Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He advises corporate and political clients on communications strategies in the US, Africa and Latin America. He tweets @ArickWierson. Bradley Honan, CEO of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and analytics firm, has advised the campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Tony Blair and leading global companies. He tweets @BradleyHonan. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
In just a few weeks, New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary will offer the nation its first major opportunity to gauge how Democratic voters are thinking about their party and its policies – six months into the Biden administration.
The city, an ethnic, religious and socioeconomic mélange, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7-to-1, is the perfect place to take the temperature of a large swath of Democratic voters in the lead up to the 2022 midterms. Because, though they lean left, New York City voters are best known for their practicality – particularly in times of crisis.
When the city was engulfed by a crime epidemic in the 1990s, New Yorkers put aside party allegiances and voted in Republican Rudy Giuliani, a former prosecutor who had taken on the mob and promised to clean up the city. After September 11, with lower Manhattan still smoldering, New Yorkers chose our former boss, Michael Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who ran as a Republican, in the hopes that a business executive could rebuild Lower Manhattan and get the city back to work.
Now, with Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second and final term coming to an end – and the city just beginning to reemerge from a global pandemic that claimed the lives of some 30,000 New Yorkers – voters will be once again casting their ballots during a time of crisis, where the twin vectors of economic recovery and the social justice issues surrounding race and policing will be front and center.
Violent crime – and the fear of it – has indeed increased in the city, and many primary voters appear to be open to candidates who firmly reject a “defund the police” platform. One of the frontrunners in this year’s 13-person Democratic race is Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former police officer, who has made clear that economic recovery begins with public safety. He appears to be running neck and neck with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has also blasted calls to defund the police.
Their approach could serve as a reminder to Democrats nationally that they must publicly promote policies that keep neighborhoods safe, even as they press ahead with much-needed police and criminal justice reform. They simply cannot cede the issue of fighting crime to the GOP.
What is notable about both Adams and Yang, beyond their public safety policies, is they are moderate Democrats. In fact, Adams even briefly left the Democratic Party in the mid-1990s because he viewed it as too far left on the issue of crime.
And how are the more progressive candidates doing in the NYC race? Two of three leading ones are facing scandals. Progressive stalwart Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, has been accused of sexual misconduct, which he firmly denies, and Dianne Morales, the most progressive candidate in the race, is managing a staff exodus. If either Adams or Yang becomes the Democratic nominee for mayor, then it’s fair to wager that the progressive wing of the party will have lost some of its mojo.
As is the case on the national stage, the Latino vote – perhaps as many as one in five New York City voters – will likely prove decisive in the city’s elections this year. With Morales’ campaign struggling and no other major Latino candidate in the race, this all important and nuanced voting bloc could emerge as the decisive swing vote. In fact, Democratic strategists have posited that whoever carries the Hispanic vote will ultimately win the Democratic primary.
Yet Democrats cannot take the Latino vote for granted. Former President Donald Trump and the GOP made strides in drawing Latinos in recent elections, and Democrats will have to work hard to win some of their support back.
Democrats need to package their policies in terms that matter to this constituency. Economic growth, opportunity and entrepreneurship are all key messaging points that resonate well with Latinos both in New York City and across the nation. After four years of taunting by Trump, Democrats must also make Latinos feel – both literally and figuratively – respected and valued in America, and emphasize that they are an important part of the fabric of the country.
Finally, how many Democratic voters ultimately turn out to vote in New York City’s June primary will give us a read of whether the party is feeling energized or complacent now that Trump has returned to his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, for the summer.
Strong turnout and high engagement from the Democratic base will serve as an auspicious sign to Democratic operatives who know that a good showing in many of the northeastern congressional districts in the 2022 midterms is the key to maintaining a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives. It is equally true that lackluster performance at the polls could signal an enthusiasm gap – a weakness that GOP operatives would use to their advantage.
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The lessons learned from the upcoming June 22 primary – and the fall general election – will be a bellwether for the future of Democratic Party politics nationwide. Biden, who has surprised many for his embrace of progressive policies, should pay close attention to these races.
Should New York Democrats opt to elect Adams or Yang as their nominee, it could signal broader national appetite for moderate, middle-of-the-road policies at the federal level. If that happens, it may send a message to Biden – and Democrats running across the country – that a more balanced approach to matters of policing reform, investment and other hot-button topics is what is needed to maintain their majorities next year.
After June 22, the political stakes for 2022 will be set.
Correction: This piece originally misstated the number of Democrats running for mayor.