Can Scott Stringer Pull it Off?

His comeback kid narrative will be put to the test

On Twitter, where the internal chatter of politics is performed for a limited number of obsessive reporters, elected officials, and various followers, Scott Stringer’s campaign manager made a notable observation. “Fun fact: today marks the same number of days before the primary that Eliot Spitzer *entered* the 2013 Comptroller's primary,” Micah Lasher tweeted on April 19th.

The factoid is canon in Stringerworld, which revels in the defeat of the corrupted titan, Eliot Spitzer, back in 2013. Spitzer, of course, was the governor of New York who resigned over soliciting a prostitute and decided, five years later, to mount a last-minute bid for city comptroller. It was a true sneak-attack campaign, coming just as petitioning was beginning in the summer—the primary was in September then—and stunning a political establishment that was already reeling from Anthony Weiner’s sudden dominance of the mayoral primary. The moment, for me at least, was immortalized in one of the better New York Magazine covers ever, and presaged the hyperreal turn politics would take just three years later.

After dropping out of the mayoral race, Stringer had a glide path to the comptroller’s office, locking up every labor union and major donor in town. Spitzer immediately disrupted that, taking a commanding lead in the polls. Stringer fought back with surprising ferocity, holding his own in debates and launching an aggressive campaign to highlight Spitzer’s failings. In the end, it worked: Stringer won the race by about four percentage points, losing Black and Latino New York but overwhelmingly winning white progressives and moderates more irked by Spitzer’s past conduct.

In 2021, Stringer is attempting a similar comeback. Every single poll conducted in this current mayoral race shows Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, with a sizable lead. Though the percentages have fluctuated, the top two candidates have not: Yang is in first and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, is in second. Stringer is usually narrowly behind Adams, but not really in striking distance of Yang. This has provoked the sort of media coverage candidates usually want to avoid, with reporters and pundits musing about a lack of momentum and a certain je ne sais quoi.

This is going to be one of those horse race essays, not a policy analysis. My hope is that it provokes a better understanding of the forces at play here. Stringer, for those not in the know, has held elected office continuously since 1993, rising from the State Assembly to Manhattan Borough President to City Comptroller. Borough president, from the 1990s onward, has been a largely ceremonial position, with no vote on legislation and a mild influence on land use decisions. The Assembly matters a lot, but one legislator—unless they’re the speaker or chairing a powerful committee—not so much. The comptroller’s office audits agencies and oversees the city’s pension funds and inevitably convinces its occupant to run for mayor. The last four city comptrollers are Stringer, John Liu, Bill Thompson, and Alan Hevesi. All ran for mayor. Stringer is hoping to be the first, since Abe Beame in 1973, to get that coveted promotion.

As I’ve written before, Stringer has occupied a center-left space for most of his political career, functioning as a reliable Democratic insider with some reformist views, influenced by his Upper West Side liberal tutelage. At times, he has actually existed to the right of Mayor Bill de Blasio and other self-identified progressives, criticizing the city’s move to decriminalize public urination, cheering on the invasion of Uber, and being muddled enough about Eric Garner’s chokehold killing that he could publish an “all lives matter” statement one year after it happened. Stringer supported Governor Andrew Cuomo in both 2014 and 2018, when two excellent leftist challengers, Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, were doing the brave work almost no one in the political establishment wanted to do. Few stood with Teachout in 2014, but many more Democrats lined up behind Nixon four years later, fed up with Cuomo’s triangulation, pathological bullying, and general incompetence. Stringer was on Cuomo’s side for both fights.

A leftist writer recently made to me what I felt was the most convincing pro-Stringer argument, for those of us on the left who are longtime watchers of the scene and remember all the facts I listed above. He reminded me that Joe Biden has a terrible record worthy of permanent banishment, whether it was his vote for the Iraq War, his self-dealing with the credit card industry, his work on the crime bill, and his decades-long battle against progressive economic policy. “What does it matter now?” the writer asked me. In one sense, it absolutely does matter, because history always matters. Biden isn’t Bernie Sanders; he won’t put any political capital behind a fight for single-payer healthcare and doesn’t seem terribly invested in even bringing about a public option. But on domestic policy—and this is a low bar to clear, granted—Biden is far to the left of Barack Obama and may have overseen the first significant expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson. I wrote about this possibility a year ago, so I can’t say I’m surprised, but shouldn’t I take a similar approach to Stringer and leave some of my cynicism at the door?

