In politics, you will often hear chatter about something called the “invisible primary.” This is a very real phenomenon in which politicians jockey behind the scenes to line up support from elected officials, donors, labor unions, advocacy organizations, political operatives, and other members of the insider class long before the actual primary is held. Until 2016, they were a regular feature of both the Republican and Democratic primaries for president, in which the winner of the “invisible” primary usually went on to win the real one.
Mitt Romney triumphed in the 2012 invisible primary, locking up support from the Republican establishment, and beat back outside insurgencies from Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich. Hillary Clinton had more institutional support than Barack Obama in 2008, but the canny Obama still had a lot of it, including crucial backing from influential senators like Ted Kennedy and Dick Durbin, negating Clinton’s advantage. In 2016, Clinton obliterated Bernie Sanders in the invisible primary, winning the endorsements of almost every elected official, advocacy organization, and labor union, though Sanders was able to run a competitive campaign, thanks to the rise of online fundraising and social media. This theory of how primaries are run, known as “the party decides,” has governed a large majority of presidential primaries in modern times with one glaring exception—the 2016 GOP primary, in which a celebrity outsider mocked and ignored by the Republican establishment, Donald Trump, stormed to victory and took the whole operation over. In the 2020 presidential primary, the Democratic Party establishment was a bit more confused—sell out to former Republican Mike Bloomberg?—but ultimately united in its disdain for Sanders. Joe Biden was the great beneficiary of that.
When I unsuccessfully, if vigorously, sought the Democratic nomination for a State Senate seat in Brooklyn two years ago—like Gore Vidal, and unlike Norman Mailer, I ran to win and simply didn’t—I participated in a long, drawn-out invisible primary I also did not win. I met with elected officials, labor leaders, and donors, not only attempting to secure support but push my Democratic opponent from the race altogether, aiming to be the lone Democratic nominee to face a Republican incumbent. My opponent was likely doing the same to me, but had less leverage in this department because I was already an outsider, not dependent on any particular endorsement to be viable. In the end, there were real victories (a few advocacy groups, one labor union, a local political club, the Daily News, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all supported me) but I could not land the major unions and politicians in my district. The invisible primary was quite hard to win.
All of this is a preamble to what is happening now: the invisible primary to replace Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City. In our overwhelmingly Democratic city, the June 2021 primary will probably determine the next mayor. Scott Stringer, who announced his campaign last week, appears to be leading the invisible primary, rolling out elected official endorsements and promising more political support in the near future. As the city comptroller and someone who has run in many municipal races, Stringer is well known to every large labor union, donor, and advocacy group of consequence. The rapidly thinning field of top contenders will also be to his benefit, as one primary contender, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, appears to be shying away from the race. Yes, the number of candidates competing for the Democratic nomination is quite large, but there may be only three, at this point, who are going to assemble the potent, viable campaigns needed to succeed, barring a change of circumstances or the entrant of someone who is famous. They are Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Maya Wiley, a prominent lawyer and activist.
Wiley is de Blasio’s former counsel, the former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and the daughter of George Wiley, a leader in the Civil Rights movement. She has never held elected office, which will hurt since she has not spent time in the trenches building up a natural constituency. She does have a large social media following from her many cable TV appearances and has gained attention in the wake of George Floyd’s death as a strong voice on policing and criminal justice. As a Black woman, she could hold appeal in the vote-rich African-American and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. She will probably be a favorite of higher echelon media like the Times and attract some national attention. To city reporters, Wiley is best known for trying to shield interactions de Blasio had with his advisers and political consultants from public scrutiny, concocting the somewhat ludicrous term “agents of the city” to hide emails from FOIL laws. Wiley has not formally announced a campaign but will likely do so soon. Her inner circle is filled with de Blasio allies and former staffers. Her top strategists and spokespeople all worked for de Blasio or remain friends with him. Wiley’s candidacy, for many of these de Blasio allies, offers another chance to have influence at City Hall for the next eight years.
Is Wiley, then, just another de Blasio, packaged more effectively for this moment? I can’t assess her policy platform because she doesn’t yet have one. She has been meeting with elected officials and other prominent leaders for months and is hoping for her own splash on announcement day. Perhaps we will learn more soon. Let me make a purely political, horse race assessment first: if Wiley is surrounded by de Blasio staffers and operatives, this is probably a good thing for her electoral chances. Huh, you might reply. Bumbling, arrogant, delusional de Blasio, who can’t stop pissing people off—this guy, or even his people, can help Wiley?
It’s hard to remember now, but the 2013 de Blasio campaign was among the best run in modern municipal history. Though it benefited from two great pieces of luck—the implosions of Anthony Weiner and John Liu—de Blasio’s victory in that September Democratic primary was overwhelming. In a crowded field of bold names, the idea of de Blasio avoiding a Democratic runoff (under the old system, the top two candidates would compete in a citywide runoff if no one reached 40 percent) seemed impossible. Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, and Christine Quinn, the city council speaker, were equally viable candidates who enjoyed more press coverage. Quinn won the endorsements of all the major newspapers, including the Times, and Thompson corralled support from large labor unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, and many political leaders. (De Blasio’s big coup, on the labor front, was 1199 SEIU, the healthcare workers’ union.) On the strength of compelling messaging, great TV ads, and his multiracial family, de Blasio won a dominant victory on primary day, netting more than 40 percent of the vote, winning every borough and almost every single Assembly District, a stunning achievement that spoke to the diversity of his coalition. It’s worth remembering that in the 1977 Democratic primary, Ed Koch, despite finishing first, did not win a single borough.
