NEW YORK – In what could be the most consequential mayoral elections in the city’s recent history, a host of Democratic candidates in a tightly contested race are vying to become the Big Apple’s next mayor.
Eight major Democrats are making their final bids to New York City voters in a campaign that has touched on a variety of challenges facing the city, led to a diverse list of candidates and featured plenty of Zoom calls.
The winner of the Democrat primary on June 22 is largely expected to win the general election in November, with no major Republican candidate having formed a serious challenge. But new to this year’s election is ranked choice voting, which could lead to some unexpected quirks in how votes fall as candidates are eliminated.
The leading contenders appear to be Andrew Yang, who is still seizing on the energy around his 2020 Democratic presidential run; Eric Adams, who as a former NYPD officer has zeroed in on public safety; and Kathryn Garcia, who touts her long governmental experience to lead New York back to a pre-pandemic normal.
Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has reached his term limit, has not endorsed any candidate.
Among the issues making this year’s election so closely watched: spikes in crime and concerns about public safety, New York’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and issues around equity in policing, housing and education.
“There’s a way in which we feel that New York is America on steroids. And whatever happens in this city is a window into what can happen in other cities,” said Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.
Here’s what you need to know:
Who is running for New York City mayor?
The eight major Democratic candidates are:
- Eric Adams: The Brooklyn Borough President, a former New York state senator and former NYPD captain
- Shaun Donovan: A former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Barack Obama’s administration as well as the head of the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department under Mayor Mike Bloomberg
- Kathryn Garcia: A former head of the city’s Department of Sanitation and interim chair of the New York City Housing Authority under Mayor Bill de Blasio and the former COO of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection under Bloomberg
- Ray McGuire: A former Wall Street executive, most recently vice chairman of Citigroup
- Dianne Morales: A former nonprofit executive and former employee in city’s Department of Education, helping launch the Office of Youth Development and School-Community Services under Bloomberg
- Scott Stringer: The city’s comptroller, a former Manhattan Borough President and former state Assembly member for the Upper West Side
- Maya Wiley: An MSNBC commentator, professor at The New School, former chair of the city’s civilian police oversight agency and former counsel to de Blasio
- Andrew Yang: A former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, entrepreneur and nonprofit founder
Who are the front-runners?
In a numberof recent polls, Yang and Adams have remained the front-runners with Garcia recently picking up steam.
Yang has carried the momentum around his universal basic income plan during his presidential run into the race for mayor, calling for a local version of the idea for New York’s poorest residents.
Throughout the race, he has combatted attacks that he’s an outsider who doesn’t know enough about the city to be its mayor. Yang grew up in Westchester County but lives with his family in Manhattan. He’s received criticism for leaving the city during the pandemic and not voting in past mayoral election.
Hendrix said Yang has used the outsider attacks to his advantage as he tries to run a campaign as a “thoughtful counter to the elite narrative” within the city’s politics.
Adams has campaigned on public safety messages while also focusing on the inequality in the city. Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University who specializes in New York City politics, said Adams has established credibility among the city’s voters as a “homegrown” candidate and because of his police background.
“He is someone who used to be a policeman and he understands some of the Black community’s suspicion of police,” Hendrix added, saying he represents a desire not to have police leave communities but rather “engage in true community policing.” The New York Post endorsed Adams, too.
Garcia has touted her long city governmental experience, billing herself as a pragmatist who knows how to efficiently run New York’s institutions. Under Bloomberg, she was tasked as a crisis manager addressing issues around the operation of the city’s wastewater treatment plants during Hurricane Sandy, and de Blasio picked her as his COVID-19 “food czar.”
“She’s both an insider that can run as an outsider, meaning she’s not been an elected official working the political circuit … but is enough of an insider that she knows how the game is played,” Hendrix said.
Her campaign won a boost with endorsements from the Editorial Boards of The New York Times and New York Daily News, and Hendrix said she could garner broader, cross-borough support and from highly educated voters in the city.
Republican candidates include businessman Fernando Mateo and Guardian Angels founder and radio host Curtis Sliwa. At least five other Democrats will be on the ballot, but have not appeared at recent debates.
Who are the other candidates and why isn’t a ‘progressive’ leading the way?
Donovan and McGuire have generally polled the lowest.
Donovan has leaned into his past city and federal government experience, seeking to address affordable housing issues and create “15-minute neighborhoods,” which call for all New Yorkers to have good schools, public transportation, a park and fresh food within 15 minutes of their homes.
McGuire touts his extensive private sector experience in making the case for how he’d lead the city out of its current economic crisis. As one the longest serving Black executives on Wall Street, he’s also vowed to bridge gaps in racial and economic inequality.
While other candidates have been cast as more moderate Democrats, Stringer, Wiley and Morales have all sought to win the progressive vote. However, none have cracked the top-tier in recent polling dispute the perception of New York City as a progressive haven.
