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City Hall’s Wave of Would-Be Disruptors

How will an increasingly diverse City Council align—or not—with the incoming mayor?

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New York City’s changing seasons have brought the usual confusion over how to dress for the fickle weather, but something else is in the air. For the past four months, political candidates across the spectrum—Democrat, Republican, everything in between—have gone through the last leg of a year-long journey toward elected office. The November 2 general elections have come and gone, and not only are New Yorkers getting a new mayor—Eric Adams, the second Black mayor in the city’s history—they will also get an unprecedented City Council body, one that some say looks a lot more like the city it governs. 

For the first time the 51-member City Council will have a female majority, with 31 women elected this year. Beyond that, the Council will be more diverse than ever, with a larger number of Latino and Asian members elected, as well as more openly queer women.

“It means something when I knock on a door in Astoria Houses and talk about spending my childhood in my abuela’s apartment,” says Tiffany Cabán, 34, referring to the public housing complex in Woodside where both her parents grew up. The former public defender won the City Council seat for District 22 in Queens, representing the neighborhoods of Astoria, parts of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and Woodside, and the whole of Rikers Island. “I think New York City is not only ready but has been starving for that kind of representation,” she adds.

A queer Latina and self-professed “abolitionist”—meaning she wants to eventually abolish jails and prisons and replace the police department with community health and safety programs—Cabán ran on an unapologetically leftist platform, similar to her campaign for Queens district attorney in 2019. She lost that race, but her candidacy—built on the criminal justice reforms championed by progressive prosecutors like Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, who campaigned with her during her bid for DA—ushered in a razor-close race that jolted the city’s Democratic party establishment.

Like Cabán, many of the women joining the Council next term are young women of color from working-class backgrounds. Also like Cabán, many of them are pushing for progressive reforms, signifying a new wave of leftist lawmakers joining the body. Some see it as undeniable proof that progressive policies—including programs supporting education reform, universal childcare, and alternatives to incarceration—appeal to the city’s voters, especially after a disastrous year marked by a deadly pandemic and a natural disaster, Hurricane Ida.

“I think people are becoming more politically aware,” says Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, a bona fide progressive who, since 2017, has represented Lower Manhattan in the state’s legislature. When it comes to affecting change, transforming government often feels like something untouchable, she explains, especially for candidates from backgrounds that are not often represented within governing bodies, even in a city like New York.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh there’s a big secret and I have to figure out the big secret,’” Niou says. “The big secret is that there is no big secret … there’s just people in power, who are currently in power, who want you to believe that you can’t access [public office] so you don’t try.”

Officials credit the city’s Campaign Finance Board matching funds program, which had risen to an 8-to-1 ratio this year (meaning candidates received $8 in public financing for every $1 they raised in small contributions), for diversifying New York’s electoral body. The program enabled candidates competing in city-level elections to receive matching funds for their campaigns, so long as they fulfilled certain requirements, such as collecting a minimum number of contributions from local donors.

“A lot of times there are voices and experiences that have historically been more marginalized in society and that have not had a level playing field, and that have not been able to get the resources to get their message across. I think that’s one of the values of having a campaign finance program,” says Melissa Mark-Viverito, former Council speaker and co-founder of the “21 in ’21” movement, which trained and supported women candidates with the goal of electing 21 women to City Council. Mark-Viverito’s dismay at the declining number of female Council members during her tenure fueled her desire to launch the political group.

“That was a goal that was just about raising awareness, about saying that we needed something to happen,” Mark-Viverito says. “To now see that we’re overwhelmingly beyond that reality, that we’re gonna have a majority of women in this Council, it’s just really gratifying.”

Carlina Rivera, the Council member representing District 2’s Lower Manhattan, who secured a second term this election, had a more candid take on the body’s changing face: “Women, to be blunt, they’re just better at getting shit done.” A number of studies prove Rivera’s point, including one by Michele Swers, a political scientist who has for decades studied the real-world effects of electing more women to Congress, which shows that women lawmakers typically champion more family-oriented policies, secure more funding for their districts, and, on average, pass more pieces of legislation compared to men.

Next year’s 31-woman majority is a far cry from what the Council looked like when Rivera took office, only four years ago. Back then, there were only 11 women serving. The severe gender disparity presented challenges, as the female Council members stretched themselves thin to ensure that there was at least one woman on each of the multiple committees. After that, Rivera committed to getting more women elected, endorsing close to 20 female candidates in this year’s elections.

“It wasn’t just going to be about checking boxes, it was going to be about people who … were already doing the work,” says Rivera, who is a frontrunner to replace Council Speaker Corey Johnson to lead the Council next year. At least 10 women endorsed by Rivera won their seats, including Tiffany Cabán.

