War Stories

Why New York’s Chaotic, Depressing Election Matters for America

If you’re looking for an example of the strength and resilience of our nation’s democracy … maybe look somewhere else.

New York City Democratic mayoral candidates, clockwise from top left: Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Scott Stringer, Shaun Donovan, Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, and Maya Wiley.
New York City Democratic mayoral candidates, clockwise from top left: Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Scott Stringer, Shaun Donovan, Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, and Maya Wiley. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Sammyg1016/Wikipedia, Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images, Chuck Kennedy/White House, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Dimitri Rodriguez, Krystalb97/Wikipedia, and Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia.

As President Joe Biden meets with America’s allies in Europe this week, trying to persuade them that our democracy is fit and fine, he might want to avert their eyes from New York City.

The nation’s largest city begins early voting in its mayoral election this week. (Actually, it’s the Democratic primary, but since Dems here outnumber Republicans 6–1, and since the two GOP candidates are both jokers, the primary is the election.) But these contests aren’t strong selling points for democracy in general, and this year’s is more chaotic than usual.

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If New York City’s political establishment tried to make its mayoral elections obscure and off-putting, they could hardly do a better job. First, it’s not just an off-year but an off-off-year election. There are no contests on the ballot except city contests—no big-name candidates (say, for president or U.S. Congress) to lure less than avidly interested citizens to the polling booths.

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And the citizens have responded accordingly. In the city’s last mayoral race, just 18 percent of eligible voters turned out. By contrast, more than twice as many New Yorkers voted in the national 2018 midterms (39 percent) and nearly three times as many (53 percent) turned out for the 2020 presidential election.

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In that 2017 race, Bill de Blasio handily won reelection with 66 percent of the vote. But since that amounted to just 8.5 percent of the eligible population, many wondered, even at the time, whether it amounted to a mandate.

This is appalling by any standard, but especially so for New York City, which (a) sets national trends in social policy, culture, and law enforcement practices; (b) raises and spends revenue amounting to roughly $90 billion a year (more than all but a few states—California, New York, Texas, and Washington); and, most pertinent, (c) invests almost all of its political power in the office of the mayor.

Given the very magnitude of New York City, the troubles it’s currently facing, and the impact that this magnitude and these troubles have on the country (and, to some extent, the world), this election is a very big deal.

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There are eight main candidates running for the office. None have whipped up much enthusiasm. In the latest poll, Undecided is tied for second place, with 16 percent. (The first place winner, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, only slightly edges out “Don’t Know,” with 22 percent.)

Until recently, Andrew Yang led the pack by double-digit margins, owing mainly to his name recognition as a lively—though unsuccessful—candidate in the 2020 presidential primaries. Then came the investigative reports and negative ads showing that Yang knows little about the city, has a flip attitude toward being mayor, never voted in a New York mayoral race, left town during the pandemic’s peak, and washed out as a nonprofit entrepreneur (raising tens of millions of dollars to create 100,000 jobs but in fact creating just 150).

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Yang has been eclipsed by Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, whose background as a former police captain has burnished his credentials amid rising fears over crime. Murders are up by 17 percent compared with this time last year. In one sense, this isn’t as bad as it may seem. The number of murders is still low—173, just 26 more than this time last year, and way fewer than the number in 2001, at the end of Rudy Giuliani’s term, which saw a famously dramatic reduction in crime. (If the current crime rate continues, there will be fewer than 500 murders for all of 2021. In 2001, there were 649 murders. In 1993, when Giuliani entered office, there were 1,927; in 1990, the city’s peak, there were 2,262.) Still, any uptick in serious crime rattles New Yorkers, especially after so many years of downturns, and all the more so as the most publicized of these crimes—knife slashings in subways—are random.

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A year ago, “defund the police” was a popular political rallying cry. Now, not so much. Adams, Yang, and the candidate ranked third in the polls, Kathryn Garcia (with 15 percent), all oppose budget cuts to the police force. Adams, who is Black, has managed to retain at least some support among critics of the police because he led reform efforts during his time as a cop. Garcia—who is white, though her ex-husband and children are of Puerto Rican descent—served successfully as de Blasio’s sanitation commissioner.* Earlier in the campaign, Yang, who is Asian American, said he would hire Garcia as deputy mayor; Garcia shot back that if she’s needed so badly at City Hall, people should cut out the middleman and vote for her directly. The New York Times endorsed her, quoting that riposte and hailing her unrivaled experience in city government. (Yang began criticizing her when she rose in the polls and he floundered.)

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Ray McGuire, a Citibank vice president, was thought to have a good chance early on in the contest: a Black man with progressive leanings and financial experience, with deep pockets and TV ads directed by Spike Lee. But he has washed out as a campaigner; his policy ideas are vague; polls show him near the bottom of the heap.

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There’s something else at stake in this contest, even for those who don’t live in, or care about, New York: It may boost or diminish the power of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, more broadly, the left wing of the national Democratic Party. Just last weekend, AOC endorsed Black civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley as mayor, hailing her as the city’s standard-bearer for the progressive movement, working on behalf of “working people” instead of “billionaires.”

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The endorsement came late in the contest, and with no advance notice to the candidate. But a Wiley victory would cement AOC’s standing as a king (or queen) maker in the Democratic Party, a force whose movement cannot be waved away. If Wiley loses, more centrist Democrats, especially those in Congress, will cite the defeat as a reason to resist AOC’s pressures.

