Heard Around Town

Myrie delivers stump speech, but isn’t running for mayor (yet)

The state senator’s comments, made while participating on a Caucus Weekend panel, came in response to a question on whether he’s considering a run.

State Sen. Zellnor Y. Myrie speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Albany on Jan. 24, 2023.

State Sen. Zellnor Y. Myrie speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Albany on Jan. 24, 2023. NYS Senate Media Services

On Friday, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie sponsored and participated in a Caucus Weekend panel about progressive messaging around criminal justice reform, moderated by City & State editor Peter Sterne. 

Along with Myrie, the panel featured two criminal justice reform advocates – Jullian Harris-Calvin of Vera Action and Alana Sivin of FWD.us – as well as New York Focus reporter Chris Gelardi and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union political director Deborah Wright.

The hour-long conversation mostly focused on how Democrats can effectively respond to Republican attacks against bail reform and police accountability measures, but there was a curveball question at the very end: “Are any of you considering running for mayor next year?”

Myrie – who has reportedly explored the possibility of challenging Adams – gamely agreed to answer the question. Amid laughter and cheers from his supporters in the audience, Myrie insisted that he is “currently running for reelection to the state Senate” before launching into something that sounded an awful lot like a mayoral stump speech.

“I do love this city,” Myrie said, speaking about New York City despite actually being in an Albany hotel. “I was born and raised here. Both of my parents came here from Costa Rica, both of them worked in factories when they got here. And they did that because the city once held a promise, a promise of opportunity that said, no matter where you're from, no matter what you look like, no matter what language you speak, that you could come to this city, and that you could be great. But that promise has been lost for a lot of us.”

Myrie then revealed that he had recently gotten married – which was not previously public knowledge – and that his wife, former Assembly Member Diana Richardson, was present in the back of the room. “As we think about family, as we think about owning a home, as we think about building a life in this city, can you imagine that two people who were born and raised in central Brooklyn, went to public schools in central Brooklyn, stood up and represented our community, we can't afford a home in the very district represent I represent? We can't afford child care in the very city that we were born and raised in. So we have a whole generation of individuals for which that promise is no longer true.”

“As we look to 2025, I am hopeful that we will be part of that conversation,” Myrie concluded. “But as of now, I am running for re-election.”

Defending criminal justice reforms

If Myrie does end up running for mayor, criminal justice issues are likely to feature prominently in his campaign. He is an outspoken supporter of bail reform and the sponsor of the recently-enacted Clean Slate Act, which will automatically seal most criminal records years after someone has finished their serving sentence.

During the panel, Myrie went on the attack against Adams, criticizing the mayor’s argument that “you really have to do something bad to go to Rikers” and closing the jail would mean returning “2000 extremely dangerous people…back to the streets.”

Myrie, a lawyer, noted that the vast majority of people incarcerated in city jails on Rikers Island are being held pretrial and have not been convicted of a crime. “To characterize people who have yet to be convicted as ‘extremely dangerous’ is itself extremely dangerous,” he said. “Because it feeds into what we've been talking about, about how we view these individuals in our justice system.”

He made the case for a nuanced approach to criminal justice issues that prioritizes accountability, rather than punishment, and that acknowledges that the justice system itself often causes harm. 

“We have a system that requires us to be nuanced in our approach,” he said. “It requires us to hold two things together at the same time – that there are individuals that commit harmful acts that inflict trauma on other people and that harm our community, but that there are systemic reasons for why people resort to certain behavior. And the justice system – instead of rehabilitating, instead of correcting – has in fact exacerbated the trauma and the harm that is inflicted.”

Politics of bail reform

During the panel, Myrie argued that progressives must take constituents’ concerns about safety seriously while also making a positive case for policies like bail reform.

“People say, ‘Well, bail reform will harm Democrats, and this was the worst thing that you guys could have done.’ I'm running for reelection for my fourth term! And my community knows exactly what I did on bail reform, and what I've done on criminal-legal reform. They want that. And to the extent that there are opponents – and there are in my district – I've had conversations with them, and they have been difficult, and they have been fraught, and I have disagreed a number of times with my constituents. But…they know that I'm serious about safety.”

City & State editor Peter Sterne (far left) moderated a panel featuring (from left to right): state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, Alana Sivin of FWD.us, Jullian Harris-Calvin of Vera Action, New York Focus reporter Chris Gelardi and RWDSU political director Deborah Wright. | NYS Senate Media

Other panelists concurred with Myrie. Vera’s Harris-Calvin presented survey data showing that voters trust Democrats more when they focus on safety and accountability for harm than when they try to appear more “tough on crime” than Republicans.

Wright, the RWDSU political director, spoke about organized labor’s increased interest in criminal justice issues, noting how even more traditionally conservative unions had realized the benefits of reforms that could allow them to recruit workers who were previously incarcerated.

“They're finally seeing the benefit that would actually have for not only the members that they represent, but new members coming into labor, especially within the trades. I will tell you that speaking for my colleagues in the trades, there are a lot of jobs that can't be filled at the moment,” she said.

Myrie acknowledged that many people remain intuitively skeptical of policies like bail reform that are often linked in media reports to increased crime. Those people include Myrie’s own mother.

“It makes it difficult when I talk to my mom, and she says, ‘Z, what are y'all doing up in Albany? I see what's going on, you know, on the news, etc.’ When I have time to talk to her about it – not that I don't talk to my mom, I mean enough time to talk about this specific issue – then she sort of gets it, she understands, she says, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’ That is impossible to do with 300,000 people that I represent.”

The only solution, he said, is to continue to have those hard and nuanced conversations with constituents and to present alternative approaches to public safety.

“People want to feel safe, and the solutions that have been presented to them have been predominantly law enforcement-based…It is going to take hard work, even with our closest people, the people that we love dearest, the communities that we represent and advocate for,” he said. “We have to have hard conversations, multiple conversations, to say, this is why this particular policy proposal or the execution of this policy is bad for our people. So I'm going to continue to do that. I'm going to continue to do the hard work, and I'm going to continue to be patient.”