Who Does New York City Belong To? The Mayoral Race Hinges On The Answer.
The big undertone of New York's mystery box of a mayor's race is authenticity and identity, about who matters most in American cities in the postpandemic moment.
One day this spring, mayoral candidate Scott Stringer held a press conference right next to the outdoor pandemic setup of a high-end steakhouse, where a woman sitting alone polished off lunch 10 feet away from TV cameras and reporters massed together.
For the entire press conference, construction roared. The masked reporters sounded like a bunch of Charlie Brown teachers. Also, a school bus stopped right behind the candidate, FedEx deliverymen rattled two trolleys of packages over the uneven street, someone banged what sounded like a wrench against a pipe, and a cyclist looped the crowd once, then twice, then paused feet away to see what was going on — all while blasting heavy metal from a boombox.
You could barely hear anything, let alone make sense of anything. This is, generally, the state of New York’s mayoral race.
It’s hard to know who’s winning and losing, or who’s good and bad, or what the candidates and the rest of the city might think of a person such as yourself. Each day brings some new, bizarre complication to what you thought you knew about one of the eight major candidates. It’s like all the different parts of New York and the strains of post-Trump politics have come forward to usher you into a maze.
In this delicate moment — after a year so grim that the question “If I get really sick, where will I go?” applied to an entire city — the big undertone of the campaign is about authenticity and identity, about who matters most in New York, who’s real, who’s always been here, who leads different strains of American politics, and who it all belongs to. Here in the delicate moment of American elections, it’s a mystery box of a primary: a billion-candidate field that will be fed into the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, which will (eventually) shoot out a winner like a Powerball machine.
On the input end, ranked-choice isn't complicated: Voters list their top five candidates. On the counting end, it gets a little more conceptual: If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the system lops off the last-ranked candidate and reallocates those voters' ballots to their second choices. Rinse and repeat until one candidate triumphs with 50%. If a candidate doesn’t win on the first ballot, they might ultimately win on a later ballot, when all those second choices get counted. Theoretically, these rules make candidates nicer and the voting experience more positive — under this system, candidates would want to appeal to the biggest universe of people, who are now freed to vote with their hearts — but in New York reality, everyone’s calling each other a corrupt fake. And a voter’s heart can still run into practical realities; if you only rank three candidates, and they all get eliminated, so does your ballot.
And by the way, how are you supposed to rank five of these people?
It’s the literal question before New York City voters, with an existential edge. Imagining these candidates as a cohesive slate, or even a cohesive dinner table, doesn’t make sense. If you identify with one, it’s hard to imagine identifying with another.
Three seem to be leading: 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, former police officer and Brooklyn official Eric Adams, and Kathryn Garcia, a longtime civil servant who ran the sanitation department. They’re all moderates, for preserving the police budget and charter schools. In the post-Bernie, post-Trump world, is that about the collapse of the left? Or is it about the left’s candidates, and the absence of a dynamite campaign? Or is this about the salience of economic health and public safety right now, like New York electing Mike Bloomberg after 9/11? Is it about experience and blue-collar authenticity (Adams), or about wanting a break from the doom and gloom (Yang), or about a values-over-ideology emphasis on competence (Garcia)?
All three agree the city’s in crisis. And New York does have the converging supernova of many postpandemic problems faced by various American cities, from Las Vegas to Philadelphia. These include: devastated tourism and live performance industries, depleted restaurants and retail, the existential threat of remote work to the world's biggest office parks, housing costs that make it hard for the median-income American (of whom there are millions in New York) to live decently, messed-up schools, homelessness, an increase in gun crimes after decades of declining numbers, and an ongoing structural-versus-reformist debate about the police force, one year out from a video of an NYPD officer plowing an SUV into protesters.
Yang is focused on bringing tourists and offices back to make the economic water mill of Manhattan turn again. Garcia more qualitatively emphasizes crisis management and knowledge, derived from decades in government. Adams, more or less, says if you don't have a recovery focused on the median New Yorker (who has a household income of $63,000 and is not white) and their safety, then you don't have a recovery.
But it’s not like people talking and fighting about this race are pulling out 12-point housing plans. The singular viral moment of this campaign, for instance, was about housing (the answer to the question “How much does the median home cost in Brooklyn?”), but the nature of its virality was two candidates’ nuclearly out-of-touch answers ($100,000), followed by some campaigns accusing Yang of cheating because he got the answer correct. The anger, friction, silences, and jokes are in identity and authenticity.
“I’m a real New Yorker,” as Adams said recently in front of Yankee Stadium, receiving an endorsement. Garcia cites growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s when she talks about policing. Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley is quick to say she stayed in the city during the pandemic, and Stringer’s constant refrain is that he’s a failed Zoom teacher. This week, the question of where exactly Adams lives has entailed Politico staking out an office building overnight, Wiley releasing a statement that opened “WTF? Does Eric Adams live in New Jersey?,” Yang demanding that Adams release his E-ZPass records, and an emotional Adams marching the press through a basement apartment in Brooklyn.
