Gotham Gazette

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What's the Gap Between Progressive Politics and Communities of Color in New York City?

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Eric Adams in Brooklyn (photo: office of Eric Adams)

When Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams won the Democratic mayoral primary, to some it signalled a rebuke of the growing progressive movement in the city and called into question whether more left-wing candidates can win in communities of color. After recent years of electing an increasing number of progressives in local, state, and federal elections, New York City had chosen a moderate NYPD veteran and one-time Republican as its likely next mayor.

Older Black and Latino voters flocked to Adams, who is Black and pitched a message of restoring order and public safety while also pursuing police reform, as younger voters of color mostly cast their votes with avowedly progressive candidates who finished no better than third.

But to activists, experts, and elected officials, the question of a possible political divide in communities of color is far more nuanced and doesn’t easily break down along generational, ethnic, or even ideological grounds.

Some, including Adams himself, see something of a mixed message: while Adams calls himself progressive and indeed much of his background and platform could be characterized as such, he has also framed his own win as a set-back for the city’s leftists. Adams has often drawn a distinction between long-time liberals active in city politics like himself and younger activists, some of whom have helped grow the city branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has helped elect a growing list of legislators at all three levels of government. “Social media does not pick a candidate," Adams argued repeatedly. "People on social security pick a candidate.”

In the mayoral primary, progressive officials and activists largely wound up rallying behind Maya Wiley, a Black civil rights attorney who ran on reinvesting $1 billion in police funding into community programs, clashed with Adams at times on public safety policies, and received the second most first-rank votes but ultimately finished third in the ranked-choice runoff. While Wiley was unable to break through or best Adams in many communities of color across the five boroughs, she was also at major disadvantages to him going into the race, including never having run for office before and running a much shorter campaign, raising far less money than Adams. But, Adams ran a very strong race, dominating in the vast majority of areas with larger populations of Black and Latino voters.

Overall, the city’s consequential primary election wasn’t by any stretch a death knell for the progressive left. Progressives notched several major victories in races almost certain to determine much of the next city government class that will take office in January.

City Council Member Brad Lander, the furthest left candidate in his race, won citywide in the Democratic comptroller primary – though he performed far better in white neighborhoods than in communities of color. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a staunch progressive, is sailing to an easy reelection in his citywide post. Alvin Bragg, a former chief Deputy New York Attorney General who was endorsed by several prominent progressive groups and individuals, won the Democratic nomination for Manhattan District Attorney. Antonio Reynoso, one of the left’s rising stars, won the Democratic primary to succeed Adams as Brooklyn Borough President.

And the City Council will see its next class include many progressive members, a number of whom were backed by the Working Families Party and progressive advocacy groups, with two endorsed by the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America — though the NYC-DSA lost its other four Council races. Another socialist won a Harlem Council primary without the DSA’s official support.

While Adams may stand out for his combination of pro-business, pro-real estate, pro-charter school, and tough-on-crime positions, he also ran on progressive ideas like reforming the police department in a number of ways, improving access to city services and benefits, upzoning wealthier communities to add and integrate housing, and closing racial disparities in health and education through a wide variety of measures. Though not always taking the left-most stances, Adams has also promised what could be categorized as progressive policies on transit and more.

That the mayoral race was dominated by the more centrist candidates was evident from early polls. Adams and entrepreneur Andrew Yang – who largely ran as a moderate though he also supported several progressive policies – both emerged at or near the top and remained there until former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, another moderate on certain high-profile leftist priorities like divesting from the police, surged late in the race to end up in second place, narrowly losing to Adams. Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, became the progressive candidate with any chance to win but could not pull the needed white voters from Garcia or Black and Latino voters from Adams. She finished third and Yang, who dominated in neighborhoods with large Asian populations, followed a distant fourth.

What set the candidates in the center apart from those on the left was, most prominently, their positions on policing and public safety, which became the top overall concern for primary voters during the race given what was an ongoing spike in gun violence. The race carried echoes of the intense 2020 debate spurred by the “Defund the NYPD” movement after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and larger Black Lives Matter movement that refocused on police abuses in the five boroughs.

Though they subscribed to a number of reforms and elements of a “holistic approach” to public safety, Adams, Garcia, and Yang -- three of the top four finishers -- all opposed significant reductions to police funding or sweeping removal of police from responding to certain issues like mental health crises or homelessness.

Adams’ experience as an NYPD officer and his willingness to defend the police department from budgetary cuts while also speaking of the need for police accountability gave him credibility with many primary voters, especially middle-aged and older voters who want a strong but fair police presence. Progressives too spoke of the need to tackle violent crime but advocated at the same time for diverting funds away from police and into communities in need through programs addressing root causes.