There’s an argument to be made I should—especially since 2022 will see, undoubtedly, the most left-wing City Council in history, with a large majority of current members term-limited and a bunch of DSA and DSA-adjacent candidates poised to replace them. Mayor Stringer, milquetoast liberal, will be reckoning with a firebrand Council, and like Biden with a Democratic Senate, he’ll be pressured into signing bills he never would have a decade or two ago. Stringer is currently campaigning on a more progressive platform than any mayor who has come before him. He wants to dramatically expand early childhood education, mandate every developer set aside 25 percent “affordable” housing for all new projects, decarbonize the city’s building stock and scale back polluting highways, and revamp the NYPD so cops with guns aren’t responding to homelessness and substance abuse calls. Stringer’s campaign has been all about issuing plans and policies and some of them are quite good.

But will Stringer be transformational? In one of the better reported pieces of the mayoral cycle, real estate developers told Politico they were not at all threatened by his new posture against the conservative industry, which has dominated the city’s political sphere for more than a half century. A person told Politico that Stringer told frustrated real estate executives, “Let me get through the primary.” The person added that “given his past reversals on any number of issues in service of perceived political expedience, everyone understood that Scott was going to do whatever Scott thought best served his electoral prospects at any moment.”

Stringer, like most Democratic politicians, actively fundraised from the real estate industry for many years and regularly attended the Real Estate Board of New York’s annual gala. If his views on affordable housing now please activists, his refusal to endorse a significant defunding of the NYPD has opened a lane for Dianne Morales, the former nonprofit executive galvanizing some of the socialist left. Much of Stringer’s real leftist bona fides—the reason Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist state senator, and Jamaal Bowman, the popular congressman, have endorsed him—were established in the not-so-distant year of 2018, when Stringer backed the Democrats launching primary challenges of the Independent Democratic Conference, a conservative group of Democrats who established a coalition government with Republicans in the State Senate. Stringer then supported Tiffany Cabán, the leftist who nearly won the Queens District Attorney’s race, in 2019. In truth, while these endorsements were admirable, they were not risky. By the time Stringer backed these candidates, either the Working Families Party or DSA had already taken the plunge, along with a lot of activists. It was clear enough where the wind was blowing.

Is that enough to believe Stringer is the best candidate to enact progressive policies? I generally care about a track record reaching back more than three years. But it is enough for a significant chunk of the professional and nonprofit left, which is all-in on Stringer as the most “viable” progressive to stop Andrew Yang and Eric Adams. The WFP has backed Stringer as their first choice. The United Federation of Teachers endorsed him on Monday. Many well-liked elected officials on the left, like State Senator Jessica Ramos in Queens and Gustavo Rivera in the Bronx, have fallen in behind Stringer. Their argument, privately, is rather simple: Stringer is left enough and he can win. The implication being that Morales, who is building some excitement, and Maya Wiley, the former de Blasio counsel who has won the backing of a couple members of Congress and 1199 SEIU, the healthcare workers’ union, cannot.

I understand this view. Stringer has always polled ahead of both candidates, if only slightly. A recent NY1 poll that analyzed a ranked-choice voting scenario based on the results of those who responded found that Stringer reaches the final round with Yang, ahead of all the other contenders. (Yang still wins.) For Stringer’s staff and his supporters, this is an encouraging sign. As the race enters its final phase, with a June 22nd primary upon us, the focus among the broad left will be on how Yang can be toppled—assuming these people get over their delusions that Yang isn’t really ahead.

Stringer’s team takes comfort in the number of undecided voters in every poll. In a recent Data for Progress poll, 14 percent of respondents picked no candidate. In NY1’s poll, 26 percent were undecided. Another poll, which seemed like an outlier, found almost half the electorate had no idea who to support. Anecdotal reporting seems to back up that many voters don’t know yet who they’ll choose.

This leaves room for Stringer and everyone else. What can stop Yang is a concerted and unified negative effort that settles on a coherent and devastating narrative. Imagine multiple labor unions pooling resources for an independent expenditure and the candidates with the biggest war chests, like Stringer and Adams, spending some of their millions on TV ads dedicated to solely tearing down Yang. The hope, which is not implausible, is that the electorate “wakes up” to Yang’s lack of experience and decides that a more steady hand—like the city comptroller—is required to guide the city out of the pandemic and into an uncertain future. At this point, it looks increasingly likely Stringer will be the first choice for a New York Times endorsement, though Wiley is in the running.

