New York City will effectively choose its next mayor in the coming days, drawing to a close a tumultuous election race marred by allegations of sexual misconduct, by the staff of one campaign launching a protest against their own candidate, and by accusations that at least one of the mayoral hopefuls doesn’t actually live in the city.
The winner in Tuesday’s Democratic primary will, given the leftward political leanings of the city, almost certainly win the election proper in November, and immediately be tasked with leading New York through its darkest period in several decades.
America’s largest city is still recovering from the death of more than 30,000 people from coronavirus, many of them during a harrowing two-month spell in early 2020. It is also engaged in a passionate debate about to rebuild from the pandemic in a way that tackles longstanding issues of inequality.
A lack of affordable housing crisis, laid bare during Covid-19, looms over the city, while an election season that began with calls for partially defunding the New York’s police department has pivoted in recent weeks, as a spike in shootings swung the debate in the opposite direction and propelled a Black former police officer, Eric Adams, to the top of the polls.
After eight years of Bill de Blasio, who was elected as a progressive mayor but whose time in charge has frequently disappointed both the left and right wings of the Democratic party, the signs are that New Yorkers are ready to swing to the center.
But Adams, who would be the second Black man to be mayor of New York City, and his fellow centrist frontrunners Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang, have also been helped by the spectacular implosion of two of the most hotly-tipped left-leaning candidates over the past two months.
Many supporters abandoned Scott Stringer, New York’s comptroller, after two women accused him of sexual misconduct, while followers of Dianne Morales, a former non-profit executive, were aghast when most of her campaign staff led an angry demonstration outside her office in May, accusing their candidate of union busting and inaction over allegations of racism.
The lack of a serious Republican candidate has added to the certainty that it will be the winner of the Democratic primary who move into Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York City, come January.
Despite that added importance of the looming ballot, early voting has so far been very low in a city, and country, that may be suffering from election burnout.
Just 32,032 people voted on the first two days they were eligible to do so, which New York magazine pointed out is less than 1% of the city’s 3.7 million registered Democrats and 566,000 registered Republicans.
This is the first mayoral election in the city that has featured early voting, however, and the candidates are hoping most voters turn out to the city’s 1,107 polling sites on the day.
The polls so far suggest those voters, who are able to rank up to five candidates for the first time in a New York mayoral election, are struggling to make up their minds. Yang, a tech entrepreneur who ran a whimsical bid for president in 2020, led the polls for weeks before being caught by Adams and Garcia, a former New York sanitation commissioner who has been endorsed by the New York Times.
Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who is running as a progressive, has hoovered up the progressive endorsements lost by Stringer and Morales, however, and surged to second place in a survey last week, while another poll showed Yang, in particular, losing support.
Wiley, like Garcia, would be New York’s first female mayor in history, a moment that struck home when she voted – for herself – on Monday.
“To see my name on a ballot is very hard to describe,” Wiley said on Twitter. “It’s very moving. And I’m thinking about all of the little girls who I’ve met this year, who have looked into my eyes and seen themselves. I ranked myself #1 for them.”
To see my name on a ballot is very hard to describe. It's very moving. And I'm thinking about all of the little girls who I've met this year, who have looked into my eyes and seen themselves. I ranked myself #1 for them. pic.twitter.com/shm7YHeM8y
— Maya Wiley (@mayawiley) June 14, 2021
For Adams, becoming the frontrunner has not been without its problems. In early June Politico reported there was “conflicting information” on whether Adams, the current Brooklyn borough president, actually lives in the neighboring state of New Jersey, where he co-owns a home with his partner.
This led to the bizarre scene of Adams giving a tour of what he said was his garden-level Brooklyn apartment.
As Adams showed reporters his “small modest bedroom” and “small modest bathroom”, however, internet sleuths noticed that a line of sneakers in what Adams said was his bedroom matched shoes his adult son was seen wearing in Instagram photos, while others noted that the fridge in the Brooklyn apartment was different to fridges Adams had previously shown off in photos on Twitter.
Adams later released receipts from his EZpass – an electronic tag which automatically bills any tolls incurred on bridges and tunnels – which he said proved that while he did visit New Jersey, it was never for more than a few hours at a time.
Yang, who himself was criticized earlier this year after it emerged he had moved his family out of the city as Covid-19 struck, has had no qualms about pouncing on the issue.
“I want to reflect on the oddness and the bizarreness of where we are in this race right now, where Eric is literally trying to convince New Yorkers where he lives and that he lives in this basement,” Yang said at a debate last week.
A more unsavory backdrop to the campaigns of both men, and a reality check for those who see New York City as a progressive spark, is the millions of dollars that groups supporting Adams and Yang have received from big money donors who normally save their money for Republican candidates.
A brighter spot for many has been the introduction of ranked choice voting for the first time in New York City, although the roll out has not been without its problems. Some Black political leaders have criticized the system, suggesting voters of color were less likely to receive adequate information about how ranked choice works, and less likely to engage in ranking candidates.
In a recent poll, 74% of white voters said they planned to pick more than one candidate, but only half of Black and Hispanic voters said they would do the same, an especially disappointing statistic in a race where four of the leading eight candidates are people of color.
Climate change, meanwhile, has been largely absent from the televised Democratic debates, a glaring oversight for a coastal city that has an average elevation of 33ft – some areas are much lower – and was decimated by the tidal surge from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Instead, in the final weeks crime has become a key issue. According to the New York police department’s public database there were 490 shootings in the city between 1 January and 16 May of this year, the highest number since 2002, while there have been 146 murders, a steep climb from 2019 and 2020 and a rise matched by some other large cities in the US.
That figure is a long way from the dark days of the 1980s and 90s, when some years saw more than 2,000 people killed, but it has been enough to dominate the discussion.
Last summer, as tens of thousands of people attended Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests in New York, many of the candidates appeared to embrace cutting the NYPD’s $6bn budget, but over the past months some have run the other way, with Yang recently calling for a “recruitment drive” to hire more police officers.
Unless Wiley, who has stuck by her plan to cleave $1bn from the police budget, can pull off a win, an election that began with a lot of hope for progressives will likely end up in disappointment.
But with New York City facing problems of a scale not seen in a generation, a job once dubbed the “second toughest job in America” is likely to live up to its name – whoever takes charge.