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Commercial Observer: Mayor Jumaane Williams — and Other Possibilities That Worry Real Estate

By Aaron Short | November 27, 2023 | Original Article

The real estate industry better hope Mayor Eric Adams hangs onto his job because they might not like his successor — especially the immediate one.

An FBI inquiry into the mayor’s campaign fundraising practices has garnered international headlines and had New York’s political class buzzing at SOMOS, an annual post-election retreat held two weeks ago in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Adams, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing by authorities, skipped the festivities.)

No one has announced an intention to challenge Adams politically yet. But, if for some reason Adams was forced to leave office before the end of his term, the scramble to replace him would be nothing the city has ever seen before. 

“It would rock the political world,” said Lupe Todd-Medina, president of Effective Media Strategies, who has consulted in mayoral campaigns before. “It would bring out other candidates with a different mentality. You’ll probably get more leftist candidates, more centrist candidates, and I think you’ll get wild cards too. The question is: What does the city want?”

However, little about the Adams investigation is known so far.

Federal agents raided the homes of an Adams campaign fundraiser and an aide in his international affairs office, searched a former Turkish Airlines executive’s residence, and seized the mayor’s cellphones as part of a sweeping inquiry into whether Adams’s campaign received illegal donations from Turkish nationals and the Turkish government. 

Agents are also reportedly interested in whether the Adams administration sped up fire safety inspections for developers of luxury high-rises who have donated handsomely to the mayor’s campaigns. On top of all this, in a lawsuit filed last week an unidentified woman accused Adams of sexual assault when he was a transit cop in 1993.

Adams has shrugged off questions about his fundraising practices, characterizing the FBI investigation as merely a “review” and vowed that his campaign followed the law. He also denied the sexual assault accusation, telling reporters that “I do not recall ever meeting the accuser.”

His allies in the business community do not appear concerned about the investigation, either. Yet, if Adams is forced to leave office, they would much prefer a successor with managerial experience who can work with different political constituencies and tame rapidly growing budget deficits that threaten to engulf basic city services. (Adams spent decades in the New York Police Department, before serving as a state legislator and Brooklyn borough president.) 

“There is no reason to believe there will be a special election,” said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which advocates for the city’s business leaders. “If there were, the business community would be looking for a candidate who prioritizes public safety and fiscal responsibility, along the lines of Mayor Adams.”

How a special election works
Federal probes into City Hall are nothing new. 

Prosecutors questioned Bill de Blasio in 2017 over his alleged efforts to confer favors on behalf of donors who gave to his campaign and his nonprofit, but did not bring charges. A Republican political operative was convicted of stealing $1.1 million from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign. And Ed Koch presided over a patronage mill so vast that it got the attention of the U.S. attorney office, then led by Rudy Giuliani.

The last mayor to leave before his term ended was William O’Dwyer in 1950, who resigned during a police corruption scandal and was promptly appointed ambassador to Mexico by President Harry Truman. Two decades before that, former Mayor Jimmy Walker — part of the powerful Tammany Hall political machine — was forced to resign under pressure from President Franklin Roosevelt for accepting bribes. 

If Adams were to step aside, the city charter specifies a number of rules for his replacement. First, the public advocate would become acting mayor and call a special election within three days of assuming power. If a vacancy occurs during the first three years of his term (Adams is in his second year), the election must occur at least 90 days after the opening. If Adams leaves during the fourth year of his term, the special election could coincide with that year’s primary or general election, depending on when the resignation occurs. 

In either instance, that would make current Public Advocate Jumaane Williams the acting mayor. Williams is a politician who likely won’t be embraced with open arms by the city’s real estate community as they previously criticized him for being unsupportive of tax incentives and development.

Real estate can breathe easier since the acting mayor’s powers are severely limited. An acting mayor cannot hire or fire commissioners and other appointees and must wait nine days after the resignation before signing any laws or resolutions passed by the City Council. And, if the public advocate can no longer serve as acting mayor for whatever reason, the city comptroller would take over. (That’s another politician not well loved by real estate, Brad Lander, who opposed the extension of the lucrative 421a property tax incentives for developers.)

Two other details may be the most important. The special election would be an open one regardless of party affiliation, permitting candidates in both political parties to jump into the race. And it would follow the city’s ranked choice voting system, which would allow voters to choose multiple candidates and then rank them in the order of their favorites.

Political consultant Jerry Skurnik believes that dozens of candidates would jump into the race encouraged by the city’s generous public matching funds and ranked choice voting system. Voter turnout could even approach the 2020 presidential election, where 70 percent of New Yorkers cast ballots.

“This could be a racially or politically polarized election where there’s somebody of every important group,” he said. “This is a completely new scenario. We’ve never had anything close to it.”

Who would real estate want?
The top qualities real estate leaders look for in a mayor are managerial competence and the ability to handle a crisis, fiscal or otherwise.

“It should be somebody with managerial experience and not a policy wonk, and somebody who will appoint capable and experienced commissioners, not patronage positions given to supporters and donors,” James Wacht, president and managing principal at Lee & Associates NYC, said. “And it must be somebody who can work well with different political constituencies.”

Finding someone who could quickly amass a winning coalition is another matter. Putting together a citywide campaign in as little as two months is a heavy lift for most city politicians who have never run races beyond their boroughs, or even their own neighborhoods. That hasn’t stopped Assembly member Jessica Ramos of Queens and State Sen. Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn from making inquiries about a possible challenge to Adams in the future.

“The mechanics of doing something quickly are going to reward people who are better known, better organized, and have done this before,” Bradley Honan, president and CEO of polling firm Honan Strategy Group, said.

The race could favor a candidate like Williams, since he already won a citywide special election for public advocate when he outpaced 16 other candidates in 2019. The Brooklyn-based Democrat has since won re-election in 2021 and appeared on statewide ballots in unsuccessful bids for lieutenant governor and governor, plus he could potentially have a spell as acting mayor to lean on.

But the city’s electorate is far different than it was in 2019. In that special election, 82 percent of voters identified as Democrats and 10 percent were Republicans, and almost half the electorate was over the age of 65, according to Skurnik’s analysis. Only 9 percent of voters came to the polls then, too. Republicans have since won City Council races and unseated incumbents in homeowner-heavy neighborhoods in the Bronx, Queens, and southern Brooklyn, communities that have tilted rightward over the past three years due to voter concerns over public safety, education and other quality-of-life issues.

“Could a Republican win a nonpartisan race? The answer is yes. Among portions of most likely voters, voting for a conservative is no longer taboo,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “People are not happy. When they’re not happy and they feel threatened, they tend to take action.”

One well-known moderate Democrat who has previously cleaned up in the outer boroughs is paying attention. 

A new poll circulated last week has been asking New Yorkers how they feel about former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s accomplishments. The poll also asked who between Cuomo and Adams would do a better job managing the city, and who they would choose in a field that consisted of Cuomo, Williams, Lander and former mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia.

Cuomo — who resigned from his post in 2021 amid sexual harassment allegations — has not commented on the poll, but one source who spoke with Cuomo believes he would rather run for governor again in 2026 because he wants his old job back.