New York’s Mayoral Race Has Frustrated the Left — But the Tide May Soon Turn

Polling places open tomorrow in New York City as the race to succeed mayor Bill de Blasio effectively comes to an end. The campaign has been endlessly frustrating for the city's left — but its chances in other upcoming races look quite good.

The four leading candidates, (L-R) Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, Maya Wiley, and Eric Adams, in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor.

What to make of this Democratic primary for New York City mayor? For the Left, it’s been a challenging moment, and there’s a decent chance the next mayor will be someone squarely to the right of Bill de Blasio, a milquetoast progressive who nevertheless stood out in the city’s history of neoliberal mayors.

Right now, there are four Democrats who have a credible shot at winning Tuesday. They are Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, and Maya Wiley. For months, Yang, the former presidential candidate, was the leader in the polls, but he slipped in the last month as negative media coverage piled up and voters began to seek out other options. In his presidential run, Yang popularized the idea of universal basic income and adopted some left positions, but in his mayoral campaign he rebranded, courting conservative Orthodox Jews and outer-borough white ethnics and calling for a policy of flooding the subways with police.

Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, would be the city’s second black mayor. He has overtaken Yang in the polls, outflanking him as a tough-on-crime candidate while forging a coalition of real estate and labor interests, as well as moderate white and black voters. Adams is deeply skeptical of strong tenant laws and supports charter schools. On some issues he stands to the right of Yang, and he has far deeper ties to Democratic institutions. He would be an extremely difficult mayor for the Left to organize against.

Kathryn Garcia, de Blasio’s former sanitation commissioner, is the third moderate. Yet another developer-friendly, pro-charter candidate, Garcia joined Adams and Yang in explicitly rejecting the goals of the defund the police movement. Unlike Adams and Yang, she has no obvious path to winning significant numbers of non-white votes, particularly in working-class black neighborhoods. But she has been endorsed by the New York Times, winning liberal bona fides, while also gaining traction with moderate whites who have been considering Adams and Yang. Garcia is less polarizing than both men, and could be uniquely positioned to succeed in New York City’s new ranked-choice voting system. In this election, New Yorkers can pick up to five candidates, and Garcia is expected to appear somewhere in the rankings on many voters’ ballots in all five boroughs.

The fourth candidate, Maya Wiley, is all that really remains for the Left — and she’s not a particularly inspiring choice. A former MSNBC pundit who served as de Blasio’s counsel and later chaired the civilian body that performs oversight of the police, Wiley never distinguished herself in her municipal experience, except to invent a bizarre rationale for shielding de Blasio’s emails from the public.

For long stretches of the race, Wiley was polling in the single digits, but a few recent incidents beyond her control had the effect of significantly buoying her campaign. First, city comptroller Scott Stringer, who entered the mayoral race as a top-tier candidate and had won the support of many left-wing organizations while securing the backing of popular progressives like congressman Jamaal Bowman, was accused of sexually assaulting a former volunteer in 2001, a charge he denied. Once Stringer was accused, most of his endorsers deserted him, and he was never able to significantly grow his support in the polls.

Meanwhile, Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive and charter school founder, creatively reinvented herself as a vanguard left candidate, calling for the NYPD’s budget to be cut in half. Young leftists and activists flocked to her, and many polls showed her neck and neck in the second tier with Wiley. More charismatic than the former de Blasio staffer, Morales was at one point the Working Families Party’s (WFP) second choice after Stringer, with Wiley relegated to third place. But the Morales campaign ended up imploding in late May when staffers accused her of fostering a hostile work environment and refusing to recognize their nascent union. Morales fired a number of them, sparking a protest outside her office, and any hope of her becoming a serious contender faded away. Her endorsers fled, as they had fled Stringer.

Wiley was the direct beneficiary of both campaigns’ collapses. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Bowman, backed her in June, and she became the WFP’s sole endorsee. Left organizations coalesced around her. She shot up in the polls, though never ahead of Adams. Now she must find a way to knit together a version of de Blasio’s winning coalition in 2013, joining progressive whites with working-class black voters. At this point, she has far more of the former than the latter.

For leftists seeking radical change, any Wiley administration will probably disappoint. She is not poised to push much further than de Blasio. Hostile to Bernie Sanders’ class-based politics, Wiley is an exemplar of the left-liberal professional-managerial class. Morales and Stringer never supported Sanders either, and none of them, with a few exceptions, have been consistently aligned with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates. In 2018, when Andrew Cuomo faced a primary challenge from the actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, all supported Cuomo or stayed silent.

A New York City mayoral campaign in which the left flank is held down by the likes of Morales, Stringer, and Wiley is the logical outgrowth of a political bench that is still young. DSA only started electing candidates to office in 2018. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the most DSA-friendly of the leading city politicians, decided to seek another term at his current post, depriving the Left of a more compelling standard-bearer. The electorate of New York City, whose population exceeds that of most states, may still be too large and unwieldy for a proper left candidate to master. But there will undoubtedly be better opportunities in future races. New DSA members join the state legislature in each election cycle, and the city council can be expected to boast several socialists by next year.

There is hope, after all, that the slog of the 2021 mayoral race won’t be repeated.