News & Politics

Zellnor Myrie wants to represent New York City. First, the city has to meet him.

The state senator from Central Brooklyn is trying to carve out the competency lane in his uphill battle to challenge Mayor Eric Adams in 2025.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie is exploring a primary challenge against Mayor Eric Adams.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie is exploring a primary challenge against Mayor Eric Adams. Emily Assiran

In the weeks since state Sen. Zellnor Myrie announced he was exploring a New York City mayoral run in 2025, political consultants have warned that one of the biggest challenges facing the young senator is low name recognition. A recent Slingshot Strategies poll showed 82% of registered Democrats who responded either didn’t have an opinion of Myrie or didn’t know his name.But in a brief June encounter in his state Senate district of six years, Myrie found not just recognition but gratitude.

“Thank you for running!” a twenty- or thirty-something white guy in athletic wear walking quickly through Grand Army Plaza says. He addresses Myrie, who is mid-interview but effortlessly approachable wearing a lightweight navy suit, blue and black Jordan 1s, and a wide smile. As if second guessing the perceived sincerity of his delivery – or just making sure the reporter standing next to him heard it – the man slows down to say again, “Thank you. Really, thank you.”

But as he explores a run against Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary next June, his well-timed chance encounter with a fan in a Maya Wiley-Kathryn Garcia corner of his district hardly refutes the notion that he’ll face great challenges in his first citywide campaign.

Myrie, 37 years old, a Central Brooklyn native and the son of Costa Rican immigrants, already has one underdog victory under his belt. A former City Council staffer turned Cornell Law School graduate and attorney, Myrie was elected in 2018 as part of a slate of Democratic insurgents who successfully primaried members of the Independent Democratic Conference, helping to end Republican control of the state Senate.

Myrie is now one of just two candidates who has taken the first official step toward running against Adams in the 2025 primary. (The other candidate is former New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who finished fifth in the 2021 mayoral primary.)

“We wanted to see him succeed,” Myrie said of Adams, who has often accused his “haters” of wishing for his failure. “But what we have seen, unfortunately, is a fumbling of the basics of government.”

Myrie is already an accomplished legislator, notching more high-profile legislative successes than some lawmakers who have been in office for a decade or more. But his path to victory will depend on a still developing field of primary challengers. Additional candidates running to Adams’ left could occupy a progressive lane that Myrie has shied away from so far. Also yet to be determined is Myrie’s fundraising prowess – something would-be endorsers and organizers will get a first glimpse of in the coming weeks. And still uncertain is just how vulnerable Adams – with poor approval ratings and a web of investigations surrounding his administration and 2021 campaign – will be a year from now.

Unlike some of his would-be fellow challengers, Myrie isn’t waiting for those shifting sands to settle. Rather, he’s riding them out in his hallmark kicks. “It’s smart of him,” said Democratic political consultant Lupe Todd-Medina. “Jump out early, raise the money, keep your head down, raise the money, and be ready, if and when anything were to happen.”

Coming out swinging

There’s a universe in which Myrie is a sportscaster on ESPN, having never taken the community service trip to South Africa that he said “changed his worldview” and showed him how he could use his talents to help people. In another universe, he might be celebrating making partner at Davis Polk, the white-shoe law firm where he briefly worked.

To watch it play out over the past six years, though, Myrie’s path to political office looks somewhat fated. So, too, does the slate of issues that Myrie has focused on since – first in volunteer positions on the local community board as a student at Fordham University, then as legislative director to then-City Council Member Fernando Cabrera and now as a state senator.

“Some of the issues that I had been facing since I was very young, like rent regulation, like money for our schools, thinking about what the future of our climate is going to be – these were things that were stalling in Albany, and I felt that we did not have the adequate representation,” Myrie said of his decision to run for the Senate in 2018.

That campaign was also his first time going up against Adams, albeit by proxy. In the 2018 race, Myrie faced state Sen. Jesse Hamilton, an IDC member and protegé of Adams, who was then the Brooklyn borough president and had previously served in that same state Senate seat. Myrie pledged not to accept donations from the real estate industry and ran with the support of the No IDC NY coalition. He comfortably defeated the Adams-endorsed Hamilton in the Democratic primary, before blowing him out of the water when Hamilton ran as a third-party candidate in the general election.

Out of the gate, Myrie got far by working within the power structure of Albany. Asked about his legislative record, he answered first by thanking state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins for having a “collaborative spirit of leadership” and presenting opportunities to others to lead.

Myrie sponsored legislation extending and expanding tenant protections, and later led the push on an eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic – early steps that made him a strong ally of progressives and tenant advocates. He also went after the gun industry, passing legislation in 2021 that allows civil suits against gun manufacturers and dealers supplying the criminal market. Last year, he passed the Clean Slate Act, a landmark criminal justice reform bill that seals certain convictions, helping people who have served time get back into the workforce. And as chair of the Senate Elections Committee, Myrie passed early voting legislation in 2019 and later passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. “He’s been a champion of democracy, in the literal sense,” state Sen. John Liu said.

