Most city-dwellers have had the experience of being near someone on a street or a subway who is harmless enough but babbling to himself nonsensically—until he says something, whether about a presidential election or the stock market or the quality of subway service, that makes perfect sense. Then, he loses his clarity as mysteriously as he found it and resumes the babble. Wednesday’s Democratic mayoral debate was the final contest before the polls close next Tuesday. Yet after three official debates and dozens of unofficial Zoom forums with the candidates, the most New Yorkers have to go on as they rank five of the eight contenders in order of preference on the city’s new multiple-choice ballots are fleeting moments of good sense.
In Wednesday’s debate, Andrew Yang, the former nonprofit leader, test-prep entrepreneur, and presidential candidate, offered the most moments of reason. Yang started out strong: when asked how he would convince a wealthy family thinking of leaving New York to stay, he said, “I understand why you are concerned about New York City. You are concerned about your family’s safety. As mayor, I will deliver public safety. . . . I was just endorsed by the police captain’s union.” In the 30 seconds allotted, he gave a clear answer: people are worried about rising crime, and policing must play a role in fixing it.
Yang reinforced this focus later in the debate. He noted that, last year, rival and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams counseled people concerned about quality-of-life crimes in their neighborhoods to resolve those problems themselves. “One woman, Shatavia Walls, took Eric’s advice,” in asking a neighbor to stop setting off fireworks, “and was killed,” Yang charged, relating how a police captain had told him that Adams’s recommendation was “the most irresponsible thing he had ever seen from a public official.”
Yang wasn’t through. Facing a question about violent mentally ill people making the streets less safe, he said: “Mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighborhoods. A woman my wife Evelyn is friends with . . . was punched in Hell’s Kitchen. . . . In East Harlem, the neighborhood has been changed, Upper West Side, the neighborhood has been changed,” referring to the warehousing of mentally ill men with no supervision during the day. “We’re not talking about housing affordability, we’re talking about the hundreds of mentally ill people we all see every day on our streets and on our subways . . . we need to get them off our streets and our subways. . . . I will fix this.” In all three examples, Yang viewed a problem from the perspective of the average New Yorker afraid to walk down the street after dark or to ride on the subway, not from the vantage point of self-styled advocates for those causing the problems. “Half of attacks on Asian New Yorkers have been by the mentally ill,” Yang said. “We need to get people the help they need even if they don’t know it yet. We need to rebuild the stock of psych beds.”
Asked what product he would “ban” as mayor, Yang had the most practical answer: “I’m gonna ban these [all-terrain vehicles]” plaguing the city’s streets, he said, which, as he acknowledged, are already illegal. “We’re gonna get rid of those ATVs under my watch.” Other candidates focused on corn syrup (Kathryn Garcia) and processed meats (Adams).
Adams did show some flickers of sense. Accused by former de Blasio lawyer Maya Wiley of promising a return to large-scale stop, question, and frisk policing tactics, Adams said: “I don’t want to return to anything. I want to show how to use tools correctly.” He promised a “plainclothes unit that focuses on guns. Over-proliferation of guns in our city is destroying us. . . . We can’t wait until we have three-year-olds shot in Times Square. If we don’t get gun violence under control, it’s going to stop our economic recovery.”
Garcia, too, flirted with rationality on the city budget, which, in the 2023 fiscal year, faces a $3.9 billion deficit, or about 6 percent of projected city tax revenues. The bigger problem is not just one year’s budget but what happens to the city’s property values and tax base long-term if workers don’t return to midtown offices. “We need to sit down with labor and work on real productivity changes,” Garcia said, repeating what she told me in March.
Former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire didn’t get many chances to talk but demonstrated the healthiest ratio of sense to nonsense. When asked about which major infrastructure project he would champion as mayor, McGuire said that “we need to deal with” the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a major traffic artery that is collapsing. No one else could think of a big, worthy project. Yang mentioned a water tunnel that’s already well under construction.
McGuire also refused to be bullied by former nonprofit leader Dianne Morales, who tried to play the race card when McGuire said that black people like himself are worried about crime. “How dare you speak for black and brown communities?” Morales asked. “I just did it, I’m gonna do it again,” McGuire answered, showing a flash of spirit. Yet McGuire, despite a well-funded campaign and an inspiring personal story of rising from poverty to riches, has never gained traction in this race.
Had leading candidates Yang, Adams, and Garcia stuck only to their salient points, they’d be solid choices. Unfortunately, they also spouted a lot of nonsense.
Yang is sticking to his $1 billion–a–year plan to give half a million poor New Yorkers $167 a month. He notes that the people targeted will “overlap very heavily with the undocumented [immigrant] community,” and notes also that recipients would be eligible “if you’re working and making an extraordinarily low amount of money.” In close to a year of pitching this nonuniversal, non-basic, “universal basic income” plan to New Yorkers, Yang has never explained why it’s a good idea for the city effectively to subsidize employers who illegally hire people ineligible to work in the United States and then pay them below the legal minimum wage.
The other contenders were no better. Adams wants to freeze rent for 1 million households (he’d “compensate” small residential-property owners for the rent freeze), creating a vast new housing-subsidy program for people who, in most cases, can afford an inflation-linked increase in their rent. Garcia envisions a “renewable Rikers” powered by windmills, though the city still hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the jails there.
Other mayoral hopefuls barely made any sense on anything. Comptroller Scott Stringer, endorsed by the teachers’ union, wants two teachers in every elementary school classroom but refuses to consider the idea of a longer school day so that students can make up for the time they lost during the pandemic. Yet he had the temerity to ask Yang how he would pay for more psychiatric beds, for which there is a clear need. Stringer also wants to recruit “people of color” to the police force, ignoring how the force is already majority-minority. Former Bloomberg housing commissioner Shaun Donovan wants every New Yorker to live within a 15-minute walk of everything he needs in life—from hospital care to high-paying jobs—thus erasing the purpose of a hub city. Morales wants to cut the police budget in half and intoned that “mental illness and mental challenges are not crimes,” offering an idealistic lecture when the relevant question involves not mental illness but mental illness–driven street crime. And Wiley wants to double the size of the city’s capital budget, currently about $13.3 billion a year, not to build any major infrastructure projects but to create 100,000 jobs. She also wants to launch a vast new rental-subsidy program for every family earning less than $54,000.
Finally, all eight candidates want to build tens of thousands of units of “deeply affordable” housing—ignoring the reality that, for poor people who can’t afford the monthly upkeep costs of their apartments, the initiative would effectively create a vast new public-housing system requiring ongoing annual subsidy.
The best New York voters can do from now until next Tuesday is figure out which candidates’ flashes of reason best balance out their unreason. Unless McGuire breaks through in the next four days, a highly unlikely prospect, the city had better hope that a Mayor Adams, Garcia, or Yang leaves the gibberish behind on the debate stage and brings practical insight into City Hall. New York has need of it.
Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images