New York City's Mayoral Race Remains Unpredictable, Even After Voting Has Begun

Whoever wins the city's Democratic primary on Tuesday will set the tone for economic recovery and the future of criminal justice reform.

Voting has already begun in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary.

Given the city’s heavy Democratic tilt, the winner of the primary, which concludes on Tuesday, is all but assured of the top job.

New York City, home to nearly 8.4 million people, is an American anomaly in many ways ― denser, more multicultural and less car-dependent than the country at large.

But this year — after eight years of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Big Apple’s first Democratic leader in two decades, and a self-styled progressive loathed by the activist left and right in equal measure — the city could chart a course for the future of the Democratic Party.

The top four contenders for the New York City mayoralty, from left to right: Maya Wiley, Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang.
The top four contenders for the New York City mayoralty, from left to right: Maya Wiley, Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang.
Getty Images

The leading contenders for control of City Hall are Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia; Maya Wiley, a former counselor to de Blasio; and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Other less formidable candidates include city Comptroller Scott Stringer; former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan; and former Citigroup senior executive Ray McGuire.

Adams and Yang, both moderate by New York City standards, have led the polls most of the race. But lately, Yang’s standing has declined, while Garcia, a moderate running as a competent technocrat, has risen.

Although the result is still likely to disappoint the city’s activist left, Wiley, who has consolidated progressive support at the last minute, is now also in a competitive position.

Below is a look at each of the top four candidates.

‘Old-School New York Politics’

Eric Adams campaigns with Mexican American community leaders in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. Adams is the frontrunner thanks to his leads with Black and Latino voters.
Eric Adams campaigns with Mexican American community leaders in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. Adams is the frontrunner thanks to his leads with Black and Latino voters.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Adams, a former New York City Police Department captain-turned-state senator and borough leader, is something of a throwback to the heyday of machine politics in New York.

Adams has leveraged long-standing relationships with politicians, business people, clergy and union leaders to a career in public office that has been defined by sometimes-outlandish antics, loose ethics, and a savvy nose for the direction political winds are blowing.

“The way he talks, the way he debates ― he is so old-school New York politics,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a Democratic media consultant who used to work for de Blasio.

Another word to describe Adams might be “transactional”: He appears to trade favors for support. As Yang is fond of noting, Adams has been the subject of federal, state and local investigations for alleged violations of campaign finance or ethics laws.

None of the probes has resulted in anything more than a rebuke of Adams’ judgment, though it is clear that he has used his campaign account ― and a nonprofit not subject to contribution limits ― to solicit support from real-estate moguls and other well-connected individuals whose interests he went on to boost while in office.

At the same time, Adams has a unique personality. Faced with a Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis in 2016 that threatened his eyesight, Adams became a vegan and an exercise nut who lost 30 pounds and eliminated his Diabetes symptoms. He meditates every day and writes in a journal; he credits the latter habit for his tendency to refer to himself in the third person.

Although Adams was an outspoken member of a group of Black cops calling for reform within the NYPD, he was also a registered Republican in the late 1990s and suggested that the party had something to offer Black Americans.

Adams’ tenure in the state Senate was marked by his coziness with Republicans, who held the majority at the time, and a Democratic colleague, Hiram Monserrate, who was expelled in 2010 for slashing his girlfriend with broken glass. Adams objected to Monserrate’s expulsion, claiming that he wanted to wait to see whether his assault conviction was overturned on appeal.

Adams subsequently supported the 2018 reelection of Jesse Hamilton, a Democratic state senator aligned with senate Republicans, during Hamilton’s unsuccessful effort to ward off a progressive primary challenger.

Adams’ scandals have taken on an increasingly bizarre turn in recent weeks. A Politico investigation raised questions about whether Adams lived in Brooklyn, or split his time between Borough Hall and his partner’s condo in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Adams, who took members of the press on a tour of a ground-floor apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he claims to live, has likened the charges to former President Donald Trump’s racist suggestion that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

Past ― and present ― peccadilloes notwithstanding, the secret to Adams’ strong performance in the mayoral primary has been his deep well of support in the city’s working- and middle-class, Black and Latino neighborhoods.

That support has widened thanks to his early and continued focus on the rising number of shootings and murders in the city. As the city’s recovery from the pandemic has taken flight, violent crime has become the central issue in the mayoral race.

Even as he promises to invest in long-term progressive solutions designed to attack the root causes of crime (a track he calls “prevention”), Adams has insisted on the need for more “intervention” as well ― short-term tactics like stationing more cops in subways and reconstituting the city’s plainclothes policing unit.

Yang has largely matched Adams’ tough-on-crime rhetoric and policy proposals in recent weeks, but Adams made it his central theme from the start. And of course, when it comes to crime, it is tough to out-do a former cop ― to say nothing of one who has mused about carrying a handgun at City Hall.

“When crime became such a dominant issue in the race, that positioned Eric Adams as the candidate to beat,” a New York Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, told HuffPost.

