NEW YORK CITY — Andrew Yang spent part of the Saturday before New York City’s mayoral primary in Morningside Park, where people were out grilling and kids were running and blowing bubbles around the park’s Juneteenth festival. Fred Scott, a Harlem resident, was still weighing exactly how he would vote. I asked him if people wanted a personality candidate — someone like Yang, who may not know much about how the city is technically run but can be an ambassador for its brand.
Scott shook his head no. “Too much at stake here.”
And what about Yang, specifically? “I think he’s a very intelligent person,” Scott said, “who probably needs a little seasoning.”
Yang spotted us chatting. He waved. “He’s a smart man,” Yang called out. “Whatever he’s saying is right.”
Three days later, on the roof of a Hell’s Kitchen hotel, Yang’s concession basically confirmed Scott was right. After months spent as a frontrunner in the city’s Democratic primary, Yang’s standing collapsed in the final weeks, and he ended election night far from the top. Yang, who entered this chaotic race with an unusually large national following thanks to his presidential run, had bet on consolidating marginalized voters (like those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander and Latino communities), maintaining competitiveness among likely voters, and growing the electorate on the promise that only a political outsider could bring change. That plan ended with him in a distant fourth on election night, before absentee ballots and the city’s new ranked-choice voting system are factored in.
If you do not live in New York City, it is easy to roll your eyes at this race. It’s set in a city that has a reputation for believing it is the center of the universe, and it has received an annoying amount of national media attention. But stop to take stock of it: It affects more than 8 million people struggling with concentrated issues that resonate with much of the rest of America, from gun violence to unemployment. And it’s a remarkably telling race about what exactly blue voters in a blue city in a blue state are looking for in this moment, after a pandemic and a Trump administration threatened virtually every facet of stability. We don’t know who won yet, and may not for weeks, but Yang’s campaign was the test case for whether it is enough for a politician to have a big, likable personality without the experience to bolster it.
As the campaign closed, Yang went heavy on the offensive against Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the former New York City police officer and late-campaign frontrunner. This was striking, given Yang’s penchant for being upbeat and positive, above the city’s bare-knuckle politics. And then he did something very bare-knuckle and political: In the final days of the race, he was one of the most outwardly strategic candidates about the city's ranked-choice ballots, which allowed voters to rank up to five mayoral candidates, insomuch as he co-campaigned with Kathryn Garcia, the former commissioner of the city’s sanitation department. Garcia, another frontrunner, was who Yang had previously said he would hire for his administration if he won. Yang told his supporters to rank her number two on their ballots; Garcia did not return the favor.
“I think he’s more interested in, I hate to say it, being a ribbon cutter than actually doing the job,” Mica Hill, a voter, told me outside of Zabar’s, an Upper West Side institution near where he lives and where Garcia spent Sunday morning with voters. Hill, who planned to rank Garcia first, said he was looking for someone who’ll get things done, who has a track record — someone with a similar vibe to the candidate who beat Yang last year. “Right now, the temperament of our president [in] office is so nice, it’s so refreshing. We’re not all watching the news with our heart fluttering. We have a boring president who’s actually quite good.”
The Andrew Yang I met in New Hampshire more than two years ago, as he was campaigning to be president of the United States, seemed just happy to be there. However avid his fanbase was and however long he clung on beyond more established opponents, few thought he would become president (they were right). And so he was a blast to be around, the relief in a serious Democratic primary that had to — had to — produce the antidote to Donald Trump, himself a pol who knew nothing about governing and everything about appealing to the desire for change. Eventually, America settled on Joe Biden, the antithesis of all this. Boring. Establishment. Stable.
The Andrew Yang I met on the mayoral campaign trail in the last days of the race was equally energized, but at times transparently frustrated, having been pressed through the thankless machine of New York politics and scrutinized in a way that he wasn’t in the lead up to 2020. (Where is the bathtub? ranks as one of the funniest out-of-context questions a candidate could ask about their opponent in the waning days of a race.) His candidacy was no longer energized by the single idea of universal basic income, a policy proposal nearly synonymous with Yang, though it came up on the trail when a voter asked him where his check was. Instead, Yang proposed a more limited basic income that would start by assisting 500,000 of the city’s residents with the greatest need, growing the program over time through a public-philanthropic partnership. Where before he was reticent to discuss racism on the presidential stump, he’s allowed identity and lived experience to guide much of his mayoral campaigning. And where his national campaign once relished in media attention, his campaign is now noticeably bitter about it.
When I introduced myself to Yang’s wife, Evelyn, on the last weekend of the campaign in Flushing and told her I’d covered Yang during his presidential run, she asked me whether I’d written “nice things.” I told her I’d written fairly, and she went on to say that’s all they asked for. “Some people would have you think he sprouted horns in the last three months,” she said.
Yang certainly dealt with absurdities like a racist cartoon and over-the-top scorchings about his favorite subway stop. But a lot of the criticism he got was standard vetting for frontrunners. Yang hadn’t previously voted in a mayoral race in New York. He left town early in the pandemic, both to stay upstate with his family and then to campaign for Senate candidates in Georgia. He later questioned how a parent could be expected to work from home in a two-bedroom apartment with two kids, something that was the reality for an untold number of New Yorkers. He stumbled over questions about the New York City Police Department. He was backed by Bradley Tusk, a political operative with ties to Michael Bloomberg, who said the quiet part aloud when he referred to Yang as an “empty vessel” to the New York Times.
“Even though Yang is not as bad as Trump, I don’t think we need another cult of personality person in politics,” Thalia Bloom, a Brooklyn voter, said. “He’s not a politician. He hasn’t been in politics before. He’s never voted in a New York election. So it just makes no sense to me.”