Here’s the rub: so far, most of Yang’s opponents are failing the narrative test. Money spent on TV is great, but what will these ads say? I’m still struck by the lack of imagination and ambition among the various mayoral campaigns and how they’ve utterly failed to inspire the public. Eight years later, I can still recall with great clarity—and you can too—the slogans of at least two of the mayoral campaigns from that time. Bill de Blasio was the “tale of two cities” candidate with a stellar TV ad and compelling messaging. He was lucky in 2013, but he was also good. Anthony Weiner, before his downfall, was “fighting for the middle class and those struggling to make it,” clearly defining himself as an outer borough populist with a moderate streak, in the vein of Ed Koch. Weiner was a lackluster legislator, mostly devoid of substance, but his “Keys to the City” lent him the veneer of a quasi-wonk. Some of these were his original ideas. Had he not imploded, he probably would have won.

Stringer, meanwhile, speaks about “having the details to deliver” and “being ready on day one.” This is not the stuff that gets people dancing in the streets. The Wiley campaign has not articulated a memorable rationale for being here at all. Adams is coasting on his base, not any major policy or recognizable narrative. Ray McGuire, the former Citigroup executive, is trying to thread the needle between Bloombergian oligarch and caring about criminal justice reform in the way that Bloomberg never did, but his millions have barely moved him in the polls. Shaun Donovan’s best stab at this has been “I worked for Barack Obama.” Kathryn Garcia is attempting the Koch lane, but lacks the name recognition or experience in elected office—both Weiner and Koch were congressmen—to make it really work.

All of these campaigns, by the way, have been great on policy detail. They care. Wiley is working through “50 idea for NYC” in 50 days, releasing one per day. Donovan is doing “70 plans in 70 days” and already mailed reporters a 200-page policy book. Stringer, obviously, has thought through his ideas. But none of it matters without a message: that’s the rude truth of this political game. Elizabeth Warren didn’t become a national figure with “I’ve got a plan for that!” She did it through defining herself, years earlier, as a tough populist outsider with a brilliant legal mind, and would’ve probably done better in the 2020 primary had she held true to what made her famous a decade ago. Bernie Sanders didn’t get college kids screaming his name because, sometime around 2015, he detailed the particulars of his Medicare for All bill. The big ideas—healthcare for everyone, free college—are what packed the stadiums.

Big, simple, and memorable concepts, built around a clear narrative, are what drive success in modern politics. It’s why Pete Buttigieg, running on the idea of generational change, parlayed his overperformance in Iowa and New Hampshire into a role in Joe Biden’s cabinet. Biden himself may have been the only exception to this rule, benefiting chiefly from his ties to Obama and the Democratic electorate’s sole desire to rid themselves of Donald Trump by any means necessary. “Restore the soul of our nation,” though, wasn’t the worst of slogans in retrospect. And Biden’s focus on viability paid dividends, as most voters believed he was less of a risk than Sanders.

In this race, one of the only candidates who has figured out how to message in an effective, coherent way is Dianne Morales, the former nonprofit executive. Morales has placed defunding the police at the center of her campaign and staked out unequivocal left positions that have lent her an opening. McGuire and Donovan have pumped millions into this race already and barely poll ahead of her. Morales will now have more than $2 million in matching funds at her disposal, enough to be viable until Election Day. Morales has focused chiefly on building her own brand instead of flailing at Yang in the hopes of garnering free press. She is clearly about something. Her chances of winning are remote because there’s a monumental difference between a leftist insurgent winning a congressional race and a citywide mayoral primary. In the meantime, Morales can remain competitive by pouring her cash into a really great TV spot that will capture the imaginations of voters. Some version of this remarkable ad Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released for her first campaign should move a few people.

Morales is thriving, in part, because Stringer has not galvanized enough leftists, though this has been his clear goal since the beginning. His pivot left has not helped him with the outer borough moderates he still needs to pull into his coalition. He risks living in a kind of no-man’s land, not quite satisfying the young left but abandoning the older votes who may end up deciding the election. It doesn’t help that he hasn’t demonstrated any enduring appeal with Black voters in Brooklyn and Queens. Adams, the borough president, might be too polarizing to craft a winning coalition, but Stringer needs to figure out how he can attract Black voters from Adams and Wiley, who is working the Brooklyn turf hard.

