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2 Women and 2 Ways of Wielding Power in New York

Originally published by James Barron for The New York Times

Two stories in recent days were unexpectedly a study in contrasts. One was about a highly visible elected official who is keeping a low profile at the moment. The other was about the most powerful political official you’ve probably never heard of, someone who has never been elected but is perhaps the second most important person in city government — and the most important person in Mayor Eric Adams’s tight inner circle.

The first is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The second is Ingrid Lewis-Martin, the mayor’s chief adviser.

My colleague Nicholas Fandos writes that Ocasio-Cortez is evolving from an insurgent focused on bringing in other like-minded leaders to a more conventional figure who, among other things, does not want to overextend her capital.

So, unlike such House colleagues as Representative Adriano Espaillat and Representative Nydia Velázquez, Ocasio-Cortez has yet to endorse any candidates in the City Council primaries.

“If we called on her for support in the future, I’m sure that she would definitely step in,” said Chi Ossé, a City Council member from Brooklyn whom she has helped behind the scenes. “But she’s very focused and busy on what’s happening in Washington right now.”

That is a change from 2021, when Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee backed some 60 candidates, and it comes at a time when her own political operation is changing. She dismissed her campaign manager in March after a congressional ethics report concluded that there was “substantial reason to believe” that the congresswoman’s attending the 2021 Met Gala might have violated House ethics rules and possibly federal law. A replacement, the former political director for Senator Bernie Sanders, started only last week.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Ocasio-Cortez, said last week that she was “still considering” whether to wade into any City Council races. Hitt also said that Ocasio-Cortez’s silence did not signal a permanent pullback. “It’s just a very different election cycle,” she said, adding that “the overwhelming reason” is that many incumbent Council members are running unopposed or are not in competitive races this time around.

Lewis-Martin has played a role in some of the mayor’s most scrutinized moves, including criticizing President Biden over the influx of migrants, dismissing the separation of church and state and hiring three people who were accused of homophobic views. My colleagues Brian M. Rosenthal and Jeffery C. Mays write that Lewis-Martin has a propensity to override other municipal officials, even on minor issues — and that has helped create a divided City Hall where aides say she is a rival of the first deputy mayor, Sheena Wright.

Lewis-Martin said she created the role of chief adviser after being offered any job at City Hall. She relishes the flexibility: “I can pick and choose which weeds to be in,” she said.

But her across-the-board reach underscored Adams’s reliance on a tight group of advisers — an issue that surfaced again last week with the resignation of Keechant Sewell as the police commissioner. Many cast Sewell as another official who has left the Adams administration frustration at being undercut by his inner circle.

Lewis-Martin’s husband knew Adams from their days in training at the police academy in the 1980s, and they socialized together. She says that Adams wanted to be mayor even then — and that she wanted to pitch in. “We were put together at that time to do exactly what we’ve done,” she said, echoing Adams’s assertion that his election in 2021 was divinely ordained.

Her work for Adams has raised some ethical concerns. Last month Politico reported that she had helped guide a political action committee that supported moderate candidates for the Assembly, the Committee for a Fair New York. That raised the question of whether one way to curry favor at City Hall was to donate.

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