Power of Diversity

The 2019 Power of Diversity: Black 100

Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams, is #5 on the Power 100.

Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams, is #5 on the Power 100. Erica Sherman/ Brooklyn Borough President's Office

In New York, several high-profile black politicians have risen to positions of influence in recent years. New York Attorney General Letitia James is now the state’s top law enforcement official. As the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn could be the next speaker of the House of Representatives. And in Albany, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drive the state’s legislative process.

But those impressive individual accomplishments haven’t singlehandedly ended racial disparities in the state or in New York’s halls of power. Looking at our own New York City Power 100 list, fewer than a fifth of the people on the list were black – even though roughly a quarter of the city identifies as black or African American. And on our latest Albany Power 100, only a dozen black individuals made the cut, while the state’s population is nearly 18% black. 

So this year, we decided to create a new list – the Power of Diversity: Black 100. Our inaugural effort features a number of individuals already on our city and state political lists, but it also spotlights dozens of lesser-known power players. Any New York political figure who identifies as black – including two Latino lawmakers of African descent vying for a South Bronx congressional seat – is eligible for inclusion. As with all of our lists, each individual was assessed based on their record, particularly within the political or policy arenas.

As the 100 people on this list show, black people hold lots of power in New York – and they’re breaking down barriers like never before.

1. Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James
lev radin/Shutterstock

State Attorney General

Letitia James is the attorney general of New York, but her influence stretches across state lines. “Tish” has successfully sued to block President Donald Trump’s attempt to deny green cards and visas to immigrants who seek to use public benefits, held Trump accountable for entangling his foundation with his 2016 presidential campaign and filed a motion to dismiss the president’s attempt to challenge a state law that allows certain congressional committees to request his New York tax returns.

This year has been a whirlwind for the attorney general. She’s one of 47 attorneys general who’ve signed on to investigate Facebook for “anti-competitive” behavior, and she filed a cease and desist against two companies pushing DIY rape kits. Recently, James has found herself in a legal tussle with the National Rifle Association over whether it has the power to prevent state investigations from seeing documents subpoenaed from its ad agency in a challenge to the organization’s nonprofit status. In November, she monitored early voting polling locations in Nassau County to counter reports of voter intimidation and improper challenges to voters’ signatures.

2. Hakeem Jeffries

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.
Andrew Kist


House Democratic Caucus

One of the many Democrats on the front lines of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries has found himself battling the White House at every turn. Whether speaking in support of the Equality Act or reminding people that the founders didn’t want “a king, dictator or monarch,” the Brooklyn congressman made sure his voice was heard in 2019.

Jeffries introduced The Eric Garner Excessive Use Of Force Prevention Act of 2019, taking national the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold bill that was proposed in Albany. Recently, Jeffries helped introduce The Lower Drug Costs Now Act with the goal of driving down the increasing prices of prescription drugs. In the spring, the House Democratic Caucus chairman teamed up with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer to reintroduce a bill that would decriminalize marijuana use.

The congressman landed in some hot water – but refused to apologize – for calling Trump the “Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” voicing the frustration and anger echoed by many of his constituents.

3. Carl Heastie

Carl Heastie
Courtesy New York Assembly

Assembly Speaker

While shepherding Democrats in Albany and in the Bronx, Carl Heastie has taken advantage of the mandate given to him by New York’s voters. The Assembly speaker has pushed through a progressive agenda with help from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and, over the past year, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

This year was a busy one for Heastie. He helped pass tenant protections, including ending the vacancy bonus, repealing high-rent vacancy decontrol and establishing anti-harassment protections for tenants statewide. Under Heastie, the state Legislature expanded the statute of limitations for rape accusations, protected women’s reproductive rights, banned so-called conversion therapy, decriminalized marijuana and closed sexual harassment loopholes that limited state liability for sexual harassment by elected officials.

In his own way, Heastie’s actions are also a response to President Donald Trump’s policies, making sure that New Yorkers are shielded from the more extreme effects of Washington’s actions. Heastie not only holds significant power in Albany, but his power also is centered in the Bronx, where he once led the Bronx Democratic Party.

4. Andrea Stewart-Cousins

State Senator Andrea Stewart Cousins.
New York State Senate

State Senate Majority Leader

Holding sway in the state Senate and in New York City politics, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins completes the troika that’s driving state politics. The first black woman to lead the state Senate, Stewart-Cousins made sure her constituents in Westchester County weren’t left out of a conversation long dominated by the five boroughs.

On top of securing Metro-North Railroad funding for the area and assisting with getting a county sales tax increase approved, Stewart-Cousins helped pass the Child Victims Act (something activists want to take national) and secured stronger reproductive rights for New Yorkers. Stewart-Cousins was part of a team that helped pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which expands protections for members of the LGBTQ community and is the first major LGBTQ-centered legislation since the Marriage Equality Act of 2011. Stewart-Cousins is also chairwoman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, making her yet another state elected official with a national voice. Recently, she teamed up with Cuomo to support the idea of government funding to help struggling local news outlets.

5. Eric Adams

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Brooklyn Borough President

With the buzz about a possible 2021 mayoral run getting louder, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has kept his name and face in the local news media this year by speaking out against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for a new jail in Brooklyn. The former police officer has been on a never-ending quest to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the black community – including his recent call for a cop who punched a subway fare evader to be put on desk duty. Over the years, he has advocated for better policing and an improved de-escalation process while also calling for an end to the violence that has plagued some parts of Brooklyn.

As Brooklyn borough president, Adams has attended to issues big and small, including investing in new boilers for Mitchell-Lama housing developments. He has also called for a task force to investigate the increase in black youth suicide attempts. With an expected crowded pool of candidates vying for City Hall, expect Adams to become an even bigger name in 2021.