‘A Progressive In Gracie Mansion’

Maya Wiley arrives at a rally in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park. An endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has helped consolidate the left behind Wiley.
Maya Wiley arrives at a rally in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park. An endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has helped consolidate the left behind Wiley.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

If Adams is running as a lock-’em-up moderate disdainful of the activist left, civil rights attorney Maya Wiley is a champion of the social movements and causes that have breathed radical new life into city politics in recent years.

A former counselor to de Blasio, Wiley is casting herself as the city’s chance to deliver on the progress that de Blasio promised but fell short of providing.

“I am the progressive who can win this race,” Wiley said at a June press conference. “And I look forward to earning the vote of every single New Yorker so we can choose a path where we all prosper.”

Even in a race defined by calls to crack down on crime, Wiley, who would be the first Black woman to govern the city, has stuck to bold reform proposals. She is calling for $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD budget to be transferred to social programs, and in one of her ads, featured footage of NYPD cars ramming Black Lives Matter protesters during demonstrations last summer.

Until the final few weeks of the campaign, Wiley occupied a kind of inverse goldilocks position as someone who neither had the perceived electability of Stringer ― a newcomer to left-wing causes ― nor the ideological purity of Morales.

But with Stringer laid low by accusations of sexual misconduct and Morales’ campaign unraveled by charges of union-busting, progressives finally consolidated behind Wiley in June as their last best alternative to a moderate chief executive.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)’s surprise endorsement of Wiley on June 5 was a key turning point. Ocasio-Cortez framed a vote for Wiley as the only way to prevent a return to the pro-business and pro-police consensus of the Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani mayoralties.

“These are the stakes,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Maya Wiley is the one. She will be a progressive in Gracie Mansion.”

A recent poll showing Wiley in third place ― behind Adams and Garcia, but ahead of Yang ― has revived progressive hopes of a victory and suggested that lamentations of the disarray besetting the ascendant left in New York City might be premature.

“You will see a lot of the Black community turn out for Black elected officials.”

- Olivia Lapeyrolerie, Democratic consultant

Wiley appears to benefit from a ranked-choice voting system that allows some ideologically flexible Black voters casting ballots for Adams to rank Wiley high up as well. Shoring up substantial Black support alongside that of college-educated liberals was one of de Blasio’s key political strengths, but an achievement that has since eluded many other would-be progressive leaders.

“You will see a lot of the Black community turn out for Black elected officials,” said Peyrolerie, who is Black.

At the same time, Wiley’s surge into the spotlight has heightened criticism from Adams and other moderates at what they see as her privileged brand of progressivism. Wiley lives with her family in an upscale Brooklyn community where a private security car patrols the streets. And she has actually elicited criticism from civil rights advocates for going too easy on police officers accused of misconduct during her tenure as chair of de Blasio’s Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“She is a hypocrite,” said Mona Davids, a South African immigrant, moderate political consultant and charter school parent in the Bronx’s Co-Op City neighborhood.

Wiley’s loss would embolden figures like Davids who accuse the activist left of being out of touch with the city’s multiracial working class.

“The small but loud minority of the activist left does not speak for the majority of New Yorkers and working families,” she said.

A Fresh Face Who Might Have Peaked Too Soon

Andrew Yang talks to a voter in Manhattan's Morningside Park on Saturday. Once a frontrunner, the businessman and former presidential candidate has slid in recent polls.
Andrew Yang talks to a voter in Manhattan's Morningside Park on Saturday. Once a frontrunner, the businessman and former presidential candidate has slid in recent polls.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

For the first few months of the mayor’s race, it seemed like Andrew Yang, who would be the city’s first Asian American mayor, was the only candidate publicly campaigning.

Not unlike Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, Yang’s team adopted a “flood the zone” approach to media coverage. He was everywhere ― playing piano outside the Coney Island theme park in his announcement video, snapping selfies with fans of his proposal for universal basic income, and regaling New Yorkers with his commentary on professional basketball. He did so much in-person campaigning that he tested positive for COVID-19 in early February.

Most of all, Yang’s earnest and upbeat tone felt like an elixir to the dark cloud of the pandemic ― a cheerleader the city needed to emerge from the crisis stronger.

“New York City! Can you feel it? Our comeback starts today,” he tweeted on Jan. 14.

But with greater media attention comes greater media scrutiny. The New York Times took a withering look at Venture for America, a nonprofit Yang founded that aimed to create startup jobs in struggling cities.

Local and national media also focused on Yang’s reliance on the counsel of Bradley Tusk, a former Bloomberg adviser who profited personally from lobbying against regulation of tech companies like Uber. It did not help matters that Tusk told a New York Times columnist that Yang is an “empty vessel,” solidifying suspicions that Yang would be a Trojan horse for big business.

What really hurt Yang — who, critics note, has never voted in a city election — was a series of public flubs in May that reinforced a sense that he was out of his league. For example, at a campaign discussion hosted by a provider of shelters for those who need a temporary place to stay, Yang suggested that there should be specific shelters for survivors of domestic violence — even though such shelters already exist.

