Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has a penchant for speaking in the third person. But when he took the stage at his primary night watch party, the first name out of his mouth was not his own.
“I think about Rubén Díaz Jr. and about how we talked about as little boys, one in The Bronx, one in Brooklyn, we hopped on those little dirty mattresses because we didn’t have anywhere else to go in the burnt-out lots,” Adams said, as the Bronx borough president stood behind him. “And we just wanted to do something someday for our city.”
Díaz, he added, kept his promise to “bring [him] The Bronx.”
The Bronx Democratic Party-backed mayoral candidate’s tough-on-crime rhetoric contrasts with the progressive wave in the Council elections in the borough. Several self-styled progressives, buoyed by party support, took open seats previously occupied by stalwarts of the borough’s evangelical Latino base, like City Council members Fernando Cabrera and Rubén Díaz Sr., the Bronx borough president’s father.
But it’s not that the establishment is fractured: Some observers say the shift simply represents a pragmatic rebranding, part of a concerted effort by the party to embrace its progressive flank at a time when the Democratic establishments in Brooklyn and Queens have struggled amid a leftward turn.
And the Bronx machine, once bruised and leaderless, is roaring back: Every Council candidate endorsed by the Bronx County Democratic Party won his or her primary — including progressives Amanda Farías, Althea Stevens, Marjorie Velázquez and Pierina Sánchez, who handily beat Democratic Socialists of America-backed Adolfo Abreu.
Many of those borough party-backed candidates support some progressive goals — such as increased tenants protections and shifting public funds towards community programs in a bid to curb crime — but not canceling rent or taking funding away from the NYPD, the calling cards for the left.
In an interview with THE CITY, State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, who stepped in last year as the borough’s party chair, didn’t shy away from embracing a progressive label, citing such issues as climate justice and health care reform, even while backing a moderate like Adams.
“I think it’s a new day in The Bronx,” said Bailey, a protégé of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) who chaired the Bronx Democratic Party until becoming speaker in 2015. “I think that we want candidates who are going to support that.”
‘The Shift Is Happening’
It’s a remarkable position compared to party leaders in Brooklyn and Queens who have tried with modest success to shake off the party’s progressive wing since the upset victory of now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for a Queens and Bronx seat in 2018.
But some political players say the Bronx Democratic pivot is less of a result of soul-searching and more a strategy to win elections — especially after now-Rep. Jamaal Bowman won a Bronx and Westchester seat last year, beating party-backed 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel.
“Their goal is power preservation — so they had to innovate, that’s just the political climate that exists,” said Gabe Tobias, executive director of the Our City PAC, which boosts progressive grassroots candidates. “There’s pressure underneath from grassroots groups and organizations, and from voters that are moving in a more progressive direction.”
The wave of progressives who won in The Bronx notched the backing of traditional players such as unions, political clubs and the county Democratic operation, but also gained support from some grassroots advocacy organizations, such as VOCAL-NY and Make The Road.
Political observers note that Bailey’s efforts to move the party towards its progressive wing may be a result of more recent threats to its power, starting with Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Queens party leader Joe Crowley which came the same year now-state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi trounced incumbent Jeff Klein.
“Perhaps internally, they’re looking at ways to be supportive of the progressive cause for political survival,” said Eli Valentin, a political analyst and lecturer at Union Theological Seminary. “But also because of just the reality of the situation: The shift is happening, and the party has to be part of it.”
Bailey bristled at the idea the party is seizing on grassroot movements. “I think these are just Bronx values,” he said. “I have two daughters — I want a cleaner planet. I think that these are values that Bronxites hold near and dear. People want their jobs, they want better schools, want better education, and most importantly, they want a path for success.”
‘Back to Fundamentals’
Our City, Tobias’ group, spent $1,000 on behalf of Abreu, the DSA-backed candidate who ran in the competitive primary to succeed Fernando Cabrera in the 14th District, which includes Morris Heights.
That race was ultimately won by Sánchez, an urban planner and Obama and de Blasio administration alum who countered with traditional institutional support, including making campaign trail appearances alongside Adams and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), long-time foils of the left.
But the grassroots rhetoric came in her campaign video, where she introduced herself as “an activist” and spoke of the post-COVID recovery for the district’s essential workers. In an interview with THE CITY, Sánchez pledged to boost homeownership and youth employment.
“It goes back to the fundamentals of a safe community: a safe community is where people are employed, a community where people are living in stable housing and have enough money and are able to put food on the table,” she said.
Tobias, a former senior advisor with Justice Democrats, the group that helped elevate AOC and Bowman, said that the party’s rebrand signals a victory of sorts for the left: “This is us changing the terms of the debate. Candidates with plenty of establishment support like Pierina Sánchez or [Councilmember] Kevin Riley are hard to distinguish in terms of policy from DSA candidates.”
For its part, the electoral wing of the DSA’s Bronx/Upper Manhattan chapter — which boosted Abreu in the 14th district, the only candidate the group backed in the borough — was not surprised by the Bronx party’s pivot.
“We’ve seen the Democratic Party shifting its rhetoric and endorsements to the left to be a response to pressure from below from insurgent candidates that have had the backing of DSA, to the George Floyd uprisings last summer, to increased labor militancy throughout the pandemic — and none of that is new,” said Gayle Kelemen Snible, who represents the chapter’s electoral efforts.
‘Something Very Different’
On the borough’s east side, another election emerged at the crossroads of the party apparatus’ turn to progressive causes.
Amanda Farías, a progressive who campaigned on issues of environmental justice and transit equity, nabbed the majority of the institutional and grassroots support, including from the Bronx Democratic Party, in the race to replace Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr. in the 18th Council District, which includes Parkchester, Soundview and Castle Hill.
The first time she ran for office was in 2017, against the machine and Díaz Sr. himself — gaining about 20% of the vote to Díaz Sr.’s 40%. This year, the party endorsed her over the candidate hand-picked by Díaz, William Rivera, the controversial district manager of the local community board.
The race was close: Up until the absentee votes were certified, Farías led Rivera by less than one percentage point after five rounds of ranked-choice voting. The mail-in ballots put her over the top, and on July 5 she declared victory, with 52.3% of the vote.
Unlike Sánchez, Farías earned the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez and Our Revolution, the PAC that spun off of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run. Kelemen Snible, on behalf of DSA’s Bronx and Upper Manhattan chapter, spoke admiringly of Farías push for a municipal jobs guarantee. (The group did not endorse Farías).
Farías described the party’s hands-off approach: Whereas traditionally local machines may take over top-bottom decision-making for campaigns, the message from the party was “‘how can we come in and help,’ versus ‘this is how we operate,’” she said, a sentiment echoed by Sánchez.
For example, Farías said she insisted on having her own campaign legal team instead of the party’s counsel, Stanley Schlein, and the party leadership obliged. Her campaign handled the petitioning process on its own.
“This was a ground game — we won this campaign at the grassroots. But the county, they’re trying to do something very different, and they’re clearly not keeping the same type of status quo decisions,” she said.
The senior Díaz will retire from politics when his term ends in January, and Díaz Jr., who briefly flirted with a mayoral run, has kept his post-borough presidency aspirations to himself. But his involvement in the Adams campaign have led some to question that he may be vying for a leadership role in City Hall.
But wherever he — and the borough party — goes next, the left is skeptical on whether the Bronx Democrats will deliver on their new progressive values.
“Since at least 2013, we’ve seen democratic politicians be ushered into office on progressive rhetoric and promises of change for their constituents, and ultimately fail to deliver when it’s time for difficult votes,” Kelemen Snible said. “I think we simply won’t know until we see how they act in the Council.”