Ranked-choice voting is the elephant in the room here. No one quite knows how it will play out for the first time ever in a citywide election. It appears to be creating incentives for mid-tier candidates to hover in the race, even if their chances of winning aren’t high. The dream, among this group, is to garner enough second choice votes to be viable in the later rounds—and then who knows? It’s true that RCV means voting is no longer zero-sum. But media attention and endorsements usually are. If Wiley stays in the race—and she’s not leaving—it hurts Stringer’s ability to gather endorsements and seize headlines. The reverse is also true. Morales, too, is in it for the long haul, and this means she’ll be winning votes and endorsements that Stringer had hoped to lock down by now. Biden closed out the 2020 primary early against Sanders by convincing three center-left candidates—Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke—to drop out and endorse him before Super Tuesday. The consolidation worked splendidly for Biden. In the 2021 mayoral race, no move against Yang—the undesirable front-runner to progressives—appears imminent.

And so we come to Yang. Is he running a tremendous mayoral campaign? Not really. As the Yang-friendly columnist Noah Smith pointed out, Yang needs real economic advisers around him to better defend his policy goals, like his cash transfer program for poor New Yorkers. Yang does not seem to study particularly hard before making public appearances and too often comes off as naive. He can appear too fanciful, too floaty, and can speak in a way that does not seem terribly intentional. He gives lousy explanations—I’m friends with Chris Cuomo! I know Raphael Warnock!—for how he’d accomplish policy wins that need help from Albany or Washington. Beyond all of this, I am still deeply concerned about the influence of Bradley Tusk and old Bloomberg hands in a potential Yang administration. Yang is too enthralled with public-private partnerships. I’ve made this clear since January.

But Yang is winning for a reason. He does have a message—let’s get New York back to life, let’s inject energy back into this struggling city—and a genuine eagerness to meet people where they are. He wants to create a public bank and has a pulse for where the mean Democratic voter is on a lot of issues. He is naturally charismatic. He draws outsize media attention because he is a political celebrity, but it’s here where the comparison to Trump, who subverted the 2016 GOP primary through blanket cable TV coverage, begins to fall flat. Trump was famous because his father was rich and got his fraudulent real estate career started for him. Trump used this as a launching pad to become a television character, mastering that medium. He was handed a reality TV show. Trump grew up well-connected and would have been nowhere without Fred Trump, one of the most influential private citizens in New York State history.

Yang, as recently as 2018, was an absolute nobody. Did he become a somebody through sheer luck and familial ties? No. He ran a highly successful presidential campaign built around a singular message. He popularized a once obscure idea, UBI, and grew a nationwide fanbase from scratch. All of this is really hard and takes exceedingly rare political skill. He did what Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker couldn’t do—raise enough money and qualify for a enough debates to pay his way through Iowa and New Hampshire. The numerous pundits and reporters who constantly snark on Yang don’t get this. I hate to play this card here, but they haven’t run for office themselves. They have no idea what it’s like to sweat through 14-hour days, beg absolute strangers on street corners and subway platforms to vote for you, spend hours calling other strangers for money in the futile hope that one or maybe two really bite, and try—against all logic, really—to build something resembling a movement in a matter of months. It is absurdly hard to do if you aren’t already famous, very wealthy, or wired into the political establishment. Yang did not show up to the 2020 field with a trust fund, name recognition, or an extant base of support. He got as far as he did because he’s really good at this. Laugh at him at your own peril.

This will go one of two ways. Yang is either going to get bludgeoned enough to fall off in the next two months—very possible—or he’s going to survive to become the next mayor of New York City. Here’s a sobering thought for Stringer in particular: in the most recent poll, commissioned by NY1, 42 percent of voters said they were familiar with his campaign. For Yang, that figure was 55 percent. In that poll, Yang led Stringer by 11 points overall. Would every new voter who learns about the campaign suddenly choose Stringer over Yang? Why wouldn’t the many waffling voters just decide they really like the bubbly guy who’s famous for wanting to give everyone free money from the government? At least Wiley can claim, in the same poll, only 26 percent of voters have heard about her. There’s room for growth there, if she can figure out a way forward.

The final sprint will be almost totally about television and digital advertising. In a race where 800,000 people or more could vote, field organizing means little. Will Stringer be the candidate that runs the dynamic, de Blasioesque ad that vaults him to the top? Anything is possible. De Blasio had his biracial family, a strong narrative, and an air of easy cosmopolitanism that would evaporate once he took office. Stringer has his decades of experience and his many plans. Maybe that’s what pandemic-ravaged New Yorkers, in the end, are hungering for. He better hope so.