When New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the stage at a rally for New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley on Saturday night, the congresswoman paused a beat and took in the scene.
Before she made the case for Wiley as the progressive choice for Democrats in this sprawling, contentious, fraught and deeply consequential primary campaign, Ocasio-Cortez — who delivered her endorsement only a week ago — looked out at the crowd, packed shoulder to vaccinated shoulder, and offered an observation.
“Look at us,” she said. “No masks. Crammed into Irving Plaza. All I gotta say is: Holy sh*t, New York is back!”
And maybe it is. Irving Plaza, the famed Manhattan concert hall, had not heard a noise like this in more than a year — until Saturday night, when Wiley, Ocasio-Cortez, the comedian John Mulaney and then The Strokes, another New York institution, came on stage and took turns celebrating the civil rights lawyer and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Ocasio-Cortez might have been late to the game, but she came in sharp. After touting Wiley’s historic candidacy — she would be the first woman and only the second Black person elected to lead the city — and beseeching the crowd to dig in to the ground game as early voting continues ahead of the June 22 primary, she cast Wiley as the best bulwark against the candidates in the race, left unnamed, whose campaigns have been bolstered by big dollar outside groups.
“We’ve got to keep it real. There are billion-dollar industries that are trying to purchase the mayoral seat of this city,” Ocasio-Cortez said, after thanking the service workers in the building.
If Wiley defies the odds and climbs up and over the perceived frontrunners, her victory would indeed be a remarkable achievement for New York’s progressives. They might have come around late, but they are here for her now. Though Wiley will never be confused for a darling of the Democratic Socialists of America — their New York chapter sat out this contest — and has enough holes in her progressive armor to put the movement off her for the first few months of the campaign, she is the highest-profile leading candidate to insist, against the prevailing political winds, that the next administration shift funds away from the New York Police Department and toward more robust social service programs.
An unpredictable race rushes toward a dramatic end
Earlier on Saturday, in tamer environs, one of the most sought-after endorsements in the primary never came: Rev. Al Sharpton, who had previously teased a choice, decided in the end to stay neutral. But he stuck up for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, dismissing suggestions that Adams actually spends more of his off-hours in the Fort Lee, New Jersey, co-op he shares with his partner than the city he wants to lead.
“I’ve known Adams 35 years, he always was in Brooklyn,” Sharpton said Saturday, before comparing him favorably to billionaire former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We had a mayor for 12 years who used to go to Bermuda for the weekend.”
The back-and-forth over the location of Adams’ primary residence and questions over how he splits his time — Adams insists he spends most nights in his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment, some others sleeping in his Borough Hall office and many fewer across the Hudson River in New Jersey — dominated the final few days before voting began.
The controversy, which struck a good many as farcical, came to involve campaign operatives, reporters and hyper-engaged voters studying the contents of his fridge and conducting, mostly on Twitter, CSI-style probes of the place after Adams invited reporters and cameras inside on Wednesday.
But underneath the surface of it all lies a more serious question about the candidates’ connections to a city traumatized by the pandemic and unexamined tensions dating back more than a year. New Yorkers who left the city, many for good, during the worst of Covid last year were scorned in some corners by neighbors and friends. The specter of capital flight to low-tax centers down in Florida has created angst, especially among moderate voters, over how and with what funds the city will rebuild in the aftermath of the virus.
That backdrop informs at least part of why former 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s revelation early on in the campaign that he moved upstate, to a second home with his wife and two sons for parts of last spring, continues to reverberate. Adams’ relentless attacks on Yang over the decision — for “fleeing” the city, as he has said, during its “darkest hour” — seeded the recent backlash, which followed a Politico report that outlined questions over Adams’ whereabouts.
“How foolish would someone have to be to run to be the mayor of the city of New York and live in another municipality,” Adams said on Wednesday. “It’s 101 that someone is going to follow me throughout this entire campaign.”
But while he has dismissed the issue as frivolous, Adams has also stoked it — comparing the attacks on him to birtherism, the racist smear that claimed former President Barack Obama was not born in the US, during remarks on Staten Island before taking aim at Yang.
