It’s election season again in the United States – or, at least, it is in the country’s largest city. The New York City mayoral election is not until November, but the Democratic primaries are next month, and the winner will likely go on to become mayor.
New York has had Republican mayors in the recent past – among them Rudy Giuliani, who went on to be Donald Trump’s attorney. Giuliani, who led the city from 1994 to 2001, was reviled by black and Hispanic New Yorkers but was hailed for his response to the September 11 attacks.
His successor Mike Bloomberg, who was mayor from 2002 until 2013, was also a Republican, though the billionaire then switched political allegiances and spent $500m running as a Democrat in the 2020 presidential primary. But New York remains an overwhelmingly Democratic city, which means that whoever emerges victorious from the Democratic primaries in June will likely triumph in November, too.
The outcome of this primary – and of the election in November – matters because the mayor of New York enacts policy that impacts not just America’s largest city, but the whole of the country and the world. New York is, after all, a major financial nexus, and in normal times a centre of cultural power and a tourist hub. The mayoral race is also consequential because New York politics can vault ambitious politicians into the national spotlight – as happened with Giuliani and Bloomberg.
The Democratic candidate will be a favourite to win in November despite the fact that the current mayor, the Democrat Bill de Blasio (who also had a failed 2020 presidential run), has rarely had a popular approval rating since he was elected in 2013. It is difficult to overstate how much De Blasio has united New Yorkers in their distaste for his administration. Over the course of his tenure, he has shifted from a critic to defender of the police, thus displeasing both anti-police activists and the New York Police Department, which has in the past criticised the mayor. School head teachers decried his handling of Covid-19, which provoked the anger of parents, too. He used taxpayer dollars to continue to go to the gym at the other end of the city during the pandemic.
He has been derided across the political spectrum: the socialist outlet Jacobin called him a “schmuck”; the right-wing tabloid The New York Post ran a cover of him as a whining baby. His seeming lack of conviction, blatant opportunism and executive incompetence have combined to turn off even his own staff. De Blasio cannot run again – the mayor of New York can only hold office for two consecutive four-year terms at a time – but if he could, his campaign would likely be even less successful than his presidential run, which had zero support in New York City.
[see also: The unravelling of Andrew Cuomo]
Who is in the running to succeed De Blasio? Some 40 New Yorkers filed campaign paperwork, though there are fewer than ten with a meaningful chance of success. The progressive cohort includes activist Dianne Morales, former De Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, and New York City comptroller Scott Stringer. (The latter has been accused by a volunteer from a previous campaign of sexual harassment. He denies any misconduct and said he and the woman who made the allegations had a “light relationship”.)
Then there is Kathryn Garcia, former commissioner of sanitation, who has been vocal about wanting to address climate change and is currently polling in the single digits. In the centre is Eric Adams, a former police officer and the first black person to serve as Brooklyn Borough president. He has been critical of the movement to defund the police, which, he says, is run by “young, white, affluent” people.
And then there is Andrew Yang, who is leading in the polls and whose enthusiastic campaign has received seemingly endless coverage. Like De Blasio, Yang ran as a Democrat in the 2020 presidential primary with his flagship Universal Basic Income proposal, and half-joked that the opposite of Trump is “an Asian guy who likes math” (Yang would be the first Asian American mayor of New York). But energetic demeanour aside, Yang’s actual policies are in some ways regressive: he’s increasingly open about his opposition to remote work and wants to make Midtown – where many of the city’s venture capitalists and investment bankers have their offices – buzz again, rather than, say, converting Midtown’s empty office space into much-needed housing.
Yang has also suggested that raising taxes would lead New Yorkers to flee to Florida, though evidence suggests these fears are ungrounded; even his signature proposal – dispensing $2,000 yearly to roughly 500,000 New Yorkers – would, after the first $1bn, rely on wealthy philanthropists to fund the payments. Yang also has ambitions to make the city a Bitcoin and cryptocurrency hub. It is not clear that any of this will make New York more equitable, nor is it obvious what being a Bitcoin hub would entail, or how Yang would get his visions through the bureaucracy of the New York City government.
Yang may not become mayor: a new poll has Adams narrowly in the lead, while Stringer, despite the allegations against him, is in double digits. New York has also, for the first time, implemented ranked-choice voting, where voters list candidates in order of preference, which could swing the race in any number of unforeseen ways. If Yang does win, it will be because of his energetic campaign but also due to the sheer force of name recognition, thanks to his memorable presidential run last year. Yang is the closest thing the race has to a celebrity.
Why are the progressive candidates in the race not doing better? For one thing, there are several of them, which makes it harder for each to solidify a base and then expand on it. Progressives may also be suffering from an element of fatigue or cynicism among New Yorkers in the wake of De Blasio – a candidate who promised progress and for the most part delivered incompetence.
This certainly doesn’t mean that progressive politics are done for in New York; there are a number of leftist candidates running to be district attorney of Manhattan (though it might be that none is successful if the oversupply of progressives leads to splitting the vote) and the city council is increasingly left wing. New York City is also sending progressives to the state legislature and to Washington. But though New York is the epicentre of so much in the US, the mayor’s office has never been the heart of the city’s progressive politics – and it does not look as though that is about to change.