Online, the authenticity discourse around Yang has consumed entire days of the campaign. Trying to pin down the exact source isn’t easy. People argue about him being a celebrity, being the empty vessel for a Bloomberg revival, not voting in local elections, leaving the city during the early and grim days of the pandemic, and/or being clearly less informed than the other candidates about the workings of the city government he seeks to lead. But superficial, harmless stuff — picking the Times Square subway stop as his favorite — also captures a lot of heat; people tear apart his basic opinions and jokey ways, casting him as an interloper.
The nature of the superficial flashpoints isn’t an exact science, either. Maybe people just like having a punchline. Maybe Yang, who grew up in the suburbs and moved to Manhattan after college, like plenty of people did in the 2000s and 2010s, cuts a little too close to the unsuffering transplant core of some. Maybe it’s older: Bad tropes have also come into play at times; imperfect candidates can become vehicles for criticism that drifts into nastier places. Yang has lived in Manhattan since the ’90s (and near the Times Square subway stop for 15 years); his wife grew up in Queens. With her husband standing very still behind her, a clearly upset Evelyn Yang laid into the Daily News recently for printing a gross cartoon that depicted him without visible eyes, traipsing through Times Square as two vendors say, “The tourists are back!”
It’s clear Yang would rather be operating on a different valence: conversational, dispositionally welcoming, willing to submit to the potential embarrassment of doing an interview with Ziwe or playing basketball in public, focused on the big ideas of restoring the economy, and possibly leaving the implementation up to someone else. In Queens, as Yang endorsed two city council candidates, Richard Lee and Sandra Ung, he threw his arms out and joked, “Where are my throngs?” (It was a Monday morning.) Two older men came over off the concrete half tennis court to watch the whole thing. One took selfies, the other stood still, a tennis racquet elegantly clasped behind his back. When Yang and the two city council candidates walked a big procession of staffers and reporters through Flushing to a shockingly busy seafood restaurant, Yang idly asked Lee if he played basketball (“I try”) and Ung if she had any athletic pursuits. She didn't; actually, wait, she ran the New York City Marathon — but, she added, that wasn't real. “That's the realest thing I've ever heard,” Yang said. “I'd drop dead in the middle.”
You can see these kinds of “who we are”/“who we aren’t” dichotomies across the primary — the direction for policing, the future of the new left, in Adams’ class-based appeals.
There’s the triptych of candidates claiming the police reform movement: former cops like Adams, more traditional activists like Wiley, and newer defund the police activists like nonprofit executive Dianne Morales. Last year, protesters marched nightly for more than a month, the culmination of nearly a decade of organizing and activism; this year, crime and the historical rhythms of backlash might complicate that energy nationally — or maybe it won’t.
Adams argues that only he has the wherewithal to change things, putting forth plans like community involvement in selecting precinct commanders — while campaigning relentlessly on ending the big spike in gun crimes since the second half of the pandemic. He has criticized the defund movement, and suggested the line is driven by affluent white kids who go home to comfortable communities unhassled by violence. All the way on the other end, Morales wants to cut the NYPD budget in half, reallocate into social services and education, and decriminalize drugs. (Strangely, during debates, Morales and Adams seem to get along most “peacefully” of all the candidates, as Adams put it, even when Morales told him his comments about defund movement erased decades of work by Black activists.) In between them, Wiley has campaigned on cutting $1 billion from the police budget to put into economic and mental health programs and torn into Adams as a police union–backed official who will favor the aggressive ’90s practices that millions of people have marched against over the last decade.
Concurrently, the left is dealing with whether it’s enough to say the right things. Morales had been The Left’s Candidate for Voting Your Heart — a charismatic speaker who approached the race in a more or less fun way. (“She’s viable if you vote for her,” a campaign T-shirt read.) Then some people left the campaign and some people got fired, the campaign held a five-hour Zoom meeting that Morales didn’t attend, the candidate put out a statement that explained nothing, staffers started unionizing a few weeks before the entire operation would cease to exist, then said the campaign fired people who tried to unionize, and all this was going on while writers started wondering where Morales had been over the years on all the things that matter to the left. Basically: Nobody seems to know precisely what happened, and much of the Dianne Morales campaign ended up marching against Dianne Morales, who called the general situation a “beautiful mess,” before it continued to deteriorate into mass firings and recriminations.
Originally, before all that, her campaign had appealed to the wave of newer, younger, more diverse, often college-educated, left-leaning activists and voters, who possess a lot of the progressive movement’s biggest energy. Stringer, the city’s comptroller and a career politician, spent years moving leftward and racking up support from the pre- and post-AOC wave of politicians. They almost entirely dropped their endorsements when a former campaign volunteer alleged that Stringer had sexually harassed her 20 years ago, an allegation followed by a second from the 1990s, both of which he has denied. Still backed by the teachers union and coherent during debates on policy, he has stayed competitive in the limited polling for the race. You can’t draw any big conclusions about success in such a busted race as this, but you can really feel the generational tensions about direction and emphasis and the kinds of candidates people can trust.