“How dare Andrew Yang say a retired (NYPD) captain, a state Senator, a Borough president, significant other is an educator… We can’t have two homes? He has two homes. So you don’t see the hint of racism in that?,” Adams said, before trying to turn the tables, again, on Yang, with a dig at his Ulster County home north of the city. “I live in Brooklyn. I don’t live in New Paltz.”
Yang’s co-campaign manager Chris Coffey rejected Adams’ accusation, telling the New York Post on Friday that Adams was being a hypocrite, given his ongoing criticism of Yang.
“This has nothing to do with the homes he owns,” Coffey said. “Eric has been hitting Andrew for months on not being a real New Yorker and he’s been doing it from New Jersey.”
Crime, punishment and policing
The final paces of this long race, which began to take shape during a nationwide movement against police abuse last summer and ends, now, in the midst of near panic over rising gun violence and hate crimes, has also seen a growing wedge — seized on and played up most forcefully by Adams — between concerns over public safety and the desire for reform inside the New York Police Department.
Adams, Yang and others have denounced the “defund the police” movement that briefly took hold in parts of the city last year but mostly faded away even before this primary began. Of the leading contenders, only Wiley has actively campaigned on shifting resources away from the department — $1 billion of its massive budget — and toward more robust social services, like “trauma-informed care” in schools.
But she stumbled during Thursday night’s debate when the moderators asked the five candidates on stage whether they would consider taking guns away from police officers, as other countries have done. Four of them — Adams, Yang, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia — flatly rejected the idea. Wiley, though, who got the question first, hesitated and eventually said that she was “not prepared to make that decision in a debate.”
The next morning, on Friday, Adams zeroed-in at an event in Brooklyn.
“It was alarming,” he said of Wiley’s comments. “I was sitting next to her and I don’t know if my facial expression showed it.”
Wiley issued a statement shortly thereafter, echoing what a spokeswoman had said earlier, questioning the question itself while offering a clear answer to it.
“No one is seriously talking about taking guns away from cops. Of course I don’t support that,” Wiley said, before swiping back at Adams. “Here’s why Eric is lying about my position: because he wants to hide what he thinks. Eric thinks the solution to every problem is a badge and a gun.”
Wiley was correct on her first point: the idea of disarming police had not been an issue in the campaign until it was introduced at the debate. But Adams’ campaign message is more complicated.
The retired former NYPD captain has, throughout his long career on the force and then in city and state politics, often placed himself at the center of policing debates. As Adams frequently notes, he testified about the abuse of “stop and frisk” during a federal court case that ended with the practice, as it was then being carried out by the NYPD, being declared unconstitutional.
In an interview with CNN in May, Adams argued that his experience in the NYPD made him singularly equipped to make a reality of the reforms others are promising.
“The police department would run rings around (the other candidates). They are masters,” he said. “And they know that whatever you hand down, they have to implement. But if you know the system, if you know the crevices, you know how to go and ensure you’re getting what you want.”
Adams’ rivals, of course, are skeptical — of his intent and the logic of his argument. A number of them have promised to hand more control to civilians, in choosing a commissioner and reforming the city’s maligned Civilian Complaint Review Board, which Wiley once led. Her tenure there has been criticized and a wide-ranging ProPublica report on Friday suggested she, along with others, repeatedly backed off taking a hard line with the department.
In response to the criticism, which predates the most recent report, Wiley has stressed her role in moving along the process that eventually led to the firing of ex-officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Eric Garner in a chokehold, ignoring cries that he could not breathe, before Garner died on Staten Island in 2014.
Pantaleo was dismissed five years later.
A late frenzy of endorsements
The introduction of ranked choice voting in this year’s elections has further complicated an already unstable contest. Over the last few days, some key endorsers have announced their second choices, giving them an opportunity to — depending on one’s view of it — either hedge their bets or try to narrow lanes for the rivals of their top pick.
New Yorkers will be able to rank as many as five candidates when they vote. If no one wins a majority on the first ballot, the last place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are parceled out. The process goes on until someone crosses 50%.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, endorsed Wiley in the middle of May. But on Friday, he announced that Adams would be his second selection.