I have mentioned the candidates’ ethnic identities for a reason. In his 1993 book To Be Mayor of New York, Chris McNickle demonstrates that, through most of the 20th century, the winners of mayoral elections often reflected the rising ethnic group of their time. For much of this time, candidates ran as a ticket—for mayor, comptroller, and City Council speaker—and the party bosses chose them to attract dominant voting groups, usually immigrants. For many years, Irish Catholics were the dominant group; they were later joined or displaced by Jews, then Dominicans and Black New Yorkers. The winning ticket was often the ticket that combined candidates from each group. (The book’s subtitle is Ethnic Politics in the City.)

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As party bosses vanished in the face of mass politics, and as ticket candidacies were abolished through democratic reforms, this whole phenomenon evaporated. Then again, if Yang wins the primary, it will be due mainly to widespread name recognition but also to his appeal among the large—and more and more politically self-conscious—Asian American population in Queens and Brooklyn, as well as to his calculated courting of the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom vote as a bloc.

In more recent times, social trends or even random events have shaped mayoral elections at least as much as demographic trends. Rudolph Giuliani won in 1993—the first Republican to do so since John Lindsay in 1966 (and Lindsay switched parties when he ran for a second term)—mainly because of complaints over David Dinkins’ passivity in the face of soaring crime and taxes. But there was another factor: Ballots in Staten Island, the smallest and most conservative of New York’s five boroughs, included a referendum to secede from the city; it was nonbinding, but spurred many disgruntled islanders to the polls, almost all of whom voted for Giuliani. Without those extra votes, Giuliani—who won citywide by a mere 3 percentage points—might have fallen short.

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Even odder was Mike Bloomberg’s win in 2001. A longtime Democrat, he ran as a Republican strictly to avoid a crowded Democratic primary. (He even said as much.) The billionaire candidate spent nearly $69 million in the general election campaign against his complacent Democratic opponent Mark Green. But the crucial bit was that the campaign coincided with the World Series. The Yankees were playing. Millions of New Yorkers, heart pounding loyalty to the city in the immediate wake of 9/11, watched all seven games. And Bloomberg placed several ads in all six. They were all brilliantly produced, and some of them featured Giuliani endorsing him. (Hard as it may be to recall now, “America’s Mayor” was widely lauded as a hero at the time.) Bloomberg won by 3 percentage points. In an attempt to diminish Giuliani’s influence over him, he credited his predecessor for 2 of those points. (I recall both of these elections, and reported them at the time, as the Boston Globe’s New York bureau chief from 1995–2002.)

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Finally, there is the strange case of the incumbent, Bill de Blasio. For most of the crowded 2013 primary, de Blasio trailed City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—until two pivotal events. First, Quinn came under attack for having voted to extend Bloomberg’s tenure to a third term, which turned out to be fairly disastrous. (Few recalled that, when the City Council took that vote, most people supported the extension; the 2008 financial crisis had hit the city hard, and Bloomberg was seen as uniquely equipped to deal with it.) Then de Blasio’s campaign put out a TV ad featuring a handsome 15-year-old Black American who touted de Blasio, then casually said that he’d say all this “even if he weren’t my dad.” It was a bombshell. Race relations were deteriorating as a result of Bloomberg’s hugely excessive use of stop-and-frisk policing. Few knew, until this ad, that de Blasio was married to a Black woman and had multiracial children. Maybe he could solve the crisis. He beat Quinn and seven other candidates by double-digit margins.

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There is one final peculiarity about this year’s primary, which may also make the current polls less meaningful than usual. For the first time in New York City, there will be rank-ordered ballots—not just for the mayoral race but for the others (comptroller, City Council members, even judges). Voters can pick up to five candidates, ranking them in order of preference. If one candidate wins 50 percent of the votes, he or she is the winner. If nobody wins a majority, there will be a second-round count, in which the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those who’d listed that candidate as their first choice get their votes redistributed to their second choice. If there’s still no majority winner, the bottom choice gets eliminated, another round commences, and on it goes, until somebody gets 50 percent.

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Robert Dahl, the Yale political scientist who proposed rank-ordered voting in the 1970s, saw it as a way to reflect the true preferences of voters, in a way that winner-take-all ballots couldn’t, and to boost the chances of marginal candidates. But letting voters rank their top five candidates seems a bit much. (Dahl envisioned a second-round race between the top two or three.) Since most voters know very little about any but one or two candidates, letting them vote for more might wind up reflecting randomness more than preference.

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None of the main candidates have dropped out at this point, because they know that rank voting gives them all a chance. Even if they don’t come out on top in the first round, they might win the primary because they win more votes, as the second- or even third-favorite candidate, than anybody else wins as the No. 1 favorite.

It’s possible, in other words, that a minority of voters wind up happy with the results of this election—and recall, this would be a small minority of a minority of the voting-age population.

New York City is facing its most serious problems in decades: soaring social needs, a declining tax base, an outflow of residents, and now an uptick in crime. Its political system seems incapable of luring candidates strongly suited to solve them—or voters sufficiently strong in number to hold them accountable.

Correction, June 10, 2021: This piece previously misidentified Kathryn Garcia as being Latina.

To understand more about why former police officer Eric Adams is near the front of the Democratic pack, listen to this episode of What Next.

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