(L-R) New York City Council Members Adrienne Adams, Ydanis Rodriguez, Brad Lander and Speaker and Acting Public Advocate Corey Johnson at a news conference. – New York NY/USA-February 13, 2019 (Shutterstock)
By Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
City Council Member Adrienne Adams, a Democrat from Southeastern Queens, is poised to become the next Speaker of the City Council. Adams, who has represented District 28 since 2018, will be the first-ever Black Speaker of the 51-member legislative body and will lead the first-ever women-majority New York City Council.
The Speaker is one of only four elected officials with citywide authority besides the Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, and holds the powerful position of leading the city’s legislature, a co-equal branch to the executive. Though the Speaker will be elected in an internal vote by members in early January, the winner has already been decided in months of mostly backroom negotiations among elected officials, county party officials, labor unions, and other powerful figures, including Mayor-Elect Eric Adams (no relation).
In addition to her own vote, Adrienne Adams will need 25 members on her side, but, if previous Speaker votes are any indication, the vote will be unanimous or nearly so.
After a field of seven Speaker candidates, all Democrats, emerged, the race eventually became a two-way contest between Adams and Council Member Francisco Moya, also of Queens, and only after members of Mayor-elect Adams’ team attempted to mobilize votes behind Moya as the mayor-elect’s chosen candidate. The backlash was swift.
Adrienne Adams soon emerged as the favored candidate of 32BJ SEIU and DC37, two of the city’s most powerful labor unions representing property service workers and municipal employees, respectively. She was also backed by Democratic county party leaders in the Bronx and Queens, both of which remain influential in city politics even as they have had to become more attentive to the individual members of their delegations.
And, crucially, Adams gained support of most of the rest of the field of Speaker candidates, winning the backing of Council Members Justin Brannan, Diana Ayala, Keith Powers, and Gale Brewer. The seventh Speaker candidate, Council Member Carlina Rivera, remained independent. Other labor unions, including of nurses and communications workers, and women’s groups backed Adrienne Adams, as did a number of more independent Council members and members-elect from Manhattan and Brooklyn. In sum, Adams garnered support from over 30 colleagues to declare victory on Friday, December 17. She issued a list of 33 Council Members(-elect), including herself.
Adams, 61, was first elected to represent District 28, which includes the neighborhoods of Jamaica, Rochdale Village, Richmond Hill, and South Ozone Park, in 2017. She filled a seat that was left vacant by former Council Member Ruben Wills, who was expelled after being convicted on corruption charges, a conviction that has since been reversed on appeal.
Adams won a low turnout primary against two opponents and went on to handily win the general election that year. This year, Wills sought to reclaim his seat and, along with another candidate, challenged Adams in the Democratic primary. She again was the victor and sailed to reelection in the general election.
Adams grew up in Hollis, Queens, where she attended Bayside High School and was a classmate of Eric Adams. After graduation, she attended York College in New York, studying music theory for about a year and a half before switching her major to psychology. She then transferred to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia where she received a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
According to her LinkedIn, she had a long career in the corporate sector before she won elected office. Her involvement in politics, like many others in New York City, picked up steam as a member of her local community board, where she rose to chair.
In 2009, Adams had joined Community Board 12 in Queens and was the chair of its education committee for three years until the end of 2012, when she became chair of the board, a position she held until being elected to the Council in 2017. The board, under her leadership, was involved in ongoing protests against the building of new shelters in the district, pointing out that they were already overburdened with existing shelters (as DNAinfo reported, 10 out of 22 homeless shelters in Queens were located within Community Board 12 in 2014).
In the private sector, Adams was a field marketing specialist for MCI Telecommunications for nearly eight years between 1988 and 1996. She then worked as a regional business operations manager for Winstar Communications from 1997 to 2001. Between 2003 and 2006, she worked for InfoHighway Communications, as a corporate training manager and marketing communications manager. For one year after that, she was an independent training and marketing consultant before joining MedSave USA as manager of training and performance for six months. In 2010, she spent a short three-month stint as a program manager at Goldman Sachs.
