This week, the New York City Council held a hearing on long-standing legislation that would give non-citizens the right to vote in municipal elections. The bill permits nearly a million non-citizens with green cards or work permits to vote in city elections, including mayor, comptroller, and the council. Lawful permanent residents or persons authorized to work in the U.S. who have lived in the city for at least 30 consecutive days would be able to vote in these elections.
The bill enjoys majority support in the Democrat-dominated chamber. Many of these members are term-limited, but the next class will be more progressive than the current body, making it likely that a majority will back the bill next year. Mayor Bill de Blasio is skeptical, pointing to possible legal challenges—the State Constitution might forbid it—and the hurdle of allowing a non-citizen to vote in city races while state and federal races are only open to citizens. Most progressive advocacy groups support the legislation, which is modeled on similar bills that have passed in San Francisco and certain parts of Maryland. De Blasio, in his probable opposition, joins conservatives and moderates in the Council.
More importantly, the bill enjoys the backing of Eric Adams. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, won the Democratic nomination for mayor this summer and will replace de Blasio in January. He is hoping to have influence over the new City Council much in the way de Blasio did over the outgoing class. And he seems to earnestly embrace the bill, which is co-sponsored by a top ally, a city councilman named Ydanis Rodriguez. “Currently, almost one million New Yorkers are denied this foundational right,” Adams said in submitted testimony to the City Council. “They work here, pay taxes here, support local businesses here, and yet, they have no say in the functioning of the local government under which they must live.”
On the merits, Adams is right. If immigrants are here paying taxes, why not allow them to vote in elections? Expanding New York City’s electorate has no downside. Giving representation to more people, almost all of them working-class or poor, is an admirable goal. De Blasio is right to wonder how the notoriously inept Board of Elections will administer all of this—they’ll fail at it, most likely—and there is the worry non-citizens who vote for mayor will mistakenly believe they can show up, in a different year, and a pick a president or a member of Congress. These are all questions that will need to be worked out. But they aren’t enough to torpedo the bill altogether.
If Adams is the mayor that signs the legislation into law, he is likely to appease, at least temporarily, many of the organizations and nonprofits that make up the alphabet left. He will earn praise from Make the Road New York, the Working Families Party, and other organizations that would otherwise be opposed to him. It will be nowhere near as dramatic as Andrew Cuomo engineering the passage of same-sex marriage a decade ago, but it will be the kind of social and democratic achievement that wins him plaudits from left-of-center pundits and politicians. When Cuomo was criticized, rightfully, for not being sufficiently progressive, he could always proclaim he made New York one of the few places in America where same-sex couples could marry. For a few years, at least, it was an effective parry.
Adams may not be so cynical, but there’s reason to believe this could be the kind of mayor he’ll be—a Democrat who supports progressive ideas that don’t offend or threaten capital. A former police captain, Adams won working-class Black and Latino New York, dominating his rivals in neighborhoods like East New York, Jamaica, and Morrisania. His identity and long-standing neighborhood connections, along with his messaging around public safety, contributed to his success there. What made Adams so potent, from the perspective of those who might try to check his power next year, was that he married this tangible working-class appeal to a strong alliance with the most wealthy and powerful people in America. Adams fundraised extensively from the real estate industry and Wall Street and benefited from enormous super PAC spending. Top donors to pro-Adams Super PACs included the right-wing billionaire Kenneth Griffin and Mets owner Steven Cohen. The power elite were, initially, split between Adams and Andrew Yang, but as it became clear Adams had a greater path to victory, their millions were aimed at pushing the Brooklyn borough president across the finish line.
This is a crucial difference between Adams and de Blasio, who also supported Adams. De Blasio had no qualms with forging close alliances with certain real estate developers, but he generally vilified the rich, especially the finance class that had a peer in his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio railed against income inequality and repeatedly expressed support for raising taxes on the wealthy. His first months in office were spent pursuing a tax hike in Albany to fund the city’s new universal prekindergarten program, delivering on the chief promise of his mayoral campaign. De Blasio openly sparred with the city’s major business leaders, becoming the first mayor to challenge, in small ways, the grip of the corporate managers who had determined most city policy since the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s. Ultimately, de Blasio did not alter the post-fiscal crisis dynamic much—he aligned with Cuomo in an attempt to subsidize the Amazon headquarters in Queens—but he did manage to grow the city’s budget and increase its social safety net in lasting ways.
Part of de Blasio’s challenge was overcoming the entrenched opposition of the state’s wealthiest donors to a political agenda of a conventional center-left Democrat. De Blasio was the first mayor in 20 years to oppose the expansion of city-funded, privately-run charter schools, arguing that most attention should be paid to bolstering ordinary public schools. De Blasio’s aversion to charters earned him multimillion dollar expenditures against him, greatly hampering his ability to govern. One of de Blasio’s great transgressions, in capital’s eyes, was attempting, in his ham-handed way, to help Democrats take control of the State Senate. The Senate, for the last half century, had largely been in GOP hands, and it was there that charter schools were allowed to become legal and grow, rent-regulations were gutted, and further taxes on the rich were held off.
Adams ran as a very different candidate in 2021. He openly embraced charter schools and won the primary with the assistance of a super PAC funded by a top charter group. His history of championing police reform was drowned out by his message of cracking down on crime and disorder, a favorite talking point of the wealthy, who believe tough policing will maintain their property values. Since winning, Adams has attacked the Democratic Socialists of America and telegraphed to business elites and the moderate newspaper editorial boards who support their agenda that he will be a Bloombergian mayor, concerned chiefly with placating financiers and real estate developers. “New York will no longer be anti-business,” Adams said this month. “This is going to be a place where we welcome business and not turn into the dysfunctional city that we have been for so many years.” Adams spent much of the summer fundraising from, and socializing with, Republican and Democratic donors in the Hamptons who would clink champagne glasses over such sentiments. (Never mind that de Blasio’s New York was hardly anti-business: Facebook and Google are rapidly expanding here.)
If these Hamptons titans are going to be Adams’ fundraising base, the sort of people who help him ward off a progressive primary challenge in four years, he will need to listen to them and not upset them. This will probably come naturally to Adams, who has cynically wielded his own identity in a bid to protect landlords at the expense of tenants. Adams will likely not champion a more progressive tax structure or radical new rent-regulations because both cut into the profits of those who have funded his campaigns and assorted PACs. Money talks.
But that leaves room for Adams to hope that the activist class that has opposed him will be satiated if he pursues other goals. Most of the billionaires who donate to Adams won’t care one way or the other if non-citizens can vote in local elections. A few nativists may whine, but none will desert Adams over it or train their super PACs against him. The ability of some immigrants to vote will not cost Cohen or Griffin or Dan Loeb any amount of money. It’s unlikely many of these newly eligible voters will show up anyway; voting habits usually correlate to income. For Adams, it is the kind of legislation that amounts to a true win-win: the people who would normally be skeptical of him celebrate and the real rainmakers are wholly indifferent.
What remains to be seen is the actual policy agenda Mayor Eric Adams pursues next year. Arresting crime and gun violence are worthy goals, but there’s more to running a city than that. His campaign released a policy book and barely referenced it again. We don’t know yet what he really wants out of Albany or even the City Council. Perhaps, at some point soon, we’ll find out.