The last time there was an open Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, the race was incredibly volatile.
In total, there were at least three front-runners, with a fourth candidate, Bill Thompson, who was widely presumed by a lot of wise pundits to have an inside track to the nomination. First, there was City Council speaker Christine Quinn, who enjoyed an inordinate amount of mainstream press coverage early on and even trotted out a memoir during the campaign season. Then, of course, there was Anthony Weiner, who rose from the ashes of his first sexting scandal to blot out the primary with far more press coverage, establishing himself as a poll leader with a combination of real political skills and notoriety. Finally, after Weiner’s collapse—sexting scandal no. 2—Bill de Blasio surged to the top of the pack, buoyed by an iconic TV ad and a disciplined, anti-Bloomberg message that honed in on the city’s growing inequality.
Most political insiders, pundits, and people engaged in the political process have taken the lesson from 2013 that primaries are always tumultuous, their outcomes unpredictable. This can very well be true. Just as few foresaw de Blasio not only winning that year but avoiding a runoff entirely, no one imagined a fading reality TV star named Donald Trump could capture the Republican nomination and win the presidency. Most people who have a long-standing involvement in municipal politics resent or outright disdain Andrew Yang, the current front-runner, and hope his downfall will come shortly, pointing to polls from 2013 that showed, at this juncture in the race, de Blasio nowhere near the front of the field.
John Mollenkopf, one of the most astute watchers of city politics and government, told the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg that he expected Yang to fade. Explaining to Goldberg that celebrity and excitement doesn’t win Democratic primary elections in New York City, Mollenkopf argued that “having an organic relationship to the constituencies that follow city politics and depend on city politics” matters more, particularly “the various unions that represent people who are directly or indirectly dependent on government money, contracts, support for nonprofit organizations and so on.”
This is not wrong, particularly in downballot races where candidates are largely not known. I’m aware of this, in part, because I experienced it myself when I ran for State Senate in 2018. Despite some prestige as a journalist and writer, as well as an active social media presence, I was bested by another Democrat who ran competently on an inside track. I was endorsed by a single labor union. He was endorsed by numerous elected officials, political groups, and unions, including the pivotal New York State United Teachers, and the Working Families Party. I collected my own chits—the recently victorious Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Daily News editorial board—but I was at a disadvantage I was never able to overcome. I may have been a lifelong resident of the district, but I never served on a community board or readied my CV in such a way to one day seek office. Before 2017, I had never thought seriously about it. To this day, my own view of some of these local organizations remains dim—I see them stocked with insiders not terribly representative of vibrant, diverse neighborhoods—but if you’re going to run for office, being involved, or at least creating the impression of such involvement, does matter. Without media attention or great amounts of money, building name recognition is incredibly difficult.
The calculous changes, however, when you level up. I got 6,616 votes in my primary. My opponent won 9,007 votes. In this June primary for mayor, close to a million people will vote. Suddenly, with such a staggering amount of people, these neighborhood ties start to mean less. No human being’s civic involvement can possibly matter to 750,000 different people. Unless you ran into Bill de Blasio a lot in Park Slope coffee shops or knew him from his school board days, you probably weren’t casting a vote for him in 2013 because you were intimately aware of his neighborhood volunteerism. If you lived in Bay Ridge, Bayside, or Brownsville, de Blasio’s tenure on the City Council and his time in the vaguely understood office of public advocate probably did not register with you much. Rather, you were drawn to de Blasio’s message—his ability to make his argument to you in the media, online, and on television. You saw the “Dante” ad. You liked what you read about him in the Times. Or his “Team Digi” found you through social media.
More importantly, many Democratic voters in New York—and voters nationally, even more so—can no longer be corralled by any one organization, labor union, or interest group. We live a far more atomized existence, with most institutions withered from their 20th century heyday. The “constituencies that follow city politics,” even if they are organized labor, are far less likely today to vote in lockstep with their labor leaders. Mike Mulgrew, the head of UFT, cannot command tens of thousands to vote for a single candidate. George Gresham, at 1199, can’t either. And don’t forget that most voters, even in a strong union town like New York, belong to no labor union at all. They are very unlikely to belong to a political club or even a newly-influential group like DSA. They are entirely unaffiliated—the most associating some might do is with a local church, synagogue, or mosque. Thomas Dyja, the author of a fascinating new history of New York City, argues that New York has evolved from a “mass society” to networks, leaving behind the “collective world of unions, borough machines, the archdiocese and even the Mob” for one where individuals define themselves “primarily by the networks they belong to.”
