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When Will the City Council Stand Up to Eric Adams? 

A budget vote, veto, and primary election all collide during a humid week in New York City.

(John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit)

It was late at night in the middle of June last year, and the City Council was voting on the City's budget two weeks ahead of schedule. City Councilmembers who had taken office at the height of the COVID-19 Omicron wave, and had met in person only a few times before the vote took place, were given just hours to look over the final negotiated budget and cast their vote. It was rare for a budget to be done this early, but Mayor Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams had embraced, literally, a few days before, having agreed to the major framework of the budget. 

While a few dissenting votes were cast, the budget was passed with overwhelming support—including from prominent members of the City Council's Progressive Caucus. 

"Not a lot of people knew what they were voting on," a source close to the caucus told Hell Gate. The Progressive Caucus, formed in 2009, was meant to be the left-most flank of the City Council, and five of the six "no" votes came from its members. But the leadership of the caucus—Shahana Hanif and Lincoln Restler—had all voted for it.

Within a few weeks, the two were bitterly regretting their votes. 

"I want to start by acknowledging how deeply regretful I am of my budget vote," Hanif told a group of parents last July. "I made a decision that I thought would best equip me to have a seat at the table and the tools to fight back against and restore the cuts. It's clearer than ever that the table and the entire process in this body is severely broken."

Progressive Caucus members had signed off on a budget process that would end up cutting millions in school funding, something that some of the caucus's members had been warning about in the runup to the vote. 

"You had a City Council body that was new, and frankly didn't know their ass from their elbows," said Astoria Councilmember Tiffany Caban, who voted against the budget. "You didn't have a clear organized message and demands, and this is a particularly challenging administration to deal with."

As the optimism of last June gave way to a humid, angry August, more progressive City Councilmembers began to apologize for their votes, saying they had been played by the Adams administration. Even Speaker Adams claimed she hadn't focused enough on the education budget. The pro-charter school mayor had made drastic cuts to public schools at a time when the City was sitting on millions in federal COVID relief money that had to be spent. Some members claimed they hadn't read the budget closely enough, or, if they had, they didn't grasp its implications.

In the ensuing months, Mayor Adams kept pushing for more and more trims to the City's budget, even the slimmed-down budget the City Council had approved. Warning of an impending recession, he made further budget cuts without the Council's signoff, through a process known as the Program to Eliminate the Gap, or PEG. The impact of those PEG cuts quickly began to be felt: As thousands of positions in City government were being left unfilled, households who qualified for affordable housing weren't getting it, while people waited weeks for their food stamp applications to be processed. 

Recognizing they needed to fight back, the Council at large began charting a different course toward 2023's City budget, one that would counter much of the mayor's agenda. At one point last year, Speaker Adams and the mayor cut off regular contact, and their priorities remained vastly different—the mayor wanted cuts to vital programs like schools, libraries, and social services, placing the blame on a funding gap exacerbated by the cost of housing migrants who have come to NYC. Speaker Adams, in her budget proposal, wanted to keep those services intact, and expand social services

The City Council Progressive Caucus announcing their FY 2024 budget priorities on April 19, 2023. (John McCarten / NYC Council Media Unit)

But after a year of efforts to avoid a repeat of last year's budget fiasco, and months of striking a more adversarial stance, Speaker Adrienne Adams stood stone-faced last Thursday at the rotunda in City Hall, as the mayor announced a budget deal that makes serious cuts to the City's social safety net even as it spared the City some of the more heinous cuts Adams had initially proposed.

"The budget's passing right now, but this is a bittersweet moment for this Council," she said, with the air of someone attending a funeral. The Council had managed to stave off some cuts, she said, but had spent months fighting the mayor over $400 million in an over $100-billion budget. Vital programs at Rikers Island were cut, as were services for homeless New Yorkers, at a time when the city is experiencing a spike in people living on the street

Notably missing from the announcement at the rotunda were some of the Council's most progressive members, who were trying to find a sizable number of their fellow councilmembers to cast ceremonial "no" votes on the budget. Eventually, they were able to muster eleven "no" votes from the left (another "no" vote came from former Democrat turned Republican Ari Kagan, whose general election opponent Justin Brannan helped devise the budget). 

As in years past, the vast majority of councilmembers who voted on the budget did not even have time to read it (this is standard practice, but one councilmembers have been railing against for years).

