Harlem Is Sending a Black Lesbian Democratic Socialist to the City Council

Harlem Is Sending a Black Lesbian Democratic Socialist to the City Council

Harlem Is Sending a Black Lesbian Democratic Socialist to the City Council

A radical poet and educator’s come-from-behind victory over a machine politician complicates the narrative that New York Black moderates rejected a left agenda.


Kristin Richardson Jordan, the Black democratic socialist who just won the Democratic nomination for a New York City Council seat on a platform of “Radical Love,” can tell you the exact number of garbage cans—223—her Harlem district has lost in recent years. It’s that attention to detail—block by block, apartment by apartment, empty storefront by empty storefront—that helped Jordan shock the city, as well as incumbent Bill Perkins, a Harlem fixture who’s served in both the council and the state Senate. Perkins, 71, has been plagued by health issues for years and essentially ran no campaign. He lost to the 34-year-old poet, educator, and committed mutual aid activist by an estimated 100 votes, outside the margin that triggers a recount. (The count will be certified July 12.)

One of 14 candidates, Jordan finished about 500 votes behind Perkins when top picks were counted, but took the lead once the Board of Elections tallied voters’ “ranked choices”—an innovation that let voters choose up to five candidates in order of their preference. Richardson, who happily campaigned to be voters’ number two if they had another favorite, had the organizational chops to work the new, poorly understood system. As the district’s top fundraiser with by far the most visible ground game, she will face little if any Republican opposition in November. She is likely to join a majority-female City Council—women are expected to hold at least 26 of 51 seats next year—and become one of the first two out Black lesbians in the council’s history.

Of course, the big story out of New York this week is the mayoral nomination of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer and state senator widely considered a moderate, over progressive Maya Wiley and centrist technocrat Kathryn Garcia. (He’ll face Republican Curtis Sliwa, of Guardian Angels fame, in November.) Although progressives like Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams won their primaries for comptroller and public advocate, respectively, Democratic Socialists of America lost four of the six City Council races in which they endorsed. Meanwhile, Adams’s support for increased police funding and presence is widely considered a rebuke to the city’s progressive police reform movement.

But the story looks a little different in Harlem’s District 9, where half of all voters ranked Adams first for mayor, and then also ranked the dedicated police reformer and local Black Lives Matter activist—Jordan calls herself a police and prison “abolitionist,” over the “long term,” she says —first for City Council. She tried to explain that paradox over breakfast at Harlem Biscuit Company (she had “the Rosa,” an egg and cheese sandwich named for Rosa Parks, and I had a plain cheddar-chive biscuit) on Wednesday morning. But it was tough to talk with patrons and passersby greeting the third-generation Harlemite (her grandparents were married at the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church).

Three young white women at the next table whispered loudly, “I know her! She ran a George Floyd demonstration last summer. I think she’s running for City Council.” She won, I tell them. “By 100 votes!” Jordan pipes in. A Black female activist from the neighborhood tells Jordan she’s in charge of donating desks and lab equipment from a nearby high school that’s closing; the former city school teacher and literacy coordinator for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlem promises to make a few calls. Harlem Biscuit Company owner Boots Johnson tells her about his partnership with a local restaurant that was only open at night, to use its space to serve breakfast and lunch, and how he’s looking to expand uptown. Jordan takes his card and notes that he’s creating a model for helping Black-owned businesses cope with Harlem’s high rents, a priority high on her council agenda.

Our conversation, interrupted but an hour long, has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you decide to run for this seat, and what inspired you?

I actually declared in 2019. I got inspired by the new Congress—the election of the Squad, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley. That opened my political imagination to being an activist organizer, radical in my politics, and running and winning and being a representative. To that point, I viewed most politicians as sellouts, honestly. As someone who’s about change and service, I saw my role as being outside of the electoral arena. But the Squad made me think about the possibilities. Our current City Councilman has not been present. My community has not had basic services or representation for a long time.

The campaign developed through needs I saw in the community. That work began before Covid. I’d been doing food justice work through my church. But Covid kicked mutual aid into high gear. Once we were in the pandemic, we retooled our political campaign to do a lot of mutual aid and wellness checks—and that became the hallmark of the campaign. We literally went door to door—we had to be masked and socially distant, be safe, but we asked people if there was anything they needed. Then we did a lot of what, frankly, electeds should be doing—connecting with resources. If they needed food, we set them up with city groups that delivered food. We gave info on local food pantries, info on Covid testing. And we brought people whatever they needed. There are plenty of systemic issues, but a lot of folks don’t know how to navigate the system to get help they’re eligible for. We developed into an online community where people can request things, and people can donate.

