Andrew Yang is probably running for mayor of New York City. Back in February, I was one of the first to write on this possibility, but I wasn’t sure it would ever come to pass. Yang, who had just run a spirited, long-shot campaign for president, had built a national brand around a federal policy—universal basic income—that would be far more difficult to implement with a municipal budget. Since he was never viable enough to overtake the bigger names in the race, like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the major press coverage he received was somewhat scant, if praiseworthy. He had claimed the best of all worlds, short of winning—he was famous and well-liked, and a future as a national figurehead of some kind lay ahead.
But Yang, a Manhattan resident who grew up in Westchester, does have political aspirations. He is clearly gearing up to enter a once sleepy mayoral race—hiring consultants, speaking to reporters, floating a January timeline for a launch date. As a candidate, Yang brings clear strengths to a crowded field with no clear front-runner. He has already cultivated a large following that will enable him to raise money quickly under the city’s generous public matching funds system. He is Asian-American, specifically Chinese, which means he will be a history-making candidate for the fastest growing demographic in New York. He is generally affable, with an understated charm and optimism that should captivate a slice of the electorate. And he has, to his credit, thought seriously on policy, outlasting a large number of second-tier presidential candidates on the strength of his ideas.
For New York, Yang is also a blank slate. He has not weighed in, in any great detail, on the city’s most charged issues. We do not have a strong sense of what he thinks about developing affordable housing, reforming the police, overseeing an enormous public education bureaucracy, or fixing our transit system. What does he think about the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test? Charter schools? Defunding the NYPD? The city’s enormous spike in shootings and murders? Mandatory inclusionary zoning? Bike lanes and on-street parking? Most importantly, how does he plan to rescue the city from a coronavirus-induced depression? The mayor of New York City is a glorious and thankless job, a whirl of endless agita and occasional praise. Bill de Blasio will limp out of City Hall. Mike Bloomberg couldn’t become president because his 12 years as mayor were suddenly revisited. Pontification will only get you so far. Chuck Schumer doesn’t visit the family of a slain cop or a murdered civilian. De Blasio must.
One of the curiosities of the current mayoral race, perhaps the most important of our lifetimes as New York City reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the lack of large, captivating ideas from the various Democrats straining to stand out. None of them have even matched the standard set by the oft-derided de Blasio, who won the 2013 mayor’s race on the strength, in part, of such an idea: taxing the rich to fund a universal prekindergarten program. It was absolutely pivotal for the city’s many working and middle class families who needed free childcare options. Many can’t qualify for Head Start. De Blasio’s program, implemented speedily in his first term—it was state-funded, but not with a tax on the rich, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s opposition—was transformational, mostly delivering on its promise. De Blasio’s mayoralty seemed largely rudderless after that, as he lost interest in the job and failed to match such an achievement in later years. No candidate running thus far, though, has offered anything so bold and easily remembered. Maybe they will in the coming months.
Yang, obviously, can be that kind of candidate. He rebranded UBI as a “freedom dividend,” $1,000 a month to every American, forever. A fringe idea embraced by liberals and conservatives alike—one Yang liability I will get to in a moment—it was mainstreamed almost entirely by his candidacy, the way Sanders made Medicare for All a popular rallying cry. One of the most successful elements of the CARES Act, which stemmed the tide of economic collapse in March, was the $1,200 check to qualifying households. Had Donald Trump sent another round in the fall, he may have won re-election. Yang deserves at least some credit for making the idea palpable, since it was never even remotely close to becoming a reality in the wake of the 2008 crash, when Barack Obama’s more limited stimulus spending couldn’t stave off years of economic malaise.
As a mayoral candidate, Yang would probably have to lean into his popular proposal in some form. It’s the greatest hit, what he’s known for—not proposing a version of municipal UBI would be like Paul McCartney leaving a concert without playing “Hey Jude” or “Let it Be.” But the politics of it won’t be so simple. Yang’s gauzy presidential campaign masked the other side of UBI, and why it’s been championed by conservatives—the program has often been proposed as a way to replace, not supplement, the traditional social safety net. On his campaign website, Yang says he would pay for $1,000 to every American by “consolidating some welfare programs,” which is likely a euphemism for cutting them. Yang says current welfare recipients would have a choice between keeping their benefits or taking the monthly $1,000, and claims “most would prefer cash with no restriction.”
“We currently spend between $500 and $600 billion a year on welfare programs, food stamps, disability and the like,” Yang says. “This reduces the cost of the Freedom Dividend because people already receiving benefits would have a choice between keeping their current benefits and the $1,000, and would not receive both.”
Yang must be prepared to weather attacks from top rivals who will portray UBI as a stealth attack on the social safety net. New York City has many residents who rely on food stamps and housing vouchers for survival and those running against Yang could claim he is trying to tear them away. The reality is more complex and Yang will be forced to clarify what welfare programs he would “consolidate” and what he would leave untouched. In truth, $12,000 a year is a nice cushion, but not enough for anyone, anywhere to live on with any comfort. America, the wealthiest country on Earth, should give every citizen $1,000 forever—it is, on its own, good policy, and universal programs like social security are those that can survive right-wing assaults—but the rest of the social safety net should be bolstered too. Bill Clinton gutted welfare in the 1990s. Before we pursue a federal UBI, the postwar social safety net must be restored.
