The NYC Mayor’s Race Is a Warning for Progressives

Polls suggest the left will lose out in the city arguably leading the socialist revival in the United States.

An illustration of the Empire State building and a rose.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Hunter Walker is a former New York City Hall reporter who writes the politics newsletter The Uprising and is working on a book about progressives.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent progressive politicians in the country, warned last week that her hometown is at high risk of having a decidedly moderate mayor. Standing in New York’s City Hall Park to deliver a last-minute endorsement of Maya Wiley, a civil-rights lawyer who’d previously struggled to crack the top tier, Ocasio-Cortez urged the left to come together. “We have the candidates in the field, and it’s time for us to make a choice,” she said. “We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. We can’t afford to not engage because of what could have been. We engage in the world that we have.”

The forces driving a likely moderate outcome in the June 22 Democratic primary are varied; many are specific to New York and to this election. But the race also contains major warning signs for progressives across the country. If the left loses out in the city arguably leading the socialist revival in the United States, it will be, at least in part, because of dramatic infighting fueled by rigid positions on sexual and social-justice politics, as well as the generalized failure to unify behind one candidate alluded to by Ocasio-Cortez.

A poll released on Monday had Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and the former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang as the front-runners. Wiley had just 9 percent support, putting her in fifth place. A fresher survey released Wednesday had Wiley in second, just in front of Yang and behind Adams, signaling the value of Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement. Both of those polls also showed the number of people supporting three different progressive candidates is the largest bloc in the city. But, if they don’t consolidate, with just a few days left, Wiley may not have time to take the lead.

Although Adams and Yang qualify as clear Democrats by national standards, they are bêtes noires for the city’s progressives. Adams was a registered Republican in the 1990s and has run a tough-on-crime campaign promising to be a “blue-collar mayor.” Yang has built his campaign on his business background and the language of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. Both Yang and Adams have received donations from right-wing figures including hedge-funders and conservative think-tankers. Yang’s super PAC even scored $15,000 from the former Trump administration official Anthony Scaramucci earlier this month.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the left in New York. Early on in the race, City Comptroller Scott Stringer was right alongside Adams and Yang at the top of the polls and in fundraising. Stringer had firmly positioned himself as the race’s leading progressive with the support of the city’s most prominent left-leaning lawmakers, including many of Ocasio-Cortez’s allies in Albany and Washington. His pitch to voters includes a focus on climate change and a sweeping universal affordable-housing plan.

But just as Stringer was gaining momentum in late April, a former unpaid worker accused him of sexual misconduct. The allegation—despite several clear inconsistencies—caused him to hemorrhage progressive endorsers, many of whom have been vocal advocates for women critics of sexual harassment in the political sphere. A second woman came forward earlier this month to accuse Stringer of “sexual harassment and making unwanted advances” when she worked at a bar he operated nearly 30 years ago. Stringer vehemently denied the first accusation and dismissed the second as part of “a long-ago chapter in my life from the early 1990s” that “was all a bit of a mess.”

The situation raises questions about asymmetrical warfare. Republicans—even evangelicals—stayed largely united behind President Donald Trump as he faced a slew of allegations of sexual assault. And New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo (another moderate villain in the state’s progressive circles), has not only declined to step aside but maintained support among many centrist allies after racking up a long list of accusers.

A landscape where moderates and conservatives survive #MeToo scandals while progressives implode is clearly dangerous for the left. Rebecca Katz, a leading progressive consultant who is advising Stringer’s campaign, has felt deeply conflicted about the issue and suggests that the left needs introspection on this front.

“We need to have a real conversation about what is and what is not disqualifying,” Katz told me. “Because applying inconsistent standards, depending on the politics and party involved, isn’t serving anyone.”

If progressives do reevaluate their posture, however, change will almost certainly come too late for Stringer. The above-mentioned polls showed him in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

And Stringer isn’t the only progressive in New York’s mayoral mix wounded by the left’s uncompromising push for purity. One would-be beneficiary of Stringer’s demise, Dianne Morales, was similarly unable to live up to progressive standards.

