“We’ve Been There”: Why A Second Black Mayoralty Is Inspiring A Mix Of Hope And Skepticism

Back in June, Stephen Yearwood, a maintenance worker, joined a group of union members who stood behind the presumptive Democratic New York City mayoral nominee Eric Adams. The candidate was there for a press conference hosted by 32BJ, among the city’s biggest labor groups that backed him. The union, which has significant political clout, has 85,000 members consisting of low-wage essential workers that make up the fabric of city life—fast food and airport workers, security officers, doormen and building and school cleaners.

Afterwards, Yearwood said Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, was the candidate that most resonated with him. An immigrant from Trinidad who moved to the city 25 years ago, he never witnessed the election of the city’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins. But now, as he reflected on the person who in all likelihood will become only the second Black mayor elected in America’s largest city, he said his perception of Adams went beyond race.

“With me, Blackness is not necessarily the pigment of the skin. It’s something far deeper within,” he explained. “It’s like coming up from the streets, and even though you may rise above the level of the streets, you have not forgotten the streets.”

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Unlike the watershed moment with the 1989 election of Dinkins, some Black voters like Yearwood view Adams as a candidate colored less by racial identity than class. Adams, the son of a single mother who worked as a house cleaner, won the primary with strong support among Black and Latino voters in the outer boroughs. In the end, he narrowly defeated Kathryn Garcia, a white candidate, by roughly 7,000 votes.

Although Adams’s record as a former NYPD officer and his stances on public safety were widely viewed as the winning argument with Democratic voters, some experts say his mayoralty will not be judged on those two issues alone. Rather, it may be on whether he can tackle a broader spectrum of problems, such as unemployment and a segregated and underfunded education system, that are often considered the underlying factors of crime in poor neighborhoods of color.

It’s a sign that Adams, who has lately enjoyed a national spotlight, may be greeted with greater scrutiny and expectations at home, arising from a working-class electorate that is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. The heightened discernment also comes from the fact that many Black voters are starting to recognize that there are limits to representational politics.

“We’ve already had a Black mayor. We’ve been there,” said J. Phillip Thompson, the city’s deputy mayor who was part of the Dinkins administration and who is Black himself.

Indeed, Black candidates have in recent years won significant electoral success in New York. In the past primary, Democratic voters elected its first Black Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, and two Black borough presidents, Donovan Richards of Queens, and Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx. The city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, is also Black and easily won re-election. Currently serving at the state level, Letitia James, the New York Attorney General, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the State Senate majority leader, and Carl Heastie, the State Assembly speaker, are also Black.

“We’ve learned how to elect people. What we have not learned is how to lift ourselves out of poverty,” Thompson said. “And that’s the challenge for Eric.”

During an appearance on WNYC’s “The United States of Anxiety,” Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, made a similar observation. “The larger crux of the question, I would argue, is we have a lot of descriptive representation,” she said. “So why substantively, policy-wise, are Black people not doing better in the city?”

Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, 1.3 million New Yorkers lived at or below the official federal poverty level, according to census data reported by the Community Service Society. While the number of those in poverty has been dropping, racial disparities have persisted. That year, 20.9% of Latino residents and 20.5% Black residents lived in poverty, double the share of white residents.

Adams has so far embraced one popular anti-poverty mechanism—expanding and advancing payments made to low-income earners through the Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC) program. Administered at both the federal, state and local level, the EITC has been viewed as a proven and reliable method of raising the incomes of the working poor while also increasing employment.

Under Adams’s plan, a family with two children earning $30,000 a year would receive about $3,000 annually. Under the current system, the same family receives credits of only $250 a year.

Altogether, Adams has proposed spending $1 billion a year to expand the city’s EITC program.

James Parrott, an economist at The New School who said he spoke with the Adams campaign about the concept several months ago, described the plan as a “significant expansion” of the EITC program.

At the same time, he cautioned, “It shouldn’t be seen as sort of the silver bullet all by itself. It needs to be done in conjunction with other policies.”

Those who wield influence over government policy are already trying to help shape the broader agenda of the next administration. The Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty organization that funds over 250 nonprofits in the city, recently released a 148-page report that offers a policy roadmap to help the city’s poorest residents recover from the crisis.

Jason Cone, Robin Hood’s chief public policy officer, said that he and others that worked on the report sought to come up with a set of plans that would be actionable within the first term of a new administration. The proposals address a range of challenges that include housing instability, the lack of childcare, students suffering from learning disruptions and job losses among low-income workers. On the issue of childcare, the report proposes using federal stimulus money to make childcare immediately more affordable to low and middle-income families and to raise the wages of early educators and child care staff.

The nonprofit is already on Adams’s radar. During a recent television interview on WABC, Adams cited Robin Hood as among the groups the city should partner with. “There are some things government can do well, and there are things that outside entities do far better,” he said. “Let’s partner with the Robin Hood Foundation.”

But in a sign that Adams also intends to take cues from business interests, he also said he wanted to partner with Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, an organization backed by Wall Street and real estate landlords.

Robin Hood does have ties to the business industry. Its founder is the billionaire hedge fund investor Paul Tudor Jones and it is considered a favorite charity among Wall Street executives. A charter school proponent, Jones donated $610,000 to two super PACs that supported Adams.

Another high-profile research and advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, the Community Service Society, has underscored the urgency of addressing the financial needs of the New York City Housing Authority, which faces a $40 billion backlog in capital needs. The organization’s chief executive, David Jones, recently penned an op-ed in the Amsterdam News titled, “An Opportunity to Finish De Blasio’s Unfinished Agenda.”

In an interview, Jones said the de Blasio administration did not work hard enough to engage with the 400,000 families that live in public housing. The city’s plans for NYCHA have included selling unused parcels of land as well as air rights, and handing over day-to-day management of buildings to private developers.

Adams has backed these ideas, while proposing giving tenants an attorney to represent their interests.

Like Thompson, Jones agreed that Black New Yorkers would not dwell on the symbolism of a second Black mayor. While they may not expect “an instant turnaround,” he said, “they will be demanding.” At the same time, he said Adams’s blue-collar roots will likely make him more receptive to policies addressing the plight of struggling residents.

Last Sunday, outside the Brooklyn Museum, Joan Valentine, a 74-year-old native New Yorker, said those were precisely the reasons why she voted for Adams. Valentine, who is Black, downplayed the significance of race.

“We need a mayor for the working class,” she said. “And he grew up working class. He knows what they’re going through.” 

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