The New York City Council is undergoing a dramatic rebalance of power as a growing cadre of Democrats refuses to sign on to an effort by progressive members to redefine the priorities of their powerful political caucus, which includes a renewed call to decrease police funding.
Over the last week, the Progressive Caucus has lost nine of its original 35 members, according to Emily Mayer, the caucus’s political director. Speaker Adrienne Adams is a member of all nine of the Council’s recognized caucuses by default.
The departures, first reported by the New York Post and Politico, began after the caucus asked members to sign a new “statement of principles” that included a sentence about policing that read: “We will do everything we can to reduce the size and scope of the NYPD and the Department of Correction, and prioritize and fund alternative safety infrastructure that truly invests in our communities.”
Councilmembers have until Friday to decide whether they want to sign the statement.
The shakeup comes at a critical time for the Council, which had been billed as the most progressive in city history. The Council, which is currently made up of 45 Democrats and six Republicans, is now entering budget talks with Mayor Eric Adams, a centrist Democrat who has expanded policing.
The caucus has the ability to vote as a bloc, and can potentially serve as a counterweight to the mayor. But with a reduced headcount, progressives will have less bargaining power.
The changing membership of the caucus reflects the struggle among Democrats to agree on a set of progressive values as well as how to address police reform in the wake of the killing of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who was beaten by five Memphis police officers and later died.
In an interview with Gothamist on Wednesday, leaders of the caucus argued that the newly defined mission statement would better equip them to fight the mayor on his $103 billion budget proposal. They argued that police reform needs to be at the forefront of their negotiations with the administration.
“Many of us, if not all, represent communities where the police apparatus is the response we know,” said Shahana Hanif, a Brooklyn councilmember who co-chairs the caucus. “And we must be challenging that narrative right now.”
Left-leaning Democrats have criticized Adams for making cuts to schools, libraries and social programs while leaving the NYPD’s more than $5 billion budget relatively untouched.
Some progressives have argued that the size of the caucus — which had grown to its largest membership in history — is ultimately less important than its unity. For example, last year’s budget, which included school cuts, passed the Council without much protest despite the outsized number of members who called themselves progressives.
A smaller but better defined caucus would make the Council’s progressives “more effective” and “more ideologically cohesive,” said Lincoln Restler, a co-chair who also represents Brooklyn and has been a vocal critic of the mayor.
He described the language around NYPD funding as boiling down to “what are the best investments for us to make.”
As an example, he cited a proposal to move school safety out of the NYPD budget and instead fund training for guidance counselors or other school professionals.
“That has a direct impact on the NYPD budget,” he said.
Going forward, members of the Progressive Caucus will be required to attend a minimum number of meetings as well as agree to co-sponsor 75% of the group’s legislative proposals. Prior to the new rules, those who wished to join the Progressive Caucus only needed to be approved by a two-thirds majority of prior members.
But the process to clarify the caucus’ priorities has sparked resentment from some members.
On Wednesday, the Daily News reported unnamed caucus members as saying they would not sign the statement as long as the language on police reform remained unchanged.
All of the councilmembers are up for re-election this year, and several are expected to face difficult challenges. Although the politics of the districts are varied, many political experts expect public safety to remain a top concern for voters.
Bronx Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez – who already faces several challengers for her seat this year – confirmed to Gothamist that she was leaving.
“The commitment to the recent changes of the new statement of principles and caucus bylaws was just not something I could agree to,” Velázquez said in a statement. “My focus is on passing good legislation, including with Progressive Caucus members, that prioritizes our communities and city as a whole. My priority is not partisan politics, but to serve the people I represent.”
Four other councilmembers — Justin Brannan of Brooklyn, Keith Powers and Shaun Abreu of Manhattan, and Lynn Schulman of Queens — told Politico they will not sign the new mission statement.
Leaders of the Progressive Caucus declined to identify the other departing members. A website for the caucus has not been updated to reflect the exits from the group.
Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez, a vice chair of the caucus who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said she was taken aback by the outcry among some members. The process began last fall, and the new statement of principles was adopted in early January with a two-thirds vote by the members present at the meeting.
She said the decision to rewrite the bylaws of the caucus was made transparent and that there was ample outreach and opportunity for discussion.
“There were members that are in the caucus that have still never shown up to meetings,” Gutiérrez said. “And we’re still calling them.”