The mayoral candidate has lived in the public eye since his first run for office in 1989. Amid all the press releases and policy reports, and plenty of posturing and politics, here are ten episodes where he really had a chance to stand up for what he believed.
For 32 years, across 12 elections for five different offices, Scott Stringer has lived his life in the public realm. His 2010 wedding was held in Connecticut in solidarity with same-sex couples who were then barred from marrying in the Empire State. When he was inaugurated as comptroller on a frosty New Year’s Day in 2014, aides had to sprint across the stage to stop one of his twin infant sons from diving into the crowd. Last year, his mother succumbed to COVID-19, and Stringer has relived some of the details of that parting at candidate forums.
Stringer’s argument for being mayor is based around his extensive public resume (“a lifetime of experience uniquely prepares Scott Stringer to lead New York City out of crisis,” his website proclaims) and that long personal visibility. His TV ads show him getting ready for work, his wife waking up the kids before dawn, tender moments with his grieving stepfather. “For me, this is personal,” is the tagline for all the spots so far. The message seems to be: What you see is what you get.
But, really, what do we get?
No incoming mayor has ever entered City Hall with more years of experience as an elected official than Stringer would bring. That’s generated a sea of articles, interviews, news releases, press conferences, issue reports and policy proposals. But while those artifacts reveal something about a candidate’s priorities and thinking, they do not tell us what kind of mayor she or he will be.
The final grade on Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty will not rest chiefly on his policy ideas, or even his much-derided managerial style. The verdict of history will also weigh the moral choices that underlay the particulars of his performance. Did he protect the vulnerable against the powerful? Did he put city above self? Did he risk political survival to pursue what was right?
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Over the past month, Stringer’s private morality has been under scrutiny more than his public record. Former campaign volunteer Jean Kim’s allegations of sexual misconduct led multiple elected officials and advocacy groups to withdraw their endorsements of Stringer (although one such endorser, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, has since expressed regret about his quick decision to pull support). While the veracity of some elements of Kim’s story has been called into doubt, and no one has aired additional allegations of sexual misconduct, several people have come forward to allege that Stringer had been vindictive behind the scenes over political differences and perceived slights. Some former Stringer staffers complained to City & State about his temper.
But others told reporter Jeff Coltin that Stringer was not an especially difficult boss—at least compared with other pols. A person who ran against Stringer in an earlier race told City Limits “he was not the nicest opponent” (he wasn’t especially gracious, for instance, if the two ran into each other on the street) but was notably cordial and generous toward his former rival in the years after their contest.
Accusations about what occurred behind the scenes are always difficult to litigate, for obvious reasons. What’s more, while unwelcome sexual advances are a clear and grave wrong, some of the other allegations about nastiness on Stringer’s part fall into grayer territory. For centuries, political philosophers have wrestled with the question of whether it is right to do bad things in pursuit of good goals. Is it more important to be a nice guy to your staff, or to do the right thing for the public? Can you be a bastard in private and still make the world a better place?
Occasionally, however, an episode occurs where the choices that matter occur more or less out in the open. In Stringer’s career so far, there have been a few instances where New Yorkers have obtained a glimpse of the man behind the suit and the spectacles. His motives were not always clear, and the final moral calculus is in the eye of the beholder, but these are a few of them:
Voting Against Megan’s Law: In July 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor in Hamilton Township, N.J., who had been convicted twice before of sexual assault of young girls. After the killing, the little girl’s parents became national advocates for publicly available registries of sex offenders. The crusade became part of a wave of “tough on crime” legislation, the “three strikes” laws in Washington state and California and the 1994 federal crime bill. By mid-1995, 47 states had such registries.
For all their popularity, the registries had critics. Some questioned the legality of imposing a lifetime of punishment on people who had completed their prison sentences, and who had committed a wide range of offenses and displayed varying degrees of dangerousness. Others wondered at the fairness of singling out one type of criminal for perpetual, public humiliation. Some worried that the registries might drive sex offenders further underground, where they might avoid treatment, unfairly harm their families or facilitate vigilantism. Others believed the registries offered a false sense of security to parents, whose children—statistics indicate—have more to fear from people known to them than from the creepy stranger down the street.
When the New York State Assembly took up Megan’s Law in 1995, the measure passed by a vote of 140-9. Among the few opponents was Scott Stringer. ”I find it frightening that we’re setting up a precedent for 900-numbers, where you can call up and find this information,” he told newspapers. ”Where does it stop?” The Associated Press reported that Stringer “said he voted against the bill because he feared it was unconstitutional, and believes it will be struck down by New York’s top court.” (Three years later, Stringer also voted against Jenna’s Law—a measure backed by Gov. George Pataki that would deny parole even to first-time violent offenders. He once again found himself in the stark minority: The bill passed 128 to 20.)