“Look forward to voting early for @MayaWiley #1. Maya will prioritize vulnerable communities as a dynamic & transformational Mayor,” Jeffries tweeted. “I plan to vote @EricAdamsfornyc #2. Eric is a proven blue collar leader with a deep connection to communities that have often been left behind.”
On the flip side, New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat, the influential Dominican-American congressman who backed Adams after rescinding his initial endorsement of Stringer after the comptroller was hit with sexual harassment allegations, recently said he will rank Wiley as his No. 2. (Stringer has denied that accusation and another, more recent claim.)
Adams has seemed to be fighting a campaign on two fronts in recent days — against Wiley, who has sought to present herself as his progressive foil, and Yang, a fellow moderate. In a crowded race, the rivalry between Yang and Adams has been the edgiest, so it was something of a surprise when New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, one of Yang’s original backers and a co-chair of his campaign, said his second choice would be Adams.
The Adams campaign moved quickly to tout the announcements from Jeffries, Torres and New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, who endorsed former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire, that the Brooklyn borough president would be their second choices.
“I’m proud to be supported by @hakeemjeffries, @GregMeeksNYC and @RitchieTorres, all Congressmembers of color, all dedicated, experienced, & tireless fighters for their communities & for our City in D.C.,” Adams tweeted. Only a discerning reader would note — from viewing the accompanying graphics — that he was their “#2” pick.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the ranked system, at least on the endorsement front, has been Garcia. She got a late boost from New York Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Grace Meng, who both announced this week that they would rank Garcia second, decisions that Garcia supporters view as a sign of her momentum as early voting begins.
In publicizing the support of Velázquez and Meng, Garcia’s campaign in a statement touted the historic nature of her bid.
“For nearly 400 years, men have governed New York as mayor. As the leading female candidate in the race, Garcia is poised to break that glass ceiling,” it said.
Progressives finally have their rankings down
The intricacies of ranked choice voting — both in who ultimately profits the most and whether these tiered cross-endorsements shape voters’ preferences as they finally begin filling out their own slates — have hung over the race for months.
Wiley’s own rise, and the troubles facing some of her progressive rivals, can be charted through the evolving rankings of the Working Families Party.
The New York WFP was one of the first major groups to roll out a ranked-endorsement. In its first iteration, Stringer was their top pick, followed by former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales and, in third, Wiley. But the party ditched Stringer after the first sexual harassment allegation and chose to give equal billing to Morales and Wiley. When Morales’ campaign suffered a staff revolt that led to firings and a high-profile defection, with a senior adviser leaving to join Wiley, the WFP did the same.
By the end of last week, the coalition of progressive lawmakers and activist groups that initially backed Stringer had almost entirely migrated to Wiley’s camp. In a 24-hour span, the WFP, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, New York state Sen. Julia Salazar and State Assembly member Maritza Davila — all of them initially in Stringer’s camp — threw down for Wiley, along with Ocasio-Cortez, who had previously indicated she might sit out the mayoral primary and focus downballot on city council races and her top choice for comptroller, veteran City Councilmember Brad Lander.
On Wednesday, Wiley got another bump when New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is running for re-election and underscored his influence when he lost a surprisingly competitive primary race for lieutenant governor in 2018, announced that he, too, was endorsing Wiley.
At a WFP-sponsored rally in Brooklyn on Friday, Williams talked up Wiley but also explained that his decision had been driven by the rhetoric around the city’s spike in violent crime — and the NYPD’s future role in tamping it down.
“One of the reasons I decided to endorse is because the conversation is getting too crazy around public safety. And we started feeding the fears that have allowed the worst things to happen to the same communities over and over,” Williams said — a clear jab at Adams and Yang, who have advocated for stepped-up policing.
Williams also defended the left from charges that its policies, which were growing in popularity before being hit with a backlash over the past year, were to blame for the recent surge in violent crime.
“I got news for you: Most of the stuff that we asked for never happened. The administration that came in didn’t do most of what we asked,” he said of term-limited de Blasio’s tenure. “That’s why we don’t want to return to normal, because it didn’t work for most of the people.”
Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, which operates under the WFP umbrella, and endorsed Wiley on Friday, put the group’s calculus in blunt terms.
“Maya is the progressive candidate who has the best chance of winning this New York City mayoral race,” he said.