In a preview of potential Democratic battle lines in New York City, Adrienne Adams, the powerful speaker of the City Council, laid out her vision for the city on Wednesday, detailing an agenda that seemed to put her in conflict with Mayor Eric Adams.
In her second State of the City speech, Ms. Adams called forcefully for closing the Rikers Island jail complex by 2027, resisting attempts by the mayor to find ways to keep it open. Ms. Adams, a moderate Democrat from Queens, also pushed for rescuing the city’s popular preschool program for 3-year-olds and expanding a discount MetroCard program for poor New Yorkers.
Ms. Adams, the first Black woman to serve as speaker, said that her mother had worked as a correction officer on Rikers Island and believed that the jail should have closed “a long time ago.”
“The conditions at Rikers are only creating harm for everyone there,” said Ms. Adams, who chose to give her speech at the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center in the Bronx. “Advancing the closure of Rikers is more urgent now than ever before — for both public safety and human rights.”
Ms. Adams and the City Council are already gearing up for a battle with the mayor about his budget cuts to libraries and other programs. The speaker has said that she would oppose cuts to key services and that the “Council has a different vision for our city.”
The Crisis on Rikers Island
Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s notorious jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.
Indeed, even within the 51-member Council, turmoil has been evident, as 15 members recently quit the Progressive Caucus over a debate about reducing the Police Department budget. The upcoming election cycle adds another element of volatility: Every member of the City Council is up for re-election this year, with the June 27 primary occurring around the time when a city budget deal is typically reached.
“There are some real primaries, and they’re going to be right when the budget is happening, so that dynamic will be interesting,” said Chris Coffey, a Democratic strategist. “You have folks who are trying to align with the mayor and then you have folks who want to show that they’re pushing the mayor from the left.”
Mr. Adams has argued for fiscal restraint as the city faces an uncertain financial outlook and substantial budget deficits in the coming years. Ms. Adams wants to avoid cutting programs that help working-class New Yorkers, and some budget experts say that the city’s finances are not as dire as the mayor has predicted.
Without criticizing the mayor by name, Ms. Adams repeated her opposition to his budget cuts on Wednesday, focusing on a theme of “People Over Everything.” Mr. Adams, who was seated in the audience, has proposed significant funding cuts across city agencies, including reducing the budget for 3-K by $567 million.
“Proposals in a speech are meaningless if they are not consistent with budget decisions,” she said. “Our budgets must match — investing in early childhood education programs like 3-K; our libraries as neighborhood resource hubs; our world-class CUNY institutions as centers of opportunity; and our city agencies and its workers who deliver essential services to our communities.”
Ms. Adams outlined proposals to improve economic mobility, housing and safety, though she did not mention policing and instead highlighted programs like supportive housing and mental health services. She urged the Department of Education to stabilize and expand the 3-K program and called for offering half-price MetroCards to New Yorkers with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level — a proposal that could nearly double the number of people who are eligible.
She also proposed building new apartment buildings in open spaces within public housing developments and vowed to address a staffing crisis in city government that has affected services like housing vouchers and food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“When a New Yorker can’t access their SNAP food benefits because of agency delays, a family is left hungry,” she said, calling it a “cruel reality.”
The mayor and the Council speaker, two of the most powerful Democrats in New York, are not related, but they were classmates at Bayside High School in Queens in the late 1970s. When Mr. Adams took office last year, they appeared to have a good relationship, even though the mayor supported a different candidate for speaker.
Over the last year, their relationship has soured after public disagreements over the mayor’s budget cuts to schools and his handling of the migrant crisis. Some Council members apologized for voting for the budget last June and vowed to take a stronger stance against the mayor’s budget reductions this year.
Mr. Adams said in a statement that Ms. Adams had outlined “a number of innovative and bold ideas to make our city even stronger” and called her a “true partner.” But he added that some of the programs would “likely result in significant new costs.”
“We look forward to discussing these and other proposals throughout the city budget process and working with the speaker to help secure additional investments from the state and federal government,” he said.
Asked about Ms. Adams’s comments regarding Rikers, a spokesman for the mayor, Fabien Levy, said: “This administration will always follow the law, and the law says the jails on Rikers Island must close on time.”
The City Council has a female majority for the first time, and Ms. Adams often highlights city programs that benefit women. She was introduced on Wednesday by Karina Castro, a working mother who recently returned to Hunter College through a program Ms. Adams has supported called CUNY Reconnect, which has helped 16,000 students to return to the City University of New York.
“CUNY Reconnect saw my potential,” Ms. Castro said. “They provided me the support that I needed and made it possible for me to pursue my dreams and go back to school to complete my degree.”