Is Scott Stringer the Mayor Progressives Want?

Popular progressive politicians are quickly falling behind the unassuming city comptroller.

On Tuesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer formally entered the New York City mayoral race with a deep roster of endorsements that may just separate him from the crowded field. Stringer, a Manhattan Democrat who has held elected office since the early 1990s, vowed to combat racial and economic inequality in the pandemic-ravaged city.

"We never closed the book on a tale of two cities. If anything over the last eight years, we've written more chapters," Stringer said, taking a direct shot at Mayor Bill de Blasio, who triumphed in 2013 on a populist campaign to rectify the “tale of two cities.” Stringer’s kickoff came with a few notable policy prescriptions—he said he would require every new residential project in the city of a certain size to earmark a quarter of its units as affordable housing, as well a triple the share of housing allocated for homeless families—but it did more to demonstrate his political strengths: a diverse, popular set of progressives were rallying around him.

State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat who is a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, backed Stringer. So did State Senators Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi, two Democrats who defeated members of the Independent Democratic Conference in 2018 and have distinguished themselves as progressives willing to criticize Governor Andrew Cuomo. Robert Jackson, another state senator who defeated an IDC member, backed Stringer, as did two up-and-coming state assembly members popular with activists, Catalina Cruz and Yuh-Line Niou. All of these elected officials have close relationships with the Working Families Party; suddenly, a WFP endorsement for Stringer seems inevitable. (DSA will likely back no one for mayor.) All of them give Stringer a head-start over a packed field that hasn’t distinguished itself yet. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, and two former de Blasio commissioners, Loree Sutton and Kathryn Garcia, are all running. More entrants are likely.

In the Democratic primary, set for June 2021, it will matter which candidate emerges as the favorite of the various leftist activist groups that engage regularly with city politics. With the introduction of ranked-choice voting, there are no clear-cut “lanes” anymore—a candidate can win appeasing a wide set of people—and the classic citywide runoffs are no more. At the same juncture, in such a confusing field of candidates who lack a great deal of name recognition, Stringer is already setting himself up to carry forward a brand that will appeal to the many upwardly mobile progressives who pay most attention to politics. The vote-rich enclaves of the Upper West Side and Park Slope will probably be kind to Stringer, as well as the emerging gentrified swaths of northern Brooklyn and western Queens, where many new arrivals aren’t so new anymore: they have registered as Democrats and are impacting primaries. If Stringer is able to marshal the supporters of progressive organizations that sprung up from the anti-IDC movement and other left fights over the last three years, he will be formidable. These voters, reform-oriented and deeply attuned to matters of racial and economic injustice, are set to play a sizable role in the primary.

What’s strange to me still is how this former Manhattan borough president and state assemblyman has now clearly assumed the mantle of movement progressivism in this race. Stringer has been a left-of-center politician his whole career, since entering the State Assembly in 1993, but he is, in every sense, a product of the clubhouse. His late mother was a former city councilwoman. He was an assembly aide and loyal party soldier on the Upper West Side, working for a young state lawmaker named Jerry Nadler. When Ted Weiss, the longtime West Side congressman, suddenly died in 1992, three days before the Democratic primary, Nadler was nominated by local Democrats to replace him after election day. Nadler inherited the seat and has had it since. A vacancy in the State Assembly, meanwhile, had opened up. After a stint running a bar, Stringer was able to hustle up the county committee votes to win the Democratic nomination, tantamount to victory on the Upper West Side.

As a state assemblyman focused on issues like rules reform in the chamber, Stringer was a favorite of good government groups. In 2001, he mounted a bid for public advocate, finishing fifth in the Democratic primary, well behind the eventual winner, Betsy Gotbaum. Stringer was the focus of an unflattering Village Voice story, in which Wayne Barrett revealed that Stringer’s mother, in the tradition of all well-connected Democratic political figures, was making serious money in the Manhattan courts as an appointed evaluator and conservator, despite having no prior expertise in overseeing the assets of those who are elderly or incapacitated. When I profiled Stringer’s emerging rivalry with de Blasio for the New York Observer back in 2014, Jerry Skurnik, a veteran Democratic operative who is deeply familiar with political workings on the West Side, summed up the key difference between the mayor, a former Park Slope city councilman, and Stringer: “Stringer grew up in regular politics, election day politics. De Blasio was more out of a political movement,” Skurnik told me. “Stringer is a politician who happens to have progressive views. De Blasio is a progressive who got involved in politics to further his progressive interests.”

