Is ‘Ready on Day One’ Enough to Win Mayor’s Race?

Issue 263

Scott Stringer wants to realign himself with the movement, not the machine. It’s not clear that it’s selling.

Rob Katz Apr 15, 2021

Scott Stringer. Photo: Courtesy.

On Jan. 24, 1977, The New York Times ran two letters under the header “The Youth Input.” One short note by a seventh-grader reads: “I was indignant to note that [Manhattan Borough President] Percy Sutton appointed two boys to the Community Planning Boards. Why should boys represent New York teenagers when girls constitute more than one‐half of this age group? Ideally there should be equal representation of both sexes.”

The second, longer note praised Sutton’s decision to place two 16-year-old high-school students on a pair of Manhattan community boards. “I believe we will bring a different viewpoint to our respective community planning boards,” wrote one Scott Stringer, a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Marble Hill who was one of the two adolescent appointees. 

Stringer would go on to be an Assemblymember and then Manhattan borough president, and is currently city comptroller. The child of well-connected liberals (his mother was a City Councilmember and a cousin of ’70s feminist hero Rep. Bella Abzug; his father was a senior aide to Mayor Abe Beame), he fundraised like a well-connected Manhattan liberal. A 2013 article in Vogue magazine described TV star Lena Dunham introducing the middle-aged politico at a Maritime Hotel cocktail fundraiser, where a crowd of mingling socialites, luxury fashion designers, and cosmetics entrepreneurs gathered to hear how Stringer planned to be “a mature steward of a $140 billion pension fund.”

The question is: Why should Scott Stringer, a mainstay of local politics for 30 years, preside over a progressive, majority-minority city in the midst of profound post-pandemic change — and rapid political realignments across the five boroughs’ Democratic parties?

• • •

Stringer has cultivated an impressive collective of endorsers from New York’s ascendant left to help answer that question in his favor. They include Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-Bronx/Westchester), Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan), and state Senators Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx, Jessica Ramos of Queens, and Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, all of whom Stringer endorsed early on in their outsider campaigns.

Stringer’s platform has meaty policy planks. His NYC Under Three early childhood plan, lauded by Bowman, a former middle-school principal, aims to triple the number of infants and toddlers in city care. He’d launch “the largest teacher residency program in the country” and put two teachers, a mentor and a resident, in every classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade. He’d make the City University of New York tuition-free. His climate plan is ambitious, calling for a ban on all new fossil-fuel infrastructure, converting Rikers Island into a renewable-energy hub, and advocating for a Green New Deal for public housing, modeled after the bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Many of these promises meet demands popularized by organizations on the left over the past decade.

“I think there was excitement in seeing someone like Scott Stringer who didn’t come out of the [Democratic Socialists of America] or something, who wasn’t some far-left politician from back in the day, seeing how powerful progressives have become in the city,” said Gabe Tobias, an alumnus of the left-leaning national organization Justice Democrats, which played a key role in electing Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. “It’s to our credit as a movement that someone like Scott is uplifting positions and things that we want to see happen.”

Tobias now heads Our City, an independent-expenditure committee that supports progressive candidates in districts where they have strong corporate-backed opponents. They intend to focus on races in about a dozen districts along with the mayoral and comptroller contests, and want to ensure a progressive trifecta.

Still, Stringer has hesitated to embrace the much more controversial movement to dramatically reduce the Police Department’s $6 billion annual budget. Where he previously called for defunding the NYPD by $1 billion over four years during the protests after George Floyd was killed last year, his online mayoral platform bears little resemblance to that outspoken posture, only calling for capping overtime use and removing overtime bonuses for arrests, and focusing on “investments” in social services and moving responsibilities away from the police. 

Organizations like VOCAL-NY, NYC-DSA, and the Working Families Party have been demanding that between $1 billion and $3 billion be redirected from the NYPD budget into social services like public education and homeless outreach, which they believe would reduce crime. 

Non-profit executive Dianne Morales, who has steadily built a base of young left-wing activist support in recent months and recently unlocked public matching funds, took advantage of that daylight between Stringer and the left’s racial-justice demands when she announced her pledge to defund the NYPD by $3 billion. 