Subsequent research has found little evidence that sex registries prevent sexual assault. As a legislator from ultra-liberal Manhattan, Stringer probably risked less of a political blowback from taking a stand against Megan’s Law than most other elected officials would have. But he certainly took some risk on principle, as it is always easier for a pol to be tough on crime than smart about it.
It was not a position he stuck to, however. When his opposition to Megan’s Law briefly became an issue in his 2013 campaign for comptroller, a spokeswoman told the press: “Scott Stringer fully supports Megan’s Law and voted 19 times to strengthen the state’s Sex Offender Registry.”
Getting arrested over Amadou Diallo: Stringer was among the first public officials to submit to arrest at protests outside One Police Plaza over the 1999 killing of unarmed vendor Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down in a hail of bullets by the NYPD Street Crimes Unit.
The protest arrest could be seen merely as a form of political posturing—a symbolic move with little cost to Stringer and no substantive impact. Civil disobedience over the Diallo slaying quickly became a cause célèbre. But it’s worth noting that Stringer got pinched before State Comptroller Carl McCall, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan BP Ruth Messinger or Bronx lawmakers Jeffrey Dinowitz or Jeffrey Klein (yes, that Jeff Klein), all of whom submitted to arrest the following week. Stringer was at that point probably eyeing a run for public advocate in 2001, but not every ’01 candidate thought protesting the NYPD was good politics: Mark Green, a harsh critic of policing in the Giuliani era and a 2001 mayoral candidate, did not get arrested at the protests.
Denouncing the KKK and Defending its Right to March: In 1999, when the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan announced their intent to stage a protest in downtown Manhattan, Mayor Rudy Giuliani moved to block the event, using the pretext of an ancient city ordinance against the wearing of masks that hooded Klansmen would technically violate.
Stringer organized one of two counter-rallies, but he acknowledged the Klan’s Constitutional right to spew hate, noting, “even hate groups as despicable as the KKK have a First Amendment right to peacefully express their views.” He even offered to share a sound system with the Knights in order to neuter a Giuliani administration argument citing logistical objections against permitting the dueling events. Legendary civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel ended up representing both the Klan and Stringer’s group in pressuring the city to grant protest permits.
Some on the left wanted to block the Klan from coming altogether, so Stringer took some risk in voicing his simultaneous support for racial justice and civil liberties. According to the New York Beacon, Labor Black League Spokesman Ed Kartsen, who was helping to organize the other anti-Klan rally, said, “Stringer’s rally is an attempt by Democratic Party politicians to hoodwink the working people of this city and to sabotage any independent mobilization of labor aimed at stopping their deadly Klan enemies.”
Sticking with Silver: Six years into his 21-year stint as Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver faced down a coup attempt in 2000 by a group of Democratic legislators who chafed at the absolute power Silver wielded over committees, legislation and party posts and the access lobbyists had to his office. Led by upstate legislator Michael Bragman, the rebels demanded procedural reforms as well as Silver’s ouster. Within a matter of days, the coup fizzled, and its leader was stripped of leadership assignments and staff.
Stringer sided with Silver. Hindsight shines an unfavorable light on this move. Silver, his standing eroded by his terrible handling of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal, ended up forced out of office by corruption charges in 2015 and was eventually sent to federal prison. His conduct helped stain the state, the party and public service. Stringer couldn’t have predicted the full measure of damage Silver would do, but there were already well-known concerns in 2000 about how Silver did business.
However, ethics weren’t the only factors in the 2000 debate over Silver’s speakership. Bragman’s personal ambition made some suspicious, and Silver’s ouster would have shifted power from the city to upstate. Stringer himself cited ideological reasons for backing Silver against Bragman, saying he did not want a ”a pro-gun, anti-tenant speaker.” The episode seems to reflect Stringer’s strong and deep roots in the Democratic Party establishment, which favors steady service over bold expressions of independence. However, Stringer’s campaign—which did not make the candidate available for an interview—notes that Stringer was a vocal advocate for reforming the way the Assembly did business, putting forward one of the first comprehensive reform packages well before Stringer’s ultimate demise.
The Ground Zero mosque: In 2010, controversy erupted over plans to build Cordoba House, a 15-story building containing a mosque and Islamic cultural center, 600 feet from where the World Trade Center had stood. Among the opponents was Felicia Chillak from the Conservative Society for Action, who told the Epoch Times newspaper: “I believe building a mosque near ground zero is like building a crematorium near Auschwitz.” Michael Caputo, who was then working for hard-right gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, accused mosque-supporter Michael Bloomberg of “fast-tracking this desecration of the district where thousands of Americans were murdered.” But it wasn’t just right-wing zealots who were opposed to the mosque. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League was against it, as was the father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Elie Wiesel wanted an “interfaith” center built instead.
