this particular election much more of a free-for-all.

Adams, like Bill de Blasio eight years ago, will probably seek to influence the outcome. With the outer-borough Democratic organizations weakened, newer power brokers have emerged. Certain members of Congress, like Adriano Espaillat and Nydia Velázquez, have preferred candidates. Several large labor unions could join with Adams at some point in the next month and try to steer the backroom contest.

None of the candidates for speaker are active Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members and some are wary of progressives in general. A few, including Francisco Moya of Queens and Justin Brannan of Brooklyn, are closer to Eric Adams. Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, has tried to build bridges between pro- and anti-Adams factions. The most progressive of the candidates is probably Carlina Rivera, another Manhattan lawmaker, who once joined DSA. Facing backlash from some moderates in the city council and straining to reach the twenty-six votes needed — a majority — to become speaker, Rivera has edged away from leftists.

The truth is that the Left does not need one of their own to have influence in the next city council. Due to term limits and the city council’s tradition of choosing speakers who only have one term left in the body, each speaker has been weaker than the last and individual members continue to gain clout. In 2022, there will be only two DSA-endorsed members, but many more who ran on DSA-like platforms, like cutting police funding and strengthening tenant protections, will enter the chamber. There might be as many as fifteen council members either sympathetic to DSA or the Working Families Party (WFP), a significant number that will be highly influential in budget negotiations and the passage of bills. At the same time, the city council is adding Republicans and open Donald Trump supporters, making a progressive bulwark all the more crucial.

What bills will DSA and WFP prioritize? On at least one piece of legislation there is alignment with Adams — all support the right of noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. Beyond that, the two sides will diverge. Adams will seek to increase funding and further militarize the NYPD, while a sizable number of progressives, including DSA member Tiffany Cabán, will campaign to slash the size of the department. Progressives and leftists want to grow the number of mental health professionals responding to 911 calls, building on a pilot program launched by the de Blasio administration. They also want to remove NYPD officers from public schools altogether, a move likely to be opposed by Adams.

There will be a strong push for the Adams administration to build far more deeply affordable housing for the homeless and poor, an initiative the new mayor may support in theory, but will run against the interests of the real estate elites who funded his campaign. Leftists in the city council want to see the new mayor ensure that housing built on publicly owned land is exclusively affordable. Enforcement of existing climate laws, like Local Law 97 — a broad effort to make New York carbon neutral by 2050 — will be needed, particularly if they begin to undercut the immediate interests of capital.

The new left lawmakers can, where possible, force Adams to do more. City parks and libraries never get a big enough chunk of the municipal budget. The City University of New York, a creature of the state system, needs far more help from Albany, but the city can generously increase its contribution to the community colleges, which it largely funds. De Blasio never faced enough pressure from the city council’s progressive wing; comity often reined, and lawmakers hesitated to confront the outgoing mayor.

The new progressives are unlikely to be deferential to Adams for long. Many of them represent districts that supported other mayoral candidates. They will face their own deep challenges, especially as New York grapples with a potential pandemic-induced budget shortfall. Next year, politically at least, may be one of the more tumultuous periods the city has seen in recent times.