Kathryn Garcia Makes Her Move

A surprising solo endorsement from the New York Times will make her viable enough until Election Day

Last Monday, I sent up a little signal flair on Twitter: I was going to write about Kathryn Garcia, the New York City mayoral candidate.

At the time, I had no idea what was coming. Later that day, the New York Times editorial board would release  their endorsement for mayor in the Democratic primary, and do the completely unexpected: back Garcia and no one else. My tweet was a happy little coincidence. This piece about Garcia would now have that desired currency of journalists everywhere: a news hook.

Garcia was not an obvious Times pick because, as of now, she is in no way the front-runner. In 2013, the Times editorial board backed another woman with deep governmental experience, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, but Quinn had been a marquee candidate and a polling leader. She, like Andrew Yang this week, had gotten a solo New York Magazine cover and plenty of prestige press attention. After her defeat, the Times would release a documentary called “Hers to Lose.” Typically, in local races at least, the Times has not liked to go out on a limb. This is the same newspaper that, in 2018, couldn’t bring itself to notendorse Andrew Cuomo for a third term.

No public poll in the 2021 primary, which will be decided on June 22nd, has ever shown Garcia higher than the single digits. She is never close to overtaking the two front-runners, Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, or the other top tier candidate, City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Until Stringer was accused of sexual assault, she had very few endorsements. No member of Congress or large activist organization is backing her candidacy. The big labor unions are with other candidates. The Working Families Party did not rank her in the top-three, and did not include her when Stringer was eventually dropped.

“It is Kathryn Garcia who best understands how to get New York back on its feet and has the temperament and the experience to do so,” the Times wrote.

Garcia, who served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Sanitation commissioner, interim chair of the New York City Housing Authority, and as the food czar during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the candidate who brings the deepest amount of municipal experience to the mayoral primary. Her closest credentialed rival is Shaun Donovan, who was Michael Bloomberg’s Housing Preservation and Development commissioner, but Garcia has worked in city government longer, beginning as a DOS intern in her early 20s and later serving under Bloomberg as well. With the city struggling to recover, economically at least, from the pandemic, Garcia promises a steady hand, and pitches herself as the operator who will get things done.

For Garcia, the Times endorsement is an enormous validator. Months ago, I mused that the female candidate with the inside track was Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel, and Stringer. But Wiley, if polling and fundraising is any indication, has not taken off as forecasted. Despite arriving in the race with more hype—she used to be an MSNBC pundit and boasts an enormous Twitter following—she has flat-lined of late, even with a new congressional endorsement, and both Garcia and Dianne Morales, the former nonprofit executive who is clearly the activist left’s favorite candidate, have banked around the same amount of campaign cash. Wiley’s underperformance gave Garcia an opening, and Garcia clearly took it.

How much does a newspaper endorsement really matter in 2021? Ironically, as I wrote last year, the diminished local coverage from the Times and the beleaguered tabloids allows the Newspaper of Record to be a heavyweight in local contests where most voters have read a limited amount of press coverage. The mayoral race nets far more attention than the City Council contests, which have been mostly ignored, but none it compares to even the landscape of 2013, when my old employer, the now defunct New York Observer, unleashed three full-time reporters, including myself, to write about the race every single day. The Daily News had a regularly updated politics blog and a larger bureau of reporters. The Long Island-based Newsday had dispatched two full-time reporters to follow the candidates around. Local news was on the decline even then, but the amount of human beings trailing the campaigns was greater, sadly, than now, even with a number of robust outlets, like Politico and the City.

In a landscape where many voters are making decisions with less information on the candidates than they would have possessed in 2013, 2001, or 1993, the Times can still play kingmaker, since it’s the only newspaper in town that’s financially healthy and read by very large numbers of people, online and in-print. In the 2020 Democratic primary, the Times was mocked by some for co-endorsing Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and ignoring the candidates who performed far better, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But a presidential contest has far fewer undecided voters, since many people do have access to regular coverage, thanks to the nationalization of our media. In a mayoral primary, the Times has real power to elevate long-shots like Garcia.

It’s easy to see why Garcia is having a moment. She’s undoubtedly qualified for the job. She grew up in Park Slope and still lives there. She offers history-making potential as the first female mayor. Yang has repeatedly said he’d ask Garcia to work in his administration and, implied at least, he’d farm out the day-to-day management of government to her. Garcia, if flattered, has rightly shot back that she doesn’t need Yang to run her government. “It’s totally sexist. Totally sexist,” she told the New Yorker. “It makes it sound like they’re giving me a compliment, but they’re not.”

“Are you not strong enough to actually do this job, without me helping you?,” she said. “You should be strong enough. You shouldn’t need me. To be quite clear: I don’t need you guys, to run this government.”