Adams promises both, though his formula is more moderate than those promoted by Wiley, progressive activists, and others. Throughout the campaign Wiley criticized Adams’ stances on policing and stood by her public safety plan that called for shifting $1 billion from the NYPD (she repeatedly declined to use “defund” nomenclature) and investing in communities, including “trauma-informed care.”

Those distinctions between the candidates in ideology and messaging may have made key differences with the Democratic primary electorate.

According to an NY1/Ipsos Poll released June 7, out of 876 likely Democratic voters, 24% identified as more progressive or left-leaning than the Democratic Party, 22% said they were more centrist or conservative, and 52% said they were generally in line with the Democratic Party.

Nationally, white voters are trending towards identifying as liberal at higher rates than Black or Hispanic voters. According to a Gallup poll from February 2019, between 2001 and 2018, non-Hispanic white Democrats who identified as liberal rose from 34% to 54%. Among Hispanic Democrats, that increase was 9 points, from 29% to 38%, and eight points among Black Democrats, from 25% to 33%.

According to the poll, between 2013-2018, among Democrats who identified as liberal, 65% were white, 17% were Black and 13% Hispanic. Among moderate Democrats, 52% were white, 28% were Black and 16% were Hispanic. White voters made up 40% of conservative Democrats, while Black voters stood at 35% and Hispanic voters at 22%.

An analysis in June by FiveThirtyEight based on four recent Democratic primaries (the 2016 presidential, governor and lieutenant governor primary in 2018 and the attorney general primary that same year) found that major parts of the Bronx, Central and Eastern Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens – all home to majority Black and Latino communities – tended to vote for establishment Democrats over progressive outsiders. 

Adams was propelled to victory by those communities, the moderate Black and Latino voters in Central and Eastern Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, and almost the entire Bronx. Moderate white voters in parts of Eastern Queens, Staten Island’s North Shore, and in Southern Brooklyn also tilted towards him, according to an election map of in-person votes created by Steve Romalewski, director of the mapping service at Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

According to data provided to the New York Times by John Mollenkopf, director of the CUNY Graduate Center for Urban Research, during in-person voting, Adams won in census tracts that are home to a majority or plurality of white voters without college degrees and those with a majority of Black voters without college degrees.

Garcia swept almost all of Manhattan, large parts of Staten Island, and white neighborhoods in the northwestern Bronx. Wiley won in several gentrifying neighborhoods with younger voters including the East Village in Manhattan, Astoria, Long Island City, and Steinway in Queens, and Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, and parts of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Garcia was favored by college-educated white voters whereas Wiley was supported by Black and Hispanic voters with college degrees, according to Mollenkopf.

Areas of Brooklyn where Wiley, Lander, and Reynoso did especially well have been hotbeds of the ascendent left, including neighborhoods represented by Black and Latino socialist state legislators like State Senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport. Parts of Queens where Wiley and Lander did well are also represented or soon to be by a number of democratic socialist politicians who are people of color, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- who endorsed Lander early in the comptroller race and Wiley late in the mayoral race -- and Tiffany Cabán, who just won a City Council primary. Meanwhile, Lander and Wiley did well in some parts of Harlem, where socialist Kristin Richardson Jordan, with Lander's backing, won a close primary victory over City Council Member Bill Perkins.

Adams’ victory created no shortage of speculation and punditry -- including from Adams himself -- that the city was experiencing a backlash against the “Defund the NYPD” movement and that progressive candidates did not have a winning message with communities of color. Adams has repeatedly described himself as a progressive even as he has denounced the defund movement as unrealistic and dangerous (and at times conflating it with the much smaller police abolition movement).

“I believe that you can’t run cities based on slogans, and because you’re able to handle your Twitter handle, does not mean you can handle the complexities of running the cities in America,” he said in a July 13 appearance on ABC’s The View. “I am the progressive candidate. And being progressive is not only talking about closing Rikers Island, it’s closing the pipeline that feeds Rikers Island.”

Others were quick to point out that the chips don’t fall neatly, just like last year. When the City Council voted on a budget that was meant to cut the NYPD’s budget by hundreds of millions, several Council members of color like Reynoso, Carlina Rivera, Inez Barron, Donovan Richards (now Queens Borough President), and Carlos Menchaca supported those cuts, and voted against the budget because it did not go far enough in shifting funding from the NYPD (the source of about $10 billion in city spending per year). They were backed by a legion of Black, Latino, Asian, and white activists, a mix of young and older, some who had been advocating for more limited policing for years, if not decades.

