New York City

How Adrienne Adams became the speaker

The compromise candidate’s win came after Mayor Eric Adams picked someone else.

Adrienne Adam's victory came after Eric Adams picked someone else.

Adrienne Adam's victory came after Eric Adams picked someone else. Sarah Stier/Getty Images for QBFC

The victory rally lacked energy – but can you blame them? New York City Council Member Adrienne Adams had gotten just about every one of her soon-to-be-colleagues (and soon-to-be-voters) on a Zoom at noon on Sunday Dec. 19 to confirm her win in the race for City Council speaker. But they were worn out from two weeks of furied phone calls, late-night texts, desperate negotiations and enough political intrigue to last a year. And on top of that, this was a Zoom – a necessary shift back to virtual meetings as the omicron variant of COVID-19 seemed to be getting everyone sick, including numerous incoming council members. 

“Today, we come together as people from every corner of this city, from every end of the political spectrum, to join as members of a unified New York City Council,” Adams said to those gathered. “We’ve come together because we’ve realized the cost of being apart is far too great.”

And it took them a long while to come together. The 61-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, after all, seemed like an unlikely speaker. She didn’t really elicit strong feelings from her future colleagues – nobody disliked her, but few really loved her either. Adams didn’t volunteer on other candidates’ races the way some of her opponents did, and had barely any behind-the-scenes support from incoming members until the very end of the race. And she wasn’t Mayor Eric Adams’ preferred pick – which ended up being the catalyst that helped Adrienne Adams win.

The push to make Council Member Francisco Moya the speaker started on Mon. Dec. 6. It was a “blitzkrieg,” a source said in one of the scores of conversations with dozens of people that City & State had about the speaker race – most anonymously, so they could speak freely about private discussions. Eric Adams was still on vacation in Ghana, but word quickly spread by calls and text that he wanted to see Moya as speaker. Many members and outside stakeholders in the council had been waiting for months for a clearer message from the ascendent mayor. While Adams had been claiming he wouldn’t put his finger on the scales in the race, few believed him. Their skepticism was justified. 

Adams had politically palatable options to choose from, among the seven candidates: Moya, Adrienne Adams and Justin Brannan had all publicly endorsed him in the primary, and even though Keith Powers hadn’t endorsed, the mayor didn’t have a problem with him. (By that point, Gale Brewer wasn’t considered a top contender, and Adams had made it clear he did not want Carlina Rivera or Diana Ayala, both of whom he felt would clash with his tough-on-crime agenda.) For months, Brannan, who is white, was thought to be one the incoming mayor’s top picks. But Eric Adams got behind Moya, and only Moya, in large part because of his identity as the son of immigrants from Ecuador. Eric Adams’ Latino allies – most prominently outgoing Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. – had been emphasizing the importance of getting Latino leadership in high-level positions. Latinos didn’t hold any citywide or statewide elected positions, and the message was felt even more urgently, since Adams has so far chosen not to appoint any Latino deputy mayors or senior advisers.

It’s still murky which of Adams’ allies and advisers exactly was driving the push for Moya – and participants have denied and downplayed their roles – but a few names kept coming up as leaders: Red Horse Strategies’ Nathan Smith, a top adviser to Eric Adams’ campaign; Katie Moore, Eric Adams’ campaign manager; Jason Ortiz, a consultant working for his former employer, the Hotel Trades Council and Diaz. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was also said by many insiders to be pushing Moya, though Johnson adamantly denied that to City & State. 

But the push for Moya failed. More than anything, Moya had not put in the work to build up support or goodwill among his future colleagues. There was also a widespread feeling that Moya’s side was trying to muscle its way to victory by overstating their level of support – before a single member was willing to publicly or privately endorse Moya. Many members had expressed hope this would be a “member-driven process” this year, but Moya’s side was implying that, with Eric Adams’ support, victory was inevitable. That might have been true with another candidate, but not Moya, who some members described as aloof and uninterested, or difficult to work with. On top of that he was a man, and for the first time, the Council would be majority female. “If it had been anybody else, Adams’ push would have worked,” one member said. 

