New York has not seen a Democratic primary for mayor this volatile and wide open in decades and, if the polls hold, the city’s next mayor could well be a former cop and Republican who’s poised to push back against the rising left and who’s dabbled in racial demagoguery in the race’s closing days.
Eight years ago, Bill de Blasio emerged from a crowded field to lock down the race with weeks to go, dominating his opponents in the polls during the campaign’s final days. Once a long-shot, he had become a front-runner and did not disappoint his supporters on election night.
This time around, no Democrat has approached de Blasio’s level of support as four candidates jostle for first place on Tuesday. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the ex-cop, has been the front-runner for the last month, but he has never opened up the kind of enormous lead that puts a race to rest. Kathryn Garcia, de Blasio’s former Sanitation commissioner, and Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, are never too far off. Maya Wiley, formerly de Blasio’s former counsel and a well-known MSNBC pundit, is hoping Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s late-arriving endorsement can put her over the top.
Though the city is still emerging from a once-in-a-century pandemic, the issues of crime and quality-of-life have dominated headlines, as candidates promise to return the city to the levels of shootings and murders seen before the radical spike in 2020. Adams, Yang, and Garcia have all explicitly rejected the defund the police movement, while Wiley, the most progressive of the four, has danced around the issue, promising a $1 billion cut to the NYPD while otherwise avoiding it when possible.
The primary was not always down to these four: at one time, Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, was one of the front-runners, and had won a wide array of endorsements from left-leaning politicians and organizations. An unsubstantiated sexual assault allegation damaged his campaign and caused most of his endorsers to leave him. Many flocked to Wiley, but a few went to Adams and Garcia. On Tuesday, Stringer’s campaign will probably end with a whimper.
The great unpredictable variable is ranked-choice voting. This is the first time the system, which allows voters to choose up to five candidates, will be used for a New York City mayoral race. Adams, who has a history of making incendiary statements and engaging in questionable conduct, has attacked Yang and Garcia for campaigning together—a common form of alliance-building under RCV—and claimed they both are engaging in “voter suppression” and trying to stop a “person of color” from winning. Yang is Asian American and Adams would be New York’s second Black mayor. No votes are being suppressed.
For months, it was Yang who loomed over the race as the celebrity outsider, but he has not been a poll-leader in many weeks now. It is Adams, a former state senator and police captain, who is ahead, and hoping to build a winning coalition of working-class Black and Latino voters, as well as more conservative whites beyond Manhattan. Adams, backed by many labor unions, wealthy real estate developers, and Democratic machines that are weakened from their 20th century heyday, promises a return to an older order: pro-real estate, pro-police, and fundamentally moderate in political orientation.
For a city that, until recently, had become known for its ascendant left—the rise of DSA, the big wins of AOC and Jamaal Bowman—Mayor Adams would be a remarkable counterforce. Adams has railed against the kind of newer residents who are powering these movements, once telling a crowd that so-called gentrifiers should “go back to Iowa.” Though Adams has invoked David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, he is not as courtly or as accommodating to progressives. In his willingness to dig deep in political fights and lambaste rivals—just yesterday, he called Yang a “fraud” and a “liar”—Adams calls to mind the bulldog mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani. During Giuliani’s reign, Adams himself was a registered Republican, and even tried to pull Black voters toward the GOP.
If Adams holds a large enough lead on election night, he will be the next mayor of New York City. But if any of his rivals are only a few points behind, the RCV tabulation could produce another winner. Second, third, fourth, and even fifth place votes matter, and Garcia is hoping that her less polarizing technocratic brand can vault her ahead of both Adams and Yang, who have endured far more media scrutiny. Wiley too is looking for that kind of comeback, knitting together a version of the coalition that sent her old boss, de Blasio, to City Hall in 2013.
Much will be at stake on Tuesday. The city’s economic recovery is fragile, murders and shootings remain high, and inequality persists. The next mayor will lead a post-pandemic city unlike the glittering vessel that came before it. Leadership, both symbolic and literal, is desperately needed. New York cannot afford to tell anyone to go back to Iowa.