NYC mayoral race is still up for grabs — and could be a bellwether for Dems

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NYC Mayoral candidates Eric Adams, Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Lennihan/AP, Kathy Willens/AP, Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

New York Democrats will choose their nominee for mayor on Tuesday in a historic primary that will test a major election reform and speak to how the party wants to address the issues of racial justice and public safety.

It is the city’s first open election for mayor in eight years, following two terms for outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose approval rating continues to drop as he heads for the exit. Given the city’s strong Democratic tilt, the winner of Tuesday’s primary will be the overwhelming favorite in the general election this fall. But the primary’s results may not be known for several days, or possibly longer.

The next mayor will confront a city in crisis. New York is still emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic — final restrictions on indoor gatherings were lifted statewide last week — and grappling with its aftershocks. Vacant storefronts and office spaces abound, in midtown Manhattan and elsewhere, and most offices remain empty. Homelessness was already at a “crisis level” before COVID, and the situation has been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. The city’s budget is under strain. And a dramatic rise in violent crime has become the top concern for voters.

People arrive to the voting center on the first day of early voting for the New York Primary election at Resorts World Casino in Queens, New York City, U.S., June 12, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
People at Resorts World Casino in Queens on June 12, the first day of early voting for the New York Democratic primary. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, is the frontrunner for the nomination, based on his clear identification as the anti-crime candidate. A former NYPD captain, Adams has promised to increase the number of police officers on the streets and subways and has said he would carry a gun as mayor — a pledge he now says was something of a joke.

However, he has also promised to avoid the severe anti-crime measures embraced by past mayors like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, emphasizing his own experience with police brutality when he was a young man.

Close behind Adams are three others: civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who was the frontrunner earlier this year but has dropped to fourth place.

But predicting who will win is complicated by uncertainty about how many voters will participate, and even more by the fact that the city is using ranked-choice voting (RCV) for the first time. Voters will have the option to list their five top choices in order of preference, a controversial change that has made polling the race exceedingly difficult. While Adams consistently leads the other candidates in surveys, any of the top four will still have plausible paths to victory come Tuesday.

Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams hugs a supporter after a campaign event, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Adams hugs a supporter after a campaign event in Harlem on Thursday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

A ranked-choice election requires that the winner eventually get over 50 percent, rather than a plurality, in which several candidates can split the vote and someone with only 30 or 40 percent support can win. De Blasio, for example, won the Democratic nomination in 2013 with 41 percent of the vote.

Under the ranked-choice system, candidates are eliminated and their supporters are reallocated according to their second-place choices and so on, until one candidate has majority support.

Ranked choice is a political reform with significant momentum, because advocates believe it could reduce the ability of extremist candidates to win elections, in part by lessening the incentive to win by appealing to the most militant element in either party.

The use of RCV is a recent phenomenon in the U.S. and has been embraced by a handful of states. But the practice has never been under the microscope as it will be now. If there are hiccups — confused voters, mixed-up election officials, delayed results — that could dampen enthusiasm for the reform nationally.

The last time the state of New York implemented changes to voting, by allowing no-excuse absentee voting in the 2020 election, it took about a month to certify the election results. A weeks-long delay in the Democratic primary results — which appears likely — will give opponents of RCV plenty of ammunition.

An election worker goes over a ranked choice voting explanation card with a voter before she casts her vote during early voting in the primary election, Monday, June 14, 2021, at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in the Soho neighborhood of New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
A New York City election worker reviews a ranked-choice-voting explanation card on June 14. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Adams has already been critical of the change. “[It’s] so complicated,” he complained last week, adding that “the Board of Elections did a terrible job” in educating voters about the new system.

Wiley, on the other hand, has defended RCV.

“Ranked Choice Voting protects the voice of Black and brown voters,” she said in a statement Monday. “Studies have shown that Ranked Choice Voting has a positive impact on candidates and voters of color. Here in New York City, Ranked Choice Voting will prevent a run-off election, which would see significant voter drop off, especially in communities of color.”

The most unpredictable element in the race is how second-place votes will affect the outcome. The ultimate winner will probably have done the best job of making themselves a second choice for the most voters.