More contradictions come with Stringer’s jumping into the “movement politics” lane after a career of carefully calculated triangulation. He has morphed into a critic of real-estate interests and pledged to reject any new real-estate donations to his campaign. However, he’s taken flack for donations he received before developer support became taboo — more than $800,000 since 2014, much of which he has rolled into his mayoral campaign coffers. Stringer defends his decision to keep the money as a pragmatic necessity when facing well-financed rivals. (He has compiled a strong pro-tenant record, including backing a proposed state law to prohibit evictions without “good cause.”)

Scott Stringer has embraced a number of left-leaning policies in recent years but has hesitated to embrace the much more controversial movement to dramatically reduce the Police Department’s $6 billion annual budget.

Adolfo Abreu, the organizing director of Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and a City Council candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, credited Stringer for being “extremely strategic” in endorsing progressive outsiders when it was risky to do so, but was skeptical about the likelihood that he would intentionally incorporate social-movement demands into his governance.

“Do I think Scott Stringer will be a bad mayor? I don’t think so,” Abreu said. “I just think that there will be multiple times where we’re going to have to hold him accountable … We’re tired of having to consistently do protests and rallies and all these other mechanisms to hold people accountable to the things that they ran on. I think it’s just more of, who’s going to be committed to action and be extremely movable and from day one have the commitment to bringing real stakeholders in the room?”

Abreu, who worked as Biaggi’s field director in 2018, has endorsed and been endorsed by Morales. He points to a similar problem during the 2013 mayoral election, when progressives struggled to coalesce around a candidate before Bill de Blasio took charge late in the race, thanks to an iconic ad featuring his biracial son Dante.

• • •

Polling for this year’s race has been sparse but consistently shows entrepreneur and former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang as the frontrunner, with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams running second. A March 24 poll by Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics placed Yang at 16% and Adams at 10%, with Stringer lagging at 5%, ahead of Morales but also trailing former de Blasio counsel and MSNBC legal analyst Maya Wiley, who clocked in at 6%.

But with less than 100 days until the June 22 Democratic primary that will almost certainly decide the next mayor, 50% of voters are undecided. The poll’s authors called the race “wide open.”

Tobias said a lack of voter awareness was the most likely reason for Stringer, Morales, and Wiley’s low numbers.

“A lot of voters haven’t really decided what they want in the race,” he said. He added that Morales and Wiley’s supporters would likely rank Stringer high on their ranked-choice ballots.

Yang’s limited political record and post-political messaging (“Not left. Not right. Forward.” was the mantra of his national campaign) have made him a popular choice, Tobias said, for voters looking for something new despite Yang’s fairly conservative positions on most issues. With increased voter outreach in the coming months, as well as the coalitional politics encouraged by ranked-choice voting, that 50% undecided should disperse across several camps.

“The good thing about ranked-choice is we don’t have to fight about the one true progressive who is the actual best one,” Tobias said. “We can say, here are the good progressive candidates who have committed to our vision, and not the ones who are opposed to it.”

he Working Families Party has just tapped Stringer as its top endorsee followed by Morales and Wiley. And the United Federation of Teachers, which represents nearly 200,000 teachers and day-care workers, is soon expected to announce their pick.

At the UFT’s final endorsement forum, Stringer was raring to make a good impression. As comptroller, he has been a strict and outspoken auditor of the Department of Education, and often joined UFT President Michael Mulgrew at press events. On this day, he would contrast his education platform with the charter school-friendly pasts of Adams and Yang, make a few jokes, and avoid the fire that was about to be trained on Yang. 

In a moment ripe for a precocious student to shine, Mulgrew asked the candidates if they had “done their homework.” (“You mean, when I was a kid?” Yang stammered.) It turned out the UFT leader was referring to the union’s five-point plan to reopen schools in September. Had Adams, Wiley, Yang or Stringer read it? 

Adams, yes. Wiley, “a Cliff Notes version.” Yang, no. Stringer? “I’ve done my homework, sir!” The question is, will a lifetime of preparation and a late-career shift to the left pay off for this scion of New York’s liberal establishment?

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