Two days before Andrew Yang announced he was running to be New York City’s next mayor, he made a remarkable admission.
As Covid-19 ravaged the city – more than 50,000 people have succumbed to the virus – the tech entrepreneur had left town, retreating to his second home north of New York.
“We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan,” Yang told an interviewer to explain his decision. “And so, like, can you imagine trying to have two kids on virtual school in a two-bedroom apartment, and then trying to do work yourself?”
Many New Yorkers couldn’t just imagine it, they had lived it – as Yang’s mayoral rivals were quick to point out. But if New York election watchers were expecting that moment to torpedo Yang’s campaign, they were wrong.
Despite a slew of other missteps – Yang’s ill-advised plan to crackdown on unlicensed street vendors, many of whom are impoverished immigrants, and his enthusiastic National Pet’s Day confession that he had given away his pet dog – Yang has led his Democratic competitors in polling since he announced his candidacy.
Yang’s name recognition has undoubtedly helped. The 46-year-old might have failed in his 2020 presidential bid, but along the way he became one of the most talked-about candidates, winning a diehard “Yang Gang” group of supporters through his effervescent personality and his bold commitment to a universal basic income, which would grant $1,000-a-month to US citizens.
A New Yorker who doesn’t keep a keen eye on local affairs is still likely to have heard of Yang, but might be less aware of rivals like Eric Adams, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales, who have spent their careers working largely away from the headlines in local New York politics or activism.
Yang’s position as frontrunner has put a target on his back, even if “undecided” remains the number one choice for New Yorkers. With the first Democratic primary debates scheduled for 13 May, the race is beginning to heat up, and as New Yorkers begin to pay more attention, Yang has found himself attacked on all sides.
First Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who is polling second, wrongly said Yang had “never held a job in his entire life” and accused him of abandoning New York City at “its darkest moment”. Yang’s campaign said Adams had “crossed a line with his false and reprehensible attacks”.
“We can’t have a leader who tweets first and thinks second,” Stringer, who has also criticized Yang’s transport ideas, said. He added: “Cracking down on street vendors is part of the criminalization of poverty.”
At times it has felt like open season on Yang, who has also been criticized by Maya Wiley, who if elected would be New York City’s first female mayor. “New York is not another startup where Andrew Yang can play with other people’s money and fail up,” Wiley said in a scathing statement.
Yang’s first start-up, which aimed to help celebrities give money to charity, failed, but his involvement with a testing preparation company called Manhattan GMAT was more successful, and made him a millionaire.
For all the mudslinging, Yang has plenty going for him. He’s the best known, and an affable, engaging campaigner with a knack for making headlines, even if sometimes for the wrong reasons. He has managed to engage New Yorkers where others have struggled, whether by releasing a campaign rap video – Yang does not rap in it – or pitching pie-in-the-sky ideas like building a casino on New York’s Governors Island, a concept explicitly barred by a federal deed.
He has plenty of money too, although the projected $6.5m he raised in the first two months of his campaign is less than the $8m Adams had on hand in mid-March. On Tuesday Politico reported that three political action committees – groups which support, but are officially unconnected to a politician’s campaign – were coalescing behind Yang, aiming to raise $6m for TV ads. At least one other committee has also started fundraising against Yang.
So can he win?
“My gut instinct is to say no,” John Mollenkopf, distinguished professor of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said. “He doesn’t really have much of a solid organic connection to constituencies in New York City. He may have a kind of name recognition, a public popularity, [he’s a] fun guy, [and] I think New Yorkers do like people who rock the boat, who are a little bit insouciant in the way they consider the political establishment.”
Mollenkopf added: “But that’s not the same thing as sufficiently deep political support to mobilize the kind of forces that are necessary to turn out a majority in a Democratic primary election.”
While Yang has dominated the headlines, other candidates have been gobbling up endorsements from key unions and progressive groups. On Wednesday the Working Families Party, a progressive party which endorses Democratic candidates, chose Stringer as its first choice, Dianne Morales as second choice, and Maya Wiley as third choice. Yang was not mentioned.
Wiley, who previously served as counsel to current mayor Bill de Blasio, also won the coveted endorsement of 1199SEIU, the union which represents New York City’s healthcare workers and comprises a majority of women of color. Adams has been endorsed by more than a dozen unions and organizations, as has Stringer.
If those groups can turn out members, it could spell trouble for Yang, who will be fearful of repeating his last election bid.
In 2020 Yang became one of the most talked about figures in the Democratic presidential primary, but couldn’t translate that into votes. He finished a distant sixth in Iowa and an even more distant eighth in New Hampshire, before dropping out of the race.
In New York City mayoral elections, being the frontrunner can be a poisoned chalice. At this stage in 2013, De Blasio was far from being the favorite, while Michael Bloomberg came from behind to win in 2001.
To add to the uncertainty, this year the Democratic mayoral candidate will be selected by ranked choice voting for the first time, further muddying the waters. When the Democratic primary takes place on 22 June, Yang will hope to buck the previous trends.