On the other side were conservative and moderate Republicans and Democrats who wanted to safeguard the NYPD from interference and divestment. That group included several Black Council members such as Laurie Cumbo and Adrienne Adams -- both of whom later endorsed Eric Adams for mayor -- who agreed with many calls for police reform but insisted that their own communities were calling for more and better policing. 

“What a lot of us recognized was that in some areas of New York City, shooting and criminal activity were on the rise and the hashtag, Defund the NYPD, doesn’t speak to that tragedy or to the residents who are affected by it,” said Council Member Adams, in an interview in August 2020.

Cumbo, in particular, argued vociferously against activists leading the “defund” effort, claiming that the movement was being hijacked by white progressives seeking to uproot Black political power. The progressive agenda did not align with the practical concerns of Black and brown New Yorkers, she insisted, and the crime and violence affecting neighborhoods of color could not be curbed with fewer police officers on the beat. “It's not sexy to talk about hiring, training, staffing, integrating a new public safety program...That's not hashtagable,” Cumbo said in August last year, following the passage of the contentious budget.

Activists, including some who have been involved for decades, have a different view, of course.

“The term ‘defund’ I think was oftentimes branded by and shaped by quote-unquote progressives, many of color, many Black, many white,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center and a longtime police reform activist in Central Brooklyn and citywide. “And I would say that the idea of dismantling the carceral system, starving it of oxygen and resources is nothing new and it's something that Black people, low- and moderate-income people have been talking about and been thinking about for generations.”

The conversation around defunding the NYPD became “un-nuanced” as opponents sought to delegitimize the movement, Winston Griffith said. Indeed, Adams, along with Cumbo, was among those who painted the movement as being led by white activists and young socialists, effectively erasing the work of the many Black leaders involved, some of whom -- including individuals who just won City Council races as Adams won the mayoral primary -- have spoken out assertively in response. Public Advocate Williams endorsed Wiley for mayor in large part because of the difference between her and Adams’ views on public safety, he said.

As Winston Griffith noted, the disconnect between younger and older voters in communities of color in their attitudes towards police funding and public safety is “personified” by Adams. “He is one of these Black elected officials who are very much tied to the status quo, and are able to paint the conversation around ‘defund’ in a way that minimizes Black consensus around it and paints it as a white gentrifier issue,” Winston Griffith said.

“Every generation and every movement has a dynamic where younger people are pushing up against the status quo, and older people and people who are fully tied to that status quo are going to discredit what those young people are saying and pushing for,” he added.

Adams recently portrayed his primary win as one opposed by socialists everywhere. “I’m no longer running against candidates. I’m running against a movement. All across the country, the DSA socialists are mobilizing to stop Eric Adams,” he said at a fundraiser co-hosted by Republican City Council Member Eric Ulrich of Queens, according to the New York Post. Ulrich was among the Council members who voted against last year’s budget because they believed it cut too much from the NYPD budget. One of the NYC-DSA’s top priorities is a major defunding of the NYPD.

A key example of the ideological diversity in communities of color is the multigenerational membership of the New York Working Families Party, said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the progressive party that does organizing, advocacy, and endorsements. They include older members from the first generation of ACORN, the now defunct international left-progressive group, and younger members who have been energized in recent years by leaders such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.

“Voters are complex beings with complex views that don't always map themselves on to a perfect ideological platform,” Nnaemeka said in an interview. She noted that support for Adams was predicated in part on his support for police accountability and reform, which he’s been known for by some for decades, even if he was more moderate than other candidates running in the primary. “That is not nothing. That is already a more progressive position and that’s already an anti-establishment position that voters embraced,” she said.

Among other planks, Adams has pledged to rid the NYPD of bad cops through multiple policies and quickly improve police-community relations, including by giving local communities more say in choosing their local commanders.

Nnaemeka pointed to progressive victories in Central Brooklyn and even outside the city. For instance, India Walton, a socialist candidate who won the Democratic mayoral primary in Buffalo, and two candidates who staunchly supported the Black Lives Matter movement winning primaries for the City Council in Rochester. “I think that there is a story generally about voters rejecting establishment frameworks, rejecting austerity narratives, rejecting unaccountable policing, and looking for the best messengers to carry forward that vision, but there is a lot more alignment around the kind of world that people want than the headlines say,” Nnaemeka added.

