The answer, to the astonishment of many, is yes. And with each passing day, time is running out for Yang’s rivals — a diverse field loaded with governmental, civic and business leaders — to chase him down.
In a year of death, drudgery and economic destruction, Yang, a tech entrepreneur whose moonshot 2020 presidential primary bid amassed more goodwill than votes, has distinguished himself from the pack with an uncomplicated message: He wants to make New York fun again. The defining clarity of his campaign has, for now, largely obscured the most powerful argument against it — that even for those who admire Yang’s ambition and joyful candidacy, the 46-year-old is still a political newcomer and ill-suited to lead the city out of its worst crisis since bankruptcy beckoned in the 1970s.
His time in the private sector, launching start-ups and then running a presidential campaign, he argued, made him New York’s best bet to juice the kind of recovery that delivers for both workers and their corporate bosses.
“There are a number of people who’ve been in government for years in this field, but many of us have felt let down by city agencies over the past number of months,” Yang said. “So you have to ask yourself, do you really think that someone who’s been embedded in these bureaucracies is going to be the best person to lead us out of this crisis?”
The stakes are stark — and Yang has sought to become a better-rounded candidate in his second campaign. His advocacy for a universal basic income and warnings that automation could decimate the American workforce, the pillars of the presidential run, have largely taken a backseat to talk about creating more affordable housing, attracting investments from business titans, who have threatened to flee if their tax burden rises, reviving the arts and restoring public safety.
Here and around the country, the pandemic has laid bare old inequities and exacerbated others. More than 30,000 New Yorkers, a heavily disproportionate number of them from working poor, minority communities, are dead. Many multiples more are grieving. Even as the candidates spell out their post-Covid plans, the virus continues to spread, with new cases hovering at a dangerously high plateau. The city has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, countless small businesses, and even with the shot of financial adrenaline provided by the recent federal aid package passed by Democrats in Washington, the city’s robust public sector — bus drivers, sanitation workers, subway operators — could still, in the absence of astute leadership, face devastating cuts. Yang’s campaign likely hinges on undecided New York City Democrats, the largest bloc in every poll of the race to date, embracing a fundamental trade-off — by choosing an exuberant cheerleader over candidates with deeper understandings of the city’s infinitely complicated levers of power.
His rivals remain publicly confident that they won’t. There are debates to come and millions of dollars of television ads to roll out. At about the same stage in 2013, the last open mayoral primary, Anthony Weiner was the favorite and future Mayor Bill de Blasio looked like an afterthought.
Candidate Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer and former counsel to de Blasio, suggested in a recent interview with Bloomberg News that Yang’s advantage in name recognition would fade alongside his lead in the polls.
“My daughter had a Howard Dean Beanie Baby and that didn’t help him,” Wiley quipped. “T-shirts don’t win elections.”
‘A happy warrior’
The challenge for Wiley and others, in what could charitably be called an eight-deep field of candidates, is to figure out a path up or around him.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain who advocated for reforms during his time on the force before serving as a state lawmaker, is widely regarded as best-positioned to overtake Yang, something even his top advisers acknowledged in a recent press briefing. Wiley and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, along with former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, are the liberal favorites, though only Wiley and Stringer appear to be in touching distance. Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner with a deep knowledge of city government, has lagged behind.
So too have Ray McGuire, the former Citigroup executive, and Shaun Donovan, who served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Michael Bloomberg before going to work for the Obama administration. Both have independent expenditure groups ready to boost them as election day nears.
“Right now, there are so many candidates and so little attention being paid to the campaign because of other things that are going on — the pandemic, everything in Washington and (with the scandals surrounding Gov. Andrew Cuomo) — it’s impossible for any candidate to communicate positions on issues to a large number of voters,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.
The draw of Yang, he added, was easy to name.
“This guy’s a happy warrior,” Sherrill said. “People may well just be craving happiness. And I’m not talking about a comedian. I’m not talking about a clown. I’m not talking about a demagogue — just somebody who likes people and likes life.”
Yang has mostly worn his frontrunner status lightly, pivoting — like the more seasoned politician he is now — from questions about the prospect of taking on such a heavy responsibility. But the historic implications of his campaign, which could end with Yang becoming the city’s first Asian-American mayor, have been heightened by a citywide surge in anti-Asian violence.
“It’s something that’s affected everyone. But it certainly hits home for Asian Americans, who feel like our race is putting us in a position to worry more about being able to go on the subway or walk down certain streets at night,” Yang said. “So I feel these issues very personally, but I think a lot of Americans do. It’s just a really devastating time for the Asian American community.”
On the boardwalk at Coney Island on Friday afternoon, as some of those other candidates came and went to mark the landmark’s formal re-opening, Yang took questions from a smattering of reporters and few inquisitive cameramen.
He said he was “thrilled” by the freshly approved New York State budget, which includes new aid to schools, a tax hike on the wealthy and financial aid to undocumented workers who had been excluded from federal legislation. The legalization of marijuana, which passed separately but almost concurrent to the budget, also got his stamp of approval. On the issue of his Nathan’s hot dog order, he confessed to keeping it simple — ketchup and mustard, self-applied, declaring himself “a little sauerkraut dubious.”
He then paid tribute to the rapper and actor DMX, a beloved New York native, whose death had been announced earlier in the day. When the would-be gotcha question came — what was his favorite DMX song? — Yang named “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and talked affectionately of the “bad action movies” he starred in.
“Like, good bad action movies,” Yang clarified after being accused by a photographer of suggesting “Belly” was not, in fact, good. “Like action movies that were in the target and I was very much the target during that era.”
