Mercurial Andrew Yang Jumpstarts Drowsy NYC Mayor’s Race

Issue 261

The former presidential candidate’s ideas are all over the map, he’s light on experience and his top campaign advisor is shady as hell. But, he is forcing the other top candidates to come forward with their own plans.

Theodore Hamm Feb 1, 2021

Andrew Yang has generated an incessant stream of headlines since entering the race for mayor in mid-January. Some stories have questioned his credentials, focusing on his lack of a voting record in local elections and residency upstate in New Paltz during the pandemic; others have highlighted his dubious definition of a bodega. How much the initial negative coverage will hurt Yang in the June 22 primary is unclear. 

At the same time, Yang has already far outpaced the crowded field of candidates in bringing policies and positions into the race. Some of his proposals, such as a scaled-down version of Universal Basic Income or his call for civilian control of the NYPD (meaning that the next commissioner would not come from the current ranks), skew progressive. Others, like his support for a casino on Governors Island or his pandering opposition to BDS, are clearly regressive.

But given the scale of the current crises the city faces, putting ideas front and center in the race for mayor is a good thing, regardless of who wins. After all, the most consequential policy to emerge in the 2013 race was universal pre-K. And the candidate who first made it a campaign issue was a moderate, Christine Quinn, not the progressive, Bill de Blasio.

Yang’s splashy entry into the current campaign thus may force other candidates to compete for attention by putting forth their own signature policies—or, as with de Blasio in 2013, by adopting rivals’ positions. The race certainly could use an infusion of animating ideas. As of Jan. 25, the front page of Comptroller Scott Stringer’s campaign website offered no link to an agenda or platform, whereas the “Vision” section of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ site continued to ask visitors to check back “in the coming weeks” for his policing policy.

Yang’s primary campaign advisor, Bradley Tusk was Michael Bloomberg’s campaign manager in 2009 and then a businessman who made $100 million by helping Uber infiltrate New York City.

Nobody who follows city politics would say that Stringer is devoid of plans or that Adams, a retired NYPD officer, lacks ideas regarding policing. But Yang is already forcing at least one of the two perceived front-runners to take a clear stand. Rather than support civilian control of the NYPD, Adams recently vowed to appoint the first female NYPD commissioner (quite possibly the department’s current Chief of Patrol, Juanita Holmes).

Asked by the Indypendent to single out the candidate’s most distinct policy positions, Stringer’s team pointed to his Green New Deal agenda, which is indeed quite comprehensive. According to the environmental group 350.Org, “From phasing out fossil fuels and prioritizing environmental justice, to creating tens of thousands of family-sustaining union jobs … Stringer’s platform sets the new bar for climate ambition in the U.S.” Stringer’s housing plan, which among other things calls for the city to build 100% affordable units on 1,000 city-owned sites, has garnered similarly effusive praise from a wide range of housing activists.

Stringer, however, can’t exactly match Yang in terms of showmanship—or its corollary, salesmanship. “I want to manage the hell out of this city,” Stringer assured a recent forum of Democratic clubs.” How much excitement such earnest declarations will generate remains to be seen.

Adams’ chief consultant Evan Thies, meanwhile, identifies three of the candidate’s proposals as most unique: a web portal called MyCity, which is akin to 311, and would cut down on the paper trail for anyone receiving SNAP benefits or dealing with the Department of Buildings; a plan to bring city-run healthcare services to low-income residential sites including NYCHA; and an expansion of earned-income tax credits for frontline workers. The proposals certainly seem worthy, although none are likely to become the new universal pre-K.

There is no shortage of candidates in the race, and no shortage of ideas most voters haven’t yet heard much about. Progressive Maya Wiley’s team highlights her “New Deal New York” plan that calls for $10b in capital funding to be spent over five years with a focus on NYCHA upgrades, climate resiliency upgrades, and rectifying the digital divide. Leftist Dianne Morales advocates a “social housing” plan that includes turning empty commercial space and hotels into permanent residences for the homeless. And technocrat Shaun Donovan has an extensive transportation agenda that prioritizes improved bus service.

Bradley Tusk. Photo: Inc.

The activist left has good reason to be quite skeptical regarding Yang, whose grab-bag of positions makes him a bit hard to peg. That stands in contrast to his primary campaign advisor, Bradley Tusk, who was Michael Bloomberg’s campaign manager in 2009 and then a businessman who made $100 million by helping Uber infiltrate New York City. Yang’s launch event also featured Congressman Ritchie Torres, a Wall Street-friendly “progressive” and fellow BDS-basher who will serve as Yang’s campaign co-chair.

But on MLK Day, Yang announced that his other co-chair is Martin Luther King III, who praised Yang for carrying on his father’s goal of establishing universal basic income. Yang also has the enthusiastic backing of Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, a staunch progressive. Many of Kim’s left-wing allies in the legislature—including State Senators Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar and Alessandra Biaggi, and Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou and Bobby Carroll—endorsed Stringer last September.

In explaining his support for Yang to the Indypendent, Kim emphasized Yang’s recent pledge to decriminalize sex work, a left-wing stance shared by Morales, Carlos Menchaca, and Stringer. In Kim’s view, Yang’s position may help destigmatize the issue in his Flushing community. Yang, he says, “understands that the conditions of poverty” imperil many sex workers and that decriminalizing will allow “access to basic rights to healthcare, safety and other government services.”

Yang’s constant changes in positions—i.e. first he’s in left-field, then right-field—nonetheless lead many to wonder where he’s coming from. Unlike the other prominent business candidate in the race, longtime CitiGroup executive Ray McGuire, Yang’s track record outside politics is amorphous. He made a bundle on the growth of his chain of GMAT test prep centers (for aspiring MBA students), but there’s nothing particularly innovative about such an enterprise.

Yang’s manifest love for the spotlight also may remind many skeptics of an New York City businessman who’s now a disgraced former president. But there again, everyone familiar with Trump’s long career in NYC and Atlantic City knew that he would use the White House to enrich himself. By contrast, no one really knows what Yang would do—or how he would handle an aggressive city council and the mundane tasks of providing city services.

Yang is a wild card, for sure. But now it’s up to the other candidates in the race to play their hands.

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