EXCLUSIVE: Scott Stringer and Elyse Buxbaum talk about their marriage and the mayoral race
When a former campaign volunteer last month accused Scott Stringer of sexual harassment, his wife said she “didn’t even question” whether the allegations could be true.
“I know him,” said Elyse Buxbaum, in an exclusive joint sit-down interview with the Forward. “I’ve known him for 15-plus years. It’s just not even who he is.”
But not everyone believed Stringer, 61, who was once considered the progressive choice in the crowded June 22 Democratic mayoral primary and remains the only Jewish candidate among the eight frontrunners in the race to succeed Bill de Blasio.
After Jean Kim said he had repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances toward her, several progressive groups and politicians dropped their support for Stringer, who described a “consensual” relationship with Kim when he was in his forties and she was 30.
The Working Families Party rescinded its endorsement, as did a group of progressive politicians — including State Senators Jessica Ramos, Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar — and some have also called on him to quit the race. Stringer didn’t take their advice and forcefully denied the claims in dozens of TV appearances and campaign events.
When Stringer, now the city’s comptroller, stood before the media for the first time to push back against Kim’s allegations, Buxbaum, the executive vice president of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, stood by him. “I chose Scott because I felt safe with him,” she said.
In an hourlong interview at his campaign headquarters in lower Manhattan, Stringer told the Forward that his family had a “very tough couple of weeks,” but confidently predicted that his campaign will survive the tumult. There’s still “a lot of people who know me, know my integrity, know what I’ve done for 30 years, and are going to support me,” he said.
A recent poll, conducted by Emerson College for PIX11, showed a plurality of voters believe Stringer’s side of the story or had no opinion, while 18% said they believe the allegations are credible. He is currently in third place, garnering 13-15% of voters’ support in recent polls.
Born to run
Stringer was born into a hyper-political New York family and got involved in politics at a very young age. He was raised in Washington Heights by a single mother, Arlene Stringer-Cuevas, who died of COVID-19 last year at age 86. She was a cousin of former congresswoman Bella Abzug, the prominent feminist, and became the neighborhood’s Democratic Party district leader when Stringer was nine. She later became the first woman to represent Washington Heights in the City Council.
His parents divorced when Scott was 10 years old, and his father, Ronald, later became counsel to former New York City Mayor Abe Beame. Stringer’s stepfather, Carlos Cuevas, was the New York City clerk and a deputy Bronx borough president.
“I grew up thinking that every kid went to protests,” Stringer said, remembering the 1974 protest to impeach President Richard Nixon and campaigning for Abzug’s congressional run. “I was surrounded by people who were in government and trying to make change. Public service was an honorable pursuit, and it stayed with me my entire career. There’s nothing I really wanted to do but serve the public.”
At 16, after gaining attention for his work on his mother’s campaign, Stringer was named to the community planning board by then-Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, an appointment heralded on the front page of The New York Times. He later became a legislative assistant to then State-Assemblyman Jerry Nadler, whom he succeeded in 1992 when Nadler ran for Congress.
From a crowded field for Manhattan borough president in 2005, he eked out a win with just over a quarter of the vote with the help of his Jewish Upper West Side base.
The position has long been a springboard to higher office and Stringer launched a mayoral campaign in 2011. But he ultimately decided to run for comptroller, and won the office in 2013.
“I thought that elective office is a place where you could accomplish the things you want to accomplish,” Stringer suggested. “It’s not that I thought that I would always run for mayor. What I had hoped was that I could continue as an elected official for as long as I could.”
Though Stringer was mentioned as a possible primary challenger for de Blasio in his 2017 re-election campaign, he set his sights on the mayor’s office this year. De Blasio is term-limited, and the seat is open.
Buxbaum first met her husband 15 years ago during the annual Museum Mile festival along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Stringer, who was Manhattan’s borough president at the time, gave a speech about the importance of culture on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two exchanged smiles, kept running into each other at local political events, and then started dating. They married in 2010.
“I felt that moment so connected to him,” Buxbaum, who was at the time director of government relations in the Jewish Museum in New York, said in the interview. “He was just very convincing.”
She said part of the reason why she fell in love with Stringer was how respectful he was to her while they were dating. “Even if we were disagreeing, he would still take a cab home with me and he would wait until I was inside my building and the door closed, and then he would leave,” she recalled. “He never asked to come up. He was always a gentleman.”
Three years after their marriage, Stringer faced an uphill battle for comptroller in 2013, when he defeated former Gov. Eliot Spitzer by five points after trailing by more than 20 points in the weeks leading up to the Democratic primary.
