AOC For NYC Mayor in 2021

The charismatic congresswoman could be the transformative leader her hometown needs in a moment of crisis. In the process, she could strengthen her case for a future presidential run.

Theodore Hamm Nov 30, 2020

As the 2021 race for City Hall shapes up, the real question is: who doesn’t want to be the next mayor? The city’s Campaign Finance Board currently lists no less than 28 active candidates.

That roster doesn’t include rumored entrants Christine Quinn and Max Rose. Should one or both join the fray, that would bring the number of contenders currently seen as viable to double digits.

Times are very tough in the city, with the next mayor taking over during a fiscal situation that may be worse than the mid-1970s. While the candidate most familiar with the city’s finances, current Comptroller Scott Stringer, is presently viewed as the front-runner, the continued entry of more candidates suggests that the uninspiring Stringer is by no means a guaranteed winner.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rocked New York’s political establishment in 2018. She could do so again in 2021, if she ran for mayor.

Though unlikely to throw her hat into the ring, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quite likely would crush the current field. In addition to her star power and highly mobilized base, AOC’s electoral advantages include her identity. She would be the first female and first Latinx mayor and only the second person of color to run the city.

While the first non-white mayor, the late David Dinkins, was also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, he implemented austerity during his single term in office. There’s little doubt that AOC would adhere to her DSA roots—making her the first socialist to lead City Hall.

Whichever candidate prevails in next year’s race will confront a set of formidable foes led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a champion of austerity and steadfast ally of Wall Street and the city’s real estate elite. Against such powerful opposition, a figure such as AOC could inspire unprecedented grassroots activism. Put another way, the 1% won’t exactly lose sleep over the prospect over a Scott Stringer victory.

Indeed, AOC’s strengths as a candidate show the weakness of the current liberal-left contenders. Both Stringer and MSNBC commentator Maya Wiley are essentially positioning themselves as more competent versions of de Blasio. Neither have responded to activists’ calls to oppose the developer-friendly Flushing rezoning, and in dodging the Industry City debate, Stringer improbably claimed not to have a position. Both candidates thus seem unwilling to rock the real estate industry’s boat.

As Mayor, AOC could advance priorities like defunding the police and enacting a Green New Deal, which she can only talk about in Congress.

City Councilman Carlos Menchaca killed the Industry City rezoning, answering a call from UPROSE and other local activists. But in the race to succeed Bill de Blasio, Menchaca faces an uphill battle in moving from a city council seat directly to the mayor’s office, a fact to which council speakers including Christine Quinn can attest. Like Wiley, nonprofit executive Dianne Morales confronts the challenge of winning the race as a first-time candidate, yet neither has the deep philanthropic and media connections (nor deep pockets) that Mike Bloomberg possessed long before his 2001 victory.

And what would the dynamic second-term congresswoman gain by joining the race? For starters, like Ed Koch in 1977, Ocasio-Cortez would not need to resign from Congress until the day before taking office at City Hall (the next term begins on January 1, 2022). Thus, she wouldn’t be retreating from her fight for the Green New Deal during the Biden administration’s first year in office.

In fact, AOC would be expanding support for the Green New Deal by making it a central feature of the mayor’s race. In addition to promoting green manufacturing in areas like the Sunset Park waterfront, the DSA calls for the city to use its vast purchasing power to buy local, thus spurring urban farms and food production companies that can provide public school meals. With funding from the Biden administration, NYCHA may finally complete post-Sandy resiliency upgrades and other overdue repairs.

A successful run for mayor also may be a more viable next move for Ocasio-Cortez than Senate. As Ross Barkan argues, toppling Chuck Schumer in a 2022 primary would be a tall order. Meanwhile, if Kirsten Gillibrand’s seat were to come open in 2024, AOC would likely square off with Tish James, an internecine battle that could be especially divisive for people of color throughout the state.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez briefly removes her mask to blow bubbles for a child in Queens on her campaign trail before her June 2020 primary.

Taking on the “second-toughest job in America” would further enable AOC to establish her executive credentials (en route to a bid for the White House). In addition to implementing community-led planning and Green New Deal initiatives, she could genuinely reallocate funds from the NYPD to mental health services and impose meaningful police accountability; and she could fight for equity in schools, health care and all city services. She wouldn’t succeed in every battle—but voters generally respect elected officials who work hard.

As any mayor can attest, the battles would be profound. Bill de Blasio has ended up satisfying neither the police unions nor the police reformers. And both the YIMBY and NIMBY crowds share one trait in common: contempt for anyone who doesn’t support their positions 100%. A dispute with a community board or the sanitation department surely won’t be as thrilling as putting Mark Zuckerberg on the hot seat. But hiring the right deputy mayors and agency commissioners—and unlike de Blasio, holding them accountable—would further demonstrate AOC’s executive skills.

AOC also brings one quality to the race not typically associated with city politics: glamor. Although not exactly socialist strongholds, Madison Avenue advertisers and the city’s fashion industry would benefit from her presence at City Hall. AOC’s leadership also could make people excited to live in the city again. 

As plausible as it is, this scenario seems destined not to happen. But it never hurts to dream. Alas, the reality of watching Max Rose blast his rivals for not serving on the battlefields of Afghanistan will be far more painful to endure.

Theodore Hamm’s latest book is Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics.

Related Coverage

Alexandria vs. Goliath (June 2018)

Gearing Up for a Green New Deal (December 2018)

Domino Effect: Can Millennial Leftists Topple More Machine Incumbents in NY’s June 23 Primaries? (June 2020)

Interview with AOC: “It’s Not Just What We’re Fighting For, But How We’re Fighting For It” (June 2020)

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