Before the plague came to the city, you could walk up to Gracie Mansion and touch your fingers to the cool brick of the walls surrounding the grounds.
Those days, like so much before the coronavirus, are long gone. The Upper East Side mansion, erected in 1799, sits behind NYPD barricades. The metallic gates are everywhere, cutting off the walking paths that used to invite visitors to the home of the mayor of New York City. Gracie resembles, a year into the pandemic, a fortress under siege.
On June 22, when the virus may well be less pervasive, Democrats in New York will choose their nominee for mayor. In our heavily Democratic city, this primary victory will be tantamount to election. And given the ease with which incumbents glide to a second term — the oft-maligned Bill de Blasio won his 2017 primary with nearly 75 percent of the vote and easily swatted away a Republican by 38 points — this election will effectively determine who gets to govern the largest city in America for the next eight years. (The last one-term mayor, David Dinkins, left office in 1993.)
There may be no more important election — in this city, at least — in modern history. Not since the city nearly went bankrupt in 1975 has it been so close to the brink. COVID-19 has killed more than 27,000 of our fellow citizens. The restaurant, tourism, and hospitality industries are decimated. The true unemployment rate, some experts estimate, could exceed 20 percent. The murder rate is up all over America, and here in New York it has soared 41 percent over 2019. This past summer, protests against police brutality shook the city during some of the tensest days and nights in memory, drawing savage crackdowns from an NYPD that de Blasio — a left-leaning Democrat — has repeatedly failed to reform and discipline.
The Gracie Mansion barricades went up around the time of those hot, violent nights, as de Blasio, known for his stubborn workouts at the Park Slope Y and his refusal to show up anywhere on time, seemed to retreat from his city. While the gangly mayor has real, lasting accomplishments — he created a universal prekindergarten program and helped pass laws increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid sick leave — he has been mocked and derided for his quixotic national ambitions and for failing, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The city, laid so low, may be even more immediately beleaguered than it was in the 1970s, when a fiscal crisis triggered mass layoffs and enormous cuts to social services. “Here the challenge is much greater,” says City Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of the front-running candidates. “We have no tourists, no arts and culture, no restaurant or dining to speak of. This is unprecedented territory.”
A New York City mayoral race is like none other. Candidates crisscross neighborhoods as large as small cities, courting varied racial, ethnic, and interest groups that can diverge wildly in their needs and wants. There is a Hasidic vote, a Chinese vote, an Afro-Caribbean vote, and an MSNBC liberal vote. There are dozens of labor unions, civic organizations, churches, block associations, and Democratic clubs that all want to feel that the mayor will represent them, and often, them alone, even though the primary has drawn close to 1 million voters in the past.
“Running for mayor involves having an understanding of these different communities, having some people who have some ties in these communities and understanding issues that matter to them—and that does create some whiplash for candidates,” says Lis Smith, a prominent Democratic operative who worked on de Blasio’s 2013 campaign. “One day you’re talking to a group that’s very progressive, very liberal, and the next day you’re talking to a group of voters that are more fiscally conservative, socially conservative. There are a fair amount of anti-abortion Democrats.”
The pandemic, of course, has upended all of this. The last time there was an open mayoral race, candidates had months to glad-hand at parades, block parties, and Sunday services, slowly building name recognition as voters spotted them on street corners and subway platforms. Once an unknown, de Blasio himself had to cajole commuters at the subway, hunching his six-six frame to give his elevator pitch to the people rushing by.
These days, the candidates are locked into Zoom forums. Andrew Yang, one of the top contenders, hustled across the city in January, staging walking tours and riding the subway with reporters in tow.
On February 2, he announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. His diagnosis may well convince the other contenders to avoid crowd contact, at least for now. “The last time I had a flu no one gave a shit,” Yang joked.
Pandemic campaigning, generally, has meant increased phone banks, more glossy campaign mailers, and additional digital and TV ads to replace door-to-door canvassing. For candidates without built-in followings, this is cutting down on opportunities to meet voters and demonstrate momentum, either with a big rally, a strong showing at a parade, or even a staged arrest, cameras flashing.
“I’m still a believer, as far as citywide races, that regular cable TV is important,” says Jerry Skurnik, a longtime Democratic consultant. “That’s why de Blasio won eight years ago. It seems to me that TV is even more important this year. I’m sitting home right now — the TV is on.”
More than 30 candidates, remarkably, have registered to run with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, though there are only five or six Democrats who have a viable chance of seizing the nomination and breezing to victory in the fall. Much of this has to do with money: A competitive mayoral race costs millions of dollars, and only a handful of Democrats will be able to raise and spend that kind of cash.
Two of the candidates, Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, have been enmeshed in the city’s political machinery for decades, taking the most traditional route to power.
Stringer, who has been the city’s comptroller since 2014, is a Manhattanite with a base on the white, liberal Upper West Side. He is the undisputed endorsement king — three members of Congress, including the newly elected Bronx firebrand Jamaal Bowman, are backing Stringer’s candidacy, along with a deep roster of state lawmakers. Stringer has been courting the city’s resurgent left, criticizing power elites like the real estate industry and proposing an ambitious plan to phase out all fossil fuel infrastructure citywide. Once a more risk-averse, clubhouse politician, Stringer is hoping he can woo progressives in the primary, recreating a version of the playbook that got de Blasio to Gracie Mansion in the first place.
Adams, unlike Stringer, does not chest-thump over progressive credentials. A former state senator, police captain, and Republican, Adams proudly fundraises from the real estate developers loathed on the left. A power broker in Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods, Adams has been a muscular voice on police reform, pitching an idea to let community groups select police commanders. He said he would publicize the names of police officers being monitored for bad behavior. (Adams did not return multiple requests for comment.)
