The race to become New York City’s 110th mayor began in a pandemic-enforced bubble, with the campaign playing out in drab Zoom forums, on social media and through the press, where email statements took the place of live exhortations to swells of supporters.
But with the city now open as vaccination totals climb and infection rates plummet, the final scenes of the Democratic mayoral primary are unfolding out in the open, on hot city streets, as the candidates hustle to broaden their support – and narrow the appeal of their rivals – as early voting ends and Tuesday’s ranked-choice primary election nears.
The next mayor will inherit a city decimated by Covid-19, which has killed more than 30,000 New Yorkers and leveled industries, particularly those relied upon for economic survival in already marginalized communities. The rebuilding process, which is already being buffeted by fiercely competing interests, comes amid a surge in violent crime, an issue that has gripped the campaign over the last few months. The shifting and diverse priorities of this vast electorate have only added to the volatility of the primary, an open and often chaotic scrum which attracted more than a dozen candidates.
Meanwhile, the self-interested niceties that some promised would follow the introduction of ranked-choice voting, now making its debut in New York, never materialized. And the top tier of candidates – Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is widely perceived as the frontrunner; civil rights lawyer and one-time counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Maya Wiley; former presidential candidate Andrew Yang; and the seasoned veteran of city government, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia – have shown little interest in pivoting, at the last, to a loftier brand of politics.
The new system, though, provided an opportunity for what appeared to be an eleventh-hour gambit by Yang and Garcia.
In twin press releases on Friday night, their campaigns announced that they would stump together on Saturday. The move followed months of speculation over a potential cross-endorsement.
In the end, they did not quite deliver.
Yang at events in Queens and Manhattan urged his supporters to rank Garcia second on their ballots. Garcia, though, stopped short of returning the favor, saying repeatedly that she would not encourage her backers to rank Yang – or anyone else. Asked what message voters should take away from seeing her and Yang on the stump together, Garcia demurred.
“Let me be very clear: I am not co-endorsing,” Garcia said. “We are campaigning together, we are promoting ranked-choice voting. I certainly do not agree with everything that Andrew has said, and I’m absolutely sure he has not agreed with everything that I have, but we want to make sure that people get out to vote.”
Moments earlier, as he had hours before, Yang complimented Garcia and went a step further, calling on his voters to make her their second choice.
“Anyone who’s been paying any attention to this race knows that I am a huge Kathryn Garcia admirer and fan,” Yang said. “I would urge anyone who is supporting me as their first choice, please do have Kathryn Garcia on your ballot.”
Yang, who pivoted over the course of the race from his happy warrior message to a harder focus on public safety, floated the potential of a cross-endorsement for weeks and has often spoken of Garcia in glowing terms. She has been more circumspect, if not outright dismissive of Yang’s praise, and recently brushed off questions about the possibility of teaming up with him.
“I am all about running my race,” Garcia told reporters on Wednesday in the West Village. “As I’ve said over and over again: If I had a strong number two, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
On Thursday in the Bronx, Yang, who voted early, did not reveal who made his ballot. (He did allow, to no one’s surprise, that Adams, with whom he has repeatedly clashed, did not make the cut. Voters are allowed to rank five candidates; 13 are running in this year’s Democratic primary.)
The Adams campaign did not initially comment on the potential Garcia-Yang pact, but Adams spokesman and adviser Evan Thies retweeted a damning response late Friday from Ashley Sharpton, daughter of the Rev. Al Sharpton, and an Adams supporter.
“This is a cynical attempt by Garcia & Yang to disenfranchise Black voters,” Sharpton wrote of their expected cross-endorsement. “We didn’t march in the streets all summer last year and organize for generations just so that some Rich businessman and bureaucrat who don’t relate to the masses can steal the election from us. Disgusting.”
When a reporter relayed criticism from Adams, who suggested that the pair was trying to prevent “a person of color” from being elected, Garcia refused to comment before turning to Yang and asking, “Do you want to respond to that, as a person of color?”
“I would tell Eric Adams,” Yang said, “that I’ve been Asian my entire life.”
Adams later clarified that his comment was not directed at Yang, but Garcia, whom he accused of trying to “lock out” Black and Latino candidates.