Indeed, there will be no learning curve for Garcia, which is deeply appealing to voters who demand competence ahead of a greater governing vision or ideology. Garcia eschews labels, but she is clearly positioning herself as a moderate in the Democratic primary. She has no ties to the activist left and doesn’t seek one. Unlike Morales, who has experienced a surge of fundraising and attention because she has promised to slash the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion operating budget in half, Garcia proudly says she will not cut anything. “My plan is to not cut the funding of the NYPD,” she told me on Tuesday, when she unveiled her own platform to combat gun violence.

Another reporter at the same event in South Williamsburg asked her to elaborate on her views on the NYPD and the push to defund it. “I know that we need police in this city. I lived through the 70s and 80s,” she said. “I remember not being able to take the subway at night and that you had memorize car service numbers so you could get home safely and had lots of strategies: which street you walked down, how you maneuvered around the city. No one should be in that position again.”

“I do support the PD and want to make sure they are the most effective department, that we think of police as a service and that police officers are our guardians, not as warriors,” she continued. “We need to have resources in our communities but that does not mean that I am taking them away from the PD.”

Her comments will infuriate socialists and left-liberals who support the defunding or even abolition of the NYPD, but they are firmly in the mainstream for the older Democratic voters who will probably decide the primary winner. Yang and Adams have said largely identical things. For most New Yorkers over 50, like Garcia, the memories of high crime New York remain and are usually invoked as a specter against police reform. The spike in murders and shootings over the last year is deeply concerning, though does not come close to matching the bloodbaths of the late 1980s and 1990s, when 2,000 people or more a year could be murdered in the city.

Defund advocates do have to reckon with one bit of history: in the late 1970s, following the fiscal crisis, police officers were laid off and the department’s footprint shrunk. No utopia emerged. Instead, response times to crimes decreased, murders went unsolved, and Black and Latino communities felt abandoned by a city in retrenchment. Of course, the budget cuts were everywhere, and supporters of the defund movement would argue great investments must be made in the social safety net to solve the issues that lead to crime, like joblessness, homelessness, and a general lack of hope and opportunity. All very true.

The risk the defunders take, however, is that investments in social services aren’t robust enough—or don’t come quickly enough—to make a difference in the lives of those impacted by gun violence, particularly if shootings continue to spike. If a Mayor Morales cuts the NYPD in half and murders remain higher than they were a few years ago, will a $3 billion investment in mental health professionals and social workers be enough? Or will people who lost friends and families to gun violence despair that a diminished NYPD can’t solve crime in their neighborhoods?

Garcia’s public safety plan was laudable, though not revolutionary: she proposed docking officer pay in cases of misconduct, increasing the recruitment age to 25 years-old, and requiring every officer to live in the five boroughs. She would increase the size of the department’s gun violence-suppression unit and boost cash for returned firearms to $2,000 from $200.

Getting more mature adults who live in New York City into the NYPD is a good thing. Better cash rewards may get a few guns out of neighborhoods. Perhaps an officer will fear abusing a civilian if his or her pay was on the line. That’s to be determined.

None of this, though, will get at the root cause of the trouble: a hyper-militarized NYPD accountable to almost no one, able to push around mayors at will. Unwinding the post-9/11 status quo is a baseline for reform. So is training and recruiting police like they do in Europe, where years of education are required to even walk around with a gun.

Garcia’s other policy proposals follow a similar logic, stressing incremental progress over far-reaching change. She would create 50,000 units of “deeply affordable” housing, though the actual goal of any affordable units is below what her old boss de Blasio, let alone someone like Yang, has proposed. She is rightfully talking about shifting from a shelter system to building 10,000 units of “supportive” housing for those experiencing homelessness. Fundamentally, her approach to the housing crisis in New York would not differ terribly from her two former bosses, Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg. Each sought to rezone lower income neighborhoods to build market-rate housing with a small sliver set aside for middle-income households. Alicia Glen, the Goldman Sachs alum who gave the de Blasio administration its neoliberal flavor as the architect of its housing policy, has fundraised and donated to Garcia.

The Times effect was easy to see at the Tuesday press conference, where Garcia stood behind a podium next to a police precinct. The amount of reporters and television cameras about matched what I had seen at typical Yang events. From now until June 22nd, Garcia will receive much more regular coverage, which could improve her standing and perhaps—just perhaps—fuel a significant surge.

