New York City's Next Mayor Could Be Decided in the Black Church

The race to become New York City’s next mayor is playing out in the hallowed halls of Black churches.

Long a dominating force in New York politics, Black churches have taken on even more importance during a pandemic that shuttered businesses and curtailed large gatherings. With many church services still held in-person and traditional campaign events rendered unthinkable, candidates are looking to weekly rites to connect with one of the most important voting blocs in the city before the June 22 Democratic primary.

Black New Yorkers made up nearly a quarter of the city’s potential voters, according to Census Bureau data. While they don’t hold monolithic views, in New York they are more politically engaged than other demographics and lean Democratic in a city where Democrats already outnumber Republicans seven-to-one.

Now, as the city focuses its massive vaccination program on houses of worship to reach the Black and minority residents who have been hardest-hit by Covid-19, the role of the church carries even more sway.

“The Black church for generations has been the cornerstone and the backbone of the Black community,” said Laurie Cumbo, City Council majority leader and part of the body’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. “Because of that the Black church has been an instrumental platform in terms of political dynamics and political leadership.”

Personal Connection

On a recent Sunday, New York City mayoral hopeful Ray McGuire made his way to Mount Olivet Baptist Church. Located in a Queens neighborhood that is 65% Black, Mount Olivet was buzzing with energy as children raced in between pews and congregants made their way to their seats after getting their temperatures checked at the door.

For months, the pandemic had trapped McGuire on endless Zoom calls to preach his vision for the city. But as the former investment banker walked into the church, the tightness in his shoulders loosened. The frustrations of trying to break through a screen eased. 

Finally he could greet congregants face-to-face. Shake hands with the pastor. Make jokes. When a staffer asked if he felt comfortable in the pews, he recalled his poor Ohio childhood. “I grew up in the church,” he said “The church is my home.”

It’s not just McGuire. Nearly every mayoral candidate is spending Sundays visiting Black churches, working with clergy on vaccine drives, and volunteering at church food pantries.

“To be able to connect with people around these shared values and ideas and in this communal community space has been a very powerful and positive part of the campaign,” Dianne Morales, a Brooklyn native and former public school teacher running for mayor. “As someone who’s not religious at all, it’s been inspiring to enter into those spaces and find alignment and resonance in the message.”

Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, who would become the city’s first female mayor, said she hired a staffer specifically to work with religious institutions. She regularly attends Sunday church and called religious institutions “key partners” in the city’s economic revival.

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who also tasked a top aide with religious outreach, has worshiped at the House of Justice alongside Reverend Al Sharpton and plans to visit several houses of worship throughout his campaign, a campaign spokesperson said.

Yang was the first choice for 16% of likely Democratic voters, but only 13% of Black respondents in a March 24 poll by Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics. By contrast, 19% of Black voters named Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams as their first choice, compared to 10% among all those surveyed. Wiley is ranked third overall, as well as with Black voters. However, pollster George Fontas cautioned that early polls, when broken out by demographics, remain inconclusive because half of those surveyed remain undecided. 

Black Voters

Black churches have played an outsize role in New York politics dating back to the 1940’s, when the city passed some of the nation’s first civil rights laws. Pastors like Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. rose to national prominence and Martin Luther King Jr. famously condemned the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church. 

More recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio garnered 96% of votes cast by Black New Yorkers when he first ran for mayor in 2013, which propelled him to victory. “Black voters delivered a win for de Blasio,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University.

Nationally, Black voters came out in droves during the November presidential elections and January’s runoff election in Georgia, which thrust Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to office and allowed Democrats to take the Senate. Roughly 115,000 runoff voters hadn’t cast a general election ballot and 40% of them were Black, according to Democratic voter-data firm TargetSmart. 

In New York City, nearly a third of Black workers belong to a labor union, according to a CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies report. That’s the highest rate among all demographics in a city where unions dominate local elections and membership is double the national average.

New York City's Next Mayor Could Be Decided in the Black Church

More than 80% of Black voters lean Democrat, according to a February study by the Pew Research Center. Black Protestants and Catholics are more politically engaged than unaffiliated peers and a quarter of Black Americans said houses of worship should offer sermons on political topics, Pew found.

“The person that campaigns in our communities and has a solid plan to address our issues will win,” said Cheryl Watts, a retired correction officer who’s also a member of the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn and a leader of Community Voices Heard, a New York advocacy group.

Pastor Network

Reverend Kevin Miller, the pastor at Carter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, said visiting one Black church can help candidates tap a larger network.

“It’s not a case of talking to one particular congregation — you’re really talking to a collaboration of Black churches in the community,” said Miller, a member of the clergy engagement team for nonprofit Faith in New York. “Pastors are in communication with one another, we’re in alliances.”

He said his members are looking for candidates to address communities of color with specific plans for issues like rent relief, immigration, pandemic recovery and education. 

“These candidates need to answer those questions,” Miller said. “People here have lost their jobs and are struggling. The stimulus checks are nice and wonderful but they can only go so far.” 

One major topic is criminal justice reform, which draws support from nearly 90% of Black adults, according to Pew. Candidates have promised to overhaul the city’s beleaguered police department and curtail the force’s budget but most have stopped short of calls to wholeheartedly defund the police — a rallying cry for activists during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Adams, a former  high-ranking police officer, has pledged to recruit more officers from communities of color and publicize the list of officers being monitored by the NYPD after violent incidents. He recently told congregants at Staten Island’s St. Philip’s Baptist Church how NYPD officers arrested and beat him and his brother as teens, an experience that shaped his views of police reform.

“I have gone through some stuff,” he said from the church pulpit. “It’s time for us to have a mayor that has gone through some stuff so he can help people going through some stuff.”

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