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No mayor is an island. Gotham’s next leader — likely Eric Adams — must deal with a brand-new City Council in pursuing recovery, with most incumbents term-limited out of office. Lawmakers will have a say in everything from hiring more cops to which livability laws the city enforces. Will the new council help — or hurt?
The good news: Last week’s Democratic primary wasn’t a far-left triumph. Trying (still) to capitalize on the AOC win three years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America endorsed six candidates. Only two — public defender Tiffany Cabán of Jackson Heights and Alexa Avilés of Sunset Park — are leading.
These are hardly flipped seats; there is no red wave changing New York politics.
In several neighborhoods, voters chose not a radically different future, but the past: The Upper West Side renominated Gale Brewer, who held the same seat before becoming borough president eight years ago.
East New York will likely re-re-elect Charles Barron, the career speechifyer who vacated the seat for his wife, Inez, in 2013. In both cases, the ideology stays the same.
Corey Johnson’s likely successor in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea is Erik Bottcher . . . a longtime Corey Johnson aide. Julie Menin of the Upper East Side is slightly to the right of the incumbent, Ben Kallos.
Maybe voters had too many choices, whether for mayor or comptroller, forcing them to seek out the name they already knew further down the ballot. Or maybe it’s by design: The voters just didn’t give the council much direction.
The council, then, is just like it was before — only slightly more so. That isn’t good, because for the past year, the council has been effectively leaderless and fragmented.
The council’s most important job is passing the annual budget. Think Speaker Peter Vallone, back in the early 1990s, supporting Mayor David Dinkins’ effort to hire more police.
We saw how quickly Johnson, as speaker, bowed to the #Defund mob that occupied City Hall Park for weeks last year. Lawmakers voted to cancel the hiring of 1,163 police officers — a class New York will badly need now, to replace 2,600 retirements last year, nearly double the normal level, as it combats a surge in shootings.
It wasn’t Johnson’s fault alone: Relative old-timers like Brooklyn’s Brad Lander and the East Side’s Kallos wouldn’t give him any cover, voting “no” on the budget because it didn’t cut the police enough. Johnson needed moderate minority votes — people like Adams — to get any budget passed.
The same issue is going to crop up rather soon: One of the new mayor’s first orders of businesses will be to fill depleted police ranks. Can the next mayor convince the next council to backtrack on #Defund?
New members such as Cabán — who wants to “disband the NYPD” — may not numerically move the council further left. But their AOC-like ability to garner attention beyond their districts can cow people who might be on the fence.
Policing can’t fix all our social problems. Bottcher has the beginnings of a solid mental-health plan, including acknowledging that the city needs both in-patient psychiatric beds and “respite” beds for people not sick enough for the hospital, but too sick to take care of themselves.
But such investments must come with a promise: We won’t accept anti-social criminal behavior on the streets, whether “low-level” assaults or coercive panhandling.
A listless council may mean we spend billions on supportive-housing programs that attract newcomers from all over the country — but the streets remain just as disorderly.
Then there’s the rest of the city budget. The city faces a nearly $4 billion deficit after its federal COVID cash runs out. Gotham has yet to come to terms with indefinitely lower property values, and property taxes, from Midtown.
The Big Apple needs a council that will firmly revisit de Blasio’s plan to spend $9 billion to build four high-rise jails in four separate boroughs, and a council that is realistic about how much new below-market housing the city can afford to subsidize. But most new members ran on grand plans, not retrenchment, promising vast new affordable-housing developments.
The council’s deteriorating cohesion — not improved by the election results — points up why New York needs a well-grounded mayor.
If Adams turns out the winner, he will have to provide the political cover for councilmembers who want to hire more police but are afraid of looking racist for saying so. And he will have to be his own budget watchdog.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.
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