Standing cliffside at Morningside Park on Thursday, I decided to ask Andrew Yang a question.
How, exactly, would he win municipal control of the New York City subway system?
“The fact is, a lot of the big things you want to get done as mayor you need the state’s support and collaboration and so that’s going to be a conversation that we have to have,” Yang said. “But one thing I’ve seen is that when a new mayor comes in, typically they can get a few things done in Albany and to me that should be one of the things we try and get done.”
Yang’s answer, earnest if naive, offered few specifics. It was not an idea, at least, that had an easy answer. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state-run public authority, has dominion over the city’s subways and buses, and New York’s incredibly powerful governor, Andrew Cuomo, appoints its chair and a plurality of board members. Cuomo’s control over the system is so great he once shut it down entirely while giving the mayor of New York City an advance notice of just 15 minutes. It’s his subway system, just as it’s his state. The mayor is little more than an interested bystander.
But why bother giving New York City control in the first place? Does Yang want to saddle the city with the MTA’s tremendous debt obligations? Does he want to carve up the authority in such a way where the state continues hoovering up revenue and depriving the subway of fair funding?
An entrepreneur who ran for president and generated great enthusiasm over a plan to give $1,000 checks to every American, Yang is a fascinating figure of the moment, the latest entrant into a wide open mayoral race that will crown a Democratic nominee in June. He is famous enough to be recognized on city streets. He is wealthy enough to own a second home in New Paltz to flee to during the pandemic, but nowhere near the stratosphere of the last rich man to govern New York City, Michael Bloomberg. His following, in one sense, is entirely organic, driven by a wide-ranging policy platform and bubbly personality that allowed him to stand out in a presidential field of insipid ladder-climbers. There is much to recommend. There is plenty to be skeptical of.
His run for mayor can feel like the safety school route for someone who sought a greater office. “(B)eing the mayor of the greatest city in the world isn’t a consolation prize,” tweeted a former de Blasio press secretary. Indeed, his devotion to the city, where he attended college (Columbia) and lived afterward can feel tenuous. He didn’t vote in mayoral elections. (“I would definitely admit to being one of approximately 87 percent of New Yorkers” who don’t vote in local elections, he said on Thursday.) He spent long stretches of the pandemic doing CNN hits in Ulster County. He has never held elected office, and now wants to rescue America’s biggest city from COVID-19-induced economic catastrophe.
How will he work with or combat the notoriously anti-urban and vindictive Cuomo? “I’m friends with Andrew’s brother Chris from CNN” was his response. This was, as the kids might say, the cringe part of Yang’s kickoff. Yes, relationships matter, but a friendship with Cuomo’s little brother will do little good when it comes time to make a demand of the governor. A family tie won’t get you municipal control of the subways—or anything else really. Federal aid won’t materialize because you campaigned for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and now you’re on a first-name basis with both. Politics is a lot more complicated and ugly than that.
Yang has plenty of good ideas. A cash-transfer program for poor New Yorkers is not UBI, but it’s a start. We should have electric buses and a municipal bank so the working class and poor aren’t held captive by predatory check-cashing services. We should embrace community-land trusts and single-room occupancy (SRO) dwellings. A currency system for NYCHA is certainly intriguing. What is probably most exciting about Yang, this far out, is that he did not incubate in New York City’s sometimes suffocating political climate. As someone who ran for office here, I can attest to how challenging it can be to offer ideas that do not already fit a prescribed mold, that have not been properly vetted by the correct professional class interest groups. You can see it already, online at least, with how often political reporters and various advocates snark and dunk on Yang, dismissing him as a novelty act. The unfamiliar is stupid, unserious, unworthy of further consideration. Yang did not take the “right” path to where he is now. He did not sit through performative community board meetings, found a dormant civic association, or front a hyper-local nonprofit. Unlike Scott Stringer and Eric Adams, he did not spend eight years of his life in a mostly powerless and ceremonial political office for the sole purpose of running for mayor someday. Unlike Maya Wiley, he didn’t bother to work for the outgoing mayor, Bill de Blasio. He never joined a reform Democratic club or hung around long enough on the scene to radically alter his views on a cornucopia of local issues.
Yang is not the candidate of the socialist left—his decision to hire Bradley Tusk, Bloomberg’s old campaign manager, effectively killed that opportunity. It is right to fear that he could be a vehicle for Tusk’s clients—Uber immediately comes to mind—to exert great sway at City Hall. Stringer has made an aggressive bid for the broader liberal-left—the elected officials, the nonprofits, the Working Families Party—and those avenues may be closed to Yang too. At his kickoff, he expressed support for the dubious Amazon deal of 2019, a position that I have criticized, though it may find favor with a larger swath of Democrats than you imagine. He certainly has progressive inclinations, but much of what he thinks about municipal issues is still to be determined. Ritchie Torres, the new congressman from the Bronx who has clashed with left activists, is a co-chair of the Yang campaign. He said Yang represents a “break from the failed politics of the past, from a political establishment that has largely failed the people of New York in the moment of our greatest crisis.” Perhaps.
Walking the streets of Brownsville, where Yang went later in the day to visit storefronts with a local assemblywoman, it is hard not to be charmed. Yang wants to meet people and he wants to learn. It is easy, on one hand, to imagine him taken captive by the city’s neoliberal elite, steered in directions that will benefit capital at the expense of ordinary people. He also seems persuadable in ways other candidates are not, willing to hear and incorporate demands made by the leftists so wary of him. He is not stubborn like de Blasio, power-mad like Cuomo. He understands, at the bare minimum, the aesthetics demanded of the position. He will be in the boroughs, shaking hands, waving at cars, riding the subway. He is not static. He was a disinterested voter, but he will not be a disinterested executive.
One senses Yang still does not quite know what he is getting into. This is not a presidential run, a free ride at the fair. He will not be praised just for showing up. The reporters won’t laugh along at his jokes. The interest groups—the nonprofits, the activist organizations, the real estate and finance executives, the unions, the Democratic clubs—will all be making their demands, seeking their pounds of flesh. They will each size him up, their eyes narrowing, their questions firm. What will you do for me? For Democrats running for mayor who have spent their lives dreaming of this campaign, the answers are already clear. They have chosen sides, picked allies, shunned enemies, calculated who is worth a pander and who is not. They have set the range of discourse—for themselves, at least. Their Overton windows won’t move much. Yang is not that kind of candidate, and that may be why someone like Torres was attracted to him in the first place. Is Yang just a friendlier Bloomberg? A political dilletante? The answers to both may be yes. But he could end up something more. When John Lindsay first ran for mayor in 1965, his campaign offered up one of the more memorable slogans for a local campaign: “He is fresh, and everyone else is tired.” It is here, at this moment of opportunity and unknown, Yang can indeed be the former.