Between 2011 and 2016, Adams was a child development associate instructor at TLL Consulting, Inc. while she continued her work on the community board. At the same time, she was also on the Board of Directors of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s IVY AKAdemy Day Care Center.
Between 2015 and 2016, she was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Queens Public Library. Later in 2016, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed her to the Local Planning Committee for the Jamaica Downtown Revitalization Initiative. She was previously the co-chair of the Jamaica NOW Leadership Council, which provided oversight of the redevelopment of downtown Jamaica.
In 2016, Adams unsuccessfully challenged then-State Senator James Sanders in the Democratic primary for the 10th District.
In 2017, when she first ran for Council, she told DNAinfo, “Community and service are not empty words, but are the principles that have guided my life.” She said her goal was “to improve the economic opportunity, transportation options, and overall quality of life in Rochdale, Jamaica, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.”
Appearing in a documentary series earlier this year called “Blaq Brilliance,” produced by Raleigh Hall, who runs Hallmarx music and is president at RSConsultworx, Adams shared more about her personal life than she has generally in public. She is a daughter of union workers. Her father drove long haul trucks for UPS and her mother was an officer in the New York City Department of Correction who retired as a captain. She is a mother of four adult children and a grandmother.
She spoke of her love of singing and her role models – Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Mahalia Jackson – and how she still “retreats into her music” from time to time, singing with friends online. She cited Diahann Carroll, who played the titular role of a nurse on the sitcom Julia from 1968 to 1971. “She was the first Black actress in a series who played a professional woman, not a maid, not a servant. She was a professional,” Adams said admiringly. “She really emanated such poise and grace and excellence and she brought that part of herself to that role when she became Julia. She brought that excellence into my living room…And it was absolutely marvelous to see what I could someday become,” she said.
She also spoke of her reasons for moving on from her corporate career. “When I gave up life in corporate America, several years ago, I gave it up because I wanted to dig deeper into my community and the prospects of the things that I could bring to my community,” she said. “I couldn’t do that in my other life, in my other world as a corporate trainer.”
What is clear from the interviews is her deep abiding faith. “I can do all things through Christ, not through me, but through Christ who strengthens me. So I know that I’m never alone. It’s Christ that strengthens me. He is the one. She is the one. They are the one,” she said in the documentary.
Adams’ membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority for Black women in America, was also a source of inspiration for her dedication to public service, she said. “This political thing really found me much later in life. And it found me through community service again, through a love of community, through what the sorority taught me and what the sorority means,” she said in the documentary interview. “Our basics and our basis is community service. And from that, people saw this thing in me. I never saw it in myself. So the whole political thing, it found me. I didn’t seek it.”
“I was born to do this work. I didn’t realize that I was born to do this work until about maybe five, ten years ago…I was born to do this work and every day, I can’t say it enough, I wake up on purpose with a purpose,” she added.
In her first term in the City Council, Adams has been the prime sponsor on 33 bills and seven resolutions. Of those, 15 bills have become law. They include legislation requiring the police department to report on traffic encounters; requiring annual financial disclosure from individuals with any interests in taxicab license; requiring reporting on demographic information for emergency removals by the Administration for Children’s Services; requiring reporting on arrests, summonses, removals, escorts and use of force incidents in Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration job centers and SNAP centers; and requiring the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to conduct an ongoing assessment of risk factors associated with sexual harassment, among others.
For the last year, Adams has chaired the Council’s Committee on Public Safety, which includes within its purview the NYPD, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, courts, legal services, District Attorneys, and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.
In that role, she has chaired several high-profile legislative and oversight hearings, including around the NYPD budget, the police department’s much-maligned special victims division, and more. She also sponsored a bil to give the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight agency, the ability to proactively launch investigations into police misconduct. The bill was approved by the Council on December 9 and is expected to soon become law, setting the stage for more active police oversight.
During the extraordinarily heated debate over the city budget in the summer of 2020, when some advocates and elected officials were calling on the Mayor and City Council to “Defund the NYPD” by cutting between $1 and $3 billion from its $6 billion-plus annual operating budget, Adams emerged as one of several Black Council members who opposed a major reduction in police resources and backed a compromise that was reached.
