Adrienne Adams was sworn in as the City Council speaker on Wednesday during a scaled-back ceremony at City Hall, making history as the first African American woman to helm the city’s legislative body.
Her election and swearing-in come after months of behind-the-scenes negotiating among the incoming members, who are themselves making history with a majority of women representing 31 of the 51 seats and with more racial diversity than ever.
“History has its eyes on this City Council,” Adams said addressing her members and the public for the first time, some of whom were forced to join the meeting virtually due to the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. She described the crises facing residents frustrated at heading into the third year of a pandemic and pledged the council would model how people with diverging viewpoints can work together for the betterment of the city.
Then she called for a moment of silence to acknowledge the more than 35,000 lives lost in New York City to the coronavirus.
Listen to WNYC reporter Brigid Bergin's coverage on the election of Adrienne Adams as the City Council's first Black speaker.:
Standing at the center of the council floor, Adams laid out an agenda informed by the priorities of her own constituents, including a push to address food insecurity and provide universal childcare. She also repeatedly name-checked her colleagues to make clear she heard, remembered and would act on the concerns they raised during her conversations with them ahead of her election. The speakership is considered the second most powerful post in city government, wielding influence on the legislative agenda while also serving as check on the mayor.
In one telling moment, Adams signaled her support for more policing in neighborhoods hit hardest by a rise in gun violence, calling out southeast Queens, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx.
“These are Black and brown communities that want to see a police presence. The council members of these neighborhoods have made this clear to me,” said Adams. As a representative of one of these neighborhoods, and the former chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, she said she heard and identified with the concerns raised by other members in those districts.
At the same time, she noted, “I realize the nuance of this issue and the need for better policing, but we want these police officers to treat people with dignity and respect.”
Her official election took place at the start of the first official City Council meeting of the session. Adams was initially nominated by Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, who praised her as a colleague, friend and fighter with the skills the city needs as it charts a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and addresses the deep inequities it exposed.
“She is a natural coalition builder, capable of finding common ground and ensuring that everyone is heard in the process. This is how I know Adrienne Adams is a leader who will meet the moment,” said Brooks-Powers, who wiped away tears during her remarks.
Both women represent parts of southeast Queens and attend the same historic Black church, the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York in Jamaica. Its pastor, Rev. Margaret Elaine M. Flake, offered the invocation at the start of the meeting.
Several of the members who vied for the speakership also offered remarks nominating Adams, including Diana Ayala, Justin Brannan, Keith Powers, Carlina Rivera, Gale Brewer and Francisco Moya, her chief rival.
“I stand with you and support you 100%,” said Moya, who ran for the post with the initial backing of Mayor Eric Adams. Moya later conceded in late December when it was clear he did not have the support of a majority of the council members.
While most members offered praise ahead of Adams’ election, there were two no votes: one from Kristin Richardson Jordan and the other from Charles Barron, a former member of the New York State Assembly. Barron returned to the seat he held from 2002 to 2013, where he was later succeeded by his wife, Inez Barron.
“Governor [Kathy] Hochul, Mayor Adams and soon-to-be Speaker Adams are cut from the same political cloth, you’ll see,” Barron warned, arguing the council needed to serve as a check on the mayor during the budget process and chastising policies like the expected return of the NYPD plainclothes unit that he said delivered devastating, racially biased outcomes to Black and brown communities.
“We don’t want a change in the complexion, we want a change in the direction,” he added, a comment aimed at the history-making moment that was unfolding.
In her remarks, Adams made the case that representation is vital to how the city is governed and pledged to use that diversity to the benefit of her members and New Yorkers.
Adams ultimately secured the speakership with 49 votes. She is expected to name her entire leadership team in the coming days. Those named Thursday include Diana Ayala as deputy speaker, Keith Powers as majority leader, and Brooks-Powers as majority whip.
Republican Council Member Joseph Borelli was elected as the minority leader, who publicly congratulated the new leader.
While much of the gallery in the council chamber was kept empty in light of the current omicron surge, several former council speakers attended the swearing-in, including former Speakers Corey Johnson and Melissa Mark-Viverito. Other dignitaries also in attendance were U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, head of the Queens County Democrats, City Comptroller Brad Lander, Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.
Former Speaker Christine Quinn, who joined Adams along with former Speaker Gifford Miller for a Zoom call on Monday, said the incoming speaker came prepared with questions about how she could involve her members in developing the agenda to ensure the council operated as an inclusive and transparent body.
In terms of working with Mayor Adams, Quinn said she thought the city was lucky to have two elected officials with strong opinions about how the city should move forward.
“They are going to find that when they are adversaries, they are both equally formidable,” said Quinn. “And what’s going to happen in those situations is, they may not come to an agreement, but they are two people who want to make the city better so they will agree to disagree and move on.”
Mark-Viverito, who served with Adams, described her as a thoughtful, inclusive leader who would respect her colleagues and would actively engage with them when it came to making decisions.
“I am even more excited to see her lead the first majority women council,” said Mark-Viverito, “I am over the moon, actually.”