Stringer did sometimes seem to want it both ways, saying at one point during the controversy, “What we really need is a dialogue that facilitates community healing. Real New Yorkers need to be consulted as this project moves forward, and that includes families who lost their loved ones on 9/11.” But for the most part, Stringer was a vocal and visible supporter of the mosque, jousting with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, and debating Michel Faulkner on Hardball. “For anyone to imply that a mosque is not appropriate in New York … that is just an un-American attitude,” he told the Daily News. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure this mosque does get opened and people have the right to assemble there and practice their religion.”
The term limits vote: Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to extend term limits in 2008 was that rare moment when virtually every elected official in the city had to stand up and answer a question about what they believed in.
It was not a simple question. Term limits are practically and politically problematic. That they had been engineered in New York City by a billionaire also raised red flags. But the public had clearly expressed its support for the limits that were in place in 2008. Bloomberg put forward a self-serving rationale for seeking the change, and was clearly going to spend ungodly amounts of money getting himself reelected if given a chance for a third term. The mayor’s unseemly tactics during the Council debate about the term-limits change—strong-arming Councilmembers, calling in nonprofits he personally supported to lobby for the change, rallying an army of elites like Henry Kissinger to back the effort—also did not reflect well on his quest to extend term limits without going back to the voters.
Yet Stringer supported Bloomberg’s bid. He told a City Council committee considering the change:
I ask that you return to the fundamental issue at hand. Would this Council, this mayoralty, this city government, and the people of New York be better off with their elected officials serving a maximum of 12 years instead of the current eight? On this, I believe there is wide agreement. By any measure, 12 is better. You know from first-hand experience, the cost of the current system. With a two-year term limit, this is what happens. You arrive in office, and spend time learning the ropes. You build relationships, you figure out how to navigate the complexities of government to get things done on behalf of your constituents. There’s the challenge of the first reelection, and then around year six in office, you find that people are not so quick to return your calls or listen to your constituents’ concerns. The permanent government and lobbyists that are here before we arrive in office, and after we leave, know the score. They know that it’s time to focus on the next person to fill those chairs you’re sitting in today. Your time to do big things for the people who elected you is so short, it’s almost over before it begins, and that’s the truth.
The term limits extension might have had practical benefits for Stringer: It made it slightly more likely that he could run for citywide office in 2013 without facing an incumbent, since most city officeholders would be expected to hold their current seats rather than running for higher office in 2009. At the same time, by taking the pro-extension position, Stringer—who had to that point been a pretty consistent critic of Bloomberg—put himself in the politically awkward position of siding with the billionaire Republican mayor against Bill de Blasio, Letitia James and others on the left. The bad politics of the move suggests it was more about principle than positioning.
In a 2013 debate for comptroller, Stringer defended his position. “I’ve never supported term limits. I think elections are about democracy. I like the fact that we could have a campaign-finance system to encourage more people to run. Voters should decide who’s elected,” he said. What’s more, Stringer insisted, he did everything possible to prevent Bloomberg from actually winning. “Nobody worked harder to stop Bloomberg’s third term than me. I walked the streets with [Democratic nominee] Billy Thompson. We went to the senior centers. We did the kind of work necessary.” (Former Comptroller Thompson confirms to City Limits that Stringer did work hard for him in 2009.)
After Bloomberg won the 2009 election, he empaneled a charter revision commission to, among other things, address the lingering questions about term limits. Stringer submitted a 76-page set of recommendations to that commission. Despite the strong feelings he’d expressed on the topic in 2008, his submission never mentioned term limits.
The 2014 Gaza War: Like many local politicians, Stringer has long been a vocal supporter of Israel. He took that support to a new level amid the bloody 2014 war in Gaza, joining a rally on July 28 of that year in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.
“We cannot take no for an answer. What’s at stake—what’s at stake is the survival of Israel. It has never been more complicated than it is right now. More dangerous, right now,” he said. “And we have a case that we have to make. Because if we can’t beat the terrorists, and they win, shame on all of us. Let’s fight back, let’s be angry, let’s really give it to them the way we should. We are in the right.”
Middle Eastern politics are, one might say, complicated. Israel had pretty legitimate reasons for using force in 2014, after Palestinian militants captured three young Israeli soldiers. The bloodshed was, however, incredibly unequal: Some 2,000 Palestinians and 72 Israelis died in the conflict. Later reports by Amnesty International presented evidence of war crimes by both sides.
