While more moderate candidates are gaining steam in the heated race for New York City mayor, as talk of criminal justice reform gets overshadowed by spikes in gun violence and hate crimes, there’s an effort underway in City Council races to promote candidates who promise to push issues of police reform to the political left.

Neighborhoods such as Soundview in the Bronx, Stapleton on Staten Island, and Kew Gardens in Queens, have candidates for City Council pledging to reduce the budget of the New York Police Department and invest that money in social services. They’re backed by left-leaning groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, and Black Lives Matter organizers. Some have no institutional backing at all, but still support the demands of demonstrators who flooded New York City streets last summer demanding a reduction to the NYPD’s budget among other changes.

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With hundreds of candidates running for City Council and many wide-open races with multiple opponents gunning for each seat—en masse, the left-leaning legislators could shift the balance of power and pressure the new mayor to enact their vision if enough of them win.

“We want to make sure we have a City Council who willfully lean into the potential of that role,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York State chapter of the Working Families Party, and “[to] be a real stick in the side of a mayor who is unwilling to move in that same direction.”

Nnaemeka said the WFP backed two dozen Council candidates, all of whom support reductions in the NYPD budget and would push for change on other hot-button police issues like removing police from the city’s public schools and overhauling the emergency response to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

More than 30 Council candidates signed a pledge from the local DSA chapter to oppose a city budget that didn’t reduce the NYPD budget by $1.5 billion each year during their first two years in office.

And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio’s-Cortez’s political action committee, Courage to Change, is expected to endorse a slate of left-leaning City Council candidates in the coming days based on how they answered survey questions, including if they would support reducing the NYPD budget by $3 billion.

How the issue is playing in the local districts varies, with several of the WFP slate of candidates competing in more centrist or right-leaning districts. Teacher Felicia Singh is running for Republican Eric Ulrich’s seat that spans parts of southeastern Queens and Juan Ardila, who works at the Legal Aid Society, is running against incumbent Councilmember Robert Holden, a Democrat who ran on the Republican line.

Amoy Barnes, who is running for a Council seat on the North Shore of Staten Island, said she supported diverting police resources to invest in communities like hers but she did not like to use the term “defund” because it was too polarizing.

“It creates divisiveness among people. It forces people to choose and it doesn’t give people a clear understanding of the root cause and how we solve the issue,” she said. “It really does come down to resources.”

The Black Lives Caucus, a group affiliated with Black Lives Matter Greater New York, is also pushing for left-leaning council members to reduce the NYPD’s budget. Co-founder Hawk Newsome said the group conducted about 100 interviews, whittling the list down to 18 candidates running in 15 districts in all boroughs except Staten Island.

“If six in 10 of our candidates get elected, we have a stronghold in City Hall,” Newsome said. “We have a caucus that could cause real trouble and make real progress in City Hall. That’s power. For us, it’s about power.”

A handful of Council contenders are mounting viable campaigns without organizational support. Kristin Richardson Jordan, a poet and third-generation Harlem resident, is running as an abolitionist. She said last summer’s protests around racism and police brutality jumpstarted what she said started as a “fledgling, obscure” campaign.

“When people weren’t willing to talk in a place about it before, they are now in a place because of George Floyd, that they are willing to have the conversation,” she said.

Richardson has amassed more campaign donations than any other candidate in a race that pits her against a half dozen rivals, including incumbent Councilmember Bill Perkins who is reportedly suffering from disorientation and memory loss.

And on the other end of the spectrum, Edwin Raymond, an active NYPD Lieutenant who is running for city council in Central Brooklyn, is also running on a platform that includes reinvestment of police funds.

“It’s about better money management,” he said. One area Raymond sees for potential budget savings is removing uniformed officers from work that civilians can do just as well. It’s similar to a plan proposed by mayoral candidate Eric Adams. Raymond points to crime analysis teams in precincts across the city staffed by uniformed officers who are paid way more than civilian workers doing the same job, but aren’t responding to emergencies or solving crimes. “I’ve watched people on overtime sleeping [in the precinct]. I know exactly how to shave hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Defund/divest movement is a relatively hot topic right now. People are incorporating it into their platforms,” said Chi Ossé, a candidate in the race for District 36 in Central Brooklyn and an organizer with the group Warriors in the Garden which led large marches last summer.

But he questioned whether all the candidates who’ve voiced support for divestment from the NYPD will be willing to fight for it once the bitter budget battles begin, pointing out that at least one of his rivals received donations from police unions in a previous election cycle.

“I’m not sure how serious people are [on] the issue, especially when it comes to actual numbers,” Ossé said

There’s also the question of how much power the City Council has overall, with the City Charter granting wide power to the mayor, according to Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College.

“If the Council elections are skewed towards more liberal candidates then you’ll see more conflict with a centrist mayor,” Muzzio said. “Particularly if the progressives have a veto-proof majority, then the mayor can be in real trouble.”

With a spike in gun violence—76% more shooting victims than by this same time last year— and a slew of random anti-Asian attacks, many New Yorkers are on edge, leading to a change in tone in both the mayor’s race and down-ballot local races.

“Public safety has quickly surfaced in virtually every political conversation that we see and that’s community after community,” said Scott Levinson, a political strategist with the Advance Group. “I don’t think it’s rich or poor. I don’t think it’s Black or white. Jewish communities, African-American communities, Asian communities are all concerned about crime issues.”

In the City Council district in Queens that includes Astoria, East Elmhurst Jackson Heights, and Woodside, personal injury lawyer John Ciafone is running against DSA-endorsed public defender Tiffany Caban with a message that pits the groups on either side of the police reform debate against each other.

“Law enforcement has been demonized and candidates are running to handcuff and eliminate the police,” Ciafone said on his campaign website. “The Socialist/Communist Agenda will destroy businesses and homeowners in our community.”

Others candidates are pushing back with a less divisive tone. Neng Wang, running in District 20 which includes Flushing, stressed the importance of “law and order” on his campaign website. Linda Lee, one of several candidates vying for Barry Grodenchik’s seat in eastern Queens, said outright on her website: “I do not support ‘defund the police’” and then listed a handful of police reforms she would support.

Still, progressive activists like Jawanza Williams with the group VOCAL-NY said they were optimistic about the slate of candidates running for City Council.

“We’re building something beyond optics, beyond surface-level politics. We’re building grassroots movements,” said Williams, who camped outside City Hall last summer demanding reductions to the NYPD budget. “We are up against a machine of unimaginable proportions and we’re going to win. I just feel a sense of hope.”

Early voting starts on June 12th. Primary Day is June 22nd. Learn more about the upcoming elections here.

(This article has been updated to include statements from City Council candidate Edwin Raymond.)