After winning a crowded Manhattan Borough President’s race in 2005 on the strength of his ties to the Upper West Side—notable pols he defeated were future charter schools power broker Eva Moskowitz, then a city councilwoman, and future Congressman Adriano Espaillat—Stringer established himself as a contender for a higher office of some type, including mayor. He burnished a reputation as a policy-focused Democrat in an office with little formal power, championing far-reaching projects like the Triboro Rx and the return of the long-repealed commuter tax.

Stringer was not known as a loud progressive in this period, taking a backseat to sharper Michael Bloomberg antagonists like his predecessor in the comptroller’s office, John Liu, and de Blasio, who would win the public advocate’s office in 2009. Stringer defended one of Bloomberg’s most unpopular initiatives: a 2008 repeal of the term limits law, which allowed the billionaire mayor and the City Council to seek a third term. Stringer testified in support of granting council members and Bloomberg a third term, overriding the wishes of many progressives and average New Yorkers, who strongly backed the two term limit. In 2013, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign would fail, in part, because of Democratic voters who could not forgive her for helping Bloomberg overturn the law.

That year, Stringer ran for city comptroller after his mayoral bid failed to register in the polls or attract visible support. Several years earlier, Stringer had briefly floated himself as a primary challenger to Kirsten Gillibrand, though a campaign was never mounted. The comptroller’s position, however, was vacant, and he had no Democratic challengers until Eliot Spitzer, the scandal-scarred former governor, suddenly entered the race in July. The collision between Stringer and Spitzer set up a fascinating dynamic: an extremely wealthy, once-powerful politician now on the outside looking in, attempting to defeat Stringer, who had the backing of virtually every elected official and labor union in the city, as well as power brokers in the worlds of finance and real estate. Spitzer initially led in the polls, but Stringer managed their debate clashes well, narrowly triumphing in September with the support of the political establishment and liberal white voters. The primary was racially polarized, a dynamic Stringer may hope to avoid next year; Blacks and Latinos overwhelmingly preferred Spitzer, but were outvoted. Stringer won his citywide perch.

What’s fascinating about Stringer’s positioning, in this mayoral race, as a movement progressive unafraid to challenge established power is how conventional his politics were for much of his career. Yes, Stringer was one of several politicians arrested for protesting the police killing of Amadou Diallo back in 1999. But Stringer exercised caution otherwise, particularly on issues related to policing and criminal justice. He declined, like several other prominent politicians, to join Rev. Al Sharpton’s march on Staten Island after the death of Eric Garner in 2014. (Stringer said he could not attend because, as city comptroller, he was overseeing the negotiations of a legal settlement with the Garner family.) In 2015, on the one-year anniversary of Garner’s death and less than a year after the unrest in Ferguson, he released a vague statement on race and policing that closed with the sentence “all lives matter.” That same year, he sharply criticized the City Council speaker at the time, Melissa Mark-Viverito, for attempting to decriminalize low-level offenses like public urination. Echoing de Blasio’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who was an architect of “broken windows” policing, Stringer fretted that decriminalizing public urination could raise the city’s crime rate. (It did not.)

“We lived in a city not that long ago where the smell of urine was so prevalent in some of our economically challenged communities, people felt they were afraid to go out at night and I just think we should enforce the law fairly but keep in mind we have to have some laws,” Stringer said. “I think we should proceed with caution. I am very proud of our low crime rate.”

On other issues, Stringer could be more reactionary than prescient. He disagreed with de Blasio’s effort to cap the growth of Uber and other e-hail apps in 2015, even as it was clear the explosion of for-hire vehicles in the city was slowing traffic and crippling a yellow taxi industry dominated by immigrant drivers.

“With technology comes challenges but we cannot for a moment arbitrarily cap innovation and cap ingenuity for the sake of same old, same old. It’s time to think and be smarter when it comes to building our economic footprint around the city,” Stringer said.

Stringer, of course, was not the only politician to back Uber aggressively as it invaded cities across the world in the 2010s. In this era, Democrats and Republicans alike were easily seduced by Silicon Valley ingenuity, even as it became apparent Uber’s business model was predatory and borderline fraudulent, breaking local laws to raise more investor cash without ever turning a profit. Yellow taxi drivers, failing to compete, would begin to commit suicide, their livelihoods ruined. Stringer would likely say less kind things about Uber today and speak much more fluently on criminal justice issues, but there’s the rub: the next mayor of New York City, ideally, will not be someone who merely absorbs and parrots wrongheaded groupthink, only to reorient later on. Though it has little to do with New York, it’s unclear Stringer will ever repent for cheering on Israel’s murderous bombardment of Gaza in 2014.