Think of your social circle. You are probably affiliating with people you met through work, those you networked with in college, or through a curated social activity of some kind. Maybe you have neighborhood friends from your apartment building or local bar. But you likely did not end your nights, pre-Covid, at the storefront of your local Democratic club or in a union hall.
In a city of networks, Andrew Yang can win. His candidacy does not exist in 1969, 1981, or 2001, but it thrives here and now. In the analog days, a candidate had to be well-wired with local rainmakers or already rich to fundraise for a serious campaign. This was when raising money meant booking a catering hall, paying for a chicken dinner, and hustling for checks stuffed in wrinkled envelopes. Yang, coasting off the celebrity of his presidential campaign, can match or surpass the fundraising of his more experienced opponents’ in a short amount of time. He can command attention through either traditional press or social media. With voters no longer taking cues from their local power brokers—the priests, the Democratic bosses, and the labor machers cannot tell tens of thousands of people how to vote—outsiders can seize the imagination. Most voters are free agents. May the most interesting messenger win.
The political nonprofits like WFP hope to play the role of the old party bosses by, in part, proclaiming to represent a mass constituency and delivering votes for chosen candidates. A progressive organization, WFP is of course much more reformist than the old machines, but its decision-making process—mostly opaque—and overriding interest in appearing influential mirrors that of an old Democratic organization. The difference is that a Meade Esposito, a Donald Manes, or an Edward Flynn could plausibly claim to represent a sizable constituency of Democratic voters. Party bosses were courted by presidential candidates for a reason. Flynn, the old Bronx Democratic kingpin, was such a close associate of Franklin Roosevelt that he traveled with the president to Yalta. Remember, this was the era of mass society politics. Political machines, in a time of weaker social services and federal programs, offered lifelines to new immigrants, dole out patronage to working class voters who in turn swore loyalty to their Democratic leaders. It was a transactional, if corrupting, relationship that kept engagement in local politics quite high. Joining a political club, for many, meant building a career.
Those days are long gone. Labor unions can still claim large constituencies—they are representing living, breathing workers who largely pay their union dues—but the nonprofits cannot. This is a sore point that they will not admit publicly, but anyone who pays attention can see, plainly, that it’s true. There are no WFP or New York Communities for Change political clubs. There are not the same level of active public meetings like those DSA routinely holds. Old-line third parties, like the American Labor Party, a WFP predecessor, did have storefront operations, spending time enrolling members in their party and organizing them. Since the WFP cross-endorses Democrats in a closed primary state, a registered WFP voter has little value beyond perpetuating a ballot line.
Part of the problem with doing politics this way is that the nonprofit or NGO view is assumed to be the voter view, when there’s no extant constituency that is truly being represented. Yang, as Matt Ygelsias recently argued, is exploiting this gap, taking on political positions that are portrayed, in left-liberal media outlets mostly responsive to the nonprofit or NGO viewpoints—I’ve termed this the alphabet left—as repulsive, alienating, and out of sync with the electorate— though, in fact, they aren’t. Take Yang’s call, in response to rising murders and shootings, to put more police in subway stations. In alphabet left circles, this is the kind of demand that is treated with anger or derision, particularly in the wake of the momentum defund the police enjoyed last summer. But beyond this closed network of nonprofits and activists, sending more police to stop crime—whether right or wrong—seems like an ordinary response for most working class voters of all races. The progressive polling firm, Data for Progress, confirmed this quite recently: 71 percent of Democrats surveyed said they believed regular police patrols in their neighborhood would make them feel more safe, not less. The majority cut across racial lines.
Yang’s campaign, in many ways, has been scattershot. Some of his ideas, like a casino on Governor’s Island or a tax break for people who don’t work remotely, are weak or unworkable, and he can come off like someone who has not studied city issues in any great depth. His association with Bloomberg veterans worries me. He is too enthralled with public-private partnerships.
But Yang also possesses a core message, a popular national program he’s associated with, a willingness to campaign everywhere, and an intuitive understanding of where voters are. They are seeking energy and optimism. They are seeking a deviation from the status quo. They do not care so much if you’ve steeped yourself in politics for 30 years. Political insiders laugh at Yang when they find out he rarely votes and never joined a community board, but the joke is really on them—most New Yorkers don’t vote in local elections at all, and certainly don’t have time to join up in performative civic activities. Are the 700,000 or 800,000 or 900,000 people who may come to vote in the June primary all triple-prime Democrats? If you think so, I’ve got a treasure trove of Yang-themed bitcoin to sell you.