Wiley also weighed in on the Yang-Garcia combo, saying at an event in Queens that she was “offered the opportunity to campaign with Andrew and Kathryn,” but had turned it down – citing comments Yang made at a debate last week about the mentally ill that were criticized as insensitive.
“I couldn’t do it,” Wiley said, “because I have spent this entire campaign focused on how we serve people who are mentally ill, recognize that they have value and that they have human rights.”
In a tweet, Garcia spokeswoman Lindsey Green disputed Wiley’s claim that she had been asked to join Yang and Garcia.
“There was no conversation between our campaigns about Maya joining today,” Green wrote. “Always happy to talk however!”
Adams, a retired police captain and former state senator, is believed to be narrowly leading the race and, with time running low, has become the central figure in the final act of this long and bizarre campaign. His strength resides with older Black voters and Whites in the city’s outerboroughs, constituencies in which his tough-on-crime rhetoric traditionally resonates.
Over the last few weeks, the location of Adams’ prime residency – and whether it is, actually, a co-op he shares with his partner in New Jersey – has come under scrutiny, prompting him to invite reporters to an apartment he owns in Brooklyn. A nonprofit website, The City, has reported that he failed to properly disclose a real estate transaction. And, on Thursday night, New York Magazine published a potentially damaging story that dug into, among other things, some unsavory past political alliances.
In response, Adams labeled the New York Magazine piece “racist.” Asked by CNN why he believed that, Adams cited the photograph of his face that accompanied the report, which he said was chosen to make him look “mean” or like a criminal, and suggested that the anonymous quotes in the story might have been fabricated.
Adams campaign spokeswoman Madia Coleman texted shortly after to clarify his comments.
“To be clear,” she wrote, Adams was not saying that the reporter “completely made up the quotes. He was just trying to emphasize that when quotes are unattributed people can say anything, and the story was full of anonymous sources.”
New York Magazine defended its report in a statement to CNN.
“The story was carefully reported and fact checked, and we stand by it,” the magazine’s head of communications, Lauren Starke, said in an email. “The photograph was taken by the documentary photographer Bruce Gilden during a photo shoot with all fifteen mayoral candidates and while it is unfortunate that Adams dislikes it, we do not agree with his assessment that it makes him look mean.”
On the stump and on camera, his rivals have been unsparing – and Adams, even as he repeats to supporters a mantra of “no distractions, stay focused and grind,” seems to relish the fight.
Earlier on Friday, he laced into Wiley, who has seen her stock rise after consolidating leading progressives, including New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who endorsed her on Saturday, New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and national figures like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro.
Asked how his approach to public safety differed from Wiley’s, Adams – who has advocated for stepped-up policing and the reinstatement of a controversial, recently disbanded plainclothes anti-crime unit – touted his plans before saying Wiley was disconnected from victims’ families and grassroots groups, and lacked an immediate plan to counter the city’s rise in violent crime.
“No one wants to really deal with the ‘right now’ moment,” Adams said. “They don’t even have a ‘right now’ plan. They give you a philosophical, Columbia University, theoretical, classroom experience – listen, we don’t need a college professor. We need a professional who knows how to keep this city safe.”
Adams’ recent drumbeat of criticism prompted a fierce response from a new Wiley endorser, the minister and activist Kirsten John Foy, who challenged the Brooklyn Borough president over his record on “transparency” and “affordable housing,” before defending Wiley.
“You wanna attack a Black woman who is an accomplished civil rights attorney, an accomplished educator, a woman who was a counsel to the mayor – you wanna attack a Black woman instead of affirming your own record?” said Foy, addressing Adams. “You’re a coward.”
The outspoken Foy also had some harsh words for Garcia, a moderate who has slowly built support among a base that views her as an efficient technocrat with unmatched experience in government. He accused her of quietly cozying up to the leadership of the Police Benevolent Association, the New York Police Department’s largest union.
His surprising allegation traveled across Twitter and quickly landed in the lap of Garcia, who swatted it away.
“I haven’t talked to the PBA at all. So I don’t know what they’re talking about,” a seemingly bemused Garcia said. “I don’t know where that’s coming from.