New York City
Forget Manhattan. Brooklyn is the seat of NYC power.
Brooklyn's been the new Manhattan for a while. Now that’s true in politics, too.
When the Brooklyn Bridge officially opened on May 24, 1883, Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low was there for the ceremony. And when the Williamsburg Bridge officially opened on Dec. 19, 1903, Low, now mayor of New York City, led the parade. Who better to christen a bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn? Just four years after the modern city consolidated in 1898, Manhattan and the boroughs around it had elected Low, a mayor from Brooklyn. But opening the Williamsburg Bridge was just about the last thing Low did as mayor. He had lost in his 1903 reelection bid to George McClellan, a Manhattanite. Brooklyn would again be governed by somebody from across the East River – an indignity that would be repeated again and again for the next 12 decades.
So Giando on the Water, a Williamsburg space with sweeping views of both bridges, was a fitting venue for state Attorney General Letitia James as she spoke at a Brooklyn Democratic Party victory event last month on the Williamsburg waterfront. The recent wins in the citywide Democratic primaries weren’t “just a blue victory, but a Brooklyn victory. Every citywide office in this city is led by somebody from?” The crowd of politicos, who’d come from around the city, shouted back: “Brooklyn!”
Indeed, if Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams, comptroller nominee Brad Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams win their elections in November, as they are all heavily favored to in this Democratic city, then all three citywide elected positions will be held by Brooklynites for the first time in history. But it’s more than a Brooklyn trifecta – it’s a Brooklyn bonanza. James, a statewide elected official, is from Brooklyn. So is U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the current New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio. And the power may only grow. City Council Member Justin Brannan is a serious contender to be the next City Council speaker. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a lifelong Brooklynite, is widely considered to be a leading candidate to be the next speaker of the House, and both Williams and James are known to be at least considering a run for governor.
In a city long dominated by Manhattanites, Brooklynites’ political power has grown – and it’s more than just coincidence. Brooklyn is the largest borough, the center of progressive politics, and diverse in race, culture and even housing. It’s the borough with the most Black people and – for decades now – has seemed to usurp Manhattan as the somewhat affordable home for ambitious young people moving from other countries, other states and even other boroughs. And while the Notorious B.I.G. claimed that spreading love is the Brooklyn way, lately its leaders are throwing a lot of shade. “This is not going to be my hangout spot,” Adams said at his Aug. 2 general election kickoff rally in Manhattan, outside of City Hall. “We have centralized our power to one location. This is not a Manhattan-only city. This is an outer-borough city.”
But to Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, who leads the Brooklyn Democratic Party, the change has already been made. “Brooklyn is not seen as the outer borough,” she said. “New York City is more the outer borough now.”
In some ways, that’s been true for a while. Brooklyn is the borough with the most people, 2.6 million, by 2019 US Census estimates. It also has more active, registered Democrats than any county in the state, with 1.1 million. Queens is second, with 807,000. Brooklyn’s Democrats make up 32% of the party rolls in the city, and even then, the borough punches slightly above its weight in city elections – in the 2017 Democratic primary, 35% of the total votes came from Brooklyn. With Democrats’ overwhelming enrollment advantage over Republicans, the primaries have been the only races that mattered in electing citywide and statewide candidates, so candidates from Brooklyn have an undeniable home borough boost.
Brooklyn also has the largest Black population in the city. So Black candidates are more likely to come from Brooklyn, and Black candidates are now getting elected more than ever in New York – such as James, Adams and Williams – thanks in part to Black voters, many of them in Brooklyn, who are considered to be the most loyal cohort in the Democratic party.
However sheer numbers alone don’t explain Brooklyn politicians’ power. “Brooklyn, it is diverse in the way the Democratic Party is diverse,” Lander told City & State. “It has a broad set of communities that are genuinely different from each other.” Brooklyn is racially diverse, with significant white, Black, Hispanic and Asian populations and religiously diverse with major Jewish, Muslim and Christian populaitions. There’s also a variety of housing, from glass towers to brownstones to single family homes with yards. Of the other boroughs, only Queens could make a claim to that level of diversity, but the way Brooklynites see it, if you can make it in Brooklyn politics, you might know how to appeal to a citywide, or even nationwide audience. “(Brooklyn) is genuinely reflective both of New York City as a whole and also, in some interesting ways, the Democratic Party, nationally,” Lander said.
But Brooklyn has always been big. It surpassed Manhattan sometime in the 1920s to become the biggest borough, and has never relinquished that title. And it has been diverse for a very long time. One thing that has changed more recently is the rise of progressive politics. Brooklynites like Lander, Williams and de Blasio ran to the left in their respective races and won.
“People have recently viewed Queens as the hotbed for progressive politics in New York City, but Brooklyn progressives have been leading the way across the world,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who lives in Brooklyn, and represents a district including parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may not live in Brooklyn, but Velázquez has a point. Both of New York’s democratic socialist state senators represent Brooklyn, as do three of the four socialists in the Assembly. The borough is the home of the Working Families Party, which championed James, Williams, Lander and de Blasio, among others. In Congress, Velázquez and Rep. Yvette Clarke are among the most left-leaning members, and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has established himself in the national wave of “progressive prosecutors.” This shift to the left has happened citywide and statewide, where New Yorkers have demanded progressive policies like cannabis legalization and rent reforms to benefit tenants. New Yorkers, more than ever, are looking to elect progressive candidates – and these progressive candidates are often from Brooklyn.