Will Yang win? Well, he’s not a lock. A concerted, TV-based assault against him could work. Imagine the four or five largest labor unions in the city pooling their resources to crush his candidacy with a nonstop onslaught of ads. Quinn was damaged in 2013 by an early TV expenditure against her. An anti-Quinn coalition which included an animal rights organization, NYCLASS, with ties to de Blasio hit the air in early spring for a September primary, running an ad that conjured “The Wizard of Oz” to portray Quinn as untrustworthy. It seemed to work. Yoked to the billionaire Bloomberg, who was increasingly unpopular in the Democratic electorate, and resented for helping to engineer this third term, Quinn dropped precipitously in the race, finishing a distant third behind de Blasio and Thompson.
Can this happen to Yang? Sure. Will it? The clock ticks. For Yang’s detractors, there is a belief that a moment will come when the electorate will “wake up” to Yang and realize the neophyte is unfit to lead. People aren’t paying attention yet, they say, and soon they will. I don’t discount this theory, though I’m waiting for evidence. The question becomes, who will the electorate wake up to? If they decide, en masse, Yang is a joke, which candidate will they coalesce around? De Blasio was lucky in 2013, but he was also running a great campaign. In baseball, the great hitters work themselves into favorable counts, so a fastball on 2-1 can be blasted out of the park. Who in this race has done the equivalent?
The truth is that most of the Democrats in the primary, beyond Dianne Morales, have run muddled campaigns that aren’t resonating with wide swaths of people. A large number of them are trying to replicate what Elizabeth Warren did in 2020, trotting out extensive plans and policy books—I’ve got a plan for that!—in the hopes that one catches fire. But Warren’s technocratic approach only worked to an extent because she already had a national brand as a tough progressive and critic of the financial industry. The plans supplemented the vision and the message. They were muscle layered on top of bone. The mayoral candidates seem to be going in reverse, pumping out plan after plan after plan and howling of their own competence while failing to offer compelling rationales for their candidacies. It’s not enough to run up to the voter and tell them you’re qualified. Only community board members care about the number of community board meetings you’ve attended.
If a candidate is going to overtake Yang, it will probably be Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who polls consistently in second and has built-in name recognition from eight years as a countywide elected official. He has a clear base of working class Blacks and conservative whites in the outer boroughs. If Yang falls enough, Adams has an opening. Maya Wiley, with her own de Blasioesque coalition, hopes to be that candidate too, though polling hasn’t demonstrated that yet. Scott Stringer, stockpiling millions for television ads, believes he will be the one to replicate the de Blasio surge.
Perhaps. We’ll know in less than three months. But observers of the mayoral race shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming it’s still early. It’s not. Joe Biden led almost every primary poll in 2019 and 2020, and he became the president. Trump, in 2016, did too—people just didn’t want to believe the numbers. Yang has not won, but he’s clearly winning. When writing on Quinn’s fall in 2013, I made it clear two lines of attack were effective: that she was too closely aligned with Bloomberg and that she defied the will of voters by giving the City Council and Bloomberg a third term in office. What will be the equivalent attacks on Yang?
So far, little has worked. No one cares that Yang thinks a large, well-lit bodega is a bodega. No one cares that Yang wants to ride the A train to the Bronx. No one cares that Yang flip-flops on a busway proposal few people have ever heard of. No one actually thinks he’s a “mini-Trump.” Even the most potent criticism so far—that Yang, with a house in New Paltz, fled the pandemic-ravaged city in its darkest hour—may not really stick. That was a year ago. New Yorkers are getting their vaccines and rushing outside. March 2020 is a chapter that, like the flu pandemic of a century ago, they may rather bury in history. Maybe a super PAC or a candidate is preparing the truly devastating TV ad that will knock Yang off his perch. We will wait and see.
Yang, unlike Quinn, has no record to attack. Not serving in government is a bonus here—no bad votes were taken, no compromises made. Quinn had to negotiate many massive municipal budgets. Yang gallivanted across America. He founded a testing company and ran a nonprofit that was not terribly successful, but none of this is scandalous. Mocking and deriding Yang—labeling him an outsider, a mini-Trump—will only get you so far. His rivals will have to try harder.