How did this all just happen…again? And if the Council's leadership is simply trying—somewhat ineffectively—to stave off cuts, where does this leave the Progressive Caucus, a once-ascendant wing of the Council whose purpose is to push for a robust social safety net in a city gripped with ever-widening inequality? 

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala in the City Council Chambers on March 2, 2023. (Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

While Council Speaker Adams publicly drifted further apart from Mayor Adams, the City Council's Progressive Caucus turned inward during the first few months of 2023. How "progressive" was a caucus that had overwhelmingly approved cuts to public schools the year before? And how could the group of elected officials find strength in their numbers, instead of splintering at a crucial moment, as they had during the last budget vote? 

The Progressive Caucus had ballooned to 35 members of the new City Council, after starting with just 12 members under Bloomberg, but its members didn't have to vote as a bloc, attend meetings, or do anything really besides call themselves "progressive." It was clear that the unwieldy caucus needed to do some housekeeping—including clarifying the political stances of its members. As one caucus insider noted to Hell Gate, the group had lacked a clear, unifying vision, which was a necessity if it was to operate effectively. 

Caucus leadership convened a group to work on the bylaws of the caucus and revise the group's statement of principles, which all members would have to sign on to. Longtime fixtures in New York City politics like now-Councilmember Gale Brewer worked on the group's new priorities, which included robust funding of social programs, and a commitment to drive down the City's spending on its multibillion-dollar police department. 

It soon became a contentious process—fifteen members quickly resigned after media coverage, driven by the New York Post, picked up on the part of the statement of principles that focused on cutting police funding. Brewer, who helped draft the principles, departed the caucus. Only one white member remained—co-chair Lincoln Restler. 

The resignations left the caucus smaller, but more unified—it now skewed much younger, and its members now largely represented less affluent parts of the city. The caucus would no longer have the numbers to hold up something like the budget (a majority in the council is 26 members), but by voting more as a bloc, the thinking went, it could aim to extract concessions from more conservative members, and work together to pass important legislation. 

The group began building bridges this spring and organizing other councilmembers around fighting back against cuts—holding rallies outside of City Hall and over Zoom to get people up to speed on how budget negotiations were playing out and what was at stake.

A Progressive Caucus rally against budget cuts. (John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit)

But even before the budget was getting to crunch time, many City Councilmembers had to spend months on the campaign trail, trying to win their seats again, thanks to this year's redistricting. 

"The reality is that you have limited time, energy, and resources, and you have to spend a lot of that just making sure you're on the ballot, or winning re-election. It puts you at capacity," said Cabán. "Being an elected official is a busy job, being a staff member for one is hard, and then you throw another job in there as a re-election apparatus." 

That primary election has winnowed the caucus even further—last Tuesday, Progressive Caucus member Charles Barron lost his seat; Kristin Richardson Jordan had already announced she wouldn't run for reelection (they'll both remain in office until January). In the few days between the election and the budget deadline, a slimmed-down Progressive Caucus would need to lean even more on their one-time caucus members to push back against Mayor Adams's austerity agenda.

But this isn't the first time the caucus had to push up against an austerity-minded mayor—the caucus was born under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and notched some of its greatest wins during that time. (Although many of those wins came outside of the budget process, they were able to curtail a Bloomberg-backed plan to slash after-school programs.)

"If you look at the history of the Progressive Caucus, their most effective work was done during the end of the Bloomberg administration, and that was the fourth year of that City Council class, so they had learned the basics of putting together a budget," said Joo-Hyun Kang. 

At the time, Kang was working for Communities United for Police Reform, a group that helped push through a raft of police reform measures over the strident objections of the Bloomberg administration, and without the full support of then-Speaker Christine Quinn. Kang said that caucus members became very good at playing the "inside" game, working together with more senior Council leaders to get the results they wanted, even if they weren't everything that activists outside City Hall demanded. 

This year, one roadblock that the Progressive Council and their allies in the Council ran into while charting a budget was a seeming unwillingness by the Council at large to tackle runaway spending by the NYPD in order to fund other programs that were on the chopping block.

During a press conference in late June, Mayor Adams hinted at the bind the Council was in—if the NYPD was off the table in terms of cuts, where would they find the money for the programs he demanded to be downsized? Or even new spending that the Council was pushing for? 

"Where do we take from to pay for the things we say don't remove?" the mayor asked. 

