Opinion | Wait, Could Andrew Yang Really Be New York’s Next Mayor?

Andrew Yang rolled up for opening day at Yankee Stadium on April 1 with the crackling force field of celebrity surrounding him. A bank of photographers and videographers walked backward before him. A small entourage of aides trailed behind. Fans, lined up for New York’s first professional baseball game with live spectators since Covid shut down the city, called out, “There’s the next mayor of New York!” and “Good luck!” People milled around to have their photos taken with him. Yang bumped elbows and gave high fives; it was the most casual human contact I’d seen in a year.

When I asked Yang supporters why they want him to be mayor, I heard, over and over, variations on the words “change” and “energy.” “He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s a new face,” said Laivi Freundlich, a businessman and synagogue cantor from Brooklyn. “I’m tired of the old guard.” Some associated Yang, in an undefined way, with technological dynamism. “It’s a feeling,” said Thomas Dixon, a 61-year-old from the Bronx, about how Yang would “bring about necessary changes. Because like the country, New York City needs to move into the 21st century.”

With about 10 weeks until New York’s mayoral primaries, both public and private polling show Yang ahead in a crowded field, though up to half of voters remain undecided. In a survey released by Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics in March, Yang was the top choice of 16 percent of respondents, followed by 10 percent for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. (Everyone else was in the single digits.) The Yang campaign’s private polling shows him with 25 percent of the vote and Adams with 15 percent.

The essence of Yang’s campaign is this: He wants to make New York fun again. He has a hip-hop theme track by MC Jin and a platform plank calling for to-go cocktails — a pandemic accommodation for struggling bars and restaurants — to become a regular fixture of city life. He’s constantly out and about, cheerleading each facet of New York’s post-Covid rebirth. He was there the first day movie theaters reopened, taking his wife, Evelyn, to see Eddie Huang’s coming-of-age basketball drama, “Boogie.” But for a kidney stone that landed him in the hospital, he and Evelyn would have gone to an off-Broadway concert on April 2, the day indoor shows restarted.

The day after that hospitalization, Yang was doing the finger-snapping dance from “West Side Story” down Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue. Several blocks were closed to traffic to make room for open-air bars and cafes, another pandemic-era policy that Yang wants to make permanent. The gentrified brunch crowd responded to the candidate much like the baseball fans at Yankee Stadium: People shouted, “There’s Andrew Yang!” and “Yang Gang!” and posed for grinning photos.

His campaign will soon unveil a new slogan, “Hope Is on the Way.” It is planning a series of events to make up for milestones people lost during Covid, like a prom for high school graduates and maybe even a group wedding at city hall, where Andrew and Evelyn got married, for those who had to postpone their nuptials.

On Thursday, I had an al fresco dinner with Andrew and Evelyn Yang at a Mediterranean restaurant near their Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He argued that there’s a serious purpose behind his campaign’s celebratory vibe. “We need to get tourists back, we need to get commuters back, we need to get the jobs back online in order for the economy to come back,” he said, adding, “I just want New York City to work again. And in order for New York City to work, people need to feel safe having fun.”

On one level, the idea of Yang as the mayor of New York City — surely one of the most complicated administrative jobs in the country — seems absurd. He has no government experience and has been so detached from city politics that he never before voted in a New York mayoral election. Before he ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, he founded a midsize nonprofit, Venture for America, that set out to create 100,000 jobs. Vox reported that as of 2019, it had created fewer than 4,000. Nothing in his background indicates a special aptitude for running a gargantuan urban bureaucracy at a moment of harrowing crisis.

Yet in a traumatized city, people are responding to his ebullience. Yang, said Chris Coffey, his campaign’s co-manager, is “giving people hope after a year of death and sadness and Zooms and unhappiness.” You don’t have to agree with Yang’s politics to see how powerful this is.

About those politics: They’re pretty conservative, at least by the standard of a New York Democratic primary. Yang is pro-charter schools and has criticized the 190,000-member United Federation of Teachers for the slow pace of school reopenings. He’s slammed Mayor de Blasio for not instituting a hiring freeze and is hesitant to raise taxes on the rich. Yang wants to offer tax breaks to companies that bring their employees back to the office, which those who like the flexibility of remote work might resent.

A number of his plans depend on corporate partnerships. “There’s a lot of potential and pent-up energy among companies and leaders in New York who want a mayor they can work with, who want a mayor who’s not going to beat up businesses big and small because they’re businesses,” he told me.

It’s hard to tell whether Yang is leading because of his pro-business centrism, or in spite of it. Many backers I spoke to view him as progressive, particularly those who associate him with the call for a universal basic income, which animated his presidential campaign. Some supporters don’t think of him in ideological terms at all. Others expressed not so much a desire for a right turn in citywide politics as doubt that the left has all the answers.

“I think he’s progressive, but I also think he’s kind of pragmatic, so I think that’s probably what draws me to him,” said Maya Deshmukh, a dentist who’s also an actress and a comedian, after she posed for a photo with Yang outside an upscale Vanderbilt Avenue ice cream shop. “He’s Asian-American; I’m Indian, so I like someone who’s going to be in our corner.”

