By all indications, Scott Stringer was on a political roll. After a string of endorsements from key organizations, including the teachers’ union and the Working Families Party, the city comptroller had strategically positioned himself to make the case to progressive and working-class New Yorkers that he was their candidate for New York City mayor.
His first TV commercial, a roughly $1 million buy, was set to hit the airwaves soon. And a fundraiser had been planned to take place this week on his 61st birthday. During a campaign event outside City Hall on Saturday, the three-decade political veteran, looking unusually casual in an olive windbreaker, tried to rally his supporters—an intergenerational and racially mixed assortment of labor and political activists.
“You know we’re coming on right now, right?” he said. “This is real.”
But in a demonstration of the unpredictable nature of New York City politics and the influence of the #MeToo movement, Stringer is now facing a full-blown crisis following sexual assault accusations by Jean Kim, a woman who worked on his campaign for public advocate 20 years ago. While Stringer has vociferously denied the allegations, there are questions about whether he can maintain enough progressive support to stay viable.
With this year’s primary considered one of the most consequential elections in decades, some on the left are feeling a heightened sense of urgency around the uncertainty of the race, fueled by the high name recognition of Andrew Yang, who has expressed right-leaning views on issues like policing and taxing the wealthy. The Working Families Party, which had a faction of members who were adamantly against supporting a white establishment male, was scheduled to hold a meeting on Friday to weigh their options.
Jessica Ramos, a state senator from Queens who was the first lawmaker to rescind her endorsement, argued that with less than eight weeks left until the primary, it would be better for progressives to coalesce quickly around another candidate.
“Ultimately, what’s more important here is the future of the city,” she said, adding that she saw the accusations against Stringer as a “distraction” from broader issues impacting New Yorkers.
She said her decision was not about whether she believed Stringer was guilty.
“We’re not going to be able to get to the bottom of what happened. This happened 20 years ago,” she said.
Ramos’s defection has been followed by others. On Thursday, Jabari Brisport, a state senator from Brooklyn who is backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, announced he would no longer rank Stringer second on his ballot. And, in a sign that support among labor groups may also begin peeling away, the UFCW Local 1500, a union representing 20,000 grocery workers, withdrew its backing.
Asked about the loss of support from Ramos and others during a news conference, Stringer said, “I have a lot of respect for them. I have a huge coalition of support. Obviously some people may decide to go in a different direction. I think that’s fine with me.”
Within political circles, all eyes are now fastened on three prominent progressive lawmakers: Alessandra Biaggi, Julia Salazar, and Yuh-Line Niou. Biaggi and Salazar, both state senators, and Yuh-Line Niou, an assemblywoman, had backed Stringer last fall, lending him credibility among left-leaning Democrats.
All three women have not returned requests for comments.
Political experts told WNYC/Gothamist they were pessimistic about Stringer’s chances in the race, which is still considered wide open given the large number of undecided voters.
“He was preparing the seven-week stretch, marshaling the message, and taking the fight to his rivals,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. “Maybe he can get back there, but it’s hard to see how he gets back to commanding the agenda before this story has run its course.”
Birdsell added that the candidates are set to begin participating in debates in May. “If this is not somehow over by that time, it gives moderators and opponents opportunities to probe the past and to demand action from the candidate, including withdrawal from the primary.”
Four candidates—Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Dianne Morales, and Maya Wiley—have called on Stringer to withdraw his candidacy.
Morales has taken the toughest position, calling on Stringer to both exit the race and resign as city comptroller.
“A mayoral race is not the right platform to dissect the many layers this situation warrants,” she said in a statement. “The complexities of power, race, and white male privilege—and how it impacts all of us—requires a recognition of how those in power are credited with unearned wisdom, intelligence and truth.”
Morales added: “Our city must move on with determining who has the strongest momentum, strategy and experience to protect all of us — especially the ones we still struggle to believe.”
Wiley, a civil rights lawyer who could benefit from Stringer’s collapse, has publicly criticized him at a news conference.
“Anyone who wants to sit and serve the people of the city of New York should be able to understand that there is simply no man who can tell a woman whether or not she has consented to a sexual relationship,” Wiley said. “That’s not how it works.”
On Friday morning, Scott Stringer headed to Harlem where he handed out leaflets and posed for photographs, elbow-bumping with residents. The strategy echoed that of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who during his own sexual misconduct scandal sought to surround himself and lean on Black voters. The big difference, however, is that Black New Yorkers have not been seen as making up a significant portion of Stringer’s base.
Unlike other days, his campaign staff had not bothered to send out his public schedule, likely in an effort to step away from the media frenzy and focus on retail politics. Thursday’s birthday event was cancelled, and the campaign has spent the last 48 hours contesting details of Kim’s story as well as raising questions about her motivations.
Hours later, the campaign released a second ad on Twitter. The spot, narrated by Stringer, featured homey images of the candidate at home with his family, making breakfast, and kissing his wife goodbye before taking one of his sons to school on the subway.
It ends with the tagline: “For me, this is personal.”