And how bitter things can turn within a party, particularly on those radically different generational approaches to the police. Recently, late in the race, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Wiley, an apparent effort to energize progressive voters and clarify the race for them behind the last, best choice to keep a moderate out of office. Adams attacked them both, harshly. The pair, he said in a statement, want to cut the police budget when “Black and brown babies are being shot in our streets, hate crimes are terrorizing Asian and Jewish communities, and innocent New Yorkers are being stabbed and shot on their way to work.” Wiley rejoined that Adams was echoing “arguments we’ve seen all around the country from Republicans attacking Black candidates by perpetuating the myth that they can’t keep their communities safe.”
As much as Adams has emphasized crime, and as much as the conversation around him concerns policing, his campaign also carries a class dimension that implicitly cuts against much of the field. Out in front of Yankee Stadium, one Unite Here speaker told the assembled that the local represents the mostly Black and Latino people who serve food at the stadiums and ritzy restaurants — “the working poor.”
“I am you,” Adams said, something he also told attendees in a predominantly Black, middle-class Queens neighborhood adding, “You all finally have a candidate that is you.” When a group of Muslim associations endorsed him, one speaker, before speaking a bit in Spanish, said that unlike the other candidates in the race, Adams had “tasted poverty.” If a newspaper reporter asks Adams a specific question, they are likely to hear specific proposals aimed at the areas that haven’t traditionally gotten attention: mandatory screening for learning disabilities, full-year school to reduce learning disparities and aid working parents, an electric bus fleet expansion that starts in areas with high asthma rates.
In ads and at campaign stops, he terms himself a blue-collar mayor for the nonwhite-majority residents, of and representing the people who couldn’t leave during the pandemic, for whom the city was never fun, and who get overlooked in the discourse about New York — and, occasionally, he takes that approach, which is pretty common and popular to national politics now, to its less common logical conclusion. Last year, Adams basically told the gentrifiers to go back to Ohio and Iowa.
In that way, he’s attuned to the specific issues a group might be facing, and sometimes verges on Bidenesque lecturing of a group. “When you talk about halal food, they’ll listen,” he said in Brooklyn to the Muslim association endorsing him, ticking off religious holidays, the right to wear hijab, the right to prayer during schooltime for their children. If Muslims organize, he said, they’ll listen.
“Your power’s in the numbers,” he continued to applause. “You’ve allowed people to tell you must live in the shadows of the American and New York experience. I am saying to you: No more being in the shadows. You need to walk in the sunshine of what this city represents.”
Yang says Adams is corrupt; Stringer calls Yang a Republican; Wiley suggests Adams is one. Adams has accused Yang of being absent in the city over the years on issues that matter and when Wiley said at a forum that she’d been the “only one” fighting for civil rights, a reporter said the people with him snickered. Everyone’s now attacking Garcia over city issues through the years. Haunting it all seems to be this idea that there’s a keeper of the experience of American cities — somewhere at the intersection of race, class, history, and disposition. But it makes sense: The entire country lived through a discordant and isolated year, exposed to our own problems and only sometimes those of others; who isn’t raging online or in their heart these days that someone else just doesn’t get it?
What exactly matters in a campaign with 8 million people so densely populated that you can't reliably know what's going on a half mile from yourself? How the hell are you supposed to rank five of these people?
And so, on June 22, New Yorkers will vote in this primary, after three decades of reworking the urban/suburban divide, and the complex mix of gentrification, migration, and immigration that go into a modern city, and the worst year on record in many people’s lives. That night, they’re likely to hear the first round of unofficial results. The next week, if everything goes to plan, city election officials will likely run the ranked-choice program to produce a winner. Unless it’s so close — which usually doesn’t happen in elections, but sometimes it does, as it just did in multiple states in 2020 — that every last ballot needs to be counted. Then, given the new statutory rules about absentee ballots and the deadline for voters to correct potential absentee ballot errors, we would likely find out the winner of this chaotic race in early to mid-July.
Hopefully we’ll all be chill and reasonable about that if it happens, at this juncture in American democracy. Hopefully we too will appreciate the nuances of a system in which one candidate might narrowly win on the first ballot with 28%, and narrowly lose the actual primary on the 10th ballot. As Adams put it in front of Yankee Stadium, “We are going to define who we are right now.” ●
Opening image credits: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images (Adams); Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images (Donovan, Stringer, Yang); Michelle V. Agins / The New York Times via Redux (Morales); José A. Alvarado Jr. (McGuire); Spencer Platt / Getty Images (Garcia, Wiley). All other images via Getty Images.