When New York City mayoral hopefuls declared their candidacies last year, the U.S.’s most populous city was crippled by coronavirus restrictions and a bleak economy. But the race was turned on its head when vaccines arrived, COVID rates plummeted, and New Yorkers grappled with an uncharted, uncertain reopening.
On Tuesday, voters will cast their ballots in a primary election that’s focused far more on the basics of governing and quality of life than the ideological battles over inequality that got term-limited Bill de Blasio elected mayor in 2013.
Three out of the four leading candidates in recent opinion polls for the Democrat primary have cast themselves as non-ideological leaders who would put crime, grime, and the economy above major reforms: Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams, former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, and former presidential contender Andrew Yang.
Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, whose endorsements from progressive politicians like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vaulted her to the top of some polls, has vowed to fight inequality and cut police funding — an echo of themes her former boss de Blasio raised to capture City Hall. But her campaign hasn’t defined itself with a signature policy as de Blasio did, promoting universal pre-kindergarten and ending stop-and-frisk.
“This mayor’s race will be won by the candidate who the voters think can actually run this city and get us out of the post-pandemic hole,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s largest teachers union, which endorsed city Comptroller Scott Stringer.
New Voting System
The election will be the city’s first mayoral contest using ranked choice voting. Proponents of the system say selecting five candidates instead of just one gives people a greater say in elections by ensuring every ballot counts. The system aims to reduce negative campaigning, though candidate attacks persisted and included criticism over where Adams actually lived, Yang’s decision to flee the city during Covid, and Wiley’s neighborhood security patrol. A rare spot of cooperation came over the weekend when Yang and Garcia campaigned jointly, though the alliance seemed aimed at knocking down Adams.
Expansion of the city’s public campaign financing system, early voting, and relaxed absentee ballot rules brought on by COVID add more uncertainty to the race. The Democrat primary is all but certain to determine the next mayor in the heavily-Democrat city.
The city’s board of elections expects to disclose the leading candidates after Tuesday’s polls close at 9 p.m. but may not declare a winner for days or weeks to account for absentee ballots. “It’s a longer process than people are used to, and we are going to do the best we can to provide information when we can,” said board chair Frederic Umane.
The slate of candidates is also the city’s most diverse and could produce New York’s first female or Asian mayor. The city has had 109 male leaders and only one — David Dinkins — was Black.
A Different New York City
The campaign’s months-long twists and turns saw Yang, a newcomer to city politics, emerge as an early frontrunner. Voters watching COVID death counts tick up were drawn to Yang’s high energy and keen sense of optimism at a time when many New Yorkers were miserable. While other candidates stuck to virtual forums, Yang campaigned on the streets, rode the subway, and posted photos of bubble tea and ice cream on Instagram. When Yang contracted COVID himself, he held a live chat with a doctor to connect with voters going through the same experience.
But then, the city changed dramatically. In a short few weeks, COVID hospitalizations dropped. In May, the mask mandate was lifted. As residents left their homes, they noticed the piles of trash and influx of rats. Shooting incidents rose by 101% in June from two years ago. Adams, a 22-year NYPD veteran, identified early the change in voters’ psyches and focused his campaign on crime.
Similarly, Garcia ran ads showcasing her 14 years in city government and a reputation for competence honed as de Blasio’s crisis manager. She used endorsements from the New York Times and Daily News, and backing from the League of Conservation Voters and sanitation worker unions to project herself as the candidate who could run the city like a chief executive.
“People have lived through four years of extreme politics and really are looking for someone who is going to be more of a centrist, more moderate in their views, which is hopefully more achievable,” said Eric Tarlow, 72, a Manhattan lawyer who declined to say who he ranked in early voting.
Garcia also benefited from the fall of Stringer, who appealed to progressive and fiscally conservative voters alike. His campaign stalled after sexual-harassment allegations led to withdrawn endorsements and a drop in opinion polls. Stringer denied the claims.
Some of Stringer’s support in Manhattan and among Jewish voters shifted to Garcia. His other power center — progressive Democrats — moved toward Wiley. The Working Families Party withdrew its endorsement of Stringer and bestowed it upon Wiley. Ocasio-Cortez appeared with Wiley at one of the first big concerts since the city’s nightlife spots reopened, featuring indie rock band, The Strokes.
Wiley also benefited from a staff rebellion against progressive competitor, Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive whose campaign staffers left over complaints of a hostile work environment. Morales was sustained, however, by $4.8 million, including $3.9 million in public money.
“I was interested in voting for Morales before her whole campaign implosion. I’m for defunding the police, I want more social services,” said Joan Brandt, 30, a theater worker who ranked Wiley first in early voting.
The city has paid a record $39 million to candidates participating in its public campaign-finance program, the biggest-ever payout. Yet, the influx of money did little to boost the candidacy of former city housing commissioner Shaun Donovan or banker Ray McGuire, whose campaigns spent more than $10 million each. McGuire didn’t partake in the public matching program.
To political consultant Bruce Gyory, how the vote turns out this week will show whether voters still prize a singular focus on fighting income inequality and overly-aggressive policing or if the pandemic’s economic fallout and rise in crime have pushed New Yorkers in a different direction.
“Voters are asking, ‘Can you deliver or do you just have some good ideas?”’ Gyory said.
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