I asked Deshmukh what she wanted from post-pandemic New York, and she said she wanted it to be more small-business-friendly, and safer. “Manhattan, there is some level of unsafeness that I feel, and I hope that that can change in a way that’s not going to continue to put Black and brown people in jail.”

Some left-wing Asian activists hate Yang’s plan to combat a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes by increasing funding for the New York Police Department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, but there’s no sign that most ordinary Asian-Americans voters do. His campaign’s polling shows him winning 49 percent of the Asian vote, with the other candidates in the single digits.

It’s not just Asian-American voters who seem excited about the idea of an Asian-American mayor. Cynthia Cotto, a 58-year-old Black woman who works at Catholic Charities, told me she decided to support Yang after video emerged in late March of an Asian man being beaten unconscious on a subway. Supporting Yang “says that we’ve got faith” that not everyone is racist, she said. “That’s why I want him to win.” But that wasn’t the only reason. “He needs a chance,” she said. “He’s young. We need young blood.”

Yang makes a point of ignoring progressive social media, where he’s frequently derided as either a neoliberal menace or a clueless tourist. “One of the big numbers that informs me is that approximately 11 percent of New York City Democratic voters get their news from Twitter,” he said, referring to a figure from his campaign’s internal polling. “If you pay attention to social media you’re going to get a particular look at New Yorkers that is going to be representative of frankly a relatively small percentage of New York voters.”

Still, other candidates hope that once they’re able to contrast Yang’s positions and experience to their own, his support will erode. “What we’re seeing is more about what names are recognizable, but the vast majority of folks are still saying, ‘I’m trying to make up my mind, I’m trying to get on top of this,’” said the mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, a former counsel to de Blasio. “What folks are looking for is not someone who shoots from the hip, but someone who actually has deep plans and policies.”

Wiley’s spokeswoman, Julia Savel, has been harsher. “Our city deserves a serious leader, not a mini-Trump who thinks our city is a fun plaything in between podcasts,” she said recently.

There’s much that’s unfair about the Trump analogy — Yang is no buffoonish demagogue — but there are also real parallels. He’s a charismatic novice with good branding dominating in a fragmented field of experienced political figures. Yang throws out screwball ideas — like putting a casino on park-filled Governors Island, which would be illegal — to see what sticks. He makes gaffes, but they haven’t dragged him down. He has a self-perpetuating way of sucking up all the media oxygen: to write about the Yang phenomenon, as I am here, is to contribute to it.

Those opposed to Yang are waiting for something or someone to stop him, though it’s not clear who or what that will be. The political consultant Jerry Skurnik said of Yang’s lead, “It’s lasted longer than I thought it would, so it might be real.”

The operative word is might. It’s still very early in the race. Ten weeks before the 2013 mayoral primary, it looked like the top candidates were Anthony Weiner and Christine Quinn, then the City Council speaker. This year will be New York City’s first time using ranked choice voting in such a primary, and no one knows quite what that’s going to mean. It could help Yang because he’s so well known, leading supporters of other candidates to pick him as their second or third choice. Or it could hurt him by consolidating the votes of constituencies Yang has alienated.

John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is skeptical that the Yang boom will last. His “gut feeling,” he said, is that the energy around Yang is mostly based on the press appreciating “how he’s interacting with people when they see him, and not much beyond that.” Mollenkopf argues that mayoral primaries are hard to poll, since only a fraction of Democrats — around 20 percent in 2013 — vote in them.

And he believes that celebrity and excitement don’t win Democratic primary elections in New York City. What does? “Having an organic relationship to the constituencies that follow city politics and depend on city politics,” he said, particularly “the various unions that represent people who are directly or indirectly dependent on government money, contracts, support for nonprofit organizations and so on.”

In Mollenkopf’s analysis, the city’s politics, unlike the country’s, are still mediated by a thick web of institutional relationships. Yang agrees that this has been true in the past. He just thinks that this time will be different.

“The more the electorate expands, the better it is for someone like me,” he said. “And I think the electorate will expand this time. And this is knowing full well that just about any time a candidate makes the case that the electorate will expand and that’s how they’re going to win, they lose.” He’s convinced that “there are a lot of folks who have not been plugged into New York City politics who are actually going to vote this time.”

Not long after Yang said this, a young man walking by the restaurant did a double take, eyes widening. He pointed at Yang: “I am so excited for you to be the mayor, man!”

Luke Hawkins, a 36-year-old actor and dancer, described discovering Yang on the Joe Rogan podcast. “I wish he were the president,” he said. “I can’t stand pandering politicians. Just the fact that there’s no BS, he’s just completely genuine.” Hawkins said he leans left but doesn’t like what he calls the “woke stuff” and viewed Yang as a “problem-solver.”

So, I asked, would he definitely vote in the primary? “I frickin’ hate politics,” he said. “But I will vote for him.” Then he asked, “When is the primary?” It’s June 22. The future of New York City may hinge on how many voters like him remember.

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