Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Mayor Brad Lander?
The actions and reactions of politics
When Eric Adams won the Democratic primary last June, the narrative was set: the moderates had won and the backlash to progressives, especially Bill de Blasio, was here.
The narrative was not entirely wrong. Adams, a former police captain, campaigned on a law-and-order platform that challenged leftist priorities like defund the police. He proudly fundraised from real estate developers and Wall Street barons. He courted none of the major progressive nonprofits and political parties—he was as anti-alphabet left as one could be in the Democratic primary—and made it clear he would be willing to clash with democratic socialists, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and any other leaders of the left who came against him.
The close primary runner-up, Kathryn Garcia, was different in style but not substance. She ran toward the center, in the neoliberal lane. Together, the two of them blocked out the progressive alternative, Maya Wiley. The mayoral primary was a triumph for those who were hoping for signs that the left flank of the Democratic Party was no longer ascendant. The feeling of pundit triumph was real.
Politics, of course, is always more complicated than it appears and there were other stories to tell alongside the victory of Adams and the surprising Garcia surge. Wiley, running with AOC’s support, was a relatively weak standard bearer for the left, rising quickly in part because Scott Stringer was accused of sexual misconduct and Dianne Morales, a curious insurgent who never had the votes to win, imploded in bizarre fashion. Had Jumaane Williams, the public advocate popular with Black and white left-leaning voters alike, decided to run for mayor, he very well could have won. As time passes, he may come to regret the decision to pass on the race. (He is currently engaged in a long-shot campaign for governor against Kathy Hochul. Assuming Hochul, with a massive fundraising advantage, breezes to victory, Williams may find he’s down some of the political capital he’s been banking for years.)
It’s far too soon to think about who the next mayor will be, with Adams just coming into office, but it is worth considering the cyclical nature of politics. As mayor, de Blasio was a dour center-left Democrat who embraced lofty rhetoric, clashed with the media, and always seemed to dislike the job, fleeing the city to campaign in Iowa. Eric Adams is a centrist who revels fully in his power, staging photo-op after photo-op and winning over the media class with his evident verve and zeal. Just as de Blasio was a corrective to the Bloomberg years—an open progressive willing to challenge stop-and-frisk—Adams emerged as something of a reaction to two terms of de Blasio’s New York, where tangible progress and great frustration often coexisted.
If Adams continues to insist on not implementing any kind of transformative policy agenda and governs in a way that is plainly dismissive of ambition—both Bloomberg and de Blasio had great visions for what New York should be—the lane will open anew for someone very much unlike him to seize power in the future. Given the reality of incumbency, a mere one term for Adams is not likely, barring unforeseen circumstances. As long as Adams avoids crippling scandal, he’ll get a second term, as de Blasio did. For progressives and leftists who want to hold municipal power by the end of this decade, it’s worth thinking ahead.
Last year, I wrote an essay about the twilight of the liberal-left, arguing the future of local politics might be a clash between socialists and moderates, leaving behind the traditional progressive who would hesitate to seriously embrace democratic socialism. I cited Brad Lander, then running for city comptroller, as emblematic of that sort of conflicted politician, a white man from Park Slope who could not endorse Bernie Sanders in either presidential campaign and went as far to call himself a socialist while backing Hillary Clinton. I believe local politics is moving in this direction—a divide between socialists and moderates, further left Democrats and the center-right—and those like Lander may be caught in-between. Look at the city council members now copying DSA rhetoric and the growing number who support Donald Trump or loathe much of what the progressive left stands for. Though they’re off to a quiet start, this is the most ideologically diverse and outright strange New York City Council we have ever seen.
But Brad Lander himself—he’s not going anywhere, and he is probably well-positioned to make a serious bid for mayor whenever a primary opens up. Lander is a deceptively talented politician who ran, by a decent amount, the best citywide campaign last year. He entered the comptroller’s race as a polling underdog, up against Corey Johnson, the popular City Council speaker who rapidly locked up the backing of all the major labor unions and many influential politicians. Lander had AOC, who helped him a lot, the Working Families Party, and various celebrities, but he ultimately out-worked Johnson and messaged far more effectively. His TV ads were very good and memorable. Lander was de Blasio’s successor in the Park Slope, Gowanus, and Kensington-based district that is a valuable launching pad because so many affluent, highly engaged Democrats vote there. Turnout, overall, has boomed in brownstone Brooklyn, and Lander defeated Johnson and the rest of the field on the strength of the vote in those neighborhoods and the coast-hugging enclaves of north Brooklyn and western Queens. He easily won Manhattan too.
Adams won his own citywide primary with the support of the Black and Latino working-classes, as well as white moderates, but because of gentrification, many of those voters are becoming less influential in local primaries as time goes on. Had Garcia fused her brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan liberal vote to Wiley’s more multiracial professional class bloc, she would have crushed Adams. The Garcia-Wiley voters far outstripped those who came to the polls for Adams and one wonders what would have happened if the two managed to form an alliance like Garcia did, at the 11th hour, with Andrew Yang. Instead of working somewhat anonymously in the Hochul administration, Garcia would have been New York’s first female mayor.
Lander is a candidate who can join these two votes, appealing to older, wealthier brownstone and Manhattan liberals and professional class socialists in Bushwick and Astoria alike. He is not a working-class candidate and doesn’t need to be one to win. Ranked-choice voting explains part of this, but the truth is that Adams would have probably struggled under the old system too. Had he been pitted in a runoff against Garcia or Wiley, he would not have been guaranteed a win, not if Manhattan, left-leaning Brooklyn, and left-leaning Queens all consolidated around one of the women. The days of Letitia James obliterating Dan Squadron are gone.
In retrospect, prior to the sexual misconduct allegations, it was Scott Stringer who could have forged this kind of winning coalition, netting the backing of AOC, WFP, the New York Times, a few large unions, and enough progressive local politicians to overcome Adams. It was a good game plan. One advantage Lander has over Stringer is that his connection to the NGO and activist left appears more genuine. Lander did come out of these worlds, not the Democratic clubhouses of Stringer’s youth that no longer have much purchase. Young DSA members may roll their eyes at Lander, perhaps, but they do view him as a committed ally on most major issues. The Stringer-Left alliance always felt a little forced. It won’t with Lander.
If Lander lacks the compelling backstory of de Blasio—multiracial family, Sandinista activist, Bloomberg foil rising at just the right time—he is probably more politically astute, both at the backroom game and public optics. He has yet to take a position that obviously infuriates the various left activists of the city. He holds to de Blasio’s left on housing issues. He has ably navigated the unpredictable Adams. In the City Council, he was smart enough to understand you don’t actually run for speaker if you want to move up in the world. Lander has yet to play a wrong card. After four or eight years of Adams, Lander’s technocratic liberalism may become more appealing to the electorate. Anything is possible.
Any future mayoral race may hinge on what someone like Jumaane Williams wants to do. Williams and Lander are close and I’ve long felt the charismatic Williams would be able to muscle Lander out of the race. These days, given how impressive Lander’s citywide victory really was—Williams won a low turnout 2019 special election as a clear a front-runner—and the relative lack of excitement around the Jumaane for Governor bid, I’m not so sure Lander will readily stand down when his time comes. Why should he? City comptrollers run for mayor. And he knows now how to run from behind and win.