When the New York City mayoral primary campaign began, the city was steeped in grave uncertainty about its future. Candidates laid out radically different visions for how they would guide a still-shuttered metropolis out of overlapping crises around public health, the economy and racial injustice.
But as voters head to the polls on Tuesday, New York and its mayoral race have changed. The city is well on its path to reopening even as new problems have surged to the fore. Now, a different kind of political uncertainty awaits.
No Democratic candidate is expected to reach the threshold needed to win outright under the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, and it may be weeks before a Democratic primary victor — who would become an overwhelming favorite to win the general election in November — is officially declared.
New Yorkers on Tuesday will also render judgments on other vital positions in primary races that will test the power of the left in the nation’s largest city. The city comptroller’s race, the Manhattan district attorney’s race and a slew of City Council primaries, among other contests, will offer imperfect but important windows into Democratic attitudes and engagement levels as the nation emerges from the pandemic in the post-Trump era.
But no results will be more carefully watched than the race to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio, a contest that has been defined by debates over public safety, the economy, political experience and personal ethics and that in its final weeks became intensely acrimonious.
Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president; Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner; Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mr. de Blasio; and Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate, were considered leading Democratic contenders, though the race remained fluid and strikingly contentious.
If no single candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on the first tally, the eventual nominee will be determined by rounds of ranked-choice voting, through which New Yorkers could rank up to five candidates in order of preference.
Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary; Raymond J. McGuire, a former Citi executive; and Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, who all benefited from heavy spending on television on their behalf, were hoping to show unexpected strength through the ranking process. Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, once appeared poised to be a left-wing standard-bearer, but her standing suffered amid internal campaign turmoil.
No issue dominated the race more than public safety, as poll after poll showed combating crime was the most important issue to New York Democrats.
Sparse public polling suggested that Mr. Adams, a former police captain who challenged misconduct from within the system — part of a complex career — attained credibility on that subject in the eyes of some voters, which will have been a crucial factor if he wins.
But Ms. Wiley repeatedly challenged Mr. Adams from the left on policing matters, expressing skepticism about adding more officers to patrol the subways and calling for greater investments in the social safety net and less in the Police Department budget. She emerged as a favorite of left-wing leaders and progressive voters.
Mr. Yang and Ms. Garcia shared Mr. Adams’s criticisms of efforts to scale back police funding, and those three candidates also frequently addressed quality-of-life issues across the city.
But if the race was defined in part by clashes over policy and vision, it also had all the hallmarks of a bare-knuckled brawl. Mr. Adams faced intense criticism from opponents over transparency and ethics, tied to reports concerning his tax and real estate holding disclosures and fund-raising practices. And Mr. Yang stumbled amid growing scrutiny of his knowledge of municipal government as rivals sharply questioned his capacity to lead.
The ugliest stretch of the contest came in its last days, as Mr. Adams declared that Mr. Yang and Ms. Garcia, who formed an apparent alliance, were seeking to prevent a Black candidate from winning. His allies went further, claiming without evidence that the actions of those candidates amounted to voter suppression.
By contrast, the comptroller’s race has flown below the radar. But it has attracted national left-wing engagement: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, among others, backed Councilman Brad Lander, helping coalesce left-wing energy in that contest, far earlier than in the mayor’s race.
The race remained unsettled heading into Primary Day, with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson; Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC anchor who unsuccessfully challenged Ms. Ocasio-Cortez last year; and a slew of other Democratic candidates also competing for the role.
In the Manhattan district attorney’s race, the two leading candidates were believed to be Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who clerked for Merrick B. Garland, now the United States attorney general, and for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and worked as a federal prosecutor; and Alvin Bragg, who served as a federal prosecutor and as a chief deputy to the state attorney general. The race will not be decided by ranked-choice voting, and the winner may be called on Tuesday night.
The New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America stayed out of the mayor’s race altogether, but did emphasize a series of high-profile City Council races with the potential to remake the ideological balance of the Council.
For months, many New Yorkers tuned out the mayor’s race, distracted by the challenges of winter in a pandemic and burned out by the presidential election.
But the final stretch has been hard to miss, culminating in a frenzied five-borough battle over the direction of the city, with exchanges between candidates that turned acridly personal in the final weeks.
The race was also complicated by strategizing around ranked-choice voting. In one of the most unusual and closely watched dynamics of the final stretch, Mr. Yang encouraged his voters to support Ms. Garcia as their second choice on their ballots. Ms. Garcia insisted that she was not endorsing Mr. Yang even as they attended events together, jointly greeting voters and passing out shared campaign literature.
Some of Ms. Garcia’s allies privately acknowledged that the decision to appear with Mr. Yang could discomfit progressives who disdained him but were open to her. But they also saw opportunities to convert some voters who liked both Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams, and Ms. Garcia was not shy in discussing her motivation: She wanted Yang voters to rank her second.