Even as they pointedly recognized the need for better, fairer policing and the history of police abuses that have harmed New Yorkers of color, Adams and her colleagues – Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Vanessa Gibson, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Robert Cornegy, Mathieu Eugene, Andy King, Farah Louis, Daneek Miller, Bill Perkins, Debi Rose, and Ritchie Torres – helped negotiate and vote in favor of the budget deal with relatively modest NYPD funding cuts.
Adams and her colleagues argued that significant cuts to the NYPD would in fact harm the communities they represent and that are the most affected by violent crime. They said that many of their constituents want robust police presence and attention to crime, but done in a fair and racially-just way. They opposed calls for the elimination of unarmed school safety agents, who are mostly Black women, though the deal included shifting those agents to the Department of Education and out of the NYPD. That shift, yet to take place, is something Adams has said she opposes and one that may not happen under Mayor Eric Adams.
“What a lot of us recognized was that in some areas of New York City, shooting and criminal activity were on the rise and the hashtag, Defund the NYPD, doesn’t speak to that tragedy or to the residents who are affected by it,” Adams would later explain in an interview with Gotham Gazette during the summer of 2020.
But Adams has said she believes strongly in the need for significant reforms at the NYPD. “There has to be a substantial change made in the culture of the NYPD and that is a culture that has so many strong roots, decades and decades of a lot of strength, a lot of impression, in the department,” Adams said in an October appearance on the Max Politics podcast from Gotham Gazette.
“It is my hope that incoming officers coming into the ranks will have a new perspective, and again, it’s going to have to start with the top-down,” she added. ““That’s why I say the new [police] commissioner really has her work cut out for her.” At the time, Eric Adams was still only the Democratic nominee and had pledged to appoint the NYPD’s first female commissioner. He followed through on that promise this week, announcing Keechant Sewell, the Nassau County chief of detectives, as his pick.
In running for Speaker, Adams emphasized the historic nature of her potential victory as the first Black City Council Speaker. “I think that it’s important that New York City makes history again,” she said in a July interview with Gotham Gazette. “I love firsts. You know I was the first woman elected to represent District 28 and I think this would be an amazing first for the city.”
She also touted the experience she has built in the private sector which she said would be essential in overseeing a class of mostly newly elected Council members. “I think it’s going to be really important for my new colleagues coming in who are not experienced in governance to have mentorship that has a background in, again, management and education,” she said.
In an interview with Gotham Gazette in October, Adams stressed her corporate background, her grassroots organizing in her community in Queens and her record on the Council. “I happen to bring to the table a vast background, not just on the political side but also in corporate America…I’ve got a vast background, as I said, in moving things, making things happen…That takes leadership,” she said.
“I’ve been able to make those wins, both inside of the doors of the City Council and outside of the doors when it comes to making my district more abundant, giving my district things that we’ve never had before, the funding that we’ve never had before.”
Adams would be the first City Council Speaker from outside of Manhattan in many terms, since Peter Vallone Sr., a Queens Democrat who was Speaker from 1986 till 2001.
And the likely next Speaker of the Council has a long relationship with Mayor-elect Adams since the time they attended the same high school. She endorsed his bid for Mayor and spoke highly of her expectations for him.
“My confidence in our Democratic nominee for mayor is in his plan to bring New York out of the pandemic and into stability once again,” she said on Max Politics. “And not just stability, but bring us into abundance, to bring our tourism back, to bring our streets back, our safety back, to bring back the confidence in New York that the world has always had.”
It’s unclear if any of that may change after Adams sought to install Moya at the head of the Council, however, but she has already insisted that she will not let her ties with him affect her leadership.
“I am hoping that however the chips may fall, that for my merit and for my leadership capabilities, the things that I’ve done in the past, what I’ve done for my district – more than any other of my predecessors — and what I’ve brought in leadership to the New York City Council over the past four years…that is what I’m standing on to become the next Speaker of the New York City Council,” Adams said on the podcast.