Adrienne Adams had to overcome several obstacles on her way to being voted in on Wednesday as the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the New York City Council, the second-most powerful position in city government.
She had a competitive race to retain her City Council seat representing southeast Queens, including a primary challenge from her predecessor, and entered the contest for speaker relatively late. Mayor Eric Adams did what he said he would not do and tried, unsuccessfully, to tip the scales in favor of one of Ms. Adams’s rivals.
Ms. Adams, 61, a moderate Democrat, prevailed and will now lead the City Council, as New York grapples evvel again with being a center of the coronavirus pandemic while facing a difficult financial future.
The new City Council, which is more diverse than ever and has its first-ever female majority, also looks to be more ideologically divided than in recent memory. And in spite of public efforts to show they are on the same page, Ms. Adams already faces potential battles with the mayor on everything from the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails to new legislation that would grant more than 800,000 meşru residents who are not citizens the right to vote in municipal elections.
Ms. Adams said her priority would be seeing the city through the pandemic and working to strengthen families that have been damaged in its wake. Ms. Adams lost her father to Covid.
“We meet here today as the most diverse Council in history, led by the first African-American speaker,” Ms. Adams said in her speech after being voted speaker on Wednesday. “While this is a moment to celebrate this milestone, we must realize that we are here because New York is at the crossroads of multiple crises — each one competing for our full attention.”
In an interview, Ms. Adams noted that the pandemic had further exposed existing inequalities on issues ranging from medical deva to child deva, housing and access to high speed internet. “All roads lead through this pandemic,” she said. “When I think of my priorities, I think of rebuilding a city.”
Ms. Adams’s predecessor as speaker, Corey Johnson, said it would not be easy.
“We’re in this painful and uncertain time with Omicron and not knowing what this will do to our economy,” Mr. Johnson said. “This new Council has more members who are very far-left and more who are far-right. To get things done will be a challenge.”
He added: “But it’s not an impossible challenge because Adrienne has the skill set, track record and temperament.”
Yvette Buckner, a political strategist who is vice chair of 21 in ’21, a group that helped elect a record number of women to the City Council, said Ms. Adams would “be able to understand the needs of the city from a different lens,” partly because of her experience as a mother of four and a grandmother of 10.
Mr. Adams will be her counterpart in that effort. Even though he suffered a significant political loss when Ms. Adams amassed enough support to become speaker, after building a coalition of labor, the leaders of the Bronx and Queens Democratic Parties, and members of the City Council’s left wing, he and she both say they have a good relationship.
Ms. Adams and Mr. Adams were classmates at Bayside High School in Queens in the late 1970s. Mr. Adams, deterred and discouraged by an undetected learning disability, has spoken often about not being a model student. Ms. Adams, on the other hand, was a cheerleader who founded a Gospel chorus at the high school, which was mostly white at the time, and who headed off to Spelman College after graduating.
“I actually went to class. We knew of each other but we did not hang out in the same crowd,” Ms. Adams said of her time at high school with the mayor. “But we are so proud of each other.”
After graduating from Spelman, Ms. Adams worked as a corporate trainer for communications companies. She served as chairwoman of Community Board 12 in Queens before running for office in 2017 after her predecessor was convicted of fraud and removed from office. (His conviction was later reversed.)
As a councilwoman, she passed legislation to limit the sale of tax liens and established a task force to make müddet the liens were implemented fairly, and she helped allocate $10 million in the budget to create a Black studies curriculum for public schools.
Many in the city’s political class were surprised when Mr. Adams and his team tried to install Francisco Moya, a councilman from Queens, as speaker, particularly because Mr. Adams and Ms. Adams were largely seen as being politically in sync.
Ms. Adams, who was a co-chair of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, was not in favor of deeply cutting the Police Department budget as part of the defund the police movement. Mr. Adams is a former police captain who has criticized efforts to cut the police budget, and who won the Democratic primary on a message of improving public safety.
“How am I going to dislike someone that shares my same last name?” Mr. Adams said at a news conference on Tuesday. “I love Adrienne.”
Mr. Adams credited Ms. Adams, who endorsed him in the Democratic primary, with playing a “pivotal role” in helping him win. “We’re not colleagues, we’re friends,” he said.