Many of my fellow leftists are much more skeptical of Yang than I am. My own attitude toward him, frankly, is that he is a nonconformist thinker in a packed field that has no true viable leftist competing for the Democratic nomination next June. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, has tried to become that candidate, but he has spent most of his career as a cautious clubhouse liberal, shying away from the tougher fights around criminal justice reform and regulation of big tech. Though Stringer now campaigns to de Blasio’s left, he once existed as even less of a movement politician than de Blasio, who was a supporter of the Sandinistas and a Bernie Sanders admirer. Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel, has brought on top de Blasio staffers to run her own mayoral bid, which suggests she would not represent much of a departure from the status quo. The rest of the field of candidates, barring a few, are all tacking toward a technocratic middle, or chasing outer borough moderates, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Max Rose, the one-term congressman about to leave office.
But there are reasons, for leftists and democratic socialists, to worry about Yang. He has retained Tusk Strategies to run his campaign. The consulting firm is helmed by Bradley Tusk, who ran Mike Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign and advised his presidential effort. (A lesser known Tusk-run campaign was Republican Dan Donovan’s unsuccessful bid for state attorney general a decade ago.) Tusk’s Bloomberg pedigree, on its own, isn’t entirely problematic for a Democratic primary—though I’ve written very critically of Bloomberg’s tenure, there were benefits too, like the creation of the 311 system, the expansion of bike lanes, and the banning of indoor smoking. The problem is what Tusk also represents—big tech’s assault on sensible regulation.
In 2016, I profiled Tusk for the Village Voice, when he had been the leading the successful, incredibly well-funded campaign to beat back New York City’s early attempts at regulating Uber. Tusk himself grew wealthy off Uber stock, having the foresight to take shares in the company as payment for his consulting services. Five years ago, de Blasio’s City Hall attempted to put a cap on Uber’s extraordinary growth, recognizing that these new cars were clogging city streets and not following the regulations that governed yellow taxis. New York City had always placed a strict limit on the number of taxis, in part to ensure the streets were not overrun with motor vehicles. Tusk cannily portrayed de Blasio as a shill for the dubious yellow taxi industry—not entirely off-base—and a defender of the sleazy moguls who owned valuable medallions.
De Blasio, though, was ultimately right, if even for the wrong reasons—Uber would fuel traffic jams, take riders off the subway, and decimate the finances of immigrant taxi drivers, leading to wave of suicides. As a company, Uber has thrived through a quasi-fraudulent business model, artificially pricing rides at absurdly low rates to undercut competition and paying for all it through endless venture capital. Uber does not turn a profit, violating the laws of traditional capitalism. For years, the ride-hail giant has flourished by rushing into cities so quickly that regulators have little time to react, eventually bowing to popular pressure as people rally around their cheap, unsustainable rides. The drivers themselves, meanwhile, are treated as independent contractors, barely earning a living wage as Uber’s valuation remains in the tens of billions.
In 2015, most Democrats, including Scott Stringer, sided with Uber against de Blasio. Eventually, in 2018, there was a growing recognition that Uber could not keep expanding, unchecked, on city streets—the number of for-hire vehicles was finally capped. Yang will have to answer for Uber, as well as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the virulent police union that has been one of Tusk’s clients. The PBA has been a savage opponent of every criminal justice reform measure, major and minor, in New York, and their president, Pat Lynch, loudly endorsed Donald Trump for president. The PBA hired Tusk back in 2016 to fight de Blasio over salaries and benefits.
Yang is not a PBA supporter and has been a critic of large tech companies, but reason exists, in New York at least, to pay attention to who a candidate hires. There is a long-standing tradition of consultants helping to elect candidates and then turning around to lobby them on behalf of the wealthy interests they represent. Many consultants never register as lobbyists at all—like de Blasio’s favored firm, BerlinRosen, they “advise” clients, gaining immediate access because they helped make the candidate’s victory possible. If Yang is elected mayor, what kind of favors will he feel he owes Tusk? What sort of companies will gain influence in Yang’s City Hall? The same questions should be asked of all candidates who retain large consulting firms who don’t only work on political campaigns.
With Yang, we are left to wonder if we will merely encounter another version of Bloomberg’s city, since his old advisers will be hovering so close. One of Bloomberg’s great failings was not caring about the yawning income inequality in his city, of prioritizing the needs of the wealthy over the working class and poor. Bloomberg’s orientation was firmly neoliberal. On the campaign trail, Yang offered himself as something different, but governing the biggest city in the America is not the same as stumping in Iowa. His entry into the mayoral race, at the very minimum, will be a chance for New Yorkers to consider a candidate entirely unlike the rest leaping into the fray. This can be a good thing. Soon, Yang will need to clarify for eight million people what it is he wants to do and why he wants this job. It will be much harder than anything, politically at least, he’s done before.