Sitting on the ledge of a playground in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, Gregg Vance had just overheard two adult basketball players say they weren’t plugged into the mayoral race.

“You don’t know who’s running?” he said in disbelief.  

Vance, a 72-year-old ex-basketball coach, is well aware that there’s a primary coming up. He knows all about ranked-choice voting. His ballot is pretty much already filled out. He estimated that he’s seen his first-choice, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, visit the neighborhood around eight times.

Vance is but one example of why the area of southeast Queens, a bastion for the city’s Black middle class, is considered a critical voting bloc. The neighborhood, which is often described as “voter rich” and tends to lean moderate, accounts for almost a quarter of the total citywide Black electorate.

“Whether it's a presidential candidate, or if it is a state or local election, everybody comes through southeast Queens,” said I. Daneek Miller, the City Council member who represents the district.

During the 2013 primary, Bill de Blasio got a boost by winning both southeast Queens and central Brooklyn—another significant area of Black voters—on an aggressive critique of stop-and-frisk policing that was brought to life in a memorable ad starring his son Dante. 

Now, on the heels of the "defund" the police movement and escalating gun violence, Black voters will once again be tested on where they stand on policing, an issue that affects them disproportionately and which has surfaced sharp ideological differences between the leading candidates. Recent polls have showed that voters in general are most worried about public safety and crime.

Read More: "Defund" The NYPD: What It Means And Where Democratic Mayoral Candidates Stand On It

Adams, a former NYPD officer, possesses a distinct advantage over his rivals in southeast Queens. His childhood in south Jamaica as the son of a single working-class mother represents a path of upward mobility that feels familiar to residents, many of whom are civil servants. He has so far vastly out-raised his rivals in the area, amassing nearly $138,000 going back to 2018. The only candidate who has come close is Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, who raised less than $10,000, albeit within the last few months.  

With Adams topping several recent polls, there are signs that voters who helped elect an anti-stop-and-frisk mayor are gravitating toward a pro-policing candidate. As a police officer and state senator, Adams criticized the city’s illegal implementation of stop-and-frisk, but he has also argued that the tactic can still be effective when used properly. Under his proposal to restore public safety, he has called for the return of a controversial plainclothes unit of officers, a surge of police officers on the subways, and random spot-checks for guns at Port Authority.

All of these measures make critics of policing nervous about the potential for abuse and racial profiling. A 2020 report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that Black New Yorkers were arrested and stopped at twice the overall citywide rate between 2003 and 2018.

But fundraising and endorsements suggest that Adams has been well-received in Black communities. Some say that reflects both the growing anxiety around violent crime in New York City, which has surged to the highest levels since 2011—and the complexity of the Black electorate. 

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“The way the left thinks about policing doesn't necessarily correspond with how people in communities of color feel about policing,” said Kimberely Johnson, a political science professor at New York University who studies urban politics. “It’s not that they don't want police, they don’t want abusive policing.” 

None of this, of course, comes as news to Adams.

“I am defying the logic of what people think Black folks want in this city,” he said last week during an interview. “Because here it is: I'm an ex-police officer, fought for reform, believe in these progressive values, yet I'm not succumbing to what is the loudest voice in the room because I've been on the ground and I know what people are saying they want.”

Progressive candidates, however, are sharpening their policy knives against Adams. Maya Wiley, a former civil rights attorney and former de Blasio counsel, has intensified her criticism of the way resources are deployed by the 36,000-member NYPD. 

Wiley has pledged to cut $1 billion from the police budget and use the money for social services that she says will address the root causes of gun violence.  

That case will likely be amplified by Democratic Party’s most influential progressive, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Wiley over the weekend in an event at City Hall Park.

“We understand that the best way to bring down crime is by making sure that people have the mental health support, employment, and housing that they need,” Ocasio-Cortez said to the crowd. “This isn’t just conjecture. This isn’t just partisan politics. It’s the data.”

Read More: Where Do Mayoral Candidates Stand On The Future Of Policing?

How these dueling messages land with Black voters will likely break down according to class, generation, and national origin, said John Mollenkopf, a political science professor at CUNY.

In southeast Queens, for example, Mollenkopf said Adams can be expected to perform well among blue-collar service workers. But he argued that the verdict was still out for a large swath of more highly educated professionals, especially women, in the social service and healthcare industries who tend to be knowledgeable about politics and policy. Wiley also benefited from the early backing of Local 1199, whose more than 200,000 health care workers make it the city’s largest union. The group, which has been credited with having a sophisticated voter outreach operation, endorsed de Blasio in 2013.

“We don't know how well Maya Wiley is beaming into those constituencies,” Mollenkopf said. 

Michael Lambert, a 56-year-old political consultant in Queens Village, sees the race as boiling down to a more emotional exercise. Voters in southeastern Queens, he argued, tend to gravitate toward Adams because his lived experience was recognizable to them. 

Another Black candidate, former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire who is originally from Dayton, Ohio, has also spent a lot of time campaigning in southeastern Queens, and frequently talks about his own struggle with race and poverty. But Lambert said the difference is that “Eric struggled here.”

This week, however, where Adams currently resides has come into question, where despite owning a home in Bed-Stuy, it appears he may be also be spending time at his New Jersey condo.

Kids in St. Albans participated in a rollerskating event hosted by Councilmember I. Daneek Miller on Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, residents trickled into St. Alban’s playground for a roller-skating event organized by Councilmember Miller’s office. The lighthearted scene that unfolded—of adults hugging one another and kids wobbling and giggling on their skates—was yet another sign of the city’s post-pandemic reopening and the return of this tight-knit suburban community. 

Miller, who is supporting Adams, spoke of the trap that some political candidates fall into by looking at Black communities as monolithic. Generic talking points about poverty don’t work with voters in southeast Queens, he said. The area boasts higher average annual household incomes than other Black neighborhoods. In the section consisting of Rosedale, Cambria Heights, Queens Village, Bellrose, and Glen Oaks, households make an average of $117,000 a year, according to census data. Only about a quarter of residents in the area rent.

At the same time, the councilman said that the covid crisis had revealed how communities of color get hit the same way through a lack of investment. “Nearly two thirds of the people have private health insurance, but we don't have hospitals,” he said. 

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Miller said his office planned to undertake a get-out-the-vote effort this week and would continue to urge voters to take advantage of their ranked-choice ballot. 

Despite a vocal pro-Adams contingent, some in the community are still on the fence.

Just a few days away from early voting, one St. Albans resident named Penny was unequivocal about her priorities, which she listed as crime, equality, and education. Nonetheless, she said she had yet to make her mind up about the candidates. 

“It's going to be a tough one,” she said.

David Cruz contributed reporting.