The implementation of ranked-choice voting has also produced alliances that would be unthinkable under the previous system. In an effort to halt Adams’s momentum, Yang and Garcia — the two other moderates in the race — have campaigned together in recent days. “Andrew Yang No. 1 and Kathryn Garcia No. 2. That’s the way I want your ballots to look,” Yang said at a rally in Chinatown on Sunday.

Mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia wave to New Yorkers after speaking at the AAPI Democracy Project's
Mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia wave to New Yorkers after a rally in Chinatown on Sunday. (Brittainy Newman/AP)

For her part, Garcia — who has spent most of her adult life working for the city in various capacities and has been boosted by endorsements from the New York Times and the Daily News — has repeatedly said she’s happy to be ranked second. “I want to be everybody’s first choice, but I’ll take those No. 2s,” Garcia recently told the Wall Street Journal. “I believe we have strong support across the board with many people. They may have other No. 1s, but I’m their No. 2.”

Ironically, though ranked-choice voting was promoted by progressives, polls have shown only about 30 percent support for the left-wing candidates when they are grouped together. Wiley has gained significant momentum in the last two weeks of the campaign, in part because Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., endorsed her.

Wiley has also benefited from the apparent demise of two other left-wing candidates, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales and city Comptroller Scott Stringer. Morales’s campaign imploded due to a unionization dispute with her staff, while Stringer, who was seen as a top contender at the start of the race, has been hobbled by accusations of sexual misconduct. If elected, Wiley would be the city’s first female mayor and the second African American to hold the job.

Wiley has remained resolute in wanting to cut $1 billion out of the $6 billion New York Police Department budget, at a time when voters say violent crime is their top concern. She would also reduce the police force by roughly 2,500 officers through a two-year freeze on incoming cadet classes. And she says she would place the NYPD under greater civilian oversight.

NYC Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley speaks during a New York Working Families Party GOTV Rally for their endorsed candidates in Fort Greene Park on June 11, 2021 in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley speaks in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood on June 11. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“This city of 8 million has had historic drops in crime over the last three decades,” Wiley said in her plan, crediting the drop to former Mayor David Dinkins’s embrace of “community policing” rather than the “tough on crime” policies of Giuliani, his successor, in the 1990s. “Tragically, we have not experienced an increase in equity and fairness in how policing is administered in our communities.”

New York, a heavily Democratic city that spent 20 years under Republican and independent administrations until de Blasio came to power, is sometimes seen as a bellwether for liberalism nationally. Giuliani and Bloomberg were elected as moderate reformers at a time when the Democratic Party was more centrist than it is today. In 2013, de Blasio ran on an unabashedly progressive platform, and his victory that year presaged the return of a resurgent left, embodied today by political figures like Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Now that progressives have rallied around Wiley, her loss would be a clear rebuke for those on the left who responded to the murder of George Floyd with calls to “defund the police” and other radical measures. But it would also be a loss for those focused on reversing decades of growing inequality in the city.

Adams, meanwhile, has told Yahoo News he would “weed out” bad cops by making it easier for officers to report misbehavior and abuse up the chain of command. He says he would reinstate a plainclothes unit focused on getting rid of illegal guns. And he has promised he would give community leaders a say in how their precinct police commanders are chosen.

Eric Adams, Democratic candidate for New York City Mayor, greets a supporter while campaigning the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, U.S., June 15, 2021.  (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Adams greets supporters while campaigning in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

At the same time, Adams has repeatedly signaled to voters that fighting crime would be his top priority and that he’s willing to do all it takes to ensure safe streets and subways. His law-and-order message appears to have broad appeal in the city, winning over traditional Democratic power brokers and wide swaths of the electorate. Some polls show Adams, who is Black, winning nearly 50 percent of the African American vote.

“Adams would win by uniting Black voters with white moderates and conservatives against liberals, particularly the ‘young white affluent people’ who he claims lead the defund-the-police movement,” political commentator Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times last week.

And Adams has not shied away from making audacious promises. “In one year you’re going to see a different city. I guarantee that,” he said last week in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park.


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