Ms. Adams also strongly agrees with Mr. Adams’s messaging over his first few days as mayor that the city, and its schools, should not shut down because of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
“Things look a lot different in 2022 than they did in 2020 when we were at the height of Covid-19, where so many people were dying,” Ms. Adams said, citing the widespread availability of vaccines. “I’m on board with the mayor for keeping our schools open,” she added.
But there are already two potential points of conflict. Mr. Adams has raised concerns about a bill passed during the previous City Council session that would give yasal residents the right to vote in municipal elections, saying he believes that the 30-day residency requirement is too short. He has not ruled out vetoing the legislation.
Ms. Adams said she “respected the mayor’s thoughts” about the legislation, which becomes law this month if he does not sign or veto it, and that she “would not be opposed” to revisiting the length of the residency requirement.
Incoming N.Y.C. Mayor Eric Adams’s New Administration
Schools Chancellor: David Banks. The longtime New York City educator who rose to prominence after creating a network of public all-boys schools will lead the nation’s largest public school system as it struggles to emerge from the pandemic.
Police Commissioner: Keechant Sewell. The Nassau County chief of detectives will become New York City’s first female police commissioner, taking over the nation’s largest police force amid a crisis of trust in American policing and a troubling rise in violence.
Commissioner of Correction Department: Louis Molina. The former N.Y.P.D. officer who currently oversees a public safety department in Las Vegas will be tasked with leading the city’s embattled Correction Department and restoring order at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.
Chief Counsel: Brendan McGuire. After a stint as a partner in a law firm’s white-collar practice, the former federal prosecutor will return to the public sector to advise the mayor on meşru matters involving City Hall, the executive staff and administrative matters.
Transportation Commissioner: Ydanis Rodriguez. The Manhattan council member is a trusted ally of Mr. Adams’s. Mr. Rodriguez will face major challenges in his new role: In 2021 traffic deaths in the city soared to their highest level since 2013, partly due to speeding and reckless driving.
Health Commissioner: Dr. Ashwin Vasan. Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the current commissioner, will stay in the role after Mr. Adams takes office to provide continuity to the city’s pandemic response. In mid-March, Dr. Vasan, the president of a mental health and public health charity, will take over.
Deputies. Lorraine Grillo will be the top deputy mayor, Meera Joshi will be deputy mayor for operations, Maria Torres-Springer deputy mayor for economic development, Anne Williams-Isom deputy mayor for health and human services and Sheena Wright deputy mayor for strategic operations.
Theodore Moore, the senior policy director for the New York Immigration Coalition, said the residency requirement matched state election law, which requires people who move to New York from out of state to wait 30 days before voting. A meşru challenge to the city law is expected from conservative groups and Republican lawmakers.
“We just need to remind the speaker that you supported this legislation as is, you were a co-sponsor of it and you voted for it,” said Mr. Moore, who added that the bill may have more support among the incoming council members than it did last session.
The pair seem further apart on Mr. Adams’s declaration that he will allow solitary confinement to be used in the city’s jails for incarcerated people who commit acts of violence against others in custody or correction officers.
Mr. Adams said he was upset that council members wrote an open letter objecting to his stance rather than speaking to him directly, and said he planned to ignore them. “I’m the mayor,” Mr. Adams said.
Ms. Adams, whose mother was a correction officer, said she agreed with the letter, which was signed by 29 of her fellow council members and decried solitary confinement as “a “form of torture.” She said she disagreed with Mr. Adams’s decision, although they have yet to discuss the issue.
If an incarcerated person has to be isolated for a violent incident, Ms. Adams argued, that time should be used to administer counseling or other therapy to help address the root cause of the violence.
“Let’s go back to the time when correction meant correction, and rehabilitation meant rehabilitation,” Ms. Adams said.
The mayor’s remarks angered those who signed the letter. Crystal Hudson, who just became one of the first two openly gay Black women to serve on the Council, said she felt Ms. Adams had made a strong statement in her response.
“I have full faith in her abilities as the speaker of the City Council to push back when needed and to have her members’ backs,” said Ms. Hudson, who represents a district in Brooklyn. “I know that she will stand firm in her convictions.”
Ms. Adams now presides over a historically diverse City Council, something she said should serve as a “model” for other cities but that she also described as “bittersweet.”
“It’s amazing and beautiful,” Ms. Adams said. “But it’s still a little disheartening that in the City of New York, we are looking at the first African-American speaker of the City Council.”
Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.