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What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive in New York City?

In the summer of 2020, New York’s progressive movement looked more robust than ever before. The murder of George Floyd by the police led activists to occupy City Hall Park for a month and prompted the City Council to pass a budget that called for $1 billion in cuts to the New York Police Department.

It quickly became voguish for Democratic politicians, especially in New York City, to proclaim their progressive bona fides — in ways that some felt cheapened the spirit of the movement.

So leaders of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus decided to establish a litmus test: a “statement of principles” that called for a commitment to universal early childhood education, affordable housing and, most controversially, a reduction in “the size and scope of the N.Y.P.D. and Department of Correction.”

Fifteen of the caucus’s 35 members left the group last week after refusing to sign the pledge, leaving 20 members behind to navigate what could be a pivotal moment for one of the most visible progressive movements in the country.

“I see it as we’re laying roots again,” said Councilwoman Shahana Hanif, a co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus. “We’re laying roots about what it requires of folks to use the progressive tag, and we’re making that very clear in New York City.”

The Progressive Caucus was founded in 2010 to serve as a liberal foil to the moderate policies of Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor at the time. It gradually grew in numbers and stature, peaking at 35 members this year — a clear majority in the 51-member Council.

But the caucus has not used its political strength to great effect. Some of its leaders felt compelled to apologize after voting for a budget in June that cut school funding. And despite broad support from dozens of members and the speaker of the City Council, legislation to ban the use of solitary confinement in city jails has languished.

A major force working against them is Mayor Eric Adams, who often blames “woke” progressive policies for driving voters from the Democratic Party, and who criticized the caucus’s take-it-or-leave-it pledge.

“They’re calling for removing members of their own caucus if they don’t sign a pledge to defund the police,” Mr. Adams said on CNN last week. “That is not who we are as Democrats.”

Mayor Eric Adams has blamed the progressive movement for alienating Democratic voters in New York.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Every member of the City Council is up for re-election this year, and many of the members who left the caucus represent more moderate districts where pledging to “defund the police” could be a political liability.

A Police Department at a Critical Moment

The New York Police Department is facing challenges on several fronts.

  • Spying Accusations: Federal prosecutors accused a New York City police officer of being an agent for China. Then, with scant explanation, they abandoned the case, but can he ever clear his name?
  • A Hefty Price Tag: An analysis of city data shows that the Police Department paid $121 million in police misconduct settlements — the highest amount since 2018.
  • A Botched Prosecution: The perjury trial of a former detective was meant to shine a spotlight on police misconduct. Instead, it will be remembered as a highly public case of wrongdoing by prosecutors.
  • Looking Abroad: The trial of Abdullah el-Faisal provided a window into how the Police Department’s secretive Intelligence Bureau, which has faced controversy over the years, pursued an international figure.

All the City Council’s leadership team — those members most closely aligned with the Council speaker, Adrienne Adams — left the caucus. All the white members also left, except for Lincoln Restler, a left-leaning caucus co-chairman who represents Brooklyn neighborhoods including Brooklyn Heights and Greenpoint.

Justin Brannan, a Democrat from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who won his seat by roughly 600 votes in 2021, left the caucus, saying he did not feel comfortable with the group’s new standards. He is expecting another formidable general election challenge, most likely from a fellow Council member, Ari Kagan, a former Democrat turned Republican, who is slated to run against Mr. Brannan because of redistricting.

“I’m not leaving now because I have an election,” said Mr. Brannan, the powerful chair of the Council’s Finance Committee. “I’m leaving because this is when they decided to make everyone take this pledge.”

The momentum of the progressive movement in New York has had its ebbs and flows. With Mr. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, both moderate Democrats, in office, left-leaning forces were expected to be held at bay; recent Republican victories in House and local races also seemed to signal a voter pushback against a progressive agenda.

But progressives took credit for salvaging Ms. Hochul’s flagging campaign in its closing weeks last year. And more recently, they led opposition to the governor’s nominee for chief judge on political grounds, dealing the governor a devastating loss.

Still, there are some issues that tend to divide left-leaning Democrats, especially policing.

Keith Powers, a left-leaning councilman from Manhattan who serves as the Council’s majority leader, said that although he is generally aligned with the caucus’s principles — he sponsored at least three pieces of legislation that the caucus included in its list of priorities — he left because the language of doing “everything we can” to reduce police spending went too far.

Councilman Justin Brannan, right, said he was uncomfortable with the caucus’s new standards.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

I’ve always fought for policies that would make the city more fair, including things like tackling housing discrimination and a more just criminal justice system,” Mr. Powers said. “But it’s really important that we ensure basic public safety, especially at a time when New Yorkers are significantly on edge about public safety.”

Crystal Hudson, a councilwoman who represents Clinton Hill and Fort Greene in Brooklyn and who served on the caucus’s bylaws committee, contended that an effective public safety strategy encompasses far more than policing.

“People are asking what’s going to happen to our communities if we give less funding to the police, but nobody is asking the same question when we give less funding to libraries, to schools, to public housing, to hospitals,” Ms. Hudson said, as she criticized “fair-weather progressives” who are “progressive on every issue except for community safety.”

There is disagreement on how to interpret the departures from the caucus. Charlie King, a Democratic consultant and former head of the state party, said that he believed that it showed that progressives are not as ascendant as their recent victories have led people to believe.

“When you begin to shine a light on exactly what the progressive caucus wants to do, it’s a much smaller group of outliers than people originally thought. The legislators who left are saying we’re not going to be inflexible,” Mr. King said. “As a governing strategy, they want more freedom to be able to negotiate, to be more conciliatory and compromise.”

But others say that the 20 remaining caucus members can better present a unified front.

Councilwoman Crystal Hudson criticized what she called “fair-weather progressives” who were not committed to overhauling public safety strategies.Credit…Roy Rochlin/Getty Images For (Bam) Brooklyn

Brad Lander, the city comptroller and a co-founder of the Progressive Caucus, recalled that the caucus was instrumental during the Bloomberg years in helping to override mayoral vetoes for paid sick leave, a living wage bill and the Community Safety Act, a bill designed to end the discriminatory use of the police tactic of stop and frisk.

“When I think back on the caucus’s successes, it’s in fighting for those things which in hindsight might be obvious but were really challenging at the time,” Mr. Lander said in an interview.

Mr. Restler, the caucus co-chair, said that the group’s “clear commitment to progressive principles” would strengthen its ability to “push back against the mayor” and what progressives on the Council have begun to call Mr. Adams’s “austerity budget” because it proposes social services cuts.

And in the months before the mayor and the Council must agree on a final spending plan, caucus members like Tiffany Cabán, who represents Astoria, Queens, believe that voters will make clear to their Council representatives that they support the progressives’ focus on housing and mental health services, and not just policing.

She recently held a fund-raiser for her City Council re-election that was attended by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader whom some thought Ms. Ocasio-Cortez might challenge in a primary from the left.

In November, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez posted a photo with Ms. Cabán in their district, which she called “the People’s Republic of Astoria,” celebrating the neighborhood’s support for democratic socialist leaders at every level of government.

“Days like today remind us how strong this movement is,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Still, the attendance of Mr. Schumer — who has reached out to the farthest-left factions of his party, but embodies the party establishment — illustrates the broad and shifting meaning of being progressive.

The term, said Susan Kang, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a democratic socialist, has become so broad and undefined that it was reasonable for the Progressive Caucus to reassert its true meaning.

“What does it mean to be progressive?” Professor Kang said. “Does it broadly signal a general commitment to positive values that are inclusive, or does it mean that you stand for substantive policy issues that include economic justice and redistribution?”

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