The Many Contradictions of Mark Levine

The controversial New York city councilman has changed positions on the coronavirus pandemic three times in the past four months.

Mark Levine, the 51-year-old New York City councilman who represents the 7th District in northern Manhattan, has gone to great lengths to counter Donald Trump’s erratic messaging on the coronavirus pandemic: “New York is not going to be distracted by the daily circus in the White House,” he tweeted in April. “We will reopen based on the science, based on public health data.”

As a result, Levine—who chairs the New York City Council’s Committee on Health—has become something of a folk hero for progressive activists and sympathetic media, even being proclaimed “the Anthony Fauci of the New York City Council” by a glowing profile in the Washington Post. Despite having a background in education but no medical experience to think of, his conspicuous public profile as a no-nonsense data wonk with a penchant for rebuking the Trump administration has made him a rising star, and he has made appearances on a variety of national television networks. 

The problem is, in speaking out against Trump at every turn, Levine has displayed a significant amount of hypocrisy himself. His messaging on the coronavirus pandemic has been inconsistent—and sometimes demonstrably wrong—as a result. As late as mid-February, he scoffed at concerns over the impending coronavirus pandemic as “fear-mongering,” deriding the Trump administration’s decision to restrict immigration from China and even going so far as to post pictures of himself at packed Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown with captions celebrating the crowd’s “powerful show of defiance” to the “coronavirus scare.” And when he later reneged on his initial skepticism, the councilman deflected criticism by pointing to the president: “Trump was calling it a hoax and downplaying it then and long after,” he shot back at a detractor in April. “Have you denounced him?”

As the severity and contagion of the virus became more apparent, he quickly switched courses, pushing for a “more aggressive” shelter-in-place order, publicly worrying about anti-lockdown protesters and warning against the imprudence of “loosening up” before “the health data says so.” But this, too, disintegrated in the face of political opportunity. In recent weeks, Levine has been embroiled in controversy once again for his enthusiastic support of New York’s anti-racism protests, forgoing his months-long support of citywide shelter-in-place orders to actively march with protesters in his district.

This most recent change seems more than a little hypocritical: Levine, who sits on both the health and the hospital committees, had gone to great lengths in preceding months to advocate for preventing the spread of coronavirus at all costs. And then he energetically participated in the protests, raging against the police-enforced curfews as “insanity” and “a pretext for aggressive and violent confrontation of protesters.” And in the event that the demonstrations cause a spike in coronavirus cases?

One could be forgiven, then, for suspecting that Levine’s professed dedication to data-based policy is more of a performative political stance than an objectively nonpartisan commitment. He’s hardly unique in this matter: Prominent public health experts across the country, many of whom spent months warning their fellow Americans about the dangers of overeager reopening, have now taken en masse to supporting the protests. As a result, Levine and his peers—while often claiming to be merely “following the science”—have come under increased scrutiny for being ideologically selective in their application of supposedly science-based lockdown restrictions.

“It’s absurd,” says Robert Holden, a 68-year-old councilman from New York’s 30th District who sits on the Committee on Health with Levine. “He’s the chair of the health committee. Focus on beating the pandemic, not on being politically correct or doing great soundbites. Let’s focus.”

Holden, a self-described “conservative Democrat” who voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has sharp words for the left wing of his party: “In their zest to be politically correct, to say the right thing, they don’t want to condemn the protests. But gee—we stayed in for three months. We destroyed so many businesses. Over 21,000 in New York City have died, and you’re telling people to go out and protest. There’s a contradiction there. It’s a hypocrisy that I can’t figure out. You know, we’re not messing around—numbers are starting to go up again.”

He’s right: By some metrics, they are. Although it’s probably too early to determine any correlation between the past week’s protests and infection spikes throughout the country—some speculate that the effects of the demonstrations might not surface for weeks—large segments of the country are still struggling with new outbreaks every day, which could be exacerbated by thousands of protesters packed tightly into city streets.