While many Working Families Party-backed candidates were unsuccessful across the New York City primaries, its candidates -- almost all of them progressives of color -- won a number of seats. That included Williams, Lander, Reynoso, and a slew of City Council candidates who ran on leftist platforms that included cutting police department funding to invest more in community and social programs. Many of those candidates were also backed by progressive groups like Make the Road Action, New York Immigration Coalition Action, and others, as well as progressive labor unions like 1199 SEIU. DSA candidates Cabán, who wants to eventually dismantle the police department, and Alexa Aviles won their primaries in Queens and Brooklyn, respectively. But several DSA City Council candidates running in more moderate districts performed much more poorly and lost.

Progressive candidates themselves have pushed back against the suggestion that progressivism was losing steam. Wiley, in a Q&A with reporters after her concession speech,  pointed to Lander’s and Bragg’s primary victories. “I don't see this in a limited framework that says it is only about who gets 20,000 more votes, that's not what it is to have a discussion about how we come out, not just of a historic crisis, but of all the crises that predated covid and that's what we have demonstrated,” Wiley said.

Public Advocate Williams similarly disputed the theory that voters, particularly voters of color, lost faith in progressive ideas or don’t subscribe to them to begin with. In an appearance on the Max Politics podcast on July 7, he said, “[I] wanna reject this notion that any election is a repudiation of anything because I met from Buffalo to Brooklyn Borough Hall, with so many people elected to important positions that have been saying the things I've been saying for quite some time.”

He said candidates and elected officials need to have a more “holistic” conversation, particularly about “defund” and public safety. “Stop focusing on the word or hashtag,” he said. “Our jobs as leaders are not to tell activists how to express their trauma. Let them do that. Our job as leaders is to take that trauma, that pain and turn it into real policy. And I've never heard anyone say ‘defund public safety.’ So we have to figure out what the people need, and how do we turn that into real structural change.”

Lander and Cabán said similar things about explaining their views on shifting funds from the police to other services when talking with some voters on the campaign trail, arguing that it is about presenting the broader plan for how to achieve public safety and why police should have a more limited role.

What reverberates through all those views, from Nnaemeka to Williams and others, is that media narratives and campaign rhetoric flattened the mayoral race into a dichotomy of public safety versus disorder, with the former equated with more moderate candidates and the latter painted as the desire or eventual consequence of progressive politics. That narrative served to silence progressive voices calling for structural change they say would create more safety while reinforcing knee-jerk reactionary politics, said Jawanza Williams, director of organizing for VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit group. “I think because that was effective for Eric Adams, I think he will likely not be a progressive mayor,” he said.

“Progressive ideas and progressive policies are unilaterally popular,” he argued. “When you support people with housing, support people with nutritional assistance like SNAP, when you support people with cash assistance whenever they're struggling, when you support people in these kinds of robust, secure, concrete economic and social ways, people love and appreciate these kinds of programs. What people get confused by and divided by is the sort of perceptions and the politics of the issues.”

“Is there a divide between working class, moderate Black communities and progressivism?” said Jawanza Williams, “The debate isn't actually that. It’s being presented as that by moderates, by conservatives, by people that are interested in defunding our social services.”

“I think this generational divide is partly because there's a narrative in the mainstream media that there's this massive crime wave despite the fact that it's not really supported by the facts and figures,” said Michael Whitesides, an NYC-DSA spokesperson. “Poll after poll, we see that strong socialist policies like free universal health care, real affordable housing are very popular. I think that the challenge is just translating that into votes in the next election,” they said.

Gabe Tobias of Our City PAC, which was created to promote progressive candidates in the city’s 2021 elections, doesn’t think the Adams win is a trend away from progressivism -- either nationally or locally in New York -- arguing that both President Biden and Adams did not shy away from pitching themselves as progressives. “There’s not an ad that doesn’t mention police reform, doesn’t mention racism in the NYPD,” Tobias said of Adams. “These are progressive talking points.”

He also mentioned the downfall of the Yang campaign, attributing it in part to Yang’s shift from what he called a “happy progressive” to a more conservative candidate who touted endorsements from uniformed unions – including the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the Captains Endowment Association – and maligned homeless New Yorkers.

Senator Brisport, a member of DSA who previously challenged Cumbo for City Council, was elected last year to the 25th Senate District, filling a seat held by retiring Democrat Velmanette Montgomery, who was close with the party establishment and together backed an unsuccessful chosen successor. He is one of several young progressives of color, including several democratic socialists, elected to the state Legislature in the last two election cycles, buoying the progressive movement across the city.

“I think it really comes down to hope versus jadedness,” Brisport said, insisting that a generational exists across different communities. “Younger voters who vote more progressive because they believe through politics we can radically alter our world and older voters who do not."

The voters who chose Adams did so because he is a known quantity, Brisport said. “Maybe he won’t promise the moon but they know him.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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