That brand of gleeful, accessible campaigning was the trademark of Yang’s unexpectedly strong presidential campaign, transforming him from a no-name gadfly to a regular on the debate stage. But the issues facing New Yorkers, in this race, are much different. Yang leads in the polls — and his every utterance is coming under harsh scrutiny from the other candidates, the press and skeptical voters.
Lis Smith, the veteran New York political operative who helped lead Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, said the “biggest hurdle” Yang has to overcome is proving — again and again — that he could take a punch and stay on his feet.
“Could he withstand the scrutiny of being a frontrunner?,” Smith said. “The simple answer, so far, is yes.”
The backlash intensifies
with a bid to become New York’s 110th mayor began almost immediately after he exited last year’s Democratic presidential primary. He seemed to be shying away from the prospect, though, when he signed on for a brief stint as a CNN political commentator and founded a nonprofit.
By mid-December, though, the chatter picked up. Private conversations became public knowledge. Yang spoke to local leaders, like Rep. Grace Meng of Queens and the Rev. Al Sharpton, and eventually enlisted some of the city’s top political operatives to chart his path.
Then, on January 13, he made it official.
“Seeing my city the way it is now breaks my heart,” Yang said in a video directed by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. In it, he introduced a signal endorsement, from newly elected Rep. Ritchie Torres, chatted with his wife, Evelyn, about his favorite sports teams (Mets over Yankees; the Knicks, in spite of himself) and school funding, ticked through his signature policy proposals and greeted passersby who, months later, still clamor for selfies and snips of conversation.
But Yang’s appeal on the street and its evidence in the polls also set off a backlash.
On Twitter, he is under constant scrutiny from critics who question his knowledge of the city and commitment to its civic life. He was mocked for taking pictures in a “bodega” that looked more like a supermarket. And piled-on again after posting a snap from a subway line that didn’t run to his stated destination. (His campaign subsequently told reporters that he transferred lines en route.)
More substantially, Yang struck a nerve early on when he revealed that, at the height of the pandemic last year, he and his family left the city for their second home — a couple hours away, upstate.
And his recent suggestion on Twitter that the city more strictly enforce rules against unlicensed street vending angered advocates who worry a new crackdown would target immigrant workers. Yang has also said he wanted to increase the number of licensed vendors, which could put him at odds with brick-and-mortar shops. (On Monday, he backed off “the sentiment as it was described on that thread” and said he didn’t view the issue as a “zero-sum game” between vendors and retailers.)
Under sometimes harsh examination from local media and activists, Yang’s big ideas — guaranteeing a basic income for the half-million New Yorkers in greatest need, establishing a public bank, appointing a police commissioner “whose career is not primarily in law enforcement” — can sound less inspired than half-baked. His plans to fuel an economic revival with public-private partnerships and skepticism over tax hikes on big businesses and the wealthy, coupled with distrust of his idiosyncratic ideological bearings, have made Yang an enemy of the city’s ascendant progressive and leftist political organizations.
The speed and sharpness of the attacks from his rivals has also accelerated as the election nears.
Stringer recently accused Yang of peddling “municipal Reaganomics.” Adams, in perhaps the most heated back-and-forth to date, slammed his business record and falsely claimed Yang had “never held a job in his entire life.” A spokeswoman for Wiley, responding to his call for de Blasio to slow the spending of federal stimulus funds, labeled Yang a “mini-Trump.”
Asked on Friday about that particular turn of phrase, Yang half-laughed.
“I genuinely don’t know how to respond to that,” he told CNN. “I just find that very confusing. Genuinely.”
Yang’s campaign has also aggressively pushed back on the assertion that handing him the city’s top political job during a period of historic uncertainty could imperil its recovery.
“What is a risk,” top Yang strategist Chris Coffey said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same results.”
The wild cards
Whether Yang can maintain his lead — and bring in new voters — as the other candidates crack open their war chests could boil down to a few key strategic decisions by the remaining, undecided political movers in a city where the old machers, like the county parties, have mostly been relegated to the sidelines.
The big labor unions have largely split their support among Adams, Stringer, Wiley and Garcia. Progressive groups seem to be hesitating, though, stuck between Wiley, Stringer and their affection for Morales. A number of increasingly influential, young, liberal city-based state lawmakers backed Stringer early on, but it is unclear if their support will help fuel a consolidation on the left.
That uncertainty has been heightened by the introduction of ranked-choice voting, a system that typically rewards candidates who, even when they are not a voters’ top pick, can maintain some level of popularity — and acceptability — across various constituencies. But there is no indication, at this point, that the candidates trailing in the polls are prepared to alter course and consider strategic cross-endorsements.
If they do, the shift could happen in the coming weeks, after three of the handful of remaining outside influencers pick their horse. At the top of the list is The New York Times editorial board; the United Federation of Teachers, which has a losing record in recent elections but has seen its membership unified by the backlash over school re-openings; and the Working Families Party.
Emboldened by its staying power despite Cuomo’s best attempts to unravel it, the WFP is one of the few progressive organizations with the name brand and grassroots power to drive support to one (or more) of the leading liberal candidates.
“During a pandemic year, where candidates aren’t campaigning traditionally, we need to have a real path to victory,” WFP state director Sochie Nnaemeka told CNN. “We cannot solely make our endorsement about value signaling. It has to be about who is the best vehicle for the progressive movement, for working people in the city to have representation at City Hall.”
Yang’s campaign, meanwhile, is projecting optimism while digging in for a dogfight.
“No one here is going to say there is no way for us to lose this race. There absolutely is,” Coffey, his strategist, said during a recent briefing. “But I’d rather be us than anyone else.”