Morales is a nonprofit executive and relative newcomer to electoral politics in the city. She has attracted attention in large part thanks to having the most aggressively progressive platform—and rhetorical style—of anyone in the race. Although the policy section on her campaign site is thinner than those of many rivals, Morales has unabashedly called for defunding the New York Police Department and describes her priorities as “dignity” and “solidarity.” After the first Stringer accuser came forward, Morales responded with lefty buzzwords.

“It’s a really unfortunate moment in this race,” Morales said in an interview. “As a survivor myself, who’s got a femme-led team, many of whom are also survivors, we’ve all been triggered.”

Although progressive language helped Morales at first, she found that same sort of language used against her when her staffers attempted to unionize, following allegations of abusive behavior, long hours, and low pay. Morales, who would be the city’s first Afro-Latina mayor, responded in part by firing four staffers involved with the effort. A Twitter account run by the organizers focused on the race and gender of the people who were ousted.

“Black women were harmed, pass it on,” they wrote.

Morales staffers and volunteers ultimately staged protests against their own candidate. They lit sage and incense outside her office and urged her to donate $1 million from her campaign coffers to mutual-aid groups, a decidedly unrealistic demand that would almost certainly violate city campaign-finance law. On Wednesday, Morales responded by firing more than 50 members of her team, leaving her with a skeleton crew. A campaign that was already a long shot had definitively imploded.

Democratic strategists around the country watched the spectacle of young workers marching on their own office, and some saw it as a clear indicator of the dangers of trying to bring Generation Z into the fold of grueling campaign work. One veteran Democratic operative who has worked on presidential campaigns articulated these fears to me via text message.

“It seems like many of these kids would be shocked and upset at just normal boring office jobs and the expectations there. And campaigns are so much harder than that,” wrote the operative, who requested anonymity because of professional concerns.

Morales’s situation raised the possibility that young progressives are unwilling to make the sort of labor commitments necessary to actually elect a progressive. That said, much of the Morales drama was specific to the candidate. Other campaigns have unionized successfully, including Ocasio-Cortez’s. In fact, progressives in New York might argue that all of their apparent troubles in the mayoral race are candidate-specific, and not in any way indicative of the movement’s strengths or weaknesses. They might also argue that the mayoral candidates simply don’t represent progressives’ most promising prospects in the city.

Sure, they failed to rally around Stringer. But is Stringer really that progressive? He was dubbed a “moderate” and “middle of the line Democrat” by The New Republic as recently as 2013. Morales also—thanks to her past support for charter schools and her history as an allegedly “negligent” landlord—has faced questions about whether her politics are genuine. Even Wiley, who now remains the left’s last real hope in this race, has had to confront difficult questions about her previous work in the administration of the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, including what the Daily News described as a “more moderate pose” on police issues.

Progressive strength lies elsewhere. The left has already won a number of elections in New York, which has a growing socialist cadre in both the state legislature and city council. However, because many of New York’s rising progressive stars were elected only recently, they were poorly positioned to run for mayor. That’s partly why the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization whose on-the-ground volunteers helped drive many of these recent wins, sat out the mayoral race entirely. Cea Weaver, a member of the DSA’s housing committee, told me that the city’s top socialists are focusing on trying to “build our bench” by backing candidates for the city council.

The progressive stars who stayed on the sidelines this time around will almost certainly get some new reinforcements on Election Day—even if they don’t manage to take city hall. The DSA has backed six council candidates and two other hopefuls running for office upstate. Ocasio-Cortez has also identified 60 candidates—including a handful who oppose each other—that have pledged to back some of her policy priorities.

If Wiley falls short and the mayor’s race is a defeat for the city’s insurgent left, progressives remain well positioned for the future. But in New York and elsewhere, they may have to settle for imperfect champions.