On May 15th, the Daily News joined the Times in endorsing Garcia. Blaming de Blasio for letting “ideology” get in the way of “pragmatic policy,” the editorial board chose Garcia because “of her preparedness, pragmatism and well-placed priorities, all of which in this election must trump lockstep obedience to political ideology.” In their endorsement, they cited a few particular policy proposals that stood out. They praised her for supporting the “NYCHA blueprint,” which would use existing federal housing subsidies to pull private resources to help pay for an estimated $40 billion worth of capital needs. Her unwillingness to commit to the “unrealistic” Green New Deal for NYC also won over the hearts and minds of the editorial board. Both newspaper editorial boards seemed to like that Garcia, with a reputation for competence, does not overpromise and therefore won’t under-deliver.

Garcia’s tenure at the Department of Sanitation was free of scandal or obvious failure: no snowstorms botched, no garbage piling in the streets. The agency is arguably New York’s most pivotal; if it doesn’t function, chaos ensures. But decades have passed without such visceral chaos, and it’s unclear Garcia was an especially remarkable performer compared to her immediate predecessors. (John J. Doherty managed the machinery too.)

De Blasio also tapped Garcia to oversee food distribution during the pandemic, an endeavor that outside experts viewed as a success, and to temporarily lead NYCHA and become the authority’s lead paint czar, which brought more mixed results. In 2019, a federal monitor overseeing NYCHA sent a furious letter to Garcia, accusing her of giving a “misleading impression” during testimony at a City Council hearing about the housing agency’s efforts to remove lead from apartments with kids. The federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, alleged NYCHA was not aggressively tracking down all the apartments with lead paint where children lived or visited. Garcia said she was “truthful and forthright” and accused Schwartz of misunderstanding NYCHA.

Few question Garcia’s seriousness or her ability to lead in a time of crisis. New York City is coming back to life from the pandemic, but will need years to gain back the number of tourists that came through as recently as 2019. Remote work threatens the immediate future of Midtown and Downtown, and is tanking property tax revenue there. Garcia is positioning herself as another Ed Koch, the “liberal with sanity,” the Democrat who will slough off the activists, the interest groups, and the Twitter mobs to govern effectively and bloodlessly. This all might be true. We’ll know if she wins.

What the new burst in enthusiasm for Garcia does reveal, from members of the media and the professional class more generally, is an ongoing love affair with technocrats and so-called civic champions. The history of modern day New York, told in books and newspapers and in the recollections of pundits who define the official narratives, is one of “sensible” civic elites beating back the liberal masses. The story of postwar New York, when housing was much more affordable, unions were incredibly powerful, and tuition at the city universities was largely free, is not one of loss for what was—a more socially democratic existence—but merely a profligate lead-up to the 1970s collapse, when poor budgeting decisions, white flight, and the death of blue collar manufacturing fueled the neoliberal turn. The post-1970s, in this view, is merely triumph: a cleaner, richer city, with a militarized police force to keep order.

All mayors, from Koch onward, have pursued a similar model of governance. They are tasked with making New York attractive to development and investment, deriving revenue from real estate taxes and Wall Street. All policy decisions must take into account whatever it is the wealthiest and most powerful desire, because their money is mobile, we are told, and they will leave tomorrow. And then who will fund your precious parks, schools, and libraries? More ambitious attempts at redistribution are deemed unworkable or simply not pragmatic, the quickest damnation one can receive from an editorial board. Garcia, like many of the Democrats running for mayor, knows this score well. She will not disrupt what it is, from 1975 onward, this city has become.

But in Garcia, there is a lack of sweep. She may make a great mayor and is, on the merits, the most qualified person seeking the office this year. This is why she is winning support, especially in professional quarters. De Blasio campaigned on bringing a universal pre-K program to New York, and then implemented it. Garcia has no signature, memorable program of her own, and she does not try to stretch imaginations. If there is something to be admired here—she won’t say what she doesn’t mean!—there’s also a sense of loss, of ambition never proffered. The city doesn’t merely need to be managed; post-Covid, with many still out of work, it will need a transformation.

Garcia has said she quit the de Blasio administration because she was angry with the mayor; during the pandemic, revenue shortfalls had meant he was cutting the budget she oversaw. Fair enough. But she is mostly against hiking taxes again on the wealthy to fill future gaps. This is the pragmatist Garcia speaking, the candidate who will not increase burdens on those, we are told, who can decamp to Florida or Texas tomorrow. If that’s the case, how could a mayor produce new revenue if catastrophe strikes anew? New York lucked out that Joe Biden won, the Democrats took the Senate, and another stimulus with local aid arrived. Absent such a deus ex machina in the future, what will the pragmatist mayor do if taxes cannot be raised? Will she borrow money, another move hated by the media and pundit class? Or will she, like her predecessor, decide to trim the budget? Bloomberg himself hiked property taxes to save the city from fiscal ruin. Does Garcia have that kind of gumption? Perhaps we’ll find out one day.