Wiley’s de Blasio ties, portrayed as an absolute albatross in the media, aren’t so clearly going to weigh her down. There’s no polling data to suggest all Democrats in New York City widely revile de Blasio. In fact, despite his myriad missteps and botched pandemic response, de Blasio has retained support from Black voters, who will play a key role in the Democratic primary. As recently as June, 67 percent of Black New Yorkers approved of de Blasio’s response to the George Floyd protests, in contrast to the dismal 36 percent of white respondents registering approval. White New York’s hatred of de Blasio will be a hindrance for Wiley in 2021. Centrists, liberals, and leftists, from MSNBC binge watchers in Park Slope to DSA activists in Astoria, do not take de Blasio seriously, and prestige media has long moved on from him. De Blasio will very likely not make a formal endorsement in the race and choose, instead, to aid Wiley behind closed doors, with his former counsel blessed to publicly criticize him when it’s necessary to further her campaign. The Wiley-de Blasio dynamic may be similar to Quinn and Michael Bloomberg’s in 2013, when the outgoing billionaire mayor, increasingly unpopular among Democrats, declined to issue a formal Quinn endorsement, though everyone believed she was his preferred choice. De Blasio will be an asset in the invisible primary for Wiley. It should be noted Bloomberg was never really a help to Quinn.
The bigger question for Wiley is if she can break from the left-liberal consensus on policing and housing in New York City. That is far from clear. De Blasio has not been a transformational mayor on housing, though his administration has built a large number of housing units deemed affordable. Every single mayor in modern times has taken roughly the same failed approach to keeping housing affordable for the working class and poor: incentivize private developers to build and hope they set aside a slice of housing for low-income residents. This percentage is never enough to make a difference in the housing market. De Blasio’s approach differed from Bloomberg’s only in that he would mandate some percentage of affordable housing be set aside when an area was rezoned. This approach, known as mandatory inclusionary housing, had been a favorite of liberal urban planners in the 2010s, who were convinced it would help solve the city’s housing crisis.
Of course, it hasn’t. Rents skyrocketed throughout de Blasio’s time in office and are only flattening now because we are living through the worst pandemic in 100 years. Homelessness is out of control, and de Blasio has never much advocated for paying the rent of New Yorkers through vouchers or just building more housing for the homeless instead of overpaying hotels or operating derelict shelters to house them. De Blasio’s theory on housing was to raise gobs of money from real estate developers and entice them to do nicer things. In his populist 2013 campaign, de Blasio openly courted the real estate industry because the political environment permitted it and the consensus was simply that this was the only was to create any kind of housing. If Wiley is too close to the advisers who hovered around de Blasio, there is the risk her City Hall can be engulfed with an atmosphere of favor-trading and de facto quid pro quo with the wealthy and powerful.
Will Mayor Wiley confront the “real estate state,” as the leftist urban planner Sam Stein has termed it, and seek a housing plan that can transcend the unworkable dynamic of beseeching for-profit real estate developers to toss housing crumbs to the rest of the city? Will she seek to partner with Democrats in Albany to enact a form of mass rent control for New York City, similar to what was done in Berlin? Will she seek to add affordable housing units in residential neighborhoods that have been unfairly downzoned? What about community land trusts? If Wiley is to move beyond de Blasio’s conventional and inadequate attempt to solve the housing crisis, she will need to form a coalition with the city’s House delegation to lobby for massive investments in public and subsidized housing of the likes not seen since the New Deal era. Under a second term of Donald Trump, this will be impossible, but opportunities will arise if Biden is elected president and Democrats can control both chambers of Congress. If Wiley is the next mayor, she will need to be the urban champion New York actually needs.
On policing, the reality must be addressed that the NYPD is not being held accountable nearly enough. Yes, it should be understood the NYPD is a less corrupt and violent policy agency than it used to be decades ago; police officers do not fire nearly as many bullets or kill as many people as they once did. The central dilemma, which de Blasio never solved, is how to bring accountability to a department that too often applies excessive force, lies to the media, and evades justice. De Blasio has been far too deferential to the police, too cowed by his commissioners. It takes too long to fire rogue, violent officers and department heads function more as fiefdom lords than city employees working beneath the mayor. Civilian control of the NYPD does not exist. Every commissioner in the de Blasio era has been an ex-police officer with conservative views, able to mind-meld with some of the rank-and-file but unwilling to understand the concerns of the millions that they police. Wiley’s answer cannot simply be a beefed up version of de Blasio’s wasteful community policing initiative or more body cameras. The NYPD, for the first time, must be treated as yet another city agency under City Hall’s purview. It must be demilitarized and brought out of the shadows. If Wiley is merely a more woke version of de Blasio, this will not happen. Soon, she will tell New Yorkers want kind of mayor she wants to be. We should all pay attention.