Assembly Member Khaleel Anderson said Myrie can be reserved but also has a “booming” voice on the issues that he cares about and is charismatic and plain interesting to watch – as was the case when Myrie donned a carrot suit to promote legislation targeting junk food marketing.

Some progressive advocates agreed that Myrie is a powerful ally when he champions an issue. “He’s able to really stand up for progressive issues, but also work pretty well with some of his more real estate-friendly colleagues,” said Cea Weaver, director of the Housing Justice for All coalition. “That means that he is a tremendous asset when he chooses to use his voice, but it also means that he’s pretty choosy about when he (does).”

Myrie said his decision to explore a run for mayor is the culmination of listening to the “drumbeat” of New Yorkers who want new leadership. “New Yorkers are having to choose whether or not they can stay because the city has become less livable and less affordable,” he said, sitting down in a small restaurant on Nostrand Avenue, where he takes a lot of meetings.

In a statement for this article, City Hall defended Adams’ tenure.

“Over the last two years, our administration has managed crisis after crisis that was beyond our city’s control, but we have simultaneously continued to deliver win after win for New Yorkers,” Deputy Mayor for Communications Fabien Levy said in a statement, pointing to better job numbers, falling crime and an increase in affordable housing.

Myrie has offered criticisms of the mayor on a few issues, opposing Adams’ budget cuts to schools and libraries and his tepid response to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s last-minute pause to congestion pricing. On other controversial decisions coming out of the Adams administration, he sharpens his arrows only when asked directly. He questions the wisdom of convening a Charter Revision Commission. He wanted to see a rent freeze for stabilized units rather than the recently approved hikes. He opposes the city’s changes to the right-to-shelter mandate for migrants.

But if Myrie’s run goes to plan, the 2025 mayoral primary will be a referendum on what actually got done in Adams’ first term.

“They want something fresh.”

Given Myrie’s start as an insurgent, Working Families Party-backed candidate in 2018, one might expect him to position himself as a progressive champion, channeling the left’s fury at Adams. But that’s not the case. While he takes pride in his progressive legislative record, Myrie has mostly shied away from the “progressive” label. And in a move that could alienate some of his progressive supporters, he is now taking donations from the real estate industry – a change from his first run.

In pitching himself to voters, Myrie has instead focused on “competence” and the “nuts and bolts” of running the city. “I think voters are primarily concerned not with where I am on the Democratic spectrum, they are primarily concerned with whether I am competent enough to provide a vision for the city, and whether we have the skills to execute,” Myrie said.

Though the pitch for a competent manager is seen as a viable approach for challenging Adams, it’s not clear that Myrie, who has no executive experience, can make that case convincingly. “It’s hard for him to talk about competency to manage when he’s never managed anything,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

We wanted to see him succeed. But what we have seen, unfortunately, is a fumbling of the basics of government.
state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, on Eric Adams’ first term

Others suggest that case can be made without a particular résumé or election to a citywide role – say, comptroller, which has failed to prove a successful springboard to mayor for several candidates in the past.

Myrie is even-tempered and affable, but that’s not to say he can’t get fired up. He cops to yelling at referees while watching what he agrees are the WNBA’s criminally underrated New York Liberty play on TV. And when asked about how he’s making the case for himself as a competent manager when he hasn’t ever served an executive role in office, he sits up, perking up with a passionate defense. “What has that experience gotten us? A city where the median rent is $3,700. A city where it costs $20,000 for child care. A city where we’ve seen an exodus over the past 20 years of close to 200,000 Black New Yorkers,” he said. “(New Yorkers) want something fresh, they want new leadership.” That leadership should be supported by the most talented deputies, he said, not those who are loyal or owed political favors.

Myrie’s positioning could change if the field expands, becoming less of a referendum on Adams and more of a battle among the challengers. But for now, his launch may still leave the lane open for a more progressive challenger to Adams. Some housing advocates see his decision to accept real estate donations as a potential dealbreaker, though Myrie insists he will not accept contributions from “bad actors” in the industry.

Several of Myrie’s early platform priorities could appeal to both progressives and more moderate Democrats. Myrie is talking up a plan for universal after-school programming – the costs of which are currently being studied and will be reported next summer under a measure passed in the state budget this year. If implemented, such a program could be legacy-defining, as universal preschool has been for former Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Myrie is also highlighting his record on gun violence and has mentioned directing more NYPD resources to solving shootings in overlooked neighborhoods. That could make public safety – the issue that defined Adams’ 2021 campaign, and which is likely to be a central issue in 2025 – a key part of his campaign.

While the Adams administration points to a decline in major crimes across the city, Myrie has zoomed in on Brownsville, a majority-Black neighborhood in Central Brooklyn that was part of his Senate district before redistricting. “What we have seen this year is an unfortunate and tragic increase in shootings and homicides,” he said. “If you look at our clearance rates citywide, we solve about half of our crimes. And in Black and brown communities, that number goes down significantly.”

Myrie and his wife, former Assembly Member Diana Richardson, successfully sued the NYPD after being pepper-sprayed and handcuffed during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. He has some experience balancing calls for police reforms with constituents’ persistent fears about crime.

