Crammed inside a modest store in the Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, a small but vocal crowd has gathered. Just after 11am, Andrew Yang enters to a flash of camera lights, hands aloft as he makes his way through the welcome line of adoring fans chanting "Andrew! Andrew!" and clutching "Yang for New York" signs.
This is one of a series of stops on the day by the former presidential candidate who is hoping to become the next mayor of New York city.
On June 22nd New Yorkers go to the polls in the Democratic primary. Given the city's Democratic leanings, the winner of the contest is widely expected to become the next mayor of the five-borough city when the election takes place in November, replacing Bill De Blasio whose second four-year term comes to an end.
As he takes the stand on the makeshift podium, the 46-year-old Asian American sets out his vision for the city and why he’s the right person to lead.
“This campaign is the people’s chance to take government back and get it working for us,” he declares to cheers. He recalls how he campaigned during the Democratic primary to become America’s next president by promising to give every American a monthly $1,000 cheque. People thought “that’s never going to happen. That’s too good to be true,” he says. But once Covid-19 hit the Trump and Biden administrations sent stimulus payments to Americans.
“Here we are less than two years later, and New Yorkers have gotten a $1,200 cheque, a $600 cheque, a $1400 cheque. We’ve seen that cash relief is real, it’s powerful and it can be a game-changer for millions of Americans.”
Yang shot to national fame in 2019 when he mounted an unlikely campaign to win the Democratic nomination for president.
An entrepreneur with a background in tech, he pulled out of the race in February 2020, but his sunny disposition and energetic campaign struck a chord particularly with younger voters who warmed to his ideas about how to radically rethink the world of work and adapt to changing economic realities.
As New York emerged from the Covid pandemic this spring, having been hit hard and early by the virus, Yang rapidly looked like the front-runner as he became one of the first mayoral candidates to hold events. “Help, We Can’t Stop Writing about Andrew Yang,” said one New York Times headline over a piece outlining how the New York native was dominating media coverage.
But as polling day nears, the New York mayor race has become interesting. Yang’s front-runner status has come under threat in recent weeks as other candidates gain momentum.
Of the 12 candidates on the ballots, Eric Adams, a former police chief and current Brooklyn borough president, is seen as having the best chance of clinching the nomination. Running on a law and order platform, if elected he would be the second black mayor in New York's history.
Yet it is a late challenge from Kathryn Garcia who was until recently the city's sanitation commissioner that has really changed the dynamics of the race.
On May 10th, the New York Times endorsed Garcia for mayor, arguing that she “best understands how to get New York back on its feet and has the temperament and the experience to do so”.
Outlining her experience working in the department of environmental protection under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then at the city's unglamorous but hugely important sanitation department since 2014 and later housing authority, the hometown newspaper said that her many years of experience had helped her develop "laudable plans for the city that are also achievable".
The much-coveted endorsement gave a huge boost to Garcia’s campaign. Having eschewed outside spending, she established a “super pac” – an expenditure committee which has raised money to pepper the New York region with pro-Garcia advertising. Since then she has been racing across the city in a bid to build on her new-found momentum.
About 15km north from the Yang event, Garcia supporters are canvassing in a Brooklyn park near the Williamsburg bridge. With the Manhattan skyline sparkling across the East River, Abe Polakunnil is sporting a bright green shirt with the words “Garcia Gets it Done.” Handing out fliers to the broad mix of New Yorkers walking by, he explains why he backs the 51-year-old for mayor.
“I’ve been a supporter of hers for a very long time. What I look for in a future mayor is someone who understands how the city works and understands what can and can’t be implemented, regardless of ideology,” he says. “She is the definition of public service. She’s been doing the day-to-day work for New Yorkers. That’s the kind of mayor I want – someone who has been working in the weeds, out of the limelight.”
While Yang’s name is not mentioned specifically, many of his opponents have honed-in on what they believe is his key weakness – that he is a quasi-celebrity candidate with little real experience of running America’s biggest city.
Back at the Yang campaign event, the impact of the new dynamic in the mayor election is in evidence.
Having pointedly avoided public criticism of his rivals in an attempt to run a positive campaign, Yang is now going on the offensive. In a pointed reference to his opponents, he highlights his outsider status as a positive.