That factor in Brooklyn’s rise wouldn’t seem to apply to Adams. He ran on a more moderate platform than more progressive mayoral candidates like Maya Wiley or Dianne Morales (both Brooklynites). But even if he was on the wrong side of the culture war, Velázquez gave him credit for some of his campaign rhetoric. “I just want to point out that Eric Adams, in so many ways, talked about uplifting communities who didn’t have a voice and tackling inequality in the city,” she said.
In fact, Adams’ cultural distance from the presumed moneyed elite of Manhattan was part of his pitch to voters. “I have said I was the outer borough candidate,” Adams said to a virtual gathering of Queens Democratic district leaders in July. “I had an outer borough message and we won all of the outer boroughs." Sure enough, Adams won every other borough in the primary, except Manhattan – which was won by lifelong Brooklynite Kathryn Garcia. Adams’ blue collar theme was right for this moment, when populist, anti-elite sentiment is popular in politics. It may not be a coincidence that Shaun Donovan, who was raised in Manhattan, and Ray McGuire, who lives in Manhattan, finished last among the leading candidates in the mayoral primary – they were likely the wealthiest in the bunch, and presented as elite insiders. The way Adams frames it, “Manhattan” is shorthand for the whims of its whitest and wealthiest residents. While “Brooklyn” still holds on to its chip-on-the-shoulder, outsider, diverse identity.
Adams was born in Brooklyn and raised primarily in Queens, but when the ambitious young police officer with political aspirations wanted to settle down and buy a home in the early 1990s, he chose Brooklyn. Lander is from Missouri, and came to New York when his wife started at NYU Law in Manhattan. But he got a community development job in Park Slope, fell in love with the neighborhood and has stayed for three decades. De Blasio is from Massachusetts, and attended both undergrad and graduate school in Manhattan. But he also chose Park Slope to settle down in the 1990s. It isn’t hard to imagine an alternate history where these three chose condos in Manhattan instead. Or where Brooklyn natives Williams, James and Schumer moved away once they had the means. But they all picked Brooklyn, and its affordability – relative to Manhattan, at least – made it more likely they’d stay in one place and grow the kind of roots necessary for a run for office. Manhattan is still a landing spot for wide-eyed transplants with a bright political future – think City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who grew up in Massachusetts. But for decades, Brooklyn has been the strongest magnet. Northern Brooklyn’s development boom and the accompanying economic and cultural renaissance hasn’t just been a good thing for landlords and coffee snobs – Velázquez argues it’s been good for the borough’s political culture.
“It’s a big chunk of young people that have brought in energy – they support minority candidates. They work hard,” she said. “They have a diploma in one hand, they have student debt in the other hand. And they too see that they have to be more active and more engaged.” Velázquez said she isn’t just talking about gentrifiers, or people living in wealthier communities, but that people of all income and class levels have been demanding more accountability from elected officials, and keeping a higher standard. “I see how public housing residents have been organizing. And you never saw this type of organizing before in public housing,” she said. “They know this is their chance to get the attention they deserve and to use their political muscle to put pressure on elected officials to bring the resources that are needed.”
Brooklynites’ hold on power will be a good thing for all the borough residents that Adams is likely to bring into his expected administration. And it could be a real financial windfall for folks like Adams’ lawyer, Frank Carone, who, as Politico New York reported, has built a “Manhattan-style law firm in Brooklyn.” But this power hoarding could have its drawbacks for other ambitious politicians. One of the biggest knocks against Jeffries’ potential House speaker candidacy is that he lives less than a mile away from Schumer, the Senate majority leader. And if Manhattanites are feeling a little salty about Brooklynites getting all the top jobs, imagine how Democrats in Illinois feel. It could also be an issue for Brannan, a Bay Ridge Democrat gunning for the pseudo-citywide position of City Council speaker. “Don’t be surprised if the council speaker comes out from Brooklyn,” Bichotte Hermelyn, a Brannan ally, told City & State. “I’m just saying. Nothing is impossible.” But it would be surprising. The last four City Council speakers have represented Manhattan, the result of a sort of de facto detente among the outer borough Democratic parties. Brannan is leaning into his outer-borough boosterism, telling City & State that "a win for Brooklyn is a win for everyone who has been left behind or feels invisible in the halls of power,” and that “we're all done fighting over crumbs just because we may live far from City Hall.” But not even all the Brooklyites are on board. Velázquez, for example, is more interested in gender equity than home borough dominance, and says a woman needs to be speaker – likely Manhattanite Council Member Carlina Rivera. “I am leaning that way,” Velázquez said.
The speaker race and its borough-based considerations is a bit of a relic of an earlier political age, when county party organizations had more of a say over who was running for office, and who was winning, explained Louis Cholden-Brown, an amateur historian of New York politics and an aide to the City Council speaker. The reason why a “trifecta” of citywide positions has never happened before is “because they would intentionally not do it,” instead creating geographically diverse slates. Cholden-Brown doesn’t just think this is the first time that Brooklynites will hold all three citywide elected positions at once – he thinks it may be the first time since the modern city formed in 1898 that residents of the same borough have ever held all three jobs, Manhattan included.
Now, county Democratic parties have been weakened, and noted Manhattan boosters like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have to begrudgingly accept the coming influx of Brooklynites crossing the bridge and entering the government buildings in Lower Manhattan. “I guess I’m open to doing something about getting downtown office workers back,” she said, “even if it means welcoming people from Brooklyn.”
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