“I learned a very important lesson in 2013,” he said. “It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish the race.”
He drew parallels to this year’s mayoral contest, and said he’s “exactly” where he imagined he would be four weeks out. “The winner of this race is going to move at the end,” he said.
He launched his campaign as the favorite candidate of the progressive movement. In addition to State Senators Ramos, Biaggi and Salazar, he was backed by Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou — progressive lawmakers he helped in the 2018 election against incumbent Democrats. He also received the endorsement of Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whom he supported last year in the Democratic primary against former longtime congressman Eliot Engel. All withdrew their support after Kim accused him of groping and kissing her without her consent.
Stringer said he feels “personally hurt” by the politicians who abandoned him.
Buxbaum said she considers them ungrateful.
“These people, many of them came to our house for Shabbat dinner,” she said. “They would come to our house for Rosh Hashanah, where we invited them — no matter whether they were Jewish or not Jewish — to celebrate together. And to me, it was so insulting to have someone who could be there with your family in such an important way and then walk away without question.”
Turning a page
Stringer said he has moved beyond the endorsements has lost. “The elected officials’ endorsements will not decide the mayor’s race,” he said. “The mayor’s race is going to be decided by the voters. They are going to decide in a big macro way not because a local legislator decides for them.”
He feels “a certain sense of relief” that he doesn’t have to deal with “all the meshugas,” he said, using the Yiddish term for nonsense, from politicians who get in his way as he tries to communicate directly with voters.
“I’m enjoying the last few weeks” of the campaign, he said. “I think that getting rid of the clutter means that people can just now look at me, not who’s with you on this side or that side, which political support did you have, but just look at my candidacy and say I am ready to be mayor.”
“I am still the same Scott Stringer,” he added. “I’m a progressive Democrat that hasn’t lost my mind.“
In recent interviews with Jewish media outlets, Stringer faced tough questions about the pro-BDS stance of some of his prominent progressive backers. “I’m anti-BDS,” Stringer made it clear in the interview with the Forward, referring to Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to punish Israel for the occupation of Palestinian land. “I don’t support BDS in any shape or form, that’s never changed.” He also said he disagrees with the Democratic Socialists of America’s demand not to travel to Israel. “There have been disagreements,” he said, “I think people have to sift through what’s true and what’s not true.”
Stringer also drew inspiration from his faith during the interview. “God has stayed the course with me through good times and bad,” he said.
‘“My political journey has always been bumpy,” he continued. “I never start out these campaigns ahead.
A Jewish family in Gracie Mansion?
If elected mayor, Stringer will be the first in many years to raise young children in Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Stringers have two sons, Max and Miles, ages 9 and 8.
The family insists on eating together on Friday nights. They buy a three-pound challah from Lox Cafe in lower Manhattan and use the leftovers for sandwiches for the children during the week.
Buxbaum said she would like to open the doors of Gracie Mansion to the public, to invite people from all communities for Shabbat dinners and even build a sukkah on the lawn during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
“New York City would be very lucky to have her as First Lady,” Stringer said of his wife. “She would be someone that New Yorkers can relate to — her generosity, her warmth, her beauty, her skills as a professional, and the work that she’s done in the Jewish community in terms of arts, education, and preserving the historical memory of the Holocaust.”
Buxbaum is very involved in Stringer’s campaign. “I have to tell you that I have a lot of two o’clock in the morning conversations,” Stringer said.
He said he “married up.”
“I see myself as lucky too,” she responded. “We are very good together. We are very similar in many ways. I think the tipping point that won me over is that I was always laughing. I was always happy. And I realized I didn’t want to not have that in my life that kind of like laughter.”
Buxbaum was uncertain when asked whether she would play a specific role in a Stringer administration. “I’m really proud of my career and the work that I do now,” she said. “I came to this museum from the Jewish Museum uptown because of the antisemitism that was permeating our streets, and I felt like I needed to be in a place that was playing a larger role in educating the conversation. And so I don’t see myself leaving that role. It’s too important to me right now.”
Had she lived, Stringer said his mother would have been very involved in his campaign too. He recalled her frequent complaints about tough interviewers during his past campaigns. Last year when she died, Stringer said that Trump had “blood on his hands” for his COVID-19 response. Stringer doubled down in a CNN interview. “Donald Trump destroyed a lot of lives during his presidency, especially during COVID,” he said. “My mother never had a chance with Donald Trump at the White House.”
As he enters the final weeks of the mayoral campaign, Stringer said he’s optimistic.
“People wrote me off too soon, and they’re coming to realize that maybe this is going to be quite an ending, ” he said. “This will be the great comeback.”