“Running for DA was a very lonely thing,” Cabán admits, half-jokingly. “I feel like I am just rolling up with this beautiful, brilliant squad of not just like, powerful, you know, women of color … we’re going to have women that are part of the disability community, women who are Muslim, women who are queer, women who are like, just all of those things. And a lot of these women are organizers.”

Cabán, who will assume her Council seat early due to her district’s current vacancy, is excited to hit the ground running with her progressive squad. Among those she name-checks is Shahana Hanif, a former Council aide who launched her own leftist campaign for District 39 in Brooklyn. The seat is being vacated by Hanif’s former boss, incumbent Brad Lander, who was elected as the city’s new comptroller.  Hanif won the Democratic nomination in a seven-way primary before going on to win the Council seat with 89% of votes in the general election.

The daughter of Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants, Hanif, 30, likes to mention the Desi “aunties” and “uncles” who helped secure her win, which represents exciting firsts: Hanif is the first Muslim elected to the Council and is among the first South Asians elected to the body. More broadly, she is part of a cohort of several Asian candidates who were elected to Council seats beyond Manhattan’s Chinatown and Queens’ Flushing districts for the first time.

Hanif’s district represents the liberal parts of Brooklyn in the north, melding diverse neighborhoods like Borough Park and Kensington, where immigrant conclaves of Bangladeshi and Indo-Caribbean residents congregate, with gentrified areas such as Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. She joins the Council’s Brooklyn delegation, which is among the most diverse this year; it is also the most hard-line left-wing, with other organizers-turned-Council-member-elects Sandy Nurse, Crystal Hudson, Jennifer Gutiérrez, and Chi Ossé.

“Brooklyn’s really coming in and we’re not coming in soft. And that feels incredibly powerful, because Brooklyn deserves so much more,” Hanif says. “I’m just really excited to be able to work toward transforming [the Democratic Party] together with the folks who got elected.”

How the new Council, with its progressive wing of incoming members, finds alignment—or not—with incoming mayor Adams, who is generally viewed as a moderate Democrat, in pushing for the kinds of reforms they want remains to be seen.

Adams, a former NYPD captain turned politician, is a discombobulating figure. He’s blunt in his speech, in a way that appeals to the average New Yorker, but strategic in his words, reflecting his decades of politicking. Adams has an uncanny ability to attract broad support, snatching up first-choice ranked votes from working-class communities in the Bronx and Brooklyn and middle-class white residents in the central parts of Queens. He also received a plethora of endorsements from labor unions and law enforcement associations, allowing him to cruise to victory in the competitive primary race.

Despite his moderate-skewing politics, the incoming mayor has at times agreed broadly with the left flank, particularly on quality-of-life matters such as transit, food security, health services, and gun violence. Cabán mentions the noncitizen voting bill sponsored by term-limited council member Ydanis Rodriguez, a staunch Adams ally expected to land a job in the new administration. Rodriguez’s bill would expand municipal voting rights to certain noncitizen New Yorkers (such as tax-paying working-permit holders) but has languished in the Council after Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would veto it if it passed. Both Cabán and Mayor-elect Adams support the bill. “We could get that done really early on,” Cabán says. “The votes are there.”

Pierina Sanchez is another member of the progressive squad. She represents the Bronx’s District 14, a slice of the borough that includes the predominantly Latino working-class neighborhoods of University Heights, Fordham, and Kingsbridge. A product of Afro-Dominican immigrant parents, Sanchez has expertise in urban planning and served as senior staff under de Blasio. Growing up in the Bronx, her family experienced forced eviction after their landlord set their building on fire. That experience, combined with her reliance on public programs to help with her college application to Harvard, where she received a full-ride scholarship, has made housing and education reform her first-term priorities.

“I think he wants to do universal after-school,” Sanchez says, speaking about areas of common ground with the new mayor. Despite having contradicting brands, Sanchez believes there is “significant overlap” between her cohort of young leftists and the more conservative Adams. “I’m not going to be afraid to push for what I’ve heard from my community members and what the community needs. I’m going to be, ‘Let’s go!’” she continues. “But that’s not square one. Square one is, what are the areas of alignment? Let’s drive toward good policy for the city of New York.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be areas of contention. Deciding on the police department’s multibillion-dollar budget—which many of the freshman progressives have campaigned to slash in favor of diverting more money toward public services—is one place the City Council and the city’s chief executive are expected to collide.

“I’m in there to keep him honest,” says Brooklyn’s Hanif, who grew up in a post-9/11 New York. As the sole Muslim representative at City Hall, Hanif wants to address the city’s overpolicing of Black and brown New Yorkers. “The coalition I’ve been able to build with impacted Muslim folks and our Black communities is what I’m bringing to the City Council,” Hanif remarks. “And so, it’ll be a fight.”