Like other Democrats in this period, Stringer was largely silent as the IDC joined with Republicans in 2013 to lock Democrats out of the State Senate majority. He did not endorse the Democrats challenging two IDC members, Jeff Klein and Tony Avella, in 2014 Democratic primaries. He had little to say in 2016 when another uptown Democrat, Marisol Alcantara, joined the IDC. Though Stringer now embraces Democrats willing to stand up to Andrew Cuomo, the most powerful governor in modern times, he has rarely rebuked Cuomo himself. As Cuomo systemically undermined the progressive project in New York for a decade, Stringer has been muted, saving his fire for our proverbial fish in a barrel, Bill de Blasio. Stringer flirted with launching a primary challenge against de Blasio in 2017 but struggled to articulate a rationale for a campaign, backing away from the race.

Stringer, of course, has achievements to entice progressives yearning for change. As Salazar, the democratic socialist, pointed out to me, Stringer helped draft legislation to eliminate regressive, predatory fees in the legal system. He has consistently audited NYCHA, New York’s public housing, and could prove to be a more able steward of the housing authority than de Blasio. He has been a leader on divesting pension funds from fossil fuel companies. He has advanced innovative solutions for housing and transportation, supporting utilizing vacant city land to erect affordable housing, creating a city land bank, and reimagining a portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as a public park. One leftist put it to me succinctly: Stringer, out of all the candidates likely to win, would be the most responsive to concerns from activists representing the interests of the working class and poor. Other candidates are far less likely to engage. Stringer is open to being influenced, and this differentiates him from some of his top rivals.

Stringer’s 2018 endorsement spree is evidence of that. It should be noted, plainly, that many elected officials who formally backed Stringer on Tuesday won election to their posts during the revolutionary 2018 cycle, when six IDC members were ousted and Salazar beat an establishment Democrat. Stringer was a relatively early and willing supporter of most of these campaigns, discerning well enough that this was where politics was headed and all of these charismatic upstarts were about to win. The winners returned the favor. Such is politics.

The question for Stringer and everyone else who seeks the mayoralty next year is what a post-pandemic city will look like. It’s not enough to yawp, again and again, New York City will be “back.” Life is fundamentally changing. The commercial real estate industry, an important source of property tax revenue, is cratering. Certain mobile and affluent residents are realizing they can earn money and raise families elsewhere. Rents are beginning to fall, but the city, now reeling, remains an unaffordable place. What big ideas do you have? How will you save us? Can new taxes be raised to offset the loss in property tax revenue? Can vacant office space be reimagined for another purpose, like housing? Can a mayor envision a housing policy that isn’t shackled to an outdated mode of urban capitalism, in which private developers are begged to build a sliver of vaguely affordable apartments for a lucky few? Can we ever solve homelessness? Can we imagine a second New Deal for New York City or even just a profound expansion of Mitchell-Lama? Can we upzone residential neighborhoods? Can the city streets exist for pedestrians, not automobiles? Can the police department be treated like every other city agency, accountable to the mayor and the people, and not be permitted to function as a rogue fiefdom? If the worm turns against leftism in New York—if conservatives are revived, if backlash arrives to the gains of the tenant and police reform movements—can Stringer be trusted to stand against the tide and do what is not popular but right?

If Stringer, this newfound progressive champion, enters City Hall in 2022, Cuomo will still be governor. He may very well win a fourth term. Thanks to the state constitution and the passage of subsequent laws, Cuomo enjoys remarkable power over New York City, able to override almost any local law. Cuomo does not seem to particularly care about the future of the city, repeatedly denigrating it in the press, even as it functions as the state’s sole economic engine. Cuomo will be as much an antagonist of Stringer as he is of de Blasio, because a Democrat with a modicum of power is an affront to the governor, particularly as he mulls a future presidential bid. In winning endorsements, Stringer has proved he can build coalitions. As mayor, he will need to partner with Democrats in Albany to build a movement against Cuomo that can, in time, bring the governor to heel. This will be incredibly difficult. It will take far more than proper positioning, canny endorsements, and good timing. It will take the kind of gumption Stringer—as well as his rivals—has yet to demonstrate to any great degree. Appeasement does not work with bullies or dictators. Eventually, they smell weakness and come for you.