NEW YORK — Andrew Yang would bring celebrity status, fundraising prowess and an online army of devoted loyalists to the New York City mayor’s race, which he’s likely to jump into soon.
But the one-time presidential candidate faces a tough fight in the country’s largest city. Some candidates in the already crowded field have spent their careers cultivating relationships with voters and the city’s political machinery. Spending limits are strictly capped. And as the city emerges from one of the darkest moments in its history, the electorate may be clamoring for a more tested leader.
Yang hinted at his intention to join the race last week, as he was quietly reaching out to elected officials to gauge support for a possible bid in conjunction with the consulting firm Tusk Strategies, POLITICO first reported. A poll conducted on his behalf tested whether a third-party candidate could gain traction, but Yang has decided to run in the Democratic primary.
“It’s incredibly flattering that people are interested in my running. I love New York dearly; it’s played an enormous role in my life and my wife’s life and our kids go to school there,” Yang, who lives in Manhattan, said in an interview. “So I’m just looking for how I can do the most good and I believe I’ll have a decision staked out in the next number of weeks.”
But running for mayor in New York City traditionally requires rites of passage that will be unfamiliar to the tech entrepreneur.
He already has some work to do in impressing Errol Louis, the seasoned political journalist who grills candidates nightly on NY1’s Inside City Hall and was dubious of Yang’s plans during a segment this week.
“He got his clock cleaned in Iowa,” Louis said. “By the time the race came around to New York he picked up I think a little over 12,000 votes, compared with half a million for Joe Biden. Is this somebody who’s ready to run for mayor?”
Political advisers to New York City’s top officials agreed.
“His national brand will give him a short-lived bump, but in this race I’d rather be famous with NYCHA residents and union workers than on Twitter,” said Eric Phillips, a consultant and former press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio, referring to the city’s public housing authority that is home to more than 400,000 residents. Phillips is unaffiliated with any of the mayoral hopefuls.
A poll conducted by Slingshot Strategies and reported by the New York Post this week found Yang leading the field — he scored 20 percent among the 1,000 Democratic voters surveyed between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6. City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who also comes from Manhattan, came in second place with 14 percent and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is banking on widespread support in Central Brooklyn, was third with 11 percent.
As a candidate Yang would roll out a modified version of his universal basic income proposal, which called for monthly cash payments of $1,000 to all Americans, according to people who have spoken to him. One elected official, who had a lengthy conversation with Yang this week and is considering supporting him, believes he has “a real shot.”
“Something is clearly broken, and we need real solutions to put cash in people’s pockets,” said the official, who would only speak on background to freely discuss Yang’s likely plans.
The primary field is crowded and growing.
In addition to Stringer, who hails from the voter-rich Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Adams, who has repeatedly won elections in the borough that consistently has the highest turnout in citywide races, the race features many first-time candidates: Maya Wiley, a former attorney to de Blasio and MSNBC commentator; Ray McGuire, who worked at Citigroup; Shaun Donovan, who held top jobs in the Obama and Bloomberg administrations; Dianne Morales, who had an executive position at a prominent nonprofit; and Kathryn Garcia, who ran the sanitation department under the current mayor.
Other than Stringer and Donovan, each would bring personal diversity to an office that has never been occupied by a woman and only once by a Black person.
Yang would also make history as the first Asian American mayor, something his supporters believe would energize that base of voters throughout the city.
“He’s got an excellent shot. He’s a known quantity,” said state Sen. John Liu, the former city comptroller who was the first Asian American to hold citywide office. “I as well as many others are proud of what he’s done.”
Yang would also have to make inroads with Black voters, who are essential to victory for any Democrat running for mayor. With pandemic restrictions curtailing standard retail campaigning, the candidates will have to rely more on Zoom visits to churches and relationships with elected officials, unions and community leaders. His contenders have a head start in jockeying for the coveted endorsements of the Working Families Party, the large health care workers union 1199SEIU and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor, criticized Yang for playing up stereotypes with his frequent descriptions of himself as “an Asian guy who’s good at math,” and said his fervent supporters seem to consist mostly of “aggrieved white men.”
“His world view of racial politics is really antiquated and offensive,” Greer said. “That’s such a right-wing, old man analysis of the model minority that is really detrimental to Black people.”
His attitudes, she said, would not translate well either on the campaign trail or at City Hall.
“We already know that the NYPD looks at Blacks and Latinos as dangerous, and whites and Asians as safe. We know that teachers — some, not all — look at Blacks and Latinos as not as smart, not as gifted,” she said. “All of this is really dangerous if you purport to be the mayor of the nation’s largest city.”
A person familiar with Yang’s plans predicted he would connect well with voters, even if other candidates have already begun accumulating institutional support.
“He has kids in public school. He’s been a New Yorker for a long time and he’s made lots and lots of relationships with New Yorkers,” the person, who would only speak on background, said. “You need a big thinker and someone who is going to be a cheerleader for the city in a way we haven’t had in a while.”
Still, he will have to convince voters he’s the person for the job despite a lack of experience in local government.
“Nobody in the field wants Andrew Yang in this race. He’s an unorthodox thinker and a fresh face in a race that needs some risk taking and big ideas. Can he win? Absolutely. Can he manage 325,000 employees and a $90 billion budget? That is a lot less clear,” Phillips said. “No experience fully prepares you for being New York City mayor. But none of his even comes close. He’ll have to explain why that doesn’t matter.”