“We need new blood!” a man told Yang outside of Citi Field Stadium on the Monday before election day, where Yang was greeting voters on their way into the Mets’ first full-capacity game of the season. People flocked to Yang for selfies or to wish him luck, and the scene perfectly encapsulated what he wanted voters to see in him: a person who, if elected mayor, would be recognizable to New Yorkers and beyond. “Nice to meet you, shut the hell up!” said a woman from the West Coast (aka, not a New York voter) who was genuinely thrilled to see him.
The same scene played out on Saturday outside of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as fans were pouring in to watch the Nets play. You could hear recognition ripple through groups — New Yorkers and visitors alike — who then debated whether to get in line for a picture. Here was a bona fide celebrity, worthy of a picture for the ‘gram but perhaps not so much for a vote.
This type of voter event stood in contrast to the image Adams was meanwhile projecting of himself, as a serious person fixed on public safety promising to “crack down” on guns and gangs in the city. On Sunday, Adams visited a family in the Bronx whose children had barely escaped getting shot as they went to their neighborhood bodega. Adams did a press event in front of the bodega, infuriated. “We need to catch this bastard,” he said.
Adams ended election night with a significant lead for first on initial preferences over Garcia and Maya Wiley, who surged with progressive support late in the race.
The argument for Yang and candidates like him is the flip side of this heaviness: his freshness, his newness, his vision in an age where people are tired of being mired in the same old, same old.
“People want a mayor that they just feel like is on their side, first and foremost. I think people know that I’m not someone who’s been steeped in politics, certainly not city politics, for a long time, and as a result, I probably have a bit of a different energy, maybe we do things a little bit differently. But I think that’s exciting for a lot of New Yorkers,” Yang told BuzzFeed News as he greeted supporters during early voting, stopping at one point to dribble a basketball.
His allies, among them US Reps. Ritchie Torres and Grace Meng, agreed, noting that he’d won over a lot of voters with his independence from a political establishment that has, in many ways, failed New Yorkers. There’s also, they argue, a desire to see representation, particularly after a year when there has been so much violence and hate directed at Asian American communities.
Yang got at this while campaigning. At a rally to get out Asian American voters hosted in Manhattan’s Chinatown, as trains rumbled by on the Manhattan bridge above a “Vote for Justice” mural, Yang spoke about how he and other Asian Americans had grown up with a sense that their belonging in New York or America needed to be proven or demonstrated.
“There’s a sense that if you’re Asian American, you’re allowed to become this successful in America,” he said, putting his hand up. “But not this successful,” he said, raising it higher. “There’s, like, an acceptable level of success for Asian Americans. I don’t know if any of you [have] felt that. I certainly felt that growing up.” He then invited them to visualize a New York City where people who fly into the airport are greeted with a message, “Welcome to New York City, Mayor Andrew Yang.” It was a sign that would send a message of belonging and inclusion.
This was not the only time he would use this line, but by the time the final days of the campaign approached, the possibility was looking like it might just be a pipe dream. Polling and expectations were as uncertain as ever, but momentum seemed to be clearly shifting away from his campaign.
“Voters are seeking competence, managerial competence, are seeking public safety, and seeking change,” Torres said by phone the week before the primary. “If the election is about change, Andrew Yang wins. If the election is about public safety, Eric Adams wins. If the election is about management, Kathryn Garcia wins. All of those issues are important; the question is which one is going to dominate on election [day].” (He later added that if voters were looking for progressives, Maya Wiley would win.)
The only time I ever heard Yang acknowledge the possibility of losing was in Kew Gardens Hills, a community with a large Orthodox Jewish population, where he was kicking off a canvass as part of the five-borough tour he did the day before the primary. His tour included a van his campaign was calling the Yangatron, which had Yang’s face on the side. “What happens if we fall just short?” he asked the group gathered around him, which was standing on a corner and effectively blocking the entrance to a pharmacy. “Boooo,” someone responded. “I didn’t say it,” Yang said, holding a megaphone. “Think about the gulf between those two worlds, and think about everything that you can do to make sure that we are celebrating an enduring victory tomorrow night.” He never answered his own question.
On election night, supporters gathered on the Hell’s Kitchen hotel rooftop. The temperature had plummeted just hours before, breaking a heat wave. People grabbed drinks and ate hotdogs with lights strung above them as a screen with results started bringing in bad news for their candidate.
His party didn’t even have time to get up to full speed before Yang acknowledged his defeat. “I’m someone who trafficks in what’s happening by the numbers, and I am not going to be the next mayor of New York City based upon the numbers that have come in tonight,” Yang said. To his credit, he has twice now quickly conceded when the results made it clear he had no path to victory.
The question for Yang now is, what will he do next? When he was running for president, some (including the New York Times editorial board) suggested city politics might be a better fit, and speculation that he’d run for mayor started in earnest as soon as he left New Hampshire. Is there a next race? An office where his brand, with style and feeling over experience, could still thrive in Democratic politics? A few years ago, the name Andrew Yang did not mean much to almost anyone, but now much of the nation knows who he is, a celebrity that he gets to hang onto despite the loss.
His supporters want him to stay involved with politics in some form or another. One supporter, Jordan Cheng of Flushing, a heavily Asian neighborhood in which the Yang campaign had invested a lot of time, said Monday he planned on voting for Yang for mayor. He told me this as Yang and Garcia together led a mob of journalists and volunteers through the packed sidewalks of the Main Street strip of the neighborhood, blaring the “Yang for NY” song and handing out literature. But Cheng did think Yang’s lack of experience was one of the candidate’s downsides, and if he lost, he’d like to see him run again.
“Mayor’s a big position. If anything, first, maybe he starts small,” Cheng said. He suggested Yang run for city council. ●