Moya, of course, wants to put the race behind him. The new majority female Council, with the first African American speaker is historic, he said in a statement emailed to City & State. “As I’ve shared with my colleagues and have done throughout my career, my priority is working together to ensure we are protecting and empowering the communities we represent.”

As Moya’s push continued that entire week, council members and outside stakeholders were scrambling to find an alternative – and other candidates were working the phones to become that alternative. All the while, Eric Adams and allies were sticking by Moya, despite the sometimes public outcry. The mayor’s support for Moya “changed the whole race” one member said, “because it no longer was ‘let’s caucus and come up with an idea.’ It was ‘how do you defeat the other candidate that’s been put out there.’”

 Many of those closely following the race had discounted Adrienne Adams as a serious contender by this point – a fact City & State reported at the time. But she shouldn’t have been counted out. By Friday night, Dec. 10, Adrienne Adams had emerged as the candidate that everyone else could rally behind, and at a lunch meeting Sunday at the Townhouse Diner in Murray Hill in Manhattan, things got firmed up. Brannan, Ayala, Powers and Brewer would be ending their own runs, throwing support behind Adams and encouraging their networks to do the same. 

Why Adams? She only had one staunch supporter who backed her above anybody else: Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, who also represents parts of Southeast Queens. But Adams hadn’t burned any bridges either, and had no enemies. She had run a slow and steady race – maybe too slow – but that became an asset. She was a woman in a majority female council, and a Black woman, in a council that is two-thirds people of color. She wasn’t Mayor Adams’ top pick, but she was politically aligned with him. Most in the council were hoping for years of cooperation and partnership with the mayor, and the pick of Adrienne Adams would allow Eric Adams to convincingly claim a victory, even as the legislature was bucking his top choice. 

Essentially, Adrienne Adams had powerful outside supporters who brought those other four speaker candidates on board. 32BJ SEIU, District Council 37, the Communications Workers of America District 1, the New York State Nurses Association and the Hotel Trades Council had worked to build a block of votes under the Labor Strong banner. The bonds in the speaker race weren’t too tight – HTC defected from the rest to support Moya, and every member’s vote seemed negotiable in a race that has historically been decided by near-unanimous consent. . But 32BJ’s Kyle Bragg and DC37’s Henry Garrido in particular got behind Adrienne Adams and whipped support for her. She also had Queens Borough President Donovan Richards working the phones, and later Rep. Greg Meeks, the Queens Democratic leader. With the majority of Bronx members opposed to Moya, Bronx Democratic Leader Jamaal Bailey also got on board bringing along a block of committed votes. 

The race had narrowed down to two candidates, Adams and Moya, but some members felt like that decision had been made by powerful outsiders. “We have been disenfranchised completely,” one member said that week. But then, the members had to choose. In a body of 51 members, a candidate needs 26 committed votes to declare victory – and on Tues. Dec. 14, both candidates claimed they would have those votes. But neither published a full list of the names of those members supporting them. Without that proof, both candidates could have been exaggerating, or over-counting. In this behind-the-scenes race, many members were scared of being on the losing side, and were eager to play nice with both candidates. But it seemed clear by this point that momentum was behind Adams – and that if Moya couldn’t seal the deal with the mayor’s support within a week, that his chances of winning were only diminishing. Stories placed in the New York Post by Eric Adams’ allies that suggested an Adrienne Adams win would empower progressives were seen as a sign of desperation. On Dec. 17, Adrienne Adams released a list of 33 supporters – including herself – that were behind her, and the race was all but official. Moya backed down, and so did Eric Adams. It was the earliest the speaker race had been decided in modern history, but it didn’t come easy. 

Adrienne Adams wasn’t Eric Adams’ preferred choice, but she seemed eager to put that chapter – and the entire race – behind her. “There is no personal agenda, personal vendetta. It’s about the people of New York. We’re here to serve them,” she said at the Sunday afternoon Zoom rally. “It’s not about me and my feelings towards our mayor-elect. I respect him as a partner as I know that he respects me as a partner in governance. And together, both sides of City Hall, we’ll do our best for the people of the city of New York.”