As the race to replace Bill de Blasio as New York City mayor heats up, the broad left wing of the Democratic Party has never been stronger. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman are in Congress. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has two members in the state senate and four in the state assembly.
Many Democrats in the state legislature not formally in DSA still support various policy goals of democratic socialists. In the most recent state budget, a scandal-scarred Andrew Cuomo was forced to make major concessions to the Left, including raising taxes on the ultrarich, restoring cuts to public hospitals and public schools, and setting up a multibillion-dollar fund to aid undocumented immigrants who couldn’t access unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.
Yet the Democratic primary for mayor, if public polling is any indication, is being led by two Democrats who are decidedly not of this ascendant left: Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president.
Why? Given the strength of groups like DSA and the Working Families Party (WFP), why can’t left candidates for mayor do better?
The answer is complicated. In part, the dominance of Yang and Adams is more about the relative weakness of other candidates in the field. And DSA, for all the gains it’s made over the past few years, is not quite ready to determine the course of a citywide contest in America’s largest city.
First, a primer on the candidates. Three are now competing for the “left” mantle in the mayoral race. All three have WFP endorsements, following the nonprofit and activist-driven third party’s decision to rank their top three candidates rather than choose a single endorsee — a concession to both the new ranked-choice voting system and the fact that WFP could not reach a true consensus.
Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, was WFP’s first choice. Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has excited rank-and-file DSA members, was its second. And Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel and an MSNBC analyst, was its third.
It’s unclear what the WFP endorsement will be worth to any candidate in this race. The left-liberal political party functions more like a political consultancy and PAC than a full-fledged, member-driven party at this point, with most of its old labor affiliates long departed. The WFP endorsement was largely worthless to Elizabeth Warren in 2020 and it’s possible none of their three chosen candidates will win the mayoral race.
DSA, wisely, endorsed no one in the race, preferring to focus on its six city council campaigns. Unlike other organizations in the city — WFP in particular — DSA is concerned about its capacity and is careful to ensure that it can dedicate the bulk of its five-thousand-strong membership to winning campaigns. In New York today, there are roughly three types of organizations that can reliably summon dozens or hundreds of volunteers for any type of campaign: organized labor, a select number of religious groups, and DSA.
If DSA feels that its ability to deliver boots on the ground is insufficient to power a given campaign, it won’t endorse at all. DSA has recognized it can’t quite punch at the weight of a mayoral race, where as many as eight hundred thousand New Yorkers could end up voting in the June 22 primary.
Stringer has long been courting progressive activists and rank-and-file DSA members, along with nonprofit organizations, to consolidate his campaign against the likes of Adams and Yang. This began when Stringer endorsed Democrats who were launching primaries against a group of corporate-aligned state senators who had been helping keep Republicans in the majority. Stringer followed this up with a timely endorsement of the DSA-backed Tiffany Cabán in 2019, who came within one hundred votes of pulling off a massive upset in the race for Queens district attorney.
Julia Salazar, one of DSA’s two state senators, and Bowman have endorsed Stringer, along with many other state legislators who belong to the body’s progressive flank. Stringer has adopted certain key positions to win their support, including divesting the city’s pension funds from fossil-fuel companies, promising to move police away from responding to homelessness and mental health issues, and refusing fresh donations from the real estate industry.
Stringer’s pitch is rather simple: I’m the Left’s best hope to hold city hall. At the minimum, Stringer promises to be more accountable to the city’s activist left than the outgoing mayor, Bill de Blasio, who forged a close relationship with the real estate industry and was largely deferential to the NYPD.
But Stringer is no Bernie Sanders. DSA members and grassroots left activists remain wary of a politician who has spent most of his thirty-year career as a Democratic insider and clubhouse politician. At times, Stringer operated to the right of de Blasio and other center-left Democrats, attacking a city council plan to decriminalize quality-of-life offenses and failing to support de Blasio’s early push to cap the number of Uber vehicles in the city. He joined with Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor, to endorse his quest to give himself — and incumbent elected officials — a third term in office.
Stringer, declining to support Sanders in either of his presidential bids, endorsed Cuomo in 2018 as he sought reelection against Cynthia Nixon, the DSA-backed actress and activist. In his eight years as a citywide elected official, Stringer has rarely challenged Cuomo directly, preferring to criticize the far weaker and less dangerous de Blasio.
The backdrop to all of this is that no poll has shown Stringer remotely close to winning, and he’s been splitting labor support with another self-identified progressive, Maya Wiley. Neither candidate is particularly exciting for leftists, particularly young voters. With Yang’s celebrity blotting out the field, Stringer has clearly struggled to gain traction.
The best hope for the Left, though she remains a long shot, is Dianne Morales. Morales has been far more confrontational with Cuomo than the rest of the Democrats running, including Stringer, and has centered her campaign around slashing the NYPD budget in half, something no other candidate will commit to. She has the most socialistic view of housing in New York, with a stated goal of guaranteeing everyone a home.
Morales announced on Thursday she will receive $2.3 million in public matching funds, enough to power her campaign through the final months and perhaps afford time on the airwaves. But Stringer has banked far more in a race with a spending cap that could near $11 million. Still, it’s undeniable Morales is exciting more people — at least within the subset of left activists tuned in to local politics. She’s been starting to gather up endorsements, and already has the backing of two DSA members in the state legislature, Jabari Brisport and Marcela Mitaynes.
But Morales is not necessarily ideal — and in this kind of race, no one really is. Morales has no deep history in left politics. Like Yang, she was missing in action for the biggest fights of the last few years, whether the Nixon campaign, the AOC campaign, or the drive against the Independent Democratic Conference. She previously earned nearly $350,000 in annual compensation from a nonprofit with a real estate arm that is one of the city’s worst evictors.
Her orientation is more left-liberal than socialist. “I’ve been really reluctant to label myself in any way, shape or form, or try to talk about, claiming a lane, or fitting in a box. I think my positions speak for themselves,” she told City and State earlier this year. “I’m not a part of DSA or any of that. Do I see a lot of similarities between my beliefs and the things that they put out? Yes. Do I have some problems with some of the structures or machinations of that organization? Yeah.”
Ultimately, Morales, as a first-time candidate lacking the war chest of a top-tier contender, is unlikely to win. An insurgent can capture a congressional seat. A mayoral race is far larger, with a much more ideologically diverse electorate. Even with north of $2 million in the bank, advertising on television for an extended period of time — which is how the race will probably be won — is going to be a profound challenge for her campaign. Vaulting past Yang and Adams, let alone Stringer, still seems unlikely.
It might be easy for a leftist in New York to fall into pessimism, with no ideal contender well positioned to win. But it’s obvious, if you pay close enough attention, that the bench of great candidates will be far deeper in future election cycles.
DSA members are gaining clout in the state legislature and will be ready to seek higher office sooner rather than later. New DSA members, including the aforementioned Tiffany Cabán, are poised to enter the city council next year. DSA-friendly Democrats, like Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, are future mayoral contenders. It’s possible we’ll look back at 2021 as the last time leftists were shut out of a New York City mayoral race.