Last Sunday, six days removed from a news conference in which he defended himself against an accusation that he had abused and harassed a campaign volunteer two decades ago, Scott Stringer did what the fallen and the faithful, to say nothing of politicians seeking office, do: He went to church.
“In the midst of a crisis, when you feel you’re being knocked down, you come to the church,” Stringer told the congregation. “I’ve had some knockdown this week myself. But what’s really important is how you get up and solve the problem.”
To be clear, Stringer has a massive problem. In the days since Jean Kim held a news conference outside his office, alleging that in 2001 Stringer had groped her and promised to land her a position as a local district leader in exchange for sex, the coalition that Stringer — who vehemently denied Kim’s charges, maintaining that the two had a consenual relationship — carefully put together over the past two years has collapsed. Young, lefty lawmakers have pulled their endorsements, issuing terse statements that often say little more than “We are rescinding our endorsement of Scott Stringer” and give little explanation. The left-leaning Working Families Party has done the same. An endorsement from the New York Times, whose editorial board has backed Stringer repeatedly over his long career and was a pivotal part of his path to City Hall, now seems unlikely.
When I asked one activist who is still supportive of Stringer how things were looking after the events of last week, he replied, simply, “Like Hiroshima.”
Although we live in an age when the new playbook for political scandals seems to be never quit, never resign, and only glancingly admit to wrongdoing (see governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Ralph Northam of Virginia), this strategy may not work for Stringer. The younger progressives who support him are also the voters most attuned to issues of sexual harassment; some of his former supporters told me they were motivated to bail on him because his campaign has pushed back so ferociously against the allegations in an attempt to discredit Kim.
Stringer has greeted this isolation with a determined shrug. “You lose some old friends, you’ve got to make new friends,” he told reporters after one of his church stops on Sunday. Quietly, his aides rage about the political expediency of his formerly committed supporters, but in those elected officials’ defense, no one wants to be in a position in which they are asked why they still support an accused abuser. As last week wore on, Stringer staffers, aware of the political needs of their fellow politicians, didn’t pressure most elected officials to stand with him, according to pols who reached out to the campaign to say they were withdrawing their support. At this moment, it would be hard to find a candidate who would even be willing to accept Stringer’s endorsement.
Stringer was always an uneasy fit for a movement on the left that is at least a generation younger than he is, that prides itself on putting forward female and diverse candidates, and that prizes people with experience outside of politics and government.
“I think it was always like, Him? This old white man is the one we’re supposed to get behind?” said one left-wing operative. “People supported him because of all the people who supported him, but I don’t know if any progressives really trusted him or saw him as one of us.”
If Stringer fades, the conventional wisdom is that this will benefit fellow progressive candidates like civil-rights lawyer Maya Wiley or Dianne Morales, a nonprofit leader and the furthest-left candidate in the field. Both, though, have struggled to maintain much momentum in the race so far, and it remains to be seen if they can seize the moment.
But the primary electorate doesn’t necessarily fall into neat ideological camps with progressives on one side and moderates on the other. There are divisions between those within the political Establishment and those outside it, and Stringer is very much within it. Much of Stringer’s institutional support could migrate over to Eric Adams despite his having firmly planted himself in the race’s moderate lane. Adams has gobbled up the support of most of the late-deciding major labor unions who have been looking to coalesce around a candidate to stop Andrew Yang, but Stringer still has the support of the United Federation of Teachers. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, one of the few local pols whose endorsement can actually move votes, quietly withdrew his support of Stringer over the weekend and is said to be leaning toward Adams, according to people who have spoken with him. The teachers union, meanwhile, is thought to be firmly in Stringer’s corner, but some union insiders said they may focus their efforts more on down-ballot races if it appears Stringer is no longer viable.
Staffers for other campaigns have wondered if Stringer’s demise will upend the chessboard and allow candidates who have been unable to gain traction to have a moment. Kathryn Garcia, a former city Sanitation commissioner, and Shaun Donovan, a former Obama Cabinet official, have been presenting themselves as competent managers who can steer the city out of its COVID crisis and could benefit from a field that is suddenly unsettled. But unlike in 2013, when Anthony Weiner’s second sexting scandal ended his career while he was sitting in first place, Stringer doesn’t have that much of the vote to distribute should he fade. Most polls show Stringer in the low double digits, so even if his voters were to go en masse to another candidate, the beneficiary would in all likelihood still trail Yang.
People close to Stringer have said that despite calls from Kim and others to do so, he is, under no circumstances, going to drop out of the race. They maintain Stringer has been the victim of a dirty political hit, and they intend to prove it. After a report in The Intercept was published on Tuesday detailing inconsistencies in Kim’s account, Stringer called on Kim to answer questions about her allegations. “I welcome further objective reporting and scrutiny, which I know will uncover the truth,” he said in a statement. “This allegation is false. New Yorkers deserve to make their choice for mayor solely on the merits and the whole truth.” Stringer is expected to have around $10 million to spend over the remaining seven weeks before the primary. If Kim’s news conference has upended the race, who’s to say what else lurks out there, possibly in the pasts of some of Stringer’s rivals. And who’s to say another set of allegations won’t appear tomorrow, or the day after, about someone else?
And although the Weiner comparison is not one that Stringer’s campaign embraces, in 2013 the media circus surrounding the disgraced congressman brought a lot of attention from voters, and when the cameras were turned on, Weiner quickly pivoted to the core economic issues of his campaign. It’s why he shot up to first place and stayed there until he finally imploded. Facing his own scandal, Stringer is suddenly all over television, sitting for interviews with four morning shows over the past week. A campaign that has struggled to get attention is finally the one everyone is talking about. Multiple campaigns have polls out in the field this week, and it is entirely possible that the increased media profile will give Stringer a bump in the polls and allow his campaign to frame the controversy as one that consumes Twitter and political insiders but is mostly ignored by the voting public.
But if Stringer does get a polling boost, it will be hard to sustain. As the campaigns go into their final stretch, what progressive activist would be eager to knock on doors and volunteer for Stringer? If, two weeks ago, wearing a “Stringer for Mayor” pin or putting a sign up in your window signaled both your preferences in the race and your values for an equitable city and an activist government, what would doing the same symbolize now? Would it be equivalent to advertising a belief that the Me Too Movement has gone too far?
Faced with crumbling support from his old progressive base, Stringer has been looking for voters elsewhere. His supporters passed around tweets and columns from well-known internet intellectual contrarians like Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey, who over the weekend defended Stringer and compared his sudden abandonment by his supporters as something akin to McCarthyism. Stringer’s campaign believes there may be pockets of support for him among voters who feel similarly, who remember what happened to Al Franken in 2017, and who will rally behind someone being unjustly run out of the race because of a single, uncorroborated allegation. Most New Yorkers have been scarcely tuning in. If young progressives have abandoned him, expect Stringer to make an appeal to the kinds of voters who have long made up the spine of the Democratic Party — older voters and voters of color — speaking less of his ideological vision and more of his experience in and around city government.
Those voters haven’t embraced Stringer so far, and it’s unclear why they would do so now simply because he needs them. But this is why you end up in church in the first place, putting your faith in redemption.