We have a tendency to think of elections as referendums — not just on the candidates running, but on the economy, other elected officials, and the prevailing political zeitgeist. The idea is that voters aren’t just selecting a leader or a representative — they’re trying to say something with their vote, to send a message to the ruling class about what they do and don’t want. But since they aren’t literal referendums, it’s easy to interpret electoral results anyway you please. Why did the Democrats lose House seats in 2020 even in states where Joe Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton? Clearly voters were turned off by socialists like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and calls to defund the police. Or maybe they should have run more explicitly on progressive goals like Medicare for All to juice enthusiasm among low propensity voters. Or maybe the entire concept of electoral coattails is a misconception and elections are won from the bottom up instead. Numbers may never lie, but the chattering classes don’t always seem to agree on what they’re saying in the first place.
It’s tempting to view last week’s New York City mayoral primary through a similarly reductive lens. Although we may not know the winner for a number of weeks, it appears likely that, once all of the ranked choice ballots are tallied, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will win the Democratic nomination and, thus almost assuredly, eventually the mayoralty. The considerable lead that Adams, a former Republican and New York police officer who ran on a broadly pro-cop platform, has built against the rest of the crowded field looks to some commentators like confirmation that calls to “defund the police” and enact other far reaching criminal justice reforms are being rejected by voters in one of America’s most Democratic cities. It’s also possible that his success in majority Black and Latino neighborhoods is simpatico with improvements that Donald Trump made in those same communities in last year’s presidential elections, and his victory over more progressive candidates like current runner up Maya Wiley is sure to be invoked during next years midterm elections and primaries, when most commentators think the nationwide uptick in crime could dominate debate stages.
But those who think Adams’ likely victory is a definitive sign that voters are tiring of progressives and police reformers clearly aren’t paying attention. First of all, this simplistic outlook flattens the fascinating political and demographic picture painted by the primary’s first round of results. Adams cleaned up in working class communities of all colors in the Bronx and Brooklyn, while the bulk of the Wiley vote came from more progressive (and wealthier and more gentrified) sections of Brooklyn and Queens like Williamsburg and Astoria. Technocratic former Sanitation Department head Kathryn Garcia, who currently sits in third place, found most of her support from wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods while Andrew Yang (who went from consensus front runner to a distant fourth place) did well in heavily Asian American and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.1Because I feel bad that I haven’t mentioned them yet, I’ll point out that voters in Staten Island, the most suburban and conservative of the five boroughs, were more or less split between centrists Adams and Garcia, with pockets of support for Yang.
The take writes itself: young white hipsters voted for Wiley, who pledged to freeze the next two NYPD cadet classes, because they’re obsessed with identity politics, while communities of color voted for Adams, who wants to reintroduce the department’s controversial plainclothes Anti-Crime unit, because they’re the ones who have been the most affected by the city’s pandemic era rise in crime. It may have been the suburbs that saved the Democratic Party in 2018 and 2020, but it’s Bushwicks and Long Island Cities of the world that will doom them in future elections by constantly crowing about defunding the police and Medicare for All, driving working class voters of color to the Republicans instead.
It’s easy to see why someone might reach that conclusion. But it’s much harder to defend after you take a look at last week’s other primaries, where progressives fared much better. The Democratic Socialists of America continued to make inroads in New York, finding mild to significant success in city council races. While only one of their six endorsees (Tiffany Cabán, running in the eastern Queens based 22nd district) is leading their respective race, candidates Jaslin Kaur (23rd district) and Michael Hollingsworth (35th district) are both in close seconds that could easily becomes firsts once all of the ballots are counted and other candidates are eliminated from contention. While those primaries are taking place in the kind of progressive districts that favored Wiley, left wing candidates have found early success in the non-mayoral citywide races as well. Brad Lander, who was endorsed by progessive icons like Ocasio-Cortez, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, currently holds an Adams-esque lead in the comptroller’s race, while Jumaane Williams, an Occupy Wall Street activist who also netted endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, cruised to re-nomination for public advocate. This trend holds in other parts of the state as well. Buffalo is poised to elect America’s first socialist mayor since 1960 after the DSA-endorsed India Walton defeated four term incumbent Byron Brown in one of the biggest primary upsets of the year. In Rochester, the state’s third largest city, incumbent Democratic Mayor Lovely Warren was crushed by the Working Families’ Party-endorsed Malik Evans,2 New York state law allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, which means that third parties can endorse major party candidates. Typically, Democrats are co-endorsed by the left wing Workers’ Families Party while Republicans are endorsed by the right wing Conservative Party. likely due to her mishandling of the officer-involved death of Daniel Prude.
In other words, progressives in New York are far from retreating — if anything they’ve expanded their reach and influence in only a week’s time. I’ll concede that most of these primaries had abysmal turnout, but nobody asks you what the turnout in your election was once you start writing laws and changing policy. Political movements often start with wins in low visibility races that allow the movements to take an active role in their communities and build influence from the bottom up. Commentators and establishment politicians thought the conservatives who seized power in local elections during the 1960s and 70s were crazy too. In 1980, they watched them help elect the president.
So how can we explain Adams’ likely victory in the face of other progressive gains across both the city and state of New York? First, it’s worth pointing out that Adams isn’t exactly Rudy Giuliani. According to the New York Post, Adams was encouraged to join the NYPD by civil rights activist Reverend Herbert D. Daughtry as a means to reform the department from the inside out. While a police officer, Adams served as president of the Grand Council of Guardians, a Black police officer’s organization and founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, another organization of Black police officers that advocates criminal justice reform and has a contentious relationship with the NYPD. In fact, Adams had such a crusading reputation as a police officer that a 1996 New York magazine article goes as far as to call him “radical.” Adams may have been the most explicitly pro-cop candidate in the Democratic field, but he’s also probably done more to bring about police reform than any of rivals.
There’s also the identity politics of it all. New York’s last two mayors were both white guys who did most of their growing up in Massachusetts. Adams has (probably) lived his entire life in New York, and has the pugnacious personality and accent to prove it. Sometimes, his pride in his community and hometown gets him into trouble — in 1993, he claimed that New York State Comptroller Herman Badillo didn’t care about the Hispanic community because he didn’t marry a Hispanic woman, and in 2020 he told Brooklyn gentrifiers to “go back to Iowa.” But for some working class voters, Adams’ provincialism and territorialism read as a feature and not as a bug. If Trump was saying the “quiet part out loud” for latently and blatantly xenophobic voters in rural communities across America, then Adams may be doing the same for urban voters of color who remain skeptical of the waves of mostly white out-of-towners who flocked to and transformed some of the city’s low-income neighorhoods and want to transform its politics as well. Adams’ policies may make him sound like part of the “establishment,” but to these voters he’s a populist, and one with the track record to back it up.
Adams isn’t being humble or subtle about his man of the people image, either. “I am the face of a new Democratic Party,” he audaciously stated in a speech after Tuesday’s primary. “America is saying we want to have justice and safety and end inequalities. And we don’t want fancy candidates. We want candidates, their nails are not polished, they have calluses on their hands, and they’re blue collar people that understand a blue collar country.” Seeing as it’s still possible for Wiley or Garcia to win in later rounds of the runoff, Adams is getting way too ahead of himself. But he may be on to something here. The notion that populism may be better communicated through a candidate’s personality and background rather than their policies could help Democrats as they try to hold onto their narrow House and Senate majorities in next year’s midterm elections. But I wouldn’t start making such sweeping statements just yet if I were him. After all, it’s very easy to come to a bold conclusion, it’s a lot harder to defend it.