As the more than 30 candidates running for New York City mayor Zoom from morning till dawn, the city’s plutocrats have been watching the virtual campaign in the comfort of second (or fourth) homes. And so far the diaspora of the city’s 1 percent is not happy. “In general the city’s elite think there’s something of a race to the bottom,” said the Partnership for NYC president, Kathryn Wylde, who acts as the voice of the city’s CEOs. Wall Streeters I spoke with were even less charitable. “It’s a clown car of a race,” said one banking executive. “They’re incompetent,” complained a hedge fund manager. “You want to be mayor and rant and rave about social progress and all that shit? Fine, but take out the garbage first.”
Hearing the rich vent about their political choices at this moment in the pandemic is, well, rich. As the city’s upper class emptied out to the Hamptons and Palm Beach, other communities, mainly Black and brown, were left behind to be decimated by COVID. But before you cue the world’s tiniest violin, the harsh reality is that New York’s survival depends on the 1 percent returning to populate the corner offices, restaurants, and Broadway theaters. “We just found out how fragile the city is. We’re now at the point where people wonder if New York can truly come back,” said NYU urban policy and planning professor Mitchell Moss, a longtime observer of the city’s political scene.
The most common refrain you hear from businesspeople assessing the mayoral race is that they want “another [Michael] Bloomberg.” By that they mean a fiscally conservative, tough-on-crime, and pro-growth pragmatist who also won’t hurt their feelings. “The key to this mayor’s race is finding the person who can bring the city together and not to have this crazy, ideological, tale-of-two-cities crap that [Bill] de Blasio has pushed for the past eight years,” Wylde said.
With the city’s Republican Party in disarray, it’s almost certain that the next mayor will be a Democrat. On paper Ray McGuire should be Wall Street’s candidate. A vice chairman of Citigroup up until recently, McGuire is an unapologetic elitist. McGuire’s campaign hopes his inspirational biography—Black, humble childhood, three Harvard degrees—will help him broaden his appeal beyond the finance set.
But after raising an impressive $5 million, McGuire has struggled to break through with a primary electorate that views the big banks with hostility. “We live in a socialist city. The last thing people want in a socialist city is a banker,” said a Bloomberg adviser not aligned with any campaign. In a Politico poll this month, McGuire pulled just 2%. “Everybody I talk to has made the same decision: They would go with McGuire but don’t think he’ll win,” the hedge fund manager told me. (According to a source, a finance executive advised McGuire last year to run as a Republican, but McGuire, a prominent Democrat, declined. “Several people approached him about running as a Republican—not just Wall Street executives—and his answer was always the same; he is a proud Democrat,” his spokesperson told me.)
McGuire’s failure to launch has created an opening for another businessperson in the race: Andrew Yang. The affable former test-prep executive, who ran for president on a platform of guaranteeing a universal basic income, dominated the Politico poll: 28% of Democratic New York voters said they would support Yang, which put him 11 points ahead of his nearest rival, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams. Former MSNBC analyst Maya Wiley, who has attracted significant media attention and the endorsement of the powerful Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, polled at just 8%. Yang’s 84% name recognition was nearly 20 points higher than that of the next candidate. According to Yang’s campaign, he’s attracted 11,500 donors, over 500 more than the next candidate. Yang is the race’s front-runner by a wide margin.
Yang’s unlikely celebrity was on display as he stumped in Harlem on the morning of February 17. “We love you, Andrew Yang!” a driver shouted from the open window of an orange juice delivery truck rumbling down 125th Street. A few minutes later a high school student nervously sidled up to Yang. “I’m only 16, but when I can vote, you have my vote,” he said.
It was Yang’s first in-person event since being diagnosed with COVID on February 2. He clearly appeared to be enjoying his return to the trail as front-runner. “I will say it’s different being a front-runner. In the presidential race I never was,” he told me as we walked between campaign stops. Yang’s likability is central to his pitch that sunny optimism can rally a city out of its darkest moment. “When I come out on the streets of New York, people are generally happy to see me,” he said. “I feel like I’m connecting with New Yorkers. They sense I’m running to help the city.” Although COVID sidelined him, Yang’s IRL campaign has reinforced his message that he is the guy to get New Yorkers back to normal life. “Zoom is not the friend to New York City,” he said in Harlem.
But Yang’s populism is something of a contradiction that will be harder to maintain as the race progresses. On the morning I watched him campaign, he was pushing for direct cash payments to low-income New Yorkers and the creation of a People’s Bank of NYC. But later that day he was espousing Bloombergian values during a Zoom forum with business leaders organized by the Partnership for NYC. “He was basically telling the business community what they wanted to hear, which is he would fight crime and not raise taxes,” Wylde said. “He made the point that he’s pragmatic and not ideological.”
I asked Yang if he saw himself being more in the mold of Bloomberg or de Blasio. “I see myself as Andrew Yang,” he said, sidestepping the question (Bloomberg’s legacy of stop and frisk policing has made him toxic with many Democratic voters). While mentioning neither by name, Yang was quick to point out that he wouldn’t play classes off of each other, clearly a dig at de Blasio. “I think most people can look up and see helping people avoid extreme deprivation in New York is good for the business community. This is not a situation where if you’re helping some New Yorkers, you’re somehow treading on the interest of another group,” he said.