So we’re sitting here today, with Eric Adams as the Democratic nominee for mayor—a former cop, who’s supported increased police funding, he’s even talked about bringing back stop-and-frisk, but doing it right—like good stop-and-frisk?

It’s so bizarre! I was supporting Maya Wiley. That makes no sense to me, “good stop-and-frisk”—what is that?

How do you expect to work with him?

It’s going to depend on exactly what the issue is. There will definitely be tension because we have such different views. But here in District 9, 50 percent ranked Adams No. 1, and also ranked me No. 1. So they literally voted for both of us. I find it very odd. They voted for someone who’s been talking about bolstering the police budget, more cops, and has a background in policing—and they voted for someone who’s been an out abolitionist. I mean, they’re long-term views, but I actually believe in moving towards a world without cops. So they voted for both of us, and it’s bizarre.

It looked like, in the first round of counting, this district was almost evenly split, Adams and Wiley.

We saw it on the data side and we knew it anecdotally. It makes sense, it’s a majority-Black community, so people are saying, “Who are the Black candidates?” I think of Harlem as a cool, funky, artsy, altruistic, slightly hippieish type of place. That’s in our history, the Harlem Renaissance, artsy, out-of-the-box thinking. I represent that well. I don’t think we had a mayoral candidate that did. So I think Harlem was looking for what’s closest to that. Some people liked the side of Eric Adams that was a working-class Black male. There was a draw there; with Maya, people liked that female energy. I’d love to see a Black woman in that position, but also her policies were the most progressive, in my opinion, and the strongest and most thought-out.

You’re a DSA member—but you didn’t get the DSA endorsement.

I did not. It was a long, arduous battle, and in the end, they decided because of capacity they would only go with one race in Manhattan and the Bronx, and they decided to go with Adolfo Abreu in the Bronx, and he lost. I think it was a misstep on DSA’s part, and I don’t say it in a selfish way. An opportunity was really missed here. Harlem is a hotbed for Black socialists, and as someone who identifies as a Black socialist I’m going to keep advocating for my community—in terms of redistributing wealth to support those who need it most, those who’ve been most oppressed and fight for Black liberation at the same time. And I do think we could have used that support. Winning by 100 votes is great but it’s very scary. We could have used the help with phone banking, with texting. I’m very proud of the work we did, but I was really disappointed, as a member. And I’m still a member!

You did get an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Yes, before she endorsed Maya, she endorsed a slate of City Council candidates.

But in some council races, she endorsed a lot of candidates.

I love AOC’s policies, but I do think her endorsement came late, and in some districts more clarity would have been good. Maybe you don’t endorse that many candidates? In a lot of cases, she didn’t even rank them. In my case, I do think it was helpful, she ranked me No. 1, and ranked Joshua Clennon second. She made a clear distinction.

Ranked choice also really helped you.

And helped our district! It showed the district was ready for a shift. One of the things that makes it hard to go up against an incumbent is that you often see the vote split, splinter off, in a race with so many candidates. So here what ranked-choice voting allowed to happen was for people to support multiple challengers and consolidate that power. That made all the difference in this race.

But in the mayor’s race, it actually changed who the top two were, which is very different from a traditional runoff. I’m sure people will be studying it for a long time. Clearly it had to do with the alliance between Andrew Yang and Garcia, with Yang voters moving to her.

Eric Adams called the alliance anti-Black…

I’m not an Eric Adams fan, but it was looking shady in terms of that it didn’t wind up with the two top contenders who are Black, in the end.

I was very impressed by your knowing the exact number of garbage cans we’ve lost. I don’t know the exact number, but as a dog owner walking these streets, I know it’s a lot.

[Laughs] That’s because I’m a strong environmentalist, and there’s been a huge plague of environmental racism in our neighborhood and I’m not going to be quiet about it. It’s terrible for the planet and our community, and there are so many solutions that would help other parts of what’s wrong—environmental justice touches every issue. I want us to have a full recycling system. I want us to have composting. I’m going to get those garbage cans back, but I’m going to do more than that!

What is your long-term plan?

My goal is to serve—serve two terms, maybe a third, and then move on! If it’s political, great. But maybe it’s just organizing and activism. We’re starting a nonprofit to pull together all the mutual aid we’ve done in the community. The idea is service, not a career.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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