Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur who won a national following as a presidential candidate in 2020’s Democratic primary, will run for mayor of New York City, he officially announced Wednesday night.
The race is already stacked with candidates, with a likely decisive Democratic primary in June 2021.
But Yang stands apart. His presidential campaign had a nearly singular focus on a proposal for universal basic income, or UBI, in which the federal government would provide citizens with a monthly income. Yang, once an unknown entrepreneur, had never run for political office before launching his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but he raised millions of dollars and amassed an immense following of supporters across the political spectrum who gravitated toward his UBI plan, his warnings that automation would push Americans out of jobs, and his simple English approach to politics. “You can speak to people like people,” Yang said in an interview after ending his campaign early last year.
Yang launched his campaign on Wednesday night, his 46th birthday, in a video painting the entrepreneur as a commonsense everyman of New York who found a home in the city when he moved to Morningside Heights 25 years ago. “Seeing my city the way it is now breaks my heart,” Yang said. In the two-and-a-half-minute ad, featuring images of Yang wearing a “Forward New York” mask as he walks the streets, the candidate promises to create a guaranteed minimum income, expand access to high-speed internet, “take back control of our subway,” and create a People’s Bank, “so it stops being so expensive to be poor.”
The ad shows Yang playing a piano at Coney Island, elbow-bumping in a barbershop, waving to sanitation workers, talking about the injustice of police violence against Black people (“it’s beyond injustice, it’s inhuman”), and examining the empty storefronts of shuttered businesses (“It’s crazy,” he says, sitting with Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, of the rate of closures).
“We’ll reopen intelligently to revive our incredible culture,” Yang tells voters in the video. “Maybe we can even save the Knicks.”
His campaign said the video was directed by Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker best known for films slightly darker than a campaign ad, including Requiem for a Dream and most recently Mother.
The video also features an appearance from Rep. Ritchie Torres, a newly elected Democrat from the Bronx and young star in city politics. Torres does not explicitly endorse Yang in the ad, but an aide to the campaign suggested that an endorsement could be coming.
Yang will make his first appearance as a mayoral candidate at an event in Morningside Park on Thursday morning.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Yang pushed UBI in viral, internet-first ways — during the third presidential debate in Houston, Yang announced onstage that his campaign would give away $120,000 in campaign funds in an extension of a pilot UBI program if supporters went to his website and registered for a chance to win entry to the program. During his final rally in New Hampshire, Yang’s supporters urged him to run for office again. When Yang ended his campaign last February after failing to break through in the first two contests, he told Buzzfeed News that popularizing UBI was his signature accomplishment.
“That will be the most important legacy: If we accelerate the end of poverty in this country — which I believe we already have, because I don’t think this idea is going to go away,” he said.
On Wednesday night, his nascent mayoral campaign circulated a proposal for a UBI program that would provide 500,000 low-income residents with $2,000 to $5,000 a year and enroll participants in what Yang is calling the People’s Bank of New York City, with the ultimate goal of “ending poverty in New York City altogether,” according to a copy of the plan. His campaign said a Yang administration would spend $1 billion each year on cash relief and grow the program over time through public and philanthropic funding.
Yang is running for mayor less as a newcomer than as a target for other candidates to attack and a national figure who has previously set his attention outside of the city. The current mayor, Bill de Blasio, who also briefly ran for president in 2020, is term-limited out of office at the end of 2021.
The idea of Yang as a mayoral candidate has floated around since before his presidential campaign even ended. In its primary endorsement, the New York Times’ editorial board praised Yang as an “engaging and enthusiastic candidate whose diagnoses are often thought-provoking” but without adequate political experience. “We hope he decides to get involved in New York politics,” they wrote. Yang himself consistently refused to rule out the idea, telling BuzzFeed News after ending his campaign that he was considering the possibility.
“One of the things I’m most curious about is who are the other candidates in the race, and what the race would look like,” he said then. “Because I tend to want to do something where I feel like I’m gonna have a big impact and add a lot of value, so if there’s someone who’s already running who would have a positive agenda that’s very aligned with mine — I’m not someone who is just driven by maximum political advantage. I wanna see how much value I can add.”
There are already many other candidates, with more still possible to come. They include New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former de Blasio attorney and MSNBC fixture Maya Wiley, former Obama-era housing secretary Shaun Donovan, and former New York City sanitation chief Kathryn Garcia. New York City has never had a woman serve as mayor and has only once had a mayor who was not a white man — David Dinkins at the start of the 1990s.
The pandemic puts distinct pressure on the race, and crushing pressure on whoever wins it. It has devastated New York City’s economy, with an unemployment rate nearly double the national rate and severe uncertainty about how the city’s businesses will survive even after the pandemic ends, especially if more people are able to work from home, in turn emptying out Manhattan’s dense office buildings and the businesses that serve them. That then raises significant questions about the city’s future tax revenues, and the city programs and agencies that need that money to survive.
Yang grew up north of the city in Westchester County and lives in Manhattan, where he ran businesses before running for president. In 2011, he launched the nonprofit Venture for America, which was intended to seed startups in cities across the country. He had previously run a tutoring company in the city, then called Manhattan GMAT, which he sold to the massive testing company Kaplan. In 2011, he was accused by a former Manhattan GMAT employee of gender discrimination.
Just how often he actually stays in Manhattan became a campaign issue even before Yang formally entered the race. Yang and his wife, Evelyn, who is featured prominently in his campaign launch video, spent much of the last year of the pandemic outside of New York City, at his weekend home in upstate New Paltz. He defended his decision by pointing to the quarantine situations that thousands, if not millions, of New York City residents have lived through.
“Can you imagine trying to have two kids on virtual school in a two-bedroom apartment, and then trying to do work yourself?” Yang said in an interview with the New York Times in January, a quote that immediately drew scorn from candidates in the race.
Talk of Yang’s run for mayor escalated just before the holidays, with reporting in Politico about his outreach in the city and plans, and then on Dec. 11, with the publication of a New York Times article headlined: “Is Andrew Yang Running for Mayor? All Signs Point to Yes.” At the time, Yang allies said the suggestion was premature and that a decision had not yet been reached. He was still under contention for a role in Joe Biden’s incoming administration, one said.
Of his considerations, a person familiar with the candidate’s thinking said, the biggest was the immense reality of what would happen if he actually won: The next mayor will be “piled with a whole bunch of crap,” as the person put it. In 2019, Yang distinguished his candidacy for president, in what was otherwise sometimes a slog of a race spanning 22 months and a total of 27 candidates, by having fun on the campaign trail. This job would not always be fun.
At points last year, Yang told some of his former campaign advisers that he had ruled out a mayoral run. Some of them then went on to work for other candidates in the race. In the months leading up to his announcement, Yang relied on his 2020 campaign manager, Zach Graumann, as well as several staffers from Humanity Forward, the political group he founded last March.
Yang also sought the advice of Bradley Tusk, a friend and strategist who managed former mayor Michael Bloomberg's successful 2009 reelection bid in New York City. Bloomberg and Yang had their own friendly relationship when they both were running for president and were in touch after the end of Yang’s campaign.
“It's still me. It's still what we do,” Yang said in an interview this spring about his political group. “It's still about proving that we're the best to solve our problems.”