Among despairing progressives in New York City, there is an urgent, ongoing debate: In the ranked-choice Democratic primary for mayor on Tuesday, should Andrew Yang or Eric Adams be left off your ballot?
Many argue that both men should go. Yang, who ran for president as a populist with an intriguing proposal for universal basic income, has positioned himself as a moderate in this race, embracing tough policing, balking at raising taxes on the wealthy, and pitching a few perplexing ideas, like a casino on Governor’s Island. For anyone on the left, the biggest fear is that Yang will be a vessel for Bradley Tusk, the millionaire operative who is working for Yang, to turn City Hall over to gambling and Big Tech interests.
Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, has a history of making incendiary statements, and once described himself, in the 1990s, as a “conservative Republican.” Now a firm Democrat with the support of many elected officials and labor unions, Adams has nevertheless aligned himself with the real estate industry and spoken skeptically of doing more to help working-class tenants.
Since voters can rank up to five candidates and Adams and Yang each remain viable contenders—Adams, of late, has been the polling leader—there is an argument that at least one of them should appear on a ballot so the other is blocked. Since RCV, ultimately, is about narrowing candidates to later rounds where second, third, fourth, and fifth choices start to matter, this strategy has merit.
There are good arguments for blocking Yang, not Adams, but when the full power of the mayoralty is considered—and the bright, if still tenuous, future of left politics in New York is weighed as well—there is a rationale, from the perspective of progressives and socialists and those who wish at least to have a mayor in City Hall who might be responsive to pressure from the left, for doing what we can to ensure that Adams does not win.
A former police captain, Adams would be the city’s second Black mayor, and he has been a forceful voice for police reform. He has called for local communities to have the power to elect their own precinct commanders. His support from many of the city’s most influential labor unions demonstrates that he won’t, at the minimum, try to run roughshod over them, as Michael Bloomberg did.
Yet Adams presents a greater challenge for the left precisely because he is both hostile to its policy goals and well-positioned to claim, with his own base of support, that he never needs to carry them out. The two most powerful industries in New York are finance and real estate, and the latter is particularly well-wired into the Adams campaign. Adams has raised millions from developers and has promised to pursue a real estate–friendly agenda. Part of that will be ensuring that landlord-friendly policy decisions, like hiking rent on rent-stabilized apartments, are pursued with vigor.
It is not hard to imagine Adams enacting a hyper-capitalist housing agenda in the mold of Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor who once likened New York to a luxury product. Bloomberg strove to aggressively upzone working-class neighborhoods with market-rate condos while capping growth in wealthier, whiter areas. He did not believe in tenant protections, only policies that could enable developers to build and landlords to profit.
The differences between Bloomberg and Adams, beyond money, are in their political orientations and alliances. Bloomberg’s sole strength was cash; it bought him much deference and cowed many Democrats. But he was not a Democrat himself, and eventually local elected officials and labor unions grew unafraid of challenging him, backing fairly frequent veto-overrides in the City Council. By his unpopular third term, Bloomberg had exhausted much of the political capital his wealth had bought him over the first eight years.
Adams is a Democrat, with deep ties to local political parties, unions, churches, and working people who know him from his years as borough president. These ties, especially in the outer borough Black neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, will allow him to deflect and neutralize the inevitable movements against him. New York City is now home to an ascendant left, with DSA and organizations like the Working Families Party driving the local and state legislatures to take populist positions. Adams would be as well-positioned as anyone—outside of perhaps Governor Andrew Cuomo himself—to foil and frustrate these ambitions.
For a long time, many on the left have favored an identitarian politics over one that aligns class with race. If identity is elevated above class and critiques of capitalism no longer matter, politicians like Adams will be emboldened. As a Black man, he has been able to effectively denounce calls for greater tenant protections on the grounds that they would adversely affect minority landlords—while rebuking all criticism of him as racist. His supporters have attacked ranked-choice voting itself, erroneously claiming that it weakens the power of nonwhite voters.
None of this ends well. Mayor Eric Adams will have every tool at his disposal to crack down on left activists and politicians and their attendant organizations. Like Cuomo, he can marry labor with big real estate in a bid to tamp down progressive challenges—that was how the governor, for almost a decade, allowed the state Senate to be controlled by Republicans. The old Democratic machines no longer have much get-out-the-vote strength in the city, but their fixers will grow far wealthier in an Adams administration. Frank Carone, the de facto head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, is a close Adams ally, with much business before the city.
Adams may argue that his alliance with billionaire real estate developers, perversely, represents what the people of the city truly desire because he could claim, plausibly enough, that working-class voters put him in office. Like the populists of old, he will demagogue plenty—“Go back to Iowa!” he once shouted at out-of-towners who have made New York home—but unlike them, he will offer nothing so redistributive or challenging to the power elite. The billionaire class will have far less reason to worry with Adams in Gracie Mansion.
Though activists eventually soured on de Blasio, dismissing him as too deferential to police and real estate, he remained—however ineffectually—sympathetic to their goals and never sought to foil nascent left movements in his city. De Blasio was never going to whip unions against DSA candidates or attack the WFP; in fact, he was one of the very first candidates both groups ever endorsed.
Conversely, Adams will be able to effectively ignore most demands made from progressives. If he wins, he will owe them nothing, having assembled his own traditional and durable coalition. De Blasio, once an activist politician himself, felt pressure from the left quite directly, and often had to take into account their demands in order to position himself for the national spotlight he so craved. Adams has no plausible presidential aspirations. For his supporters and backers, this is a plus. For everyone else, it will be a very long four to eight years. If progressives can’t have their candidate in Gracie Mansion—maybe Maya Wiley wins, maybe she doesn’t—they can at least hope for someone who can be bent and pressured, forced to take movement demands into account. Adams is not that politician, and never will be.