On Thursday evening, New York City’s Democratic mayoral candidates appeared for their first televised debate. And while the proceedings weren’t particularly enlightening, they did give Henry Grabar and Jordan Weissmann an opportunity to reflect on the state of the race.
Jordan Weissmann: So Henry, I come before you as a slightly humbled pundit.
Henry Grabar: Recant, recant!
Weissmann: Indeed, I must. Partially, anyway.
A few months back, I told you that I was Yang-curious—that, despite finding him to be a gimmicky nuisance during the presidential race, I generally liked what he was bringing to the table as a mayoral candidate. His proposals to provide a basic income for New York’s poorest and create a municipal public bank seemed like a revival of the long-faded notion that large urban centers could function as their own social democratic city-states. And given that the whole race sort of seemed to be a clown car full of weird, dull, or simply out-of-the-mainstream candidates, I figured there would be no harm in picking the most compelling clown, even if he lacked obvious, basic qualifications like government experience.
But after watching this race unfold, getting to know the candidates a bit better, and realizing that Yang’s candidacy is maybe shaping up into a Bloomberg-admin restoration without the promise of managerial competence … I’ve changed my mind.
Grabar: It’s been interesting to see Yang evolve from a sunny renegade to a more calculated politician, shoring up support with Hasidic Jews, for example, by implying he won’t mess with religious schools that don’t properly educate kids. His political strategist and one of his most high-profile supporters have described him as an “empty vessel” and a blank slate, respectively, which gets at both the promise of Yang—he’d come at various government dysfunctions with fresh eyes—and the peril, which is that his policies will come straight from whatever power broker or interest group had his attention last.
Weissmann: It is definitely funny that the guy who was supposed to be a fake New Yorker or something has been so good at zeroing in on the city’s parochial political constituencies. I expected him to be a more polished media presence than the other candidates—watching him in Thursday night’s candidates debate was mostly like watching a decent NBA player dribble and shoot circles around a college squad—but I did not expect him to aggressively make inroads into Boro Park.
But now that I’ve complimented his political chops, I should probably say why I’ve soured on him. Which is that, as you said last time, he’s just a little Trump-like. Trump with a warmer heart. Chaotic good, instead of chaotic evil, but still chaotic. He has no relevant experience in government, either as a legislator or a civil servant, and has never really run a large organization. The New York Times’ reporting on his stint leading Venture for America was brutal—basically, he raised a ton of money for a project that he promised would produce 100,000 tech jobs, and only yielded 150—and suggests he’s a bit of a showman who exaggerates his accomplishments. And the blank slate thing is a little disconcerting: He seems to have that Trump-like habit of suddenly picking up ideas from whoever he’s talked to last and wants to impress. That’s not always bad—he recently came out in favor of a land tax on vacant lots, which is great!—but makes me doubt how hard he’d fight for any of the good ideas, and worry about which bad ones he’d adopt. Meanwhile, his campaign is basically being run by a lobbying firm staffed by ex-Bloombergites, which further makes me wonder whether you can really trust that he’ll push the more offbeat, progressive plans that make him stand out.
At the same time, Kathryn Garcia appears to be a competent YIMBY with a long record of public service. So, there’s a better option.
Grabar: Your point is well-taken. But it turns out Yang is kind of hard to attack, because he’s so likeable! There were a couple moments in last night’s debate when I saw thinly veiled jabs at his lack of experience. Scott Stringer said, “We can’t afford a mayor on training wheels”; Kathryn Garcia said she didn’t need to be told where the light switches are in City Hall. But it’s telling that both those remarks came in the candidates’ opening statements—when the debate got going, nobody landed a punch.
Another transition that Yang has handled with aplomb: His appeal for me was as the post-pandemic candidate, someone who believed in New York’s greatness, someone whose ebullience and optimism made a strong contrast with dour old Bill de Blasio (who, side note, finally seemed to be enjoying the job?!). But it increasingly feels like the surging issue in this race is public safety, and Yang is well-positioned there too, because (having little stake in city politics before now) he did not jump on the “defund the police” bandwagon last summer.
It’s a little ironic, since the qualified insider with Yang-like qualities of charisma and cheer and a skill for retail politicking—City Council Speaker Corey Johnson—was supposed to be the frontrunner but dropped out, seemingly in response to the fallout after he refused to cut the NYPD’s budget last summer.
Weissmann: The fact that Yang and Eric Adams—the Brooklyn borough president and former police officer who is the closest thing this Democratic field has to a true conservative—have dominated this race from the get-go has woken a lot of people up to the fact that the defund movement had less popular support in the city than many politicians and activists thought. But it’s still a huge, somewhat unexpected turnaround that gun violence instead of police violence has suddenly become the central issue dominating the home stretch of this campaign. The entire portion of the debate around policing and safety was essentially framed around how to stop shootings, and you could hear it was really backfooting the progressive candidates who decided to run when it seemed like defund was ascendant (and yes, it does make you wonder what this race would look like right now if Johnson had stuck it out).
