Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur whose upstart presidential campaign outlasted some of the biggest names in Democratic politics, is preparing to launch a run for mayor of New York City.
Yang has been reaching out to local leaders, including New York Rep. Grace Meng of Queens and the Rev. Al Sharpton, to gauge their interest in his potential bid and ask for insight into city politics, a source familiar with the conversations told CNN. If he runs, Yang would make the announcement in early or mid-January, after the Senate runoffs in Georgia.
Largely unknown outside of tech circles before the 2020 primary, Yang won the affection – if not always the votes – of Democrats who appreciated his happy warrior persona on the debate stage and campaign trail. And he was backed by supporters branded the “Yang Gang,” who helped him raise $40 million over the course of his run – including a surprising $16.5 million as the race heated up in the final three months of 2019.
The former tech executive pushed the idea of a Universal Basic Income into the mainstream of political conversation while striking up bonds with fellow candidates across an ideologically divided primary field. Since ending his presidential bid, Yang founded Humanity Forward, a nonprofit he used to test some of the ideas that animated his campaign, like UBI. In March, he began giving hundreds of working families in New York $1,000 a month to determine the effectiveness of such a program. The organization also endorsed down ballot candidates across the country.
Now, Yang appears to have his eyes on another in-demand job. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has come under criticism over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, is term-limited and the contest to replace him begins with the Democratic primary on June 22.
There are already nearly a dozen credible candidates running or weighing bids, all vying to take charge of a pandemic-stricken city, where unemployment is skyrocketing, poverty and hunger are growing, and a budget crunch on the horizon could force the next mayor to make deep cuts to public sector jobs and services.
‘He was never considering until the pandemic’
If Yang ultimately joins the contest, it would mark a reversal from February, when he dropped out of the presidential primary and said he had no plans to run for mayor in New York, where he has lived for nearly 25 years. But that was before the pandemic made its first deadly pass through the city.
“He was never considering (running) until the pandemic and then he watched how it hit his home,” said a source close to Yang, who spent time as a CNN political commentator after he dropped out of the primary. “We would not be having this conversation if it were not for coronavirus.”
Yang has told people privately that he is not concerned about the cutthroat nature of New York politics and understands that a high profile campaign for mayor will invite harsher scrutiny than his underdog bid for president. Questions about his engagement in the city’s political and civic life have already begun to bubble among Gotham politicos, and the chatter increased when it was reported that he didn’t vote in any of the last four mayoral contests.
A source close to Yang said he is prepared to be cast as an out-of-touch national figure in a city that doesn’t take kindly to politicians with ambitions outside its borders. He will try to spin that vulnerability into a strength and argue that his status would be an asset as New York tries to dig itself out of economic catastrophe.
“He also believes it would be useful to have a national figure leading New York City to make a case to the administration and to Congress that New York City’s revival is critical to national revival,” the source told CNN. “New York City is the financial, media and artistic capital of the country and Andrew believes he can make that case more powerfully and broadly than perhaps other candidates could.”
Yang declined to comment on his plans.
One thing that will be familiar to Yang if he takes the plunge: campaigning in a large and diverse field. Though few of the other candidates can match Yang’s grassroots fundraising ability or his ability to marshal a national following, nearly all of them have experience operating the levers of government and stronger, older relationships with the constituencies and power bases that drive votes in a citywide election.
The early favorites are New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has worked to coalesce city progressives, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer. Among those who could make history as the city’s first female mayor are Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer who served in de Blasio’s administration; Kathryn Garcia, another former top de Blasio aide; progressive former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales; and Loree Sutton, who led the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services. Yang would be New York’s first Asian American mayor.
Shaun Donovan, who ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama, also has familiarity with city government from his time in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire has said he will not accept public matching funds and announced his run with a video produced by Spike Lee.
The introduction of ranked-choice voting is another wild card in an already chaotic campaign, in which the traditional lanes will be blurred as candidates try to make inroads – or at least stay in the good graces – of their opponents’ bases of support.
Voters signed off on the change in 2019, but there is concern now in some circles that city elections officials are behind the curve in explaining the new process to voters. Two Black candidates, Adams and McGuire, have suggested the process could effectively disenfranchise Black voters. Earlier this month, six city council members joined in a state Supreme Court lawsuit aiming to block its implementation ahead of a February special election.
Whether the new system would help or hurt Yang is an open question. He is generally well-regarded by those who know of him, but his profile outside of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn is likely lower than in those hyper-politicized media and activist hubs.
“The race for New York City mayor runs through Brownsville and Southeast Queens and the South Bronx and Harlem. It doesn’t run through Twitter. It doesn’t run through The New Yorker,” said Eric Phillips, de Blasio’s former longtime press secretary. “This race is a sprint and it is a sprint that’s done in a collapsed timeline with the backdrop of a pandemic happening. It’s going to be very difficult for anybody without decent name ID (in those parts of the city) right now to make up for that.”
Phillips was also skeptical that Yang’s advocacy for a Universal Basic Income – should it become a central piece of his economic message – would go over with voters in a city that is desperate to revive its decimated small business community and return wage earners to the workforce.
“It’s a purely academic conversation – an important ones, but a purely academic conversation at this point. He spent more than a year convincing the American public that we needed UBI and look where he finished in the polls,” Phillips said. “He’s not going to be able to convince in six months the New York city electorate, that doesn’t know what UBI is, that we need UBI – especially in a time of major budget constraints.”
For all the concerns about his inexperience in navigating New York politics, Yang will benefit, at least in the short-term, from one aspect of his perceived distance from the city’s daily workings. Unlike a number of his potential rivals, Yang has no close ties de Blasio, whose approval has slipped after his own failed presidential run and amid frustration with the city’s pandemic response.
Candidates like Wiley and Garcia could see their appeal and qualifications met with efforts to tie them to the lame duck mayor’s shortcomings. Wiley made no mention of de Blasio in the October video kicking off her campaign. (Similarly, Donovan talked about his time in the Obama administration – not Bloomberg’s – in his December announcement.)
“Every mayoral election in New York is a referendum on the last mayor and I think voters are looking for, after Bill de Blasio, someone who is more pragmatic in terms of everyday management and implementation and someone who does not have national ambitions,” said Monica Klein, co-founder of the progressive Seneca Strategies and former aide to de Blasio.
Yang, who was also rumored to be in the mix for a spot in President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet, will likely face multiple inquests about his priorities, and whether this contest is, in effect, a fallback option.
But for all the challenges ahead, he will not struggle for the most precious resource: attention.
“He puts on a show every time he does a public event, or every time he does something in the media or publicly,” Klein said. “That is a smart campaign strategy at a time when there’s 30 people in the race and everyone is struggling to get through and you can’t really do typical, in-person campaigning.”