New York’s mayoral race is a sad disappointment for the left

<span>Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Greatest City in the World can never seem to find a halfway decent mayor. Since the turn of the century, New York has suffered through Rudy Giuliani, who “cleaned up the city” by putting all of its residents in jail; Mike Bloomberg, who stopped and frisked all the normal people to keep Wall Street safe; and now Bill de Blasio, the self-proclaimed liberal reformer who is now so cowed that he spent most of last year supporting the NYPD’s decision to run over protesters with their cars. Besides pizza slices and Biggie Smalls, nothing unites New Yorkers like their contempt for De Blasio, whose visible, mewling weakness causes him to be despised by people of all backgrounds and political affiliations.

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Now, the race is on for his replacement. All signs point to four more years of disappointment.

After a year defined by mass death, economic crisis, mutual aid and Black Lives Matter marches, there was reason to hope that the political left could at last hoist one of its own into the mayor’s office, paving the way to a glorious new era of defunded police and affordable housing for all. But a month away from election day, the purest leftwing candidate in the race, Dianne Morales, is running well behind in the polls. With each passing day, we draw closer to the grim possibility of sleepwalking into another era of a mayor who will bungle the office in exciting new ways.

The race is currently led by Andrew Yang, who possesses enough latent celebrity from his failed presidential run to serve as an acceptable front man for a cabal of Bloomberg allies, lobbyists and establishment insiders. Yang’s primary qualification is affability, which is odd, because New Yorkers are not known as affable people. The same tech-fuelled pop culture forces that propelled a barely coherent reality TV star into the White House in 2016 are now floating Yang to the top of the polls, despite the fact that he rode out much of the Covid crisis at his house upstate. It is a dark sign for New York’s gritty reputation that we could so easily fall prey to an empty vessel full of little but name recognition.

Yang’s lead is not so large that he could not be overtaken. But a survey of the rest of the field is not encouraging. Running in second place is the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, a Black moderate who is a former Republican and cop. Many of the city’s strongest labor unions saw fit to endorse Adams despite the existence of a 2011 video titled “Combating Gun Violence” in which Adams instructs imaginary parents how to search their own homes for dangerous contraband like bullets behind picture frames or crack pipes in backpacks that their children have stashed. The video, an incredible testament to the lunacy of the police mindstate, should itself be enough to disqualify Adams from higher office. Opponents should be blanketing the airwaves with clips of Adams pulling an ounce of weed out of a baby doll and intoning that dolls are a place where kids are likely to “secrete drugs”.

The mayoral polls show that most New Yorkers still yearn for the comfort of the old order of things

On Thursday night, the first mayoral debate saw six opponents trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to knock those two profoundly flawed candidates off their perches at the top. The single most unifying moment of the debate was when everyone allowed themselves to chuckle and grin as Shaun Donovan, a charisma-less former Obama official, woodenly tried to explain away the fact that his failing campaign is almost completely funded by donations from his dad. One of those chuckling was the former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, whose own failing vanity campaign is almost completely funded by big donations from various Wall Street pals. Donovan and McGuire – both of whom guessed this week that an average apartment in Brooklyn costs a mere $100,000, an unforgivable screwup in this city of frustrated renters – will go down as proof that if you have rich friends, you can always give your hopeless dreams a shot, no matter how stupid they are.

Now that Scott Stringer, once viewed as the top progressive contender, seems to have been sunk by sexual misconduct allegations that no one has been able to either verify or debunk, there is a good argument to be made that the three women in the race – the leftist Morales, civil rights activist Maya Wiley and fiercely competent former city official Kathryn Garcia – are the three best candidates. Yet none of them have been able to rally anything close to the level of support enjoyed by the aw-shucks Yang, who derides the idea of defunding the police and happily aligned himself with pro-Israel extremists this week, or of the terrifying cop candidate Adams, who seems poised to throw the city’s teens up against a wall and frisk them at any moment. For progressives who entered election season hopeful that America’s most diverse city was ready for change, the most useful question now is: what the hell is our problem?

Deep in the American psyche lies a conviction, implanted by our own frontier mythology and lovingly encouraged by the guardians of capitalism, that if we are not always surrounded by men with guns, we do not enjoy public safety. The fact that those same men with guns create a distinct lack of safety for a significant minority of the public is something that the majority has always been content to ignore. A full year of the most passionate protests this country has seen in generations has not been enough to dislodge this belief. New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as unique from and superior to the rest of America. But the truth is that Applebee’s, action movies and acceptance of gangster capitalism exist here too. The mayoral polls show that most New Yorkers still yearn for the comfort of the old order of things. If that is a disappointment to you, get ready for a long hot summer of marching in the streets.

  • Hamilton Nolan is a New York-based writer