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Why New York Can’t Decide What It Wants in a Mayor

The primary to succeed Bill de Blasio will be held on Tuesday. No one from the huge field has emerged as a clear favorite, with Andrew Yang fading fast.

Eric Adams speaking.
New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams. Will the Brooklyn borough president and former police captain, with his promises of restoring public safety, break into the lead among 13 candidates for the Democratic primary? (Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS)
Barry Williams/TNS
As New York’s mayoral race got underway last year, crime didn’t even register as a top five concern in polls. With shootings rising by 68 percent this year and homicides up 12 percent, crime is now the top issue for voters.

That’s given an advantage to Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former police captain who promises to restore safety to the city. His positions on policing offer a clear contrast with rivals who pledge to cut the police budget significantly.

“Crime has become the No. 1 concern of New Yorkers,” says Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “There is almost a single-minded focus: How you deal with the perceived and actual increase in crime is the major dividing issue.”

The next mayor of the nation’s largest city will have to deal with crime, rebuilding an office economy decimated by the pandemic and chronic budget problems. Some $50 million has been spent on the high-stakes race but, although the primary election is coming up on Tuesday, no clear favorite has emerged.

It might be a while before the winner of the all-important Democratic primary will be known. (Mayor Bill de Blasio is term-limited.) New York City has been notorious in recent years for slow election counts.

This year, the city is holding its first election using ranked-choice voting, which will mean multiple counts that could stretch over days. “That could delay the tallies if it’s really close,” says Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at the City College of New York.

The race certainly looks close. Adams has enjoyed a lead in recent polls, but he barely outpaces his leading rivals, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley, a former de Blasio aide. Andrew Yang, who held a polling lead for most of the year thanks to his celebrity as a former presidential candidate, has faded. “They’re all bunched together within error margins,” Muzzio says.

In the latest polls, no one commands support from even 25 percent of voters. Under ranked-choice voting, if no one gets over 50 percent of the vote, the bottom finisher is eliminated and votes from his or her supporters are redistributed to their second-choice picks. The process continues until someone gets a majority.

That makes the outcome especially unpredictable. There are 13 candidates on the Democratic side, including eight with enough resources to pay for advertising. There are also two Republicans running, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa and entrepreneur Fernando Mateo, but the Democratic nominee will almost certainly be elected mayor.
Many of the Democrats hold similar positions on a number of issues such as housing and climate change. And voters haven’t heard as much from the candidates as they normally would, with the pandemic shifting a lot of campaigning onto Zoom. “It has been difficult for voters, and even reporters, to parse the differences between the many hopefuls,” commented The New Yorker.

For many voters, picking a favorite has been hard, with a significant share still undecided even with early voting already underway. “Ballot exhaustion” is a common side effect of ranked-choice voting and, for most New Yorkers, picking a fourth, fifth and sixth favorite will be a slog.

Securing the Left’s Vote


Two candidates who were early favorites of progressives, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and former teacher and nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, have seen their campaigns implode. Stringer has been accused of sexual misconduct (which he denies), while dozens of Morales campaign staffers have been fired or quit, drying up donations. Stringer and Morales were initially the top picks for the Working Families Party, but it has since rescinded its endorsements.

Wiley has emerged as the best hope for progressives. She received the endorsement of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on June 5 and has the backing of several other members of New York’s congressional delegation, along with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She also has the support of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the city’s largest union.

“Local 1199 came out early for de Blasio and that really catapulted him to the top of the heap,” DiSalvo said. “They came out way early for Wiley and, in a likely low turnout election, their turnout machine could be really meaningful.”

As de Blasio’s former chief legal adviser, Wiley has had to answer for her role in several of his administration’s controversies. She’ll presumably be an acceptable alternative for Stringer and Morales voters, but it’s not clear she’ll be able to broaden her support beyond the most progressive primary voters.

With her emergence as the most likely progressive nominee, Wiley has drawn fire from her opponents, among others. On Monday, the New York Post ran a column headlined, with just a touch of hyperbole, “Maya Wiley embodies elite lefties’ resolve to destroy ordinary American life.”

Wiley appears to have some momentum, but it’s possible that the more important question will end up being whether her supporters mark Adams or Garcia as their second-choice picks.

Competence and Cops


A former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Wiley promises to cut the police department’s budget by $1 billion and eliminate more than 2,000 officers. She also wants the city to stop paying legal bills for officers accused of “egregious” misconduct.

Adams, who says he will appoint a woman to serve as police commissioner, pledges to give civilian bodies veto power over precinct commanders. He trades on his two decades with the NYPD, running an ad about the city in which children can play without fear of being hit by a stray bullet. He’s trying to thread the needle between emphasizing support for public safety and the “defund the police” candidates.

Adams would revive the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics, while noting that his own testimony in a 2013 trial that the policy had instilled fear in Black and Latino communities was cited by the judge who ruled it violated their rights.

Adams has drawn considerable financial support from Wall Street, which saw the candidacy of one of its own, former Citibank executive Raymond McGuire, fail to spark much interest. Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, has seen donations spike following her endorsements from both The New York Times and the New York Daily News.

The newspapers both praised Garcia for managerial competence — not only modernizing trash pickup and snow removal, but removing lead from public housing and getting wastewater plants running again after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. In terms of crime, Garcia wants to revamp the disciplinary and promotion processes, raise the minimum age for recruits from 21 to 25 and impose a residency requirement for officers.

Garcia has also received an endorsement of sorts from Adams and Yang, both of whom said they’d give her top jobs as mayor. Her ability to appeal broadly could serve her well under ranked-choice voting. Although Adams enjoys plurality support as a first-choice candidate, it’s nip-and-tuck with Garcia by the 12th round of counting votes.

“Garcia’s offended nobody so far,” DiSalvo says. “The progressives are okay with her and the moderates seem to be okay with her.”

What Awaits the Next Mayor


When de Blasio was elected eight years ago, there was a lot of chatter that he’d bring an end to the city’s historic success since the 1990s in driving down crime rates. That turned out not to be true, at least until the pandemic. As in other major cities, violent crime has now re-emerged as a major concern.

It’s not the only problem facing the next mayor. As the largest American epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City has seen nearly 1 million cases and more than 33,000 deaths. Again, as in other major cities, New York’s racial and ethnic minorities were hit hardest, both in terms of health outcomes and job and business losses. Wiley has made addressing income inequality central to her campaign, while Garcia pledges to spend billions on child care and infrastructure jobs programs.

The city’s gaping budget hole will be addressed by the “Biden bailout,” the millions of dollars coming courtesy of the American Rescue Plan enacted in March. But the city’s deficit spending habits will doubtless re-emerge in the next mayor’s terms, especially if ambitious new programs are created.

In the meantime, New York faces major challenges in trying to revive both its Midtown business district and its tourism industry. Along with San Francisco, New York has suffered more from population loss and office vacancies than other major cities.

Still, despite the challenges, the new mayor will take office enjoying one big plus: not being the old mayor. De Blasio’s approval ratings are in the 30s.

“Whoever comes in has the advantage, at least initially, of being the non-de Blasio, who has discredited himself with every constituency at this point,” DiSalvo says. “They’ll be a fresh face leading the city as it comes out of the pandemic.”
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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