When advocating for the passage of criminal justice reforms, he has had to have tough conversations with constituents – and even his own mother, whom he said is a “huge proponent” of stop and frisk. Myrie attributes her view in part to her experience being mugged at gunpoint when he was a child. “When she sees cops on the corner or on the subway, that makes her feel more safe. And I don’t think she’s unique in that feeling,” he said. “So I try to have these conversations by leading with empathy, because at base, all of us just want to be safe.”

“It’s going to be a challenge.”

Discussion about the viability of a challenge to Adams in 2025 hovers around a single figure: 28%. That was the mayor’s historically low approval rating in a December poll from Quinnipiac University, which found that just 20% of Hispanic respondents and 48% of Black respondents approved of Adams. Among just registered Democrats, Adams’ approval stood at 35%. 

Though it’s been six months since the Quinnipiac poll, there is still an argument for Adams’ vulnerability. The more recent Slingshot poll found 36% approval for Adams among registered Democrats, showing that his standing among Democrats has not improved much. His administration has beefed with the more progressive City Council and will likely maintain a reputation for unpopular cuts to city services, even after restoring some of them. Federal prosecutors’ ongoing investigation into his 2021 mayoral campaign could also derail his bid for reelection – though Adams himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the probe, and there hasn’t been indication that he’s a target of the investigation, according to City Hall.

The mayor’s loyal allies will play their part in supporting his reelection. “Myrie is attempting to run against an incumbent who continues to steer our city in the right direction as we face multiple pressing crises – including an influx of asylum-seekers, economic challenges, and hate crimes on Muslim, Jewish and AAPI communities,” Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said in a statement. “The same broad coalition of New Yorkers who voted for our mayor won’t want to lose his leadership because of political opportunists – especially one without citywide name recognition.”

But should Adams still be struggling in polls several months from now, the beginnings of a promising coalition for Myrie could start to come into view. Myrie will likely try to peel off Black and Latino outer borough voters who helped form Adams’ base in 2021 but who see unfulfilled promises in his first term. His competent manager pitch and progressive legislative record could also appeal to the voters in large swaths of Manhattan and parts of brownstone Brooklyn who backed Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley in 2021. Stringer, a Manhattan native, could also perform well in those areas of Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn.

The entrance of city Comptroller Brad Lander, state Sen. Jessica Ramos or even former Gov. Andrew Cuomo – all of whom, to varying degrees, have been discussed as potential candidates – would complicate Myrie’s path.

In an ongoing game of hypotheticals, consultants and organizers question how the coalition math shifts with each potential reshuffling of the field. Could Lander more comfortably occupy the progressive lane? Might Ramos, as chair of the state Senate Labor Committee, have a better chance of peeling off Adams’ all-important union backing? What would it take for Cuomo to enter and turn the whole race upside down?

The same broad coalition of New Yorkers who voted for our mayor won’t want to lose his leadership because of political opportunists – especially one without citywide name recognition.
Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn

Pulling labor support from the mayor will be an uphill battle for any challenger, several labor sources told City & State, though more progressive unions and those less closely affiliated with the mayor may be more willing to alienate City Hall and endorse a strong challenger.

When asked about pursuing the endorsement of the progressive Working Families Party, Myrie was noncommittal. “I think it’s important, certainly as mayor of the greatest city in the world, to build as broad a coalition as possible,” he said. “I’m going to leave it to the professionals to do the prognostication on what organizations, etc. I think it’s really early for that. We are going to be focused on the issues, like most New Yorkers are.”

The Working Families Party was also noncommittal, though it has endorsed Myrie in the past. “We are encouraged, and we are glad to see him stepping in,” said New York Working Families Party co-Director Ana María Archila, calling Myrie a “serious legislator and potentially a formidable opponent” to Adams. “We also are looking forward to seeing how the field shakes out,” she added.

Should the field expand, it’s unclear whether or how anti-Adams factions would coordinate to avoid sending Adams to a second term. Progressives are eager to avoid a repeat of their fractured vote in 2021, and Archila said that they are still exploring whether cross-endorsements in the ranked choice voting system could be part of the solution.

There’s nothing the would-be candidates, campaign consultants and eager observers are watching more closely than the first campaign finance reports, which are due on July 15. That will bring both Myrie and Stringer’s viability as mayoral contenders into clearer view.

Fundraising, especially in competition with Adams’ hefty war chest, will be particularly important for a challenger like Myrie with limited citywide name recognition.

Several consultants said that a competitive campaign should look to raise somewhere in the $500,000 range, not including matching funds. “If you’re not doing a half a million, you ain’t serious,” one labor source said, though another source said that a candidate who raises slightly less but has a strong start at matching funds could still make an impact.

As he races toward that July 15 deadline, filling his post-legislative session schedule with much busier days than usual, Myrie is well aware of the uphill battle he faces. Still, his colleagues see a bigger political future for Myrie than the state Senate. “I’ve commented on several occasions that there was once a very articulate, intelligent and compassionate state senator from Illinois who took it all the way,” Liu said. “I wouldn’t put it past this particular young man to do the same.”