Welcome to the sixth edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter! I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and our goal is to bring you some coverage of the upcoming municipal primaries from the perspective of constituencies and communities.
The primary is less than two months away, and the race is increasingly evening out among the mayoral candidates. As we noted last week, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has overtaken former entrepreneur and nonprofit executive Andrew Yang in some polls, and The New York Times this week also formally endorsed former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn García.
Still, Yang has captured the lion’s share of the public’s attention after running for president in 2020, partly on the strength of name recognition and on a sort of boundless energy, even as he remains a bit of a political enigma to many New Yorkers. It’s fair to say that he’s been broadly rejected by the Democratic party’s progressive wing, as the endorsements of big-name progressive groups and officials have gone to other candidates. Further isolating progressives, this week he got into hot water for a tepid statement defending Israel’s military offensive against civilians in Gaza. After being called out by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and social media (but applauded by Republicans) — Yang walked back his seemingly pro-Israel Tweet.
Yet, a few notable progressive politicians have surprised observers with endorsements of Yang. State Assemblymember Ron Kim of Queens, who rocketed into the headlines as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s primary antagonist on Covid-19 nursing home deaths and has previously campaigned for Bernie Sanders, endorsed Yang in January. Brooklyn City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, himself briefly in the mayoral race and an unabashedly left-wing city legislator, endorsed Yang last month. We asked them: what’s the progressive case for Yang? What do the city’s more left-leaning voters have to gain from a Yang mayoralty?
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
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Kim openly admits that Yang’s presidential policy platform “wasn’t good enough,” but argues that being mayor is a different ballgame entirely, particularly given the need to balance the city budget; a mayor can’t simply run up the debt the way a president can. “There has to be a mayor who also can ‘manage’ the inequality, for lack of a better word, until we have the right White House and state [government],” he said. Essentially, Kim’s perspective is that Yang is someone who could work with both a President Biden and a hypothetical President Sanders, if and when that time comes.
Menchaca says he was disillusioned by big progressive groups’ apparent disinterest in his own mayoral campaign, and came to view their thinking as stale. He struck up a friendship with Yang during this campaign, and understood him as someone willing to be a bridge between progressive thinking and a practical approach. “We’re going to have to bring voices that are not talking to each other, to talk to each other so that we can actually move the city forward. This idea that there needs to be a strong arm on one side, and we need to just be stronger to push out the other side, hasn’t really worked for us.”
In Kim’s view, the reason Yang has this unique capability is a certain “range of flexibility.” Parting from a standpoint of relative inexperience in political life, he will be susceptible to being drawn toward a more progressive vision. “I have his ear, and his policy team, and they understand the importance of building public capital at a time when we’ve completely punted the responsibility of public service to the private markets,” said Kim. Menchaca echoed this, saying he felt that Yang trusted him to “bring the muscle of the left, the purity of the left, the commitment to the left,” and was fundamentally a “delegator.”
The trouble with that is it can cut both ways: if he can be moved left, he can be moved right, and his affinity for private-sector solutions, closeness with Tusk, and an elite background — he attended the ultra-elite Phillips Exeter high school and Ivy League Brown University as an undergraduate and Columbia Law School — can make the latter seem the likelier option.
According to Menchaca, whether or not Yang is close to the private sector is the wrong framing. “Here’s the thing about this dichotomy of the private sector versus the government. What I see at the end of the day, is the dichotomy of institutionalized thinking versus innovation. Institutionalized thinking doesn’t get you to a NYIFUP program,” he said, referring to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a municipal initiative that provides immigration attorneys to detained immigrants facing deportation. He came to believe that, as a relative outsider and unconventional candidate, Yang would be able to shake things up. “The old institutional power structure has not served Black and Brown people, and especially those that are impacted by Covid-19. We’re going to change that.”
Kim argues that Yang’s elite background is an asset to working-class New Yorkers, not a liability, because “he doesn’t feel beholden to anyone of the upper tier class,” but has enough familiarity with them to bring them on board with his proposals. Ultimately, it’s a pragmatic vision, one on board with the policy agenda of a candidate like the progressive Dianne Morales, but is more cynical on implementation. “I love Diane, I love all those policies that their campaign is putting out, I’m aligned with that. But will she ever convince the upper class of New York City, ‘this decision, you need to sign off for’? Whereas I think Andrew is in this kind of hybrid area where he has access to the network, and will be able to sell the agenda.”
This agenda remains sparser than many of his opponents’ detailed plans; the bet from endorsers like Kim and Menchaca is that they’ll be able to guide it toward a more concrete progressive framework. Kim pointed to some proposals, particularly a public “People’s Bank” that would serve New Yorkers without bank accounts and provide loans to small businesses as the type of proposal they will be pushing for. Menchaca said he’d been talking regularly to Yang about participatory budgeting and noncitizen municipal voting.
All in all, one of the leading candidates to preside over a 300,000-member municipal workforce, a $90 billion-plus budget, and some 8.4 million New Yorkers remains something of a political mystery to many would-be voters, a large number of whom remain undecided on how to rank their choices (remember, you’re not voting for a single candidate anymore). Most probably know him for his ideas around universal basic income. The flurry of questions around his private-sector entanglements and controversies surrounding his sometimes off-the-cuff policy pronouncements — such as his support for increasing funding for the NYPD Asian Hate Crimes in response to rising anti-Asian attacks — have put him at an inflection point with the city’s increasingly progressive Democratic electorate. Menchaca chalked some of these missteps up to a growth process: “Does he have a lot to learn? No doubt. But are his values intact? Absolutely. Does he still want to help people? Yes.” Whether the progressive arguments in his favor are enough will be up to you.
What we’re reading:
Five Things To Watch For In The First Official Mayoral Debate
The mayoral debate is tonight from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., and will be available on WNYC and NY1. See here for viewing options!
Do you live in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst or East Elmhurst, Queens? Epicenter-NYC and TBN24 are hosting an in-person District 25 City Council forum this Saturday. We welcome fully vaccinated neighbors to attend from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. (Otherwise, join us here on the livestream!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in attending!
This newsletter was written by Felipe De La Hoz for URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets. Our collaborative elections coverage is sponsored by a grant from the Center for Cooperative Media.