Campaigns & Elections

In the mayoral race, progressives place their trust in RCV

Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley are all laying claim to the movement left. Will ranked choice voting give them all a chance?

Mayoral candidate Dianne Morales

Mayoral candidate Dianne Morales Dimitri Rodriguez

Less than three months before the New York City mayoral primary, the city’s progressive left has declined to coalesce behind a single contender. Some of the most influential organizations, like the Working Families Party, haven’t endorsed yet, and some of the biggest individual players, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, might not endorse at all. But looking at the endorsements that have come so far, three candidates have emerged as progressive favorites: New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former nonprofit leader Dianne Morales, and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Maya Wiley. And movement leaders are putting their faith into ranked-choice voting, hoping the divided support actually becomes an asset. 

“Supporting multiple candidates, having them all do semi-well, take away votes from the ones you don’t want to win I think is an actual strategy,” said Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn-based activist who is influential in the progressive movement. “It may seem like it’s not a strategy, but I actually feel like people are being a lot more strategic than they’re getting credit for.”

The progressive movement in New York can be loosely defined as the individuals and organizations that supported Cynthia Nixon over Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 primary. While labor unions are often allies to this movement, their role and influence in the mayoral race is a different question entirely, driven by different motivations than a typical ideologically driven political organization, like the New York City Democratic Socialists of America or New York Communities for Change. 

Members of the movement largely agree that Stringer, Morales and Wiley are most aligned with the group on policies like defunding the police, increasing taxes on the wealthy and forgiving unpaid rent accrued during the coronavirus pandemic. But there are enough policy disagreements among them, as well as different approaches, that choosing who to support, and in what order, is a hot topic of debate. 

“Our membership were kind of evenly split between who their favorite progressive was,” said George Albro, co-chair of the New York Progressive Action Network, or NYPAN, which was born of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “And rather than be a divisive choice, we thought we’d unify the progressives in the race by doing a dual endorsement,” of Morales and Wiley. But one person’s unity is another’s division, and Stringer was the one left out. Albro was spooked by recent polling that didn’t show Stringer in the commanding position he hoped to be in at this point. But there’s also issues of race and gender to consider. “I’m not into identity politics per se, but we’ve never had a woman mayor of New York City, and we’ve gone 28 straight years with a white male mayor,” Albro said. Stringer is a white man, while Wiley is a Black woman and Morales is Afro-Latina. 

As much as Stringer’s identity may have been an asset in life, it could be a liability when trying to win progressive support in 2021. Still, it hasn’t seemed to hinder him too much – he has many more endorsements than either Morales or Wiley, including from women of color like state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Diana Richardson, who have been outspoken advocates for Stringer’s campaign. 

In politics, discussions of race and gender often become questions of electability. Look no further than President Joe Biden’s victory in the historically diverse presidential primary field, where a central argument of his supporters was that he, a “traditional” white male candidate, had the best chance to beat Donald Trump. But RCV may provide progressive voters a way to support a candidate like Morales, even if they harbor doubts about her viability as a first-time candidate in a crowded field and her low polling. Morales is “basically the candidate practical lefties would never choose in a FPTP (first-past-the-post voting, the previous style) election, but with ranked choice, why not?,” Steve Fox, an NYC-DSA member who works for Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, recently tweeted. “I’ll be putting her as my number one and Stringer as my number two. Stringer is who I’d vote for in a FPTP primary.”

Morales in particular has been earning interest from the socialist corners of the wider progressive movement. 

“Dianne doesn’t identify as a socialist, but a lot of socialists like her,” said state Sen. Jabari Brisport, who recently endorsed Morales as his first choice and Stringer as his second. Brisport is an NYC-DSA member, and although the organization isn’t planning to get formally involved in the mayoral race, Brisport expects individual members will be inspired to help Morales. 

Wiley is getting much less attention from leftists, many of whom see the former cable news legal analyst as a sort of “MSNBC liberal,” who doesn’t actually want radical change. Of course, there’s also some skepticism of Stringer. He has an impressive track record of endorsing progressive insurgents and speaking up on the right issues, but some can’t help but think the longtime political operator is an opportunist, riding the progressive wave. 

Enthusiastic or not, Stringer has far more money in his account than Wiley and Morales, solid name recognition, and enough political experience to last two lifetimes. And some in the progressive movement would rather go all-in on Stringer than put too much faith in RCV. 

“Scott is the lone progressive in this race with the political strength and resources to mount a successful challenge to Andrew Yang and Eric Adams – corporate candidates who will betray working-class and poor New Yorkers,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change in the organization’s endorsement announcement. NYCC called on other groups on the left to rally around Stringer and help him stay competitive with Yang and Adams – both of whom the movement views largely with disdain. 

Stringer campaign spokesperson Tyrone Stevens insists that consolidation is already on track. “We’re building the progressive multiracial intergenerational coalition we need to win this race,” he said. “We have the most progressive support of any candidate for good reason and we’re proud of it.” But many organizations and figures have yet to endorse. The Working Families Party is being closely watched, and an endorsement is said to be coming within the month. Jumaane Williams, another sought-after endorsement, hasn’t formally backed a candidate yet, but is expected to. Same goes for his 2018 running mate Cynthia Nixon, and major groups like Make the Road Action. If they all back Stringer, it would be a strong case for consolidation, but if not, then the left will remain split in the mayoral race. 

But with RCV throwing even more uncertainty into the mayoral race than usual, Sarsour doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

“The left is really being cautious about putting all their eggs in one basket,” she said. “Because with ranked-choice voting, you don’t exactly know how it’s going to go.”