“Everyone knows that I have not been climbing the greasy ladder of the city’s bureaucracy over the last number of years.”
As the event opens up to questions from the media, Yang gets prickly when asked about recent comments by Eric Adams describing him as a “joke” and claiming that New York “does not need a cheerleader”.
“Eric, your moment has passed,” says Yang staring angrily into the camera to cheers from his supporters.
He also criticises the leadership of current mayor De Blasio, casting Garcia’s experience working for the De Blasio administration as a negative.
“I don’t think that someone who has worked in the De Blasio administration for seven of the last eight years is someone who New Yorkers are looking for. We need a fresh start, we need to turn the page.”
This is despite the fact that Yang earlier in the campaign suggested that he would be happy to hire Garcia as his number two.
While the momentum is clearly turning against Yang, it is difficult to predict with accuracy who is leading in this primary contest as early voting starts this week ahead of the June 22nd vote.
Polling of this race is limited, making it difficult to gauge the outcome. For the first time the city is using rank-voting, similar to Ireland’s single transferable vote system. Voters can choose up to five candidates, and the last-place candidate is eliminated if no candidate reaches an outright majority.
The city has been running ads on local television explaining how the system works in a bid to educate voters. But while it is likely that many will vote down the ballot for five candidates, there is little discussion by candidates or their teams about strategy or how they could benefit from transfers.
There are also ongoing machinations among other high-profile candidates on the ballot.
While Yang, Adams and Garcia have emerged as front-runners, according to polls, there are a group of serious contenders running on a more left-wing platform. However, the left has failed to coalesce around a single candidate, increasing the prospect that one of the more centrist candidates like Yang, Adams or Garcia will win.
Leading progressive and New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed lawyer and community organiser Maya Wiley last weekend. "We can't let New York become a playground for the wealthy where working people cannot afford to live," she declared outside City Hall in Manhattan. While the announcement was a boost to Wiley, it is unclear if she has the support necessary to win over this city of 8.5 million people.
As the race enters its final stretch, the contest that is dominating New York politics is taking place against the background of a traumatic year. No city in America was affected more than New York by Covid-19. The city was the epicentre of the US’s Covid pandemic last spring. Some 53,000 people died, hospitals were overwhelmed, and residents left the city in droves.
As the summer begins there is now a mood of hope in the city. Restaurants, gyms and cinemas have reopened at full capacity, with some social distancing requirements still in place. Broadway shows will reopen in September. Companies like Goldman Sachs are pushing employees to return to the office.
New Yorkers are proudly displaying a statewide app showing vaccination status on their phone, while pop-up vaccination sites are offering free vaccines at points across the city, including at subway stations.
But the pandemic has left its mark on one of the world’s most famous cities. New York’s real estate market has taken a hit, as New Yorkers have fled to the suburbs and further afield, with developers offering incentives to renters.
The subway system, which has just reopened on a 24-hour basis, has seen user numbers plummet and a rise in crime on carriages. Like many cities across the US, violent crime is up in New York. Homicides increased by nearly 45 per cent last year in the city.
As a result, crime is dominating the mayoral campaign. Despite a national reckoning about racial injustice and policing since the murder of George Floyd last year and some calls to "defund the police", polls are showing that crime and calls for more policing are topping voters' concerns in this election race.
At his Brooklyn event Yang continuously raises the issue of public safety, pointing out that three out of four murders in New York are unsolved.
He also highlighted the rise in anti-Asian crime in the city – an issue that resonates with the city’s vibrant Asian community, which has already rowed in behind Yang who would become the city’s first Asian-American mayor if elected.
Candidate Eric Adams, a former police officer who says he has himself been a victim of police brutality as a black man, is calling for more robust and better resourced policing to tackle the rise in crime. “This city is out of control,” he said recently. “We don’t have to live like this.”
The uncertainties that linger as New York tries to find its feet again after a year-long pandemic may explain the tilt towards more centrist candidates and the failure of a progressive firebrand like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to capture the public mood at this point.
But as primary day nears, it is still all to play for in the Democratic primary race. As the outgoing mayor De Blasio recently put it: “I still think a huge percentage of New Yorkers have not fully focused and have not made their final decision. This is probably the most fluid mayor’s race I’ve ever seen in my life.”