Is Andrew Yang just what New York needs?

Don't sleep on optimism

Andrew Yang.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Here are some of the pressing problems the next mayor of New York City is going to have to deal with:

Throw in long term challenges like climate resiliency that haven't gone away, and it's an incredibly daunting prospect — so daunting that it's frankly encouraging so many qualified candidates are interested in the job.

So why is the leader of the pack with between 15 percent and 25 percent support in the polls, a man who's never even voted in a NYC mayoral election before?

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When I last wrote about Andrew Yang, I described him as the most radical candidate running in the Democratic primaries. His diagnosis of what was happening in our economy and society challenged not only the fundamental assumptions of capitalism but much of the historic thinking of its social-democratic critics. A key part of his appeal, though, was the simplicity of his signature solution: A universal basic income that would simply put cash directly in people's pockets as the best way buffer against the storms of change.

That idea's time has already come. The last two rounds of COVID-19 relief prominently featured such direct payments, and Biden's temporarily expanded child tax credit can be seen as a downpayment on a more permanent expansion of the welfare state along the same lines. But it's an idea of limited relevance to New York City, which cannot print money nor even borrow without the state's permission, and whose most pressing problems require getting into the guts of regulation and bureaucratic organization to resolve. Meanwhile, far from positioning himself as a radical, Yang's primary campaign has been a largely centrist one, focused on making NYC more friendly to small businesses and more attractive to tourists and commuters.

So why Yang? One reason is precisely that relative centrism. While most NYC voters consider themselves liberals of one sort or another, they aren't necessarily full-spectrum progressives like civil rights activist Maya Wiley, one of Yang's rivals for the mayoralty. That's not a completely adequate answer, though, because Yang isn't the only candidate in the race with centrist credibility. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who polls second behind Yang, is a former officer in the NYPD whose mantra was "build, baby, build," and whose support base includes relatively moderate Black voters and Orthodox Jews. Former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Citigroup executive Raymond McGuire, and former HUD secretary and OMD director Shaun Donovan can each also make credible claims to be substantive, practical people with more nuanced perspectives than the left-liberal litany.

Nor is it enough to attribute Yang's prominence to his status as a celebrity candidate, because while he is that, he's a very peculiar kind of celebrity. Yang didn't become famous by starring in movies or on reality television, nor is he billionaire with his own media network like New York's last outsider mayor. Yang made a name for himself primarily by doing exactly what he's doing right now: running for office. And that campaign was built on the idea that Yang is a different kind of radical, and a different kind of centrist — someone willing to contemplate large changes to the way we operate without identifying enemies or dividing the populace into camps. And there are areas — like construction, where the way New York does business has driven costs to insane heights, or like homelessness, where the city's costs have ballooned even as the problem continues to grow — where radical rather than incremental change is absolutely worth contemplating. That's certainly a big part of Yang's appeal, and it's a legitimate reason to be hopeful about his candidacy.

But that word, "hopeful,” may be the heart of the matter, politically speaking. What Yang has managed to do better than any of his opponents so far is project a spirit of optimism that, I suspect, resonates very powerfully in a city with as many challenges as New York has. Like Ed Koch in the wake of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s or Fiorello LaGuardia in the depths of the Great Depression, Yang exudes energy, enthusiasm and a belief in the future. Like Obama in 2008, I suspect his willingness to speak boldly and think big allows him to take more centrist positions without seeming like a candidate of caution or compromise (which may precisely be what gives liberal voters more permission to embrace him). I also don't think it's an accident that the leader in the polls is the one who's been the most active on the campaign trail all through the ravages of COVID-19 (which, unsurprisingly, he caught in the middle of the brutal winter wave of infections). Yang seems happy to be here — wherever he is. That's an infectious quality, and a hard one to beat by saying: You haven't earned your place in this race.

And while an optimistic demeanor might seem like a shallow reason to vote for someone, if it winds up delivering victory it could have meaningful consequences. Popularity is what politicians use for capital. If Yang wins without the support of various interest groups, he'll be in a position to defy their demands. If he retains an enthusiastic following, he can use that to pressure Albany. This is the standard case that outsider candidates always make, but that doesn't mean it can't be true — it all depends on how effectively the popular outsider uses the power of their popularity in venues where the cameras aren't running.

That's one major reason he hasn't won me over yet. Yang has figured out pretty quickly how to navigate the complexity of NYC's political tribes, but that's a very different game from the inside baseball of managing the bureaucracy or playing hardball with Albany (or with the public sector unions). Many of the issues Yang wants to tackle, and that the city needs the mayor to tackle — most notably transit — aren't even under the mayor's control. A lot of retrospective liberal disappointment with Obama has been about his inability to translate personal popularity into enduring accomplishment. A candidate who could make that point effectively without seeming like a naysayer and a killjoy could win the trust of those wary of joining the Yang Gang but determined to turn a page on the De Blasio years.

And winning that trust could, in the end, matter more than enthusiasm. Andrew Yang isn't going to win the mayoralty with 25 percent of the vote, even if that's more than any other candidate gets. He's going to need a majority. Because New York City is using ranked-choice voting this year for the first time, that means the real question is who cleans up voters' second and third choices. It's a system that could lead to strange results depending on the order in which candidates drop out. But it could also lead to a much less risky choice, if one candidate can convince the bulk of voters that they're the one to settle for when their crush disappoints.

Andrew Yang has made a strikingly good impression on his first date. We'll see whether his opponents can convince enough people that they're a better choice for who to marry.

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