Early on in the race, Stringer was a front-runner, Berg said. Having served as comptroller and a variety of other political posts in the city, he “was supposed to be the experienced candidate who ran away with the progressive lane,” Hendrix said.
Stringer backs policies like shifting responsibilities away from police and greatly expanding affordable housing, but his campaign was crippled by an allegation of sexual harassment. Stringer denied the allegation, but he lost the backing of several prominent progressive politicians in the city as well as the endorsement of the Working Families Party.
The party later split its endorsement between Wiley and Morales. Morales has been seen as the candidate furthest to the left in the race (the “hardcore progressive candidate,” Hendrix said), and she is the only candidate to openly back the “defund the police” movement. However, her campaign appeared to be in limbo after organizers recently held a work stoppage. She also has not polled beyond the bottom tier of the major candidates.
What does ‘defund the police’ mean? And why some say ‘reform’ is not enough
Wiley, meanwhile, has campaigned on “transforming” the NYPD and propping up the “care economy” by increasing funding for child and elderly care and developing “community care centers” for job training, mental health services and community activities.
“She can compete to number four, number three, maybe number five, somewhere in the rankings, but she hasn’t established a dominant presence,” Hendrix said.
Hendrix and Berg both said that while the city has the perception in national media as one of an extremely progressive politics, electing candidates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, its electorate on the whole is much more moderate.
As Berg noted, before de Blasio, the city hadn’t elected a Democrat as mayor for five terms. “Two terms of (former mayor Rudy) Giuliani and three terms of Bloomberg, that doesn’t define a radical leftist city in any way, shape or form,” he said.
However, none of the Republicans who are running appear to be posing a formidable threat to the Democrats in November. Berg said the Republican candidates who have thrown their hat into the race are not from the establishment of the party in the city.
Hendrix said voters in local elections are often much more focused on the basics: Are the streets safe? Is the economy growing? Can they afford food and a roof over their heads?
“A desire to have leaders who do the basics well is obscured by the increasing nationalization of politics,” Hendrix said.
What are the major issues in the race?
Crime and public safety remains one of the biggest issues candidates have campaigned on. Amid a number of high profile shootings and hate crimes in the city, most of the candidates have not embraced the “defund the police” movement, and some, including Adams and Yang, have sought to cultivate tougher on crime stances, Hendrix said.
Adams’ and Yang’s platforms both include reassigning officers to areas with high levels of crime, while Garcia also calls for adding more officers to the neighborhood policing unit.
All three front-runners have also called for various reforms to NYPD, such as Garcia pushing for the minimum age of officers to be 25, Yang calling for more than half of the department’s leadership to be people of color, and Adams saying he’ll pick the city’s first female police commissioner.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shaped the mayor’s race since the first day of campaigning. Candidates and special interest groups initially held their events and forums online via video conferences. The first debate in May was also held virtually, although one Wednesday night was held in person.
Hendrix said the voters have begun shifting their concerns from candidates’ plans on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to their plans on the city’s recovery from the pandemic.
“The big issue is in what condition will the city be in in January 2022, when this person takes over. Will they inherit a New York City that’s back to normal? Or will they inherit a New York City that still has lots of problems getting back to normal?” Berg added.
Many of the questions candidates are being asked also have implications nationwide and focus on equity, Berg said, from how to provide more housing at affordable prices to how to better integrate schools.
“Even if all the other issues are resolved … by the time the new mayor takes over, the racial disparity issue is going to remain for quite some time. And it’s something that a new mayor is going to have to get a handle on,” Berg said.
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How could ranked choice voting affect the election?
New to this year’s race for mayor is ranked choice voting, a system that will allow voters to select up to their top five candidates. The change comes as a result of a 2019 ballot initiative to enact ranked choice for primaries and special elections.
If no candidate wins 50% of the vote outright, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and the preferences of those ballots listing them as first are redistributed. The process continues until there are two candidates left, and the person with the most votes then wins.
Ranked choice has been used in other cities, like Oakland, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the majority of the time, it doesn’t yield surprising results, Hendrix said.
But in a race as close as the one for New York’s mayor, it could lead to the person who is in second after round one ultimately winning as other candidates are eliminated.
In a May poll from the Manhattan Institute and Public Opinion Strategies, Yang led Adams by just 1% after round one. After all other candidates fell off, Adams was victorious, winning 52% vs. 48%.
Additionally, the polling showed Garcia in third place after the first round, but Wiley ended up making it to the stage with the final three candidates based on how voters’ redistributed preferences landed.
Another wrinkle in the ranked choice system, Berg noted, is how long it will take to count the votes. In recent special elections for city council, counting all the votes in the ranked choice system has led to winners not being declared for several weeks after election day – and that’s with far fewer votes than what will be cast in the mayoral election, Berg said.
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
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