After a fourth-place finish in the first-round count of Tuesday’s mayoral primary, Andrew Yang quickly conceded. “I am not going to be the next mayor of New York City,” he told disappointed supporters on election night. Yang had held a formidable lead all winter and early spring, but the sustained spotlight revealed his flaws: the nonprofit exec whose business didn’t create as many jobs as advertised; the guy who decamped for his country home during the depths of the pandemic; the local-government know-nothing who didn’t understand that it’s illegal for New York City to build a casino on Governors Island, or that it’s politically impossible for the city to gain control of the subways; the candidate whose political advisers had all sorts of conflicts of interest. But despite his faults, Yang showed a genuine and refreshing moral outrage about the ways that New York’s City’s entrenched political class does business—an emotion that his top opponents couldn’t match. Will we miss him, after all?
Over nearly six months of intense campaigning, New York saw a tale of two Yangs: one idealistic and optimistic; the other frustrated and annoyed. Yang the Idealist was the presidential candidate we remember from last year: always genial, never too harsh in criticizing his opponents, and largely sticking to his proposal for “universal basic income” payments to all Americans (though in the mayoral race, he proposed limiting these payments to extremely poor New Yorkers).
That was the Yang who showed up in January, proclaiming himself—as if he were at a cocktail party—to be “so thrilled” to be running for mayor and promising to bring his “passion for uplifting people” to the task of creating “a human-centered economy.” This version of Yang, clad in his blue-striped scarf, offered the unflappable cool of a tech guru, promising “clear, rational plans” and “a fact-based government.”
The frustrated and annoyed Yang took over sometime in May. Just after a nearby shooting that wounded three people, he arrived in Times Square, “blocks away from where my wife Evelyn and I live,” to decry the state of public safety. “We take our family for walks every day just blocks from here. There is nothing more fundamental than the ability to walk with your family in your own neighborhood without fear, and if the city cannot stop shootings in Times Square, what does that say about what’s happening in black and brown communities?”
It was this Yang who showed up to the final debate. “Mentally-ill people have rights,” he said, referring to the spate of attacks, many of them on Asian people, on Manhattan streets and subways. “You know who else have rights? We do! The people and families of the city. We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally-ill person is going to lash out at us.”
On the city’s budget, it was the frustrated and annoyed Yang who acknowledged that Gotham doesn’t have infinite resources. “No one is talking about” the deficit, he said. Referring to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squandering of federal aid, with hardly a peep from the mayor’s other would-be successors, Yang asked the audience to “Imagine if you were a household that knew you were going to owe $5 billion in 2023, and we gave you $12 billion today, and then you spend it.”
Finally, this was the Yang who wasn’t afraid to attack, repeatedly pointing out the irregularities of his chief rival (and, as of this writing, the likely winner), Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams. “Eric, we all know that you’ve been investigated for corruption everywhere you’ve gone,” Yang charged, referring to a “trifecta of corruption investigations. . . . Is that really what we want in the next mayor? . . . We all know it’s going to be exactly the same.” He hit Adams for wanting to have it both ways on policing: promising to stop shootings but also counseling New Yorkers to put themselves in danger by confronting their neighbors directly about bad behavior rather than calling the police.
The frustrated and annoyed Yang is also the one who ended the campaign by noting that Adams, in a rather unconvincing press tour of his basement apartment to prove his local residency, had no bathtub in the dwelling. (Adams had proclaimed during the debate that he couldn’t live without hot baths.)
This is the Yang that New York needs: the one who looks at the way Gotham does business and says it’s crazy. No, children shouldn’t be shot in Times Square. No, the violent mentally ill shouldn’t roam free. Yes, we should take New York’s budget deficit seriously.
What about all that other stuff? Yang was always straightforward in explaining that he spent a few months last year upstate because his special needs son needed more space, attracting much mockery. But he knows firsthand that for New Yorkers of means, living in New York is a choice. Nobody will stay in an increasingly violent, less livable city if they don’t have to. As for his gaffes on city control over the subways, Yang should have demonstrated more facility with this subject before taking it on. Still, it’s a fair question: why do we do things in New York the same way we’ve done them for 60 years when it’s clearly not working?
And finally, regarding Adams, yes: if you’re a candidate for mayor and you say you take baths every night, you should explain why the dwelling you claim is your home doesn’t have a bathtub—especially if you have a history of misreporting your taxes and failing to log political gifts.
Yang has faced criticism for setting his sights too high, trying to start at the top at each level of government: first the presidency, then the mayoralty. But those who start at the bottom or middle—state assemblymen, city councilmen, housing commissioners, comptrollers—often rise no higher (consider Scott Stringer, Shaun Donovan). Those who make it to the top, like de Blasio and Adams, have spent so much time in the funhouse-mirror world of New York City government that by the time they get there, they have lost any perspective on the real world.
Yang could serve New York well in the coming years by running a one-man shadow mayoralty. He should keep showing up in Times Square to point out that we don’t have to live this way.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images