Déjà vu on the West Side

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Gale Brewer was first elected to the City Council in 2001 and moved up to borough president 12 years later. As the term limits clock ticks, friends and supporters say, she is now contemplating a reprise.


  • Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at the New York City Women’s March in Columbus Circle on Jan. 19. She is widely expected to run in 2021 for the City Council seat on the Upper West Side where she served for 12 years until her election as beep in 2013. Photo: Brewer’s Instagram page.

  • Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joins other elected officials outside the Lorimer Street L train stop in Brooklyn on Jan.6, where she demanded transparency from the MTA. She has been exploring a bid in 2021 to reclaim her old seat as a City Council member representing the Upper West Side. Photo: Brewer’s Instagram page

“I am ecstatic!”

Keith Wright, Manhattan County Democratic leader

It is extraordinarily rare for an elected official serving in an executive capacity to trade down to a legislative branch and seek a position with fewer constituents, lower pay and lesser influence.

But Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has never been your typical politician.

Ever since she was reelected to a second term by a lopsided 83 percent margin in 2017, the question of her political future has emerged as one of the hottest guessing games in town.

Now, the answer is starting to come into focus:

Brewer has been eyeing a possible return in 2021 to the City Council seat on the Upper West Side where she served from 2002 through 2013, according to at least seven people in her political orbit.

No final decision has been made, and no announcement is anticipated anytime soon, for a general election race that is still two years and nine months away, say friends, supporters, district leaders, political consultants and officers of Democratic political clubhouses.

Term limits, which Brewer has long opposed, is the catalyst. It will force her out of office on Dec. 31, 2021, when she completes the second of her two consecutive four-year terms as borough president.

Similarly, the two-terms-and-you’re-out cap means that City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who succeeded Brewer in Council District 6 in 2014, is also barred from running again for the same post. In fact, she has already tossed her hat in the ring to run for comptroller in 2021.

That clears the path for a potential encore run by Brewer, who was first elected to the Council in 2001 and represented the West Side, Lincoln Square, the northern part of Hell’s Kitchen and all of Central Park – before moving up to win election as Manhattan’s 27th beep in 2013.

But a bigger job could be in the wings:

Brewer commands enormous respect. If she runs and wins, she’ll have more seniority than anyone else in the Council’s incoming class of 2022 because she had racked up 12 years in the legislative body before term limits was changed from three terms to the current two.

Meanwhile, change is in the offing. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is also out of a job at the end of 2021 due to term limits, and he has already started accepting contributions for a probable mayoral run.

With Johnson’s exit dawning, the buzz among political cognoscenti is that Brewer is already well positioned to step into the power vacuum and succeed him as the next Council speaker.

In a handful of brief conversations, Brewer declined to comment about her intentions for 2021. She didn’t confirm that she was running for her old seat; but she didn’t deny it either. And she appeared to take herself out of contention for the mayoral race that year.

“I love Manhattan,” Brewer said. “That’s all that I can tell you — I love Manhattan,” she repeated. “I do not have a five-borough orientation.”

Who Needs Money or Power?

Typically in politics, officeholders seek to move up, not down, and rare is the official who would blithely trade in a $179,200 salary, which is what a borough president makes, to pull down $148,500, which is a Council member’s wages.

“She loves being a legislator,” said George Arzt, the Democratic political strategist who served as Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary in the late 1980s. “Many people have asked her many times to run for mayor, and she is always quickly dismissive — but she loved being in the Council.”

If she makes the move, her constituency would shrink dramatically, said New York County Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, a former state Assembly Member from Harlem.

“She’d go from representing 1.8 million people to representing 155,000 people,” he said. “But it’s never been about money or power for her. It is about staying grounded, doing what you love, bringing a vast wealth of experience and knowledge about how government works, and being a wonderful partner to all communities.”

Could she painlessly win back her old seat? “I presume she wouldn’t have any difficulty,” said Wright, who has been Manhattan Democratic leader since 2009. But he added a cautionary note:

“You never know — just ask Joe Crowley,” he said, referring to the 10-term incumbent Congressman from Queens who was ousted by the 28-year-old newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Still, we’re very lucky to have a public servant of her caliber, and the people of her district would be very lucky to have her again, too,” Wright said. “I am ecstatic!”

The 67-year-old Brewer is clearly in no hurry to take the plunge, declare for office and vie for her old seat, political consultants say — and there is no compelling reason to do so when the primary isn’t until June 2021 and the general election isn’t until Nov. 2021.

But by putting out the word so early that she’s exploring a run in her home district and longtime political base — where she would almost certainly become the prohibitive favor — her backers are sending a clear message to other potential candidates for the seat: Stay away.

Preliminary indications suggest that the strategy has been working.

Consider one well-regarded hopeful, Micah Lasher, a former chief of staff to the state attorney general, incoming chair of the Riverside Park Conservancy, ex-aide to Rep. Jerry Nadler and unsuccessful candidate in 2016 for a West Side state Senate seat.

“Absolutely!” he said when asked if he was considering a run. But at the same time, he described Brewer as an “extraordinary Council member and an extraordinary borough president” and said that the district would be “incredibly well served” if she came back to her old post.

“If Gale were to decide that she wanted to return to the City Council again to represent our community, I would accord that an enormous amount of deference,” Lasher added.

As for the timetable of any announcement, Curtis Arluck, a West Side Democratic district leader for the past 40 years, notes that Brewer is “only a little more than a quarter of the way” through her second term as beep.

“If she were suddenly to be seen as running for an office that other people would like to have, then the vastly beloved Gale Brewer would not be above the fray anymore,” said Arluck, whose longtime club is the Broadway Democrats.

“She would be in the thicket. So why not keep the glow that she has for another year or more?” he asked.

Unlike so many politicians, Arluck added, Brewer doesn’t have the ego that says she has to be in the top position:

“That’s Gale in a nutshell,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a higher title or if it’s a lesser title, she just wants to continue to serve — and she wants to continue to serve Manhattan.”


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