Speaker Adrienne Adams and City Councilmembers announcing the FY 2024 budget agreement with Mayor Eric Adams. (Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

A bevy of progressive groups, including the Working Families Party and Make the Road NY, pushed the City Council to combat Mayor Adams's austerity agenda (and ultimately asked councilmembers to vote "no" on the budget), but these groups were also unified in their opposition to Adams during his run for mayor. For them to be effective, the councilmembers they're aligned with needed to tip the scales during the budget process. 

For the Progressive Caucus during the latest budget negotiations, that meant focusing on just a few issues where they could get support from other, non-caucus councilmembers, playing defense during a time when the mayor holds almost all the cards—a scenario that is a far cry from the caucus's blustery days during the de Blasio administration. 

City Council sources close to the budget process told Hell Gate that negotiations were complicated by the fact that Adams's counter-proposal to the Council included even more cuts than his original budget, meaning that the Council played even more defense than they thought they would. 

A negotiated budget, one in which there are trade-offs and deep compromises with the mayor, was the only way to ensure that some cuts would be prevented, said some of those closest to the process.

"This is a restorative budget, not one where we're going to grow programming," said East Harlem Councilmember Diana Ayala, the deputy speaker of the City Council, the day before the budget deal was announced. Ayala explained that the Council was much more unified this year in fighting the cuts, but still wouldn't touch things like cutting down on NYPD spending to help fund social services. 

"We're not hearing from our constituents, any interest in that sort of thing," Ayala, who resigned from the Progressive Caucus over the winter, saying she didn't have enough time in her schedule to participate in the group, said of reducing the NYPD budget. "There's a lot more understanding of the budget process this year," she added. "And our expectations, focusing on fighting cuts, are probably where they should be." 

When it finally came time to vote on a budget that still cut vital services, at a time of higher-than-expected tax windfalls, the Progressive Caucus was again not united, and was left once again scrambling for symbolic votes. 

Several of its members, including those closest to negotiations, voted for the budget, and praised its accomplishments, which included staving off Mayor Adams's cuts to public library funding, expanding the City's Fair Fares program for low-income transit riders, and funding year-round early childhood seats at schools. "Today's budget adoption is a testament to Council's will to serve as a counterweight to a mayor wholly unconcerned with the material well-being of New Yorkers," said Councilmember Crystal Hudson in explaining her vote. While many councilmembers celebrated undoing cuts that were completely dictated by City Hall, and which amounted to less than one percent of the total budget, the approved budget is a far cry from a real attempt to battle deep inequity within the city—instead, it simply tries to stem the bleeding coming from all the cuts.

"Councilmembers know that their districts will really suffer as a result of another austerity budget, and the fact they feel powerless to vote no, and don't have a voice to send a message that austerity kills, says a lot," said Celina Trowell, an organizer for VOCAL-NY, which focuses on the needs of homeless New Yorkers. Trowell commended the job done by Speaker Adams to stave off some of the cuts, but her organization was among the many groups urging councilmembers to send a message by voting "no."

"The Council is still trying to find a space in the Adams administration, which is dead-set on trying to sell austerity as something that will somehow help the community," Trowell said.

On the heels of yet another budget mess, the Council has an upcoming opportunity to flex what power it does have. Last month, Mayor Eric Adams issued only his second veto in office, and just the second mayoral veto in nine years. Unlike his first veto (which Hell Gate revealed benefited a good friend of the mayor and the mayor described as getting rid of just a "small piece of legislation"), the second veto was resounding. For months, the City Council had worked on legislation meant to speed up the rate at which people leave the City's shelter system, a problem that had worsened under Adams and been exacerbated by the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants to the city to that system. 

The legislation, which is made up of four bills, would expand eligibility and the number of people who could qualify for the City's housing voucher program, known as CityFHEPS. Pushed by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Mayor Adams vetoed the legislation under the pretext that the cost to the City would be too great, and it would be on the hook for hundreds of millions in new housing subsidies. 

"The bills not only create expectations among vulnerable New Yorkers that cannot be met, they also take aim at the wrong problem," Mayor Adams said while vetoing the bills. 

Speaker Adrienne Adams has pledged to override the veto, a move that VOCAL-NY's Trowell lauded. "Overriding the veto would be step one in pushing back against Adams and actually addressing this crisis," she noted.

But in turn, Mayor Adams could take the City Council to court over the law, claiming they've exceeded their authority. We'll soon see if the Council is really ready for a fight.

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