Stringer, who has promised to “manage the hell” out of the city, has banked close to $6 million for the race so far; Adams has about $6.6 million. Both of them are expected to be prolific fundraisers in the months to come.
But every mayoral race, it seems, has a disruptor. In 2001, a little-known, charisma-challenged billionaire named Michael Bloomberg defied the Democratic establishment, winning the mayoralty in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Bloomberg triumphed on the Republican line, all but impossible in today’s city, unless you can spend $100 million, which is out of reach for all of the current candidates.
In 2013, horrifying entrenched Democrats while delighting every newspaper in town, Anthony Weiner plunged into the Democratic primary, fresh off the first of many sexting scandals. Before his implosion, he was a polling leader, drawing huge crowds in the streets. At the same time, Eliot Spitzer, the former governor felled in a prostitution scandal, was running for city comptroller, whipping up a singular frenzy around a municipal contest.
In 2021, there are no black swan candidates like Weiner and Spitzer, but there is a famous outsider: Yang, the entrepreneur who gained widespread recognition running for president on a platform to give $1,000 to every American every month, forever. Mayoral candidate Yang cannot propose anything so ambitious — his current cash-transfer proposal is micro-targeted to very poor households, and would cost $1 billion annually out of an $88 billion budget — and he has mixed worthy progressive goals, such as a public bank for New York City, with the more curious, including a casino on Governors Island that would be forbidden under a federal deed restriction.
“I’m running for mayor for one reason and one reason only: I believe I can help New York City recover from this crisis faster than others,” Yang says. He is chasing the progressive vote, like Stringer, but he is also hoping to cross over everywhere, knitting together moderates and exciting the city’s burgeoning Asian communities. Before testing positive, he took to street-level campaigning with particular gusto, and is easily recognized when he ventures out.
“There’s like a real need in New York to have someone who people have a sense of pulling for them,” Yang continues, pitching his candidacy, “and one of the things happening in New York City right now — the nature of the race is a lot of noise — to me, as long as New Yorkers are happy to see me, I’m pumped to fight for them.”
The bubbly Yang is, more than any other candidate, resented by the rival campaigns, who treat him with a mixture of derision and fear. His top consultant, Bradley Tusk, advised Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign and grew rich advising Uber, drawing ire from the left.
There are other formidable contenders: Maya Wiley, a former counsel for the de Blasio administration and a civil rights lawyer who rose to greater fame as an MSNBC analyst, is seeking to become New York’s first female mayor. (Wiley declined an interview request.)
And the city’s Wall Street titans specifically recruited Ray McGuire, a Citigroup executive, to run for mayor; he has raised nearly $5 million from business heavyweights in a short amount of time, vaulting himself into the top tier.
“I don’t owe anybody anything,” McGuire says, boasting of his status as a first-time candidate. “Zero. I’m unbought.” Celebrities such as Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson are in McGuire’s corner. As a Black business executive, he has spoken openly about racial justice and coalition building between the city’s millionaire class and leftists who seek to check their power.
Some on the left are hoping Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, can catch fire. Though the Democratic Socialists of America, an emerging power center in New York politics, are not formally backing any candidate, members of the organization have been drawn to Morales, who has called for slashing the NYPD budget in half and redirecting the funds to social services.
“I kind of reject the idea that we can’t talk about decreasing this sort of system that criminalizes poverty for Black and brown people because people are going to be unsafe. Black and brown folks are already unsafe,” Morales says. “We need to be morally committed to people’s needs to live in dignity.”
And there is no shortage of technocrats: de Blasio’s former Sanitation commissioner and interim NYCHA chair, Kathryn Garcia, and ex-HUD secretary and federal OMB commissioner Shaun Donovan are hoping to vault into the first tier. Each boasts of governmental experience that outstrips the rest of the field. “I am absolutely the most qualified,” Garcia argues. “I think I am the only person in the race who really understands what this job is. This is a day-to-day, deliver for the people job.”
Donovan, who was also a housing commissioner under Michael Bloomberg, drew attention when he proposed giving every city child a $1,000 “equity” bond that could grow to $50,000 by the time of their high school graduation. “With all due respect to the other candidates, no one else has ever run a four trillion dollar budget,” he says, referring to his tenure at the federal level. “No one else has sat side by side with Dr. Fauci in the Oval Office or Situation Room.”
For the first time, a mayoral election will be held with ranked-choice voting. In the old days, candidates clawed for slivers of the electorate. If no one won 40 percent of the vote, there was a citywide runoff between the top two candidates. These were vicious, if low turnout, affairs.
Ranked-choice allows voters to rank their top five candidates. Getting second- and third-place votes matter. The runoff is no more. No one quite knows how this will impact one candidate or another, although everyone has a theory about why they are the most well suited for the new era. It’s already produced coalitions: Stringer and Morales shared a co-endorser, a state senator from the Bronx, and some Democrats are speculating that Stringer wants to elevate Morales to undercut other progressive rivals, including Wiley. Adams, meanwhile, has aggressively opposed the system entirely, on the premise that the voter education hasn’t been there to make it happen effectively.
The race, like the city, is in flux. There is no candidate with a clear claim to the nomination. There is no single woman or man with the best argument, either — not with multiple technocrats, a citywide elected official, an unorthodox figure of national renown, a well-regarded civil rights attorney, and many others seeking the prize of governing one of the world’s great cities.
Come 2022, inordinately challenging decisions will have to be made. New York will be emerging, slowly, from pandemic hell. At some point, the new mayor will have to lower the barricades — metaphorically and literally — and enter the streets where the city, ravaged by plague, longs for compelling leadership.
“We have to get it right this time,” says Stringer. “We have to have a reset.” ❖