Levine and his fellow progressives—who Councilman Holden estimates make up “more than half” of the New York City Council—are “not rational,” Holden says. “Some people are just so far out there that there’s no communicating with them. And I think Levine doesn’t know that many people take him less seriously [now].”

Levine’s hyperbolic antics have aroused the ire of prominent local politicians on both sides of the aisle. In April, he was sharply criticized by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for claiming without evidence that the city’s public parks would have to be converted into mass burial grounds due to overwhelming coronavirus death rates, writing in a now-deleted tweet that the interment of dead bodies would “likely … be done by using a NYC park for burials.” And when Levine claimed days later that New York hospitals were “turning away more and more people—including some that are very sick,” de Blasio exploded: Levine’s statements, he said, “were patently inaccurate and actually very unhelpful to the City of New York, and I had a very blunt conversation with him about it. So, I don’t know what is going on with him, but saying that our hospitals would turn away someone...is irresponsible, inaccurate and unfair.” At a press conference the next day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added that the claim “defies all logic.”

On the City Council, Levine’s behavior has been met with more mixed responses. “I’m frustrated with elected officials who have been putting out false information, only to take it back later once the damage has been done,” says Ben Kallos, the co-chairman of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, of which Levine is a member. But Kallos, like Levine and most of the other Democrats on the City Council, still supports the protests in spite of persistent coronavirus concerns: “The best thing the city can do is make sure that people who are engaged in First Amendment protest have sufficient space to do so,” he tells me. “And yes, the stay-at-home order is still in effect. But we have an opportunity, perhaps once in a lifetime, to [reform the police]. And I think that is a moment that we can't miss.”

Like Levine, Councilman Kallos was initially opposed to earlier anti-lockdown protests on the grounds that they risked spreading the virus. But “the anti-lockdown protesters were taking a stand against science,” he says. “They were not engaged in social distancing. They were not wearing masks. And they were actually attacking the public health and public policy we needed to follow.” 

In contrast, “the folks who have been engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd protesters have been wearing masks at almost 100 percent compliance,” he says.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Pictures and videos of protests from across the country show a mix of mask-wearing practices, and many of the larger demonstrations involve thousands of bodies packed tightly together. And many progressives have argued that protesting is worth the potentially higher transmission rates. Levine’s controversial recent tweet blaming “racism” for any resurgent post-protest coronavirus infections echoes the view taken by many on the left in the wake of George Floyd’s death: Activists and public health advocates alike have argued that white supremacy is its own deadly public health crisis, and that protests are therefore a justifiable response.

Racism “is the reason that the virus is attacking the communities that it’s attacking,” says Councilwoman Inez Barron, who also serves on the Committee on Health with Levine. “What we see in terms of lack of economic opportunity, high levels of hypertension caused by stress, environmental factors that contribute to asthma, the wealth gaps, the lack of educational achievement—those are all symptoms. That’s not the cause of what we’re seeing. Those are the symptoms of entrenched systemic racism, and capitalism, which does not value people but values profits.”

How exactly the mass protests will solve these complex issues remains unclear. But the pro-protest rhetoric undeniably plays well in progressive strongholds like New York—and Levine, perhaps not coincidentally, is running for Manhattan borough president this year. Though he lost his bid for City Council speaker in 2017, some believe that his electoral ambitions could be helped by his newfound notoriety.

But the problem is that officials like Levine risk damaging the nation’s trust in the authority and objectivity of scientific expertise when they pick and choose. Large swathes of the country—particularly those on the political right—have long been skeptical of the idea that scientists should be deferred to in crafting public policy. In the age of coronavirus, this skepticism has only become more pronounced: the inconsistency of public health advocates like Mark Levine has given credence to the suspicion that their ostensible “objectivity” is often ideologically biased. For now, Americans still express relatively high trust in medical scientists’ authority in regards to the coronavirus pandemic; but this, too, is endangered. As a growing number of experts sacrifice their neutrality for political accolades, they risk losing the confidence of the country they purport to serve.

Nate Hochman (@njhochman) is a summer Intercollegiate Studies Institute fellow for The Dispatch.

Photograph of Mark Levine by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images.