At least in the videos that are available online, Stringer’s speech at the rally did not suggest the slightest concern for innocent Palestinian civilians who were being caught up in Israeli strikes. At a time when many were praying for peace, Stringer called for more war.
Closing Rikers Island: In July 2014, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York Times separately issued devastating reports about the horrifying conditions in the Rikers Island jails complex, particularly those confronting detainees and inmates with mental illness. A month later, journalist Neil Barsky penned a high-profile op-ed advocating a radical idea: the closure of one of the most infamous penal colonies in the United States.
Later that fall, Stringer became the first public official to call for shuttering the jail. Soon, other officials followed suit. In mid-2017, de Blasio jumped on board just before a commission launched by then-Council Speaker Melissa-Mark Viverito recommended shutting down the multiple jails on the island.
It’s easy to dismiss Stringer’s move as politically savvy and safe: By mid-2015 it seemed clear that the criminal-justice reform movement was going to demand deeper reforms than what de Blasio had achieved to that point, so it was smart to be on the leading edge. And as comptroller, Stringer bore no responsibility for figuring out how to replace Rikers and getting those plans approved and funded; those would be de Blasio’s problem. And that’s only if the mayor actually agreed to closure: Stringer might have wagered de Blasio would never do so.
Still, Stringer’s move was not without political peril. Had crime spiked in 2016 or 2017, he might have been left holding a politically untenable position. And Stringer must have anticipated that, if Rikers actually was ordered closed, much of the work to implement the policy would fall to the next mayor, which he certainly planned to be. Indeed, if Stringer wins the mayoralty, the task of keeping incarceration low enough to permit Rikers’ closure and opening the new borough jails will fall to him.
Not running for mayor in 2017: Stringer has effectively been running for mayor since late 2009. After he won his second term as Manhattan borough president that year, he began raising money for a 2013 shot at City Hall. He was officially a mayoral candidate until November 2012, when he switched to the comptroller race.
Once he won the city’s No. 3 post he went after the new mayor with a vengeance, issuing scathing audits related to the city’s child-welfare system, technology projects, homelessness programs, school overcrowding and—that most sacred of de Blasio’s cows—universal prekindergarten. Meanwhile, the mayor was weakened by controversies, feuds and investigations. By August of his first year in office, polls showed New Yorkers disapproving of de Blasio by a 51 percent to 42 percent margin. Bradley Tusk, the lobbyist who had run Mike Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign and is now leading Andrew Yang’s effort, began openly searching for someone to challenge de Blasio in 2017, and he was not the only one looking for an alternative. Stringer openly contemplated running.
And then … he didn’t. By February of 2017, Stringer was telling interviewers he would be seeking reelection to the comptroller’s office. He often, in the same breath, went back to criticizing de Blasio for being such a lousy mayor.
Challenging a sitting mayor, especially a fellow Democrat, would have taken a good amount of chutzpah. De Blasio was a strong fundraiser who still had plenty of friends, as well as the powers of incumbency. But Stringer was no fundraising slouch either, and had already won a citywide primary against a big name. He was arguably the only Democrat with a chance to take de Blasio out.
Stringer’s 2021 campaign is based on the idea that he is the man we need now to repair the mistakes of the de Blasio era. Had Stringer shown the courage of his convictions and run in 2017, he might have spared New York the problems that have dogged the mayor’s second term.
Stringer’s campaign says the 2017 mayoral race would not have been winnable, and that their candidate decided to remain in a post where he could at least monitor de Blasio and expose his mistakes and excesses.
Battling the IDC: Stringer in 2018 threw his support behind several progressive candidates seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic senators who had been part of the Independent Democratic Conference—the breakaway group of Democrats who had joined forces with Republicans to run the upper house of the legislature since 2013. In backing Robert Jackson over Marisol Alcantara, John Liu over Tony Avella, Alessandra Biaggi versus Klein and Jessica Ramos over Jose Peralta, Stringer emboldened a growing progressive movement that Gov. Cuomo had hoped to tame by brokering a truce between IDC and mainline Democrats earlier in the year. Had the move backfired—and there was no guarantee that the remnants of the IDC would suffer as devastating a loss in the 2018 primary as they did—Stringer would have made very powerful enemies.
The move did make him friends—at least temporarily. “We will remember where people have been at on these big fights,” Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, told the New York Times when Stringer endorsed Jackson and Ramos in March of 2018. New York Communities for Change endorsed Stringer for mayor, as did Biaggi and Ramos. All three rescinded their endorsements after the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced.