What Did New York’s Primaries Mean for Progressives? It’s Complicated.

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Progressives cheered the results in down-ballot races and in Buffalo, even as the outcome of the mayoral primary appeared less rosy.

Maya Wiley urged her supporters to “wait patiently” for results, arguing that she could pull out an upset victory against Eric Adams as ballots are counted.
Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Lisa Lerer

June 24, 2021Updated 7:55 a.m. ET

They may not win Gracie Mansion, but there’s always Buffalo. And Rochester, too.

For progressives in New York State, primary elections on Tuesday night brought a number of victories, even as the biggest apple of them all — New York City’s mayoralty — may elude their grasp.

Though Eric Adams amassed a sizable lead over Maya D. Wiley, his top rival, in first-choice votes, liberal candidates celebrated victories in down-ballot races in New York City and in the state’s second and third largest cities, wins that they argue demonstrate their ascendancy at the grass-roots level even as they are struggling to flex their power in Washington.

In perhaps the biggest upset of the night, India B. Walton, a democratic socialist, defeated a four-term incumbent in the Democratic mayoral primary in Buffalo and cast her victory as a threat to the longtime party establishment.

Ms. Walton had promised to safeguard undocumented immigrants, place a moratorium on new charter schools and cut millions from the Police Department budget by ending the role of officers in most mental health emergency calls.

“This victory is ours. It is the first of many,” said Ms. Walton. “If you are in an elected office right now, you are being put on notice. We are coming.”

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India B. Walton delivered her victory speech after defeating the incumbent mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, in a Democratic primary.
Credit...Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News, via Associated Press

As New Yorkers prepare to wait weeks for final results in the mayoral primary while absentee ballots are counted and ranked-choice tabulations begin, the early returns across the city and state paint a complicated picture. They highlight voters’ embrace of a diverse slate of candidates but reflect generational divides and continued tension as Democrats navigate their identity in the post-Trump era.

While the idiosyncratic politics of deeply Democratic New York City are hardly a bellwether for the nation, the results in the mayoral contest in particular point to a progressive movement still charting its way through the kinds of divisive policy issues that split the Democratic Party during last year’s presidential primary.

Three of the top four candidates in the election ran on more moderate messages than Ms. Wiley, particularly around crime and policing, and were rewarded with support from a diverse coalition that spanned all five boroughs.

But the early news was brighter for progressives elsewhere. Candidates backed by the Working Families Party won City Council seats in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, won more than 70 percent of the vote in his primary. Brad Lander, a council member from Park Slope, is leading in the primary for city comptroller.

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Credit...Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

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Credit...Elianel Clinton for The New York Times

In the Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg was ahead of Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who sank more than $8 million into her own campaign, infuriating liberals because of her spending and ties to Wall Street. Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost a race for Queens district attorney in 2019, is leading in a primary for a City Council seat. And Antonio Reynoso, a council member who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick and once cast himself as a “boombox for progressive values,” leads the contest for Brooklyn borough president.

In Washington, progressives have found their ambitions curtailed by a razor-thin margin in the Senate and a refusal by moderate Democrats to support eliminating the filibuster.

Voting rights legislation failed this week, prompting concerns from many on the left that President Biden and his administration did not mount a fierce enough push for one of their top priorities. As groups of senators draft dueling infrastructure plans, some liberals worry that the administration will jettison proposals to fight climate change and support caregiving in favor of a compromise that can draw Republican support.

And, in recent weeks, liberal candidates have lost a number of competitive primary contests. In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe defeated four rivals who ran to his left to capture the nomination. Six weeks earlier, Troy Carter, a Louisiana state senator, defeated a left-leaning rival in a special election for a congressional seat.

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Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

In New York, the need to count absentee ballots and a new ranked-choice voting system means the Democratic mayoral primary is unlikely to be called until mid-July. But Mr. Adams, a Black retired police captain and Brooklyn’s borough president, captured a strong lead in first-choice votes, winning every borough except Manhattan and showing particular strength in the Bronx and working-class Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Mr. Adams built his campaign in opposition to the “defund the police movement,” denouncing his liberal rivals for adopting left-wing slogans that he said threatened the lives of “Black and brown babies” and were being pushed by “a lot of young white affluent people.”

“I’m not sure that I would necessarily chose New York City as my bellwether for the country, but there’s no doubt that Adams staked his race on a more moderate position,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “There are certainly significant pockets of progressivism in metropolitan areas all over the country; it doesn’t necessarily mean that is the dominant political strain.”

As results were tabulated, progressives sought to cast their second-place position as a victory of sorts, one they argued demonstrated their strength in a crowded field.

Ms. Wiley, who trails Mr. Adams by about 75,000 votes, urged her supporters to “wait patiently,” arguing that she could pull out an upset victory as the counting continues.

In the final weeks of the campaign, she won the backing of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among other progressive leaders, and liberals largely united behind her candidacy.

“Progressives have coalesced around Maya Wiley as a candidate. And it is the coalescing that is the reason there is a progressive candidate in No. 2,” Ms. Wiley said, when asked by reporters to evaluate the performance of left-leaning candidates in the election.

Yet some argued that progressives, faced with several candidates competing for the left-wing mantle, had failed to unite early enough around a single candidate. As the campaigns of Scott M. Stringer and Dianne Morales collapsed, the Working Families Party and other left-leaning groups rescinded endorsements and followed Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to rally behind Ms. Wiley as early voting started.

“Maya managed to move a lot of voters in a relatively short period of time,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York state director of the Working Families Party. “As we look to the final results in this mayor’s race, I think we feel, overall, there is real progressive ascendancy, and there’s a possibility to continue to elect more candidates with a clear anti-establishment, pro-working people viewpoint.”

Some aides and allies of his rivals argue that Mr. Adams evaded the kind of scrutiny that weakened candidates like Mr. Stringer, the city comptroller who stumbled after facing two allegations of sexual misconduct, and Andrew Yang. Others pointed to a deluge of super PAC spending, which largely benefited moderate candidates, including Mr. Adams.

But the strong lead Mr. Adams has in the race also renews questions about the progressive movement’s ability to connect with Black and brown voters, particularly older voters who are more conservative on social issues and policing.

Mr. Adams’s working-class background enabled him to connect in a way that was more challenging for Ms. Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and prominent analyst on MSNBC, some progressive strategists say. Mr. Adams, who barely campaigned in Manhattan, cast himself as a messenger of working-class anger and frustration with the management of the city.

Rebecca Katz, a strategist who worked for Mr. Stringer, noted that parts of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s district had supported Mr. Adams, who takes a far more conservative position on the role of the police than the congresswoman.

“Voters are not ideological if you look at how they’re looking at their candidates,” she said. “You can’t look at these results and say it was a referendum on ideology. This is more a story of which candidates are connecting with voters.”

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