Last week, after months of backroom intrigue, the New York City Council selected its next speaker. A council member from Queens, Adrienne Adams, announced she had the majority of votes needed to lead the body. She will be confirmed when the new legislature meets in January.
Adrienne Adams (of no relation to the incoming mayor, Eric Adams) was an unlikely choice. She had never been regarded as a front-runner for the position; until recently she was mostly an afterthought among her colleagues. She will be the first speaker in twenty years to not come from Manhattan. Before her ascension to the city’s second most powerful elected position, which negotiates the $90 billion municipal budget with the mayor, she was not known for shepherding significant pieces of legislation or harboring aspirations of higher office.
Ironically, it was the victory of Adrienne Adams that signaled the first political defeat of the coming Eric Adams mayoralty. Despite what the two Democrats have in common — they are both black, are the same age, and attended the same Queens high school — Adrienne Adams was not the future mayor’s first pick for speaker. Instead, Eric Adams openly preferred another top candidate, Francisco Moya, deputizing his aides to whip votes behind the scenes and even threaten members who wouldn’t go along with his choice. Adams wanted Moya, in part, because he believed the councilman would be a close ally and could also placate Latinos who were calling for a speaker to come from their community.
The gambit had precedent — Bill de Blasio had helped install a preferred City Council speaker back in 2014 — but backfired spectacularly this time. Incoming and veteran city council members bristled at the idea of Eric Adams so blatantly interfering in a legislative contest. Both Eric Adams–aligned moderates and young progressives coming into the City Council for the first time recoiled at the imposition of Moya, a less than impressive political veteran with little organic support. Even several large labor unions, attempting to play a decisive role in the contest, decided to move against the mayor-elect.
In a matter of days, most of the top candidates for speaker had dropped out of the race to stop Moya. They settled on Adrienne Adams, who at least was well-liked by members and promised more independence for the body. From an ideological standpoint, there isn’t much that separates the two Democrats. Each oppose cutting funding to the New York Police Department budget and are aligned, largely, with the city’s business class. Both want to keep the brutal solitary confinement practice in city jails. Mayor Adams doesn’t have much to fear, politically, from the Adrienne Adams speakership.
But the outcome reveals a disturbing truth for the new mayor: his political capital is probably at its zenith right now and yet it was not enough to drive through the candidate of his choice. What makes Eric Adams such a tough opponent for leftists and liberals is that he has both the support of working-class black and Latinos, and a finance and real estate class that has governed the city’s affairs for decades. Such a combination makes him something akin to a populist Michael Bloomberg, able to tamp down left-wing opposition on identity grounds while doing the bidding of a powerful business class.
The loss of the speaker’s race shows, though, that the legislature won’t be intimidated by Eric Adams. At a minimum, even if Adrienne Adams aligns fully with Eric Adams, she will have a difficult time taming a restive and ideologically diverse legislative body, with a mix of socialists, moderates, and outright Trump supporters. With term limits in place, speakers have only so much power to corral members. Certain new members, like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–backed Tiffany Cabán, are fluent in social media and able to command their own bully pulpits to push legislation in the press.
Many of the new lawmakers are progressives who were elected in districts where Adams is not popular. Two belong to DSA and many more ideologically overlap with the socialist organization. There are probably at least a dozen left-leaning members, maybe more, who can organize against Adams, along with a state legislature with many progressives who can check the new mayor’s more retrograde ambitions, like rolling back bail reform laws passed in 2019.
Eric Adams will have many weapons at his disposal as a new mayor. The media, particularly the tabloids, has been friendly to him so far, with the New York Post consistently offering cover. Capital is on his side. His political skills, though, might be in question, with one speaker’s race defeat under his belt. Being mayor is very different than running for mayor. Soon, Adams will find out just how different.