Grabar: New Yorkers are shooting each other at the highest pace in more than two decades (a trend that is by no means confined to New Yorkers, but holds in Chicago, Los Angeles, and many mid-sized cities as well), but the violence appears to be rooted in the same neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx that saw the majority of the city’s gun crimes before the pandemic. In that sense, it does not feel like “back to the ‘90s” when muggings, car thefts, etc. were something people thought about a lot throughout the city.
At the same time, you have this bizarre dynamic where Andrew Cuomo and his goons are actively trying to convince New Yorkers that the subway is more unsafe than ever in order to secure more police from the city. That the subway is dangerous is not true, but even if it were, it’s an awfully weird message for leaders to be sending when the city is trying to recover from a pandemic! That “fear city” stuff does feel like a throwback to me, and I think it’s working to help push crime front and center in the mayor’s race.
Weissmann: As a New York expat, I don’t exactly have a feel for the mood in the city right now. Except that the Times Square shooting seemed to be an inflection point that really caused local media and politicians to freak. And while it’s true that robberies and other crimes have been declining, people tend to get upset when bullets are flying, as they should. (For readers wondering why the D.C.-based writer is so obsessed with this race: I grew up in the city, lived in Brooklyn for years as an adult, and my mom is still on 97th Street).
Grabar: There is a disturbing conflation happening right now between homelessness and violence. I’d wager most New Yorkers’ firsthand perception of increasing disorder, to the extent that’s driving support for the Yang and Adams stance on policing, is rooted in emotionally disturbed individuals on the street and the subway. That’s a real issue. But it is plainly not an issue that’s going to be solved by aggressive policing, which is the Adams vision. Scott Stringer is right when he says Rikers—the notorious city jail—is the largest mental health facility in the city.
Gun violence in Brooklyn and the Bronx is, in my view, an almost entirely separate problem, with different causes and different solutions.
The pro-police bloc wants to flood the subways with cops, which seems like a misguided, expensive, and possibly counter-productive policy, while the left-wing group of reformers (Wiley, Stringer, Morales) seem reluctant to speak plainly about the gun violence, which seems like a losing strategy. “Police respond to crime, they don’t prevent crime,” Morales said last night.
Weissmann: Right. A popular activist slogan in conflict with basically all of the actual research on that issue.
And then, on the other hand, Yang has basically said that his first gesture as mayor will be to tell the NYPD that the city needs them, which is a slightly fuzzier way of saying everyone needs to back the blue. I’m a moderate on criminal justice issues who always thought the city had a moderate streak on them. But if you’d told me 10 months ago that would be the rhetorical position of the city’s leading mayoral candidate, I’m not sure I would have believed you.
One of the reasons I’ve warmed to Garcia—aside from the whole (reportedly) competent, experienced YIMBY thing—is that she actually does seem capable of striking a thoughtful middle ground on issues. She isn’t in favor of cutting the police budget, but she is in favor of stricter discipline and making new officers live within city limits. (My guess is that not a lot of people even inside New York realize just how controversial that is among the department, but it’s a huge deal). She isn’t going to rhetorically coddle the NYPD. Whereas some candidates are saying they want to strip money from the shelter system in order to build more supportive housing, she very clearly says that the city needs more safe-haven beds to help people transition off of the street, which is the kind of detail you keep in mind if you’re really engaged in the issue.
But as of now, Garcia is also nowhere near the leader in the polls. So, question: If it comes down to Yang vs. Adams, who’s your pick?
Grabar: Yang. I’ll roll the dice with him before I vote for the guy who told New Yorkers who weren’t born here to go back to Iowa.
Weissmann: And who still says he’d consider carrying a gun in office. And ran into ethics issues in Albany. And is trying to thread this bizarre needle where he insists that the NYPD shouldn’t have entirely abandoned stop-and-frisk, even though he testified in court about how it was widely abused in order to strike fear into the Black and hispanic communities.
There’s this growing fear on the left that, unlike Yang, Adams does actually understand how the levers of power work in the city, and he will use them to crush whatever influence they have. I don’t necessarily know if that’s true, but it doesn’t strike me as obviously wrong.
Whereas with Yang, the biggest gamble is that he proves he’s just not up to the job, or gives a little too much influence to lobbyists. (He’s spent a lot of time saying how he’d love to hire Garcia to help him run things, but given that she’s called out the comments as sexist and said she wishes he’d stop giving her backhanded compliments, I sort of doubt she’d join his administration right now.) So I guess that’s why I’m only partly recanting. If it’s between him and Adams, I’d still pick Yang—which is to say, I’d nudge my mom to vote for him.