“He’s saying something different ― that’s all.”

- Brenda Williams, home health aide

For a candidate promising to bring fresh energy and business acumen to City Hall, the remarks ― and related mistakes ― eroded a potential strength. Without a base among Black voters or progressive activists, he needed to capture a significant portion of college-educated voters critical of de Blasio’s management of the city and incidents that pointed to his ignorance were not helpful.

“He doesn’t have a clue as to what he’s doing,” Joan Beranbaum, a retired union lawyer living in lower Manhattan, told HuffPost.

In addition, Yang’s strong online presence and national profile made him a greater object of left-wing scorn than Adams, even though many of his aides and allies believe his focus on cash relief for low-income families and generally open-minded spirit should make him more palatable to progressives than the former NYPD captain. A statement of unequivocal support for the Israeli government in mid-May that elicited stern condemnation from Ocasio-Cortez, despite similar remarks from Adams, embodied this trend.

By the time of the final debate, Yang had fully embraced his centrist coalition of Asian Americans, Orthodox Jews and moderate, outer-borough whites. In lieu of the cheerful New York sports fan was a guy complaining about illegal ATVs and mentally ill homeless men.

“Yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights?” he said at a debate last week. “We do! The people and families of the city.”

Given his declining standing in the pre-election polls, Yang resorted to forging a one-sided coalition with Kathryn Garcia on Saturday. He plans to rank her second on his ballot and has advised his supporters to do the same, while Garcia, who campaigned alongside him, has not reciprocated.

But Yang, whose most loyal voters ― Asian Americans and Orthodox Jews ― are hard to poll, still has a path to victory, particularly if enough voters ranking other candidates first include him on their ballots one way or another.

“He’s saying something different ― that’s all,” said Brenda Williams, a home health care aide who plans to rank Yang second after Adams. “If we get something different, maybe something happen [sic] better.”

The Uncharismatic Manager

Kathryn Garcia campaigns on Manhattan's Upper West Side on Wednesday. It is unclear whether Garcia has enough support in working-class Black and Latino communities to win.
Kathryn Garcia campaigns on Manhattan's Upper West Side on Wednesday. It is unclear whether Garcia has enough support in working-class Black and Latino communities to win.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The high drama of the Yang-Adams slugfest, the decline of an experienced city hand like Stringer, and the hunger for more efficient city services have all converged to give Kathryn Garcia a shot at City Hall.

Garcia is ideologically closer to Yang and Adams than Wiley, Stringer or Morales. She supports unfettered private-sector housing development, more charter schools and tougher policing.

But Garcia, who would be the city’s first woman mayor, has managed to capture the imagination of college-educated liberals — many of whom are to her left ideologically — thanks to her relentless focus on managerial experience and competence.

She got a major boost with this voting bloc when The New York Times endorsed her in mid-May. The Times touted, among other things, Garcia’s modernization of the city’s snow-plow system and successful reduction of lead paint in public housing.

“The city’s recovery and its longer-term future ... depend on a mayor who will understand and work the levers of good government,” the Times’ editorial board wrote.

A divorced, pack-a-day smoker with a dry speaking style, Garcia is the candidate for voters tired of outsize personalities and eager for a boring, no-nonsense, get-it-done technocrat.

“I’m not running to get the title of mayor. I’m running to do the job of mayor.”

- Kathryn Garcia, former NYC sanitation commissioner

In addition to running the city’s sanitation department, she led emergency food distribution during the pandemic, headed up the city’s public housing authority for a period of time, and served as chief operating officer of the city’s department of environmental protection.

“I’m not running to get the title of mayor,” she said in the final debate. “I’m running to do the job of mayor ― because New York City needs someone who is going to roll up their sleeves and solve the impossible problems.”

In the rush to find an alternative to Adams or Yang, some of Garcia’s record has escaped greater scrutiny. Despite some of Garcia’s efforts, for example, the city’s recycling rate was 18% as of January 2020. And a state government audit of Garcia’s department that came out in September panned the city agency’s record at maintaining sidewalk and street cleanliness.

What’s more, politics is part of a New York City mayor’s job ― and it’s not clear that Garcia has what it takes to win this election, let alone assemble delicate coalitions at City Hall.

Garcia lacks support in the city’s massive working-class Black and Latino communities, which narrows her path to victory. And she failed to secure a cross-endorsement with Ray McGuire that might have helped her make inroads with Black voters in southeast Queens and Harlem, according to The New York Times.

Garcia, who is adopted, has a brother named Matthew who is Black. She has mentioned him in the context of her sensitivity to police racial profiling, on Saturday posted a photo of them eating breakfast together, and referenced that she was “adopted into a multiracial family” in a TV ad.

But neither Matthew, nor Garcia’s two Latino kids ― her ex-husband is Puerto Rican ― have appeared in any of her TV ads. That has deprived her of the kind of multiracial moment that vaulted de Blasio to the mayoralty in 2013. A TV ad featuring de Blasio’s Black teenage son Dante went viral and solidified his standing with Black voters.

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