Adams’s campaign has revealed his appetite for theatrics. After his primary win, he headed to a local Claire’s, a jewelry and accessory shop for teen girls, and got his ears pierced, posting it online and saying he was making good on his promise to a group of young voters who dared him to prove that he was “not like other politicians.” He also pushed back against critics, with his team reportedly blocking journalists from a campaign event during the primary after they had written critically of him. In short, the incoming mayor is not one to shy away from a public fight.

“That’s the purpose of the City Council. The Council serves as a check and balance,” says Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson, the youngest in the State Assembly, who made appearances on Election Day to support the city’s progressive slate of candidates. “If we’re moving the city backward, we need a Council that’s going to check the executive.”

Working with the unpredictable mayor—and adjusting to their new jobs’ demands—isn’t the only thing the Council’s new members will have to contend with. Next year, the City Council will include more Republicans than before, after Democrats lost seats in Brooklyn and Queens. Three of the five Republican seats have been filled by newly elected women, two avowed Trump supporters and one who avoided his name but still has hard-right views.

In District 32, Joann Ariola, one of the Trump supporters and chair of the Queens GOP, defeated Felicia Singh, a former schoolteacher who had launched an audaciously progressive bid to flip Queens’ lone red district to blue. It was a long shot from the start, trying to swing a Council seat in a district that has voted Republican for more than a decade. But in June, Singh had won the Democratic nomination after running as the most far-left candidate on the ballot, signaling hope for Democrats. But of course, Republicans weren’t going to give up the seat without a fight—their influence in New York had been diminished to just three seats, two of which were in the deep-red stronghold of Staten Island. The competitive race turned ugly: Singh’s campaign was attacked by a stream of negative mailers and ads paid for by Common Sense NYC, a political group funded by New York real estate billionaire Stephen Ross, and the Police Benevolent Association. Both groups backed Ariola.

“I get accused of being a Communist all the time,” Singh, whose family nearly lost their home after the taxi medallion crisis that bankrupted her father, tells the Voice. Running a first-time campaign in a red district as a woman of color, Singh felt she was held to higher standards as compared to her opponent, who she notes had been linked to a district leader charged with participating in the January 6 insurrection. “I had to fight tooth and nail for people to believe that I lived here. For people to believe that I was experienced enough, that my platforms included everything, that I had knowledge in government,” Singh continues. “That I am a human being.”

The weekend before the election, a rally held by Singh’s campaign in the Rockaways, where Senator Chuck Schumer was set to appear, was canceled because of concerns from the senator’s security detail, after organizers were harassed by Ariola supporters. According to a journalist from the nonprofit publication The City, attendants alleged that they heard one individual say they wished they had a gun, and that “all Democrats should be shot.” Ariola’s campaign denied any connection with the troublemakers at the event.

Inna Vernikov, also a Trump supporter, beat her Democratic opponent, Steven Saperstein, for Brooklyn’s 48th District with a total of 12,082 votes, while Saperstein grabbed 6,821 votes. Her victory marks the first time a Republican has held a Council seat in the borough in nearly two decades. Additionally, Vickie Paladino, won district 19 in Queens with a hard-right campaign.

Democrats have since tried to make sense of their losses; in New York City, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than six to one. But there was palpably more energy behind the June primaries, from Democratic candidates’ campaigns and the party itself, compared to the general election, since the primaries are deemed more competitive for the dominant Democrats. Notably, 13 of the Council’s progressive freshmen were heavily backed and supported by the Working Families Party, which has energetically pushed leftist candidates in local races across New York, many of whom ran on both the Democrat and Working Families party lines on the ballot. (Saperstein, who lost the District 48 seat, was not endorsed by the Working Families Party). In the end, complacency in the general elections may have cost the Democratic party seats on the City Council.

Sanchez suspects those losses came from a combination of voter burnout after the 2020 presidential election and stronger messaging from the other side. “A common thing that I hear in my community, which drives me up the wall, is ‘We’ve taken the strength away from the police,’” says Sanchez, who adds that there was friction within the city’s big-tent Democratic party that needs to be addressed. “So, it’s kind of a regurgitation and the repetition of talking points that are being pushed by a side that is more motivated to pursue political power at this time.”

Whatever the case, the new diverse mix of Council members—racially, generationally, gender-wise, and politically—will shape the city for at least the next two years. “That wave of young people falls on the different levels of the progressive spectrum, too. You can’t just say that they’re all thinking in one way,” says Mark-Viverito, the former council speaker. “It’s a very interesting dynamic that is going to be played out in the Council in the next cycle. I think that’s just reflective of what we are as a city, too.”   ❖

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