While most New Yorkers had their mind on other things—serving as teacher’s assistants on their younger children’s Zoom lessons, say, or fearing that older kids would fall prey to violent crime, or trying to reopen a small restaurant or find a new job before unemployment benefits run out—their city hosted the most eclectic Democratic mayoral primary season ever. It didn’t end with the June 22 vote. Rather, the close race took two more long weeks to decide. On a barely perceptible margin of less than 1 percent between the two top finishers, Brooklyn borough president and retired police captain Eric Adams edged out former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
In a race with eight major rivals, compared with the usual four or five, New Yorkers had strikingly different options. Longtime machine politicians—such as Adams, a former state senator, as well as comptroller and former assemblyman and Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer—vied with newcomers from the business and nonprofit worlds: former Citigroup investment-bank head Ray McGuire; and Dianne Morales, former executive director at homeless-youth charity The Door. Voters also could choose between two former top Bill de Blasio officials—Garcia, and Maya Wiley, the mayor’s former lawyer—or give the nod to a former Bloomberg official, Shaun Donovan, who was the billionaire mayor’s housing commissioner before becoming President Barack Obama’s budget director. And then there was Andrew Yang, the onetime test-prep exec and nonprofit head who had run for president, promising Americans a “universal basic income” payment each month.
Among the candidates, policy options varied as widely as personalities and biographies. Some contenders promised more police officers; others pledged to “defund” the department. Some wanted higher taxes; others warned that tax hikes would send wealthier residents fleeing.
The theater of operations was also novel. In late winter, respecting Covid-19 restrictions, the octet campaigned via dozens of informal online forums. In the spring, as the Covid constraints eased, the race more closely resembled a normal election year, with open-air rallies and church speeches. Yet campaign events occurred against a backdrop of disorienting chaos, including a spring Saturday afternoon shooting in Times Square and dozens of random street and subway attacks against people of Asian appearance.
In another twist, the candidates ran under new rules that made polling even more of a dark art than usual. For the first time in 48 years, the primary was held in June, not September. And it featured “ranked-choice” voting, in which New Yorkers could pick five candidates, in descending order, for mayor, rather than just one. If no contestant won 50 percent, the worst performer would be dropped and his or her votes reallocated to the candidate whom voters picked second; then the process was repeated until someone reached a majority. On July 6, the Associated Press declared that Adams had achieved this feat, beating Garcia by 8,426 votes out of 937,699 cast, the highest turnout in 30 years.
All elections have surprises, but from the perspective of New Yorkers concerned about a livable city, the big one in this race was that the center seemingly held. This middle is a New York middle, to be sure, not a Florida middle; nobody was running on broad-based tax cuts or for convicted criminals to serve longer sentences. Yet candidates who espoused “defunding” the police or raising taxes to nosebleed levels gained little traction. By late spring, voters were increasingly focusing on competence.
Winning, though, was the easy part. (The general election, against the Republican candidate, is in November, but with New York’s nearly seven-to-one Democratic voter registration, and no major or experienced Republican figure running, it is highly likely that Adams will win and become New York’s next mayor.) Adams, then, must demonstrate—once again—that Gotham is governable, and do so fast—and do so, further, in cooperation or competition, or both, with a power-hoarding governor and a brand-new and thus unpredictable city council. There will be no honeymoon.
In the nearly five decades until Bill de Blasio’s victory in 2013, every mayor had won election during a city crisis, or at least an anxious period marked by public desire for major change.
In 1965, Manhattan congressman John Lindsay won the mayoralty amid fears of rising crime, middle-class flight to the suburbs, and social unrest. The young, blond Republican mayor styled himself as a Kennedy figure who would address these modern problems with vision and vigor. Things didn’t work out. In 1973, as a historic fiscal crisis loomed, due significantly to the Lindsay administration’s profligate spending, longtime Democratic machine politician Abe Beame ran on the idea that his tenure as city comptroller meant that he “knew the buck.” It turned out that Beame didn’t know the buck, and the city went into state receivership to avoid bankruptcy, losing control over the municipal budget and suffering severe public-service cuts.
In 1977, the South Bronx was burning—the result of middle-class depopulation, landlord abandonment, and fires set by drug-addled tenants and squatters. It was the most potent symbol of New York’s overall decline. As New Yorkers reeled from that summer’s blackout and looting, another Manhattan congressman and former city councilman, Ed Koch, ran on a simple message: “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?” Over 12 years in office, Koch ably led the city through its fiscal turnaround, in part by standing up to unions, and cheered the city on as it began rebuilding its infrastructure and population after two decades of decline.
Yet Koch overstayed his welcome. In 1989, fed up with municipal corruption and worried about worsening race relations, New Yorkers elected Manhattan borough president David Dinkins. Dinkins did some good: he appointed Ray Kelly as police commissioner, and he began the reforms, including adding thousands of cops, that started making the city safer. But Dinkins wasn’t aggressive enough in tamping down violence and disorder, and his single-term mayoralty will be remembered for the race riots that broke out between black and Jewish New Yorkers in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991.
Tired of a murder rate in the thousands yearly, New York elected federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. His two terms would famously see the murder level reduced to just hundreds annually, for the first time since the early 1970s. As Giuliani’s administration came to an end, following the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers, terrified that the city wouldn’t recover from al-Qaida’s attack, chose an entrepreneur businessman, Michael Bloomberg, to lead them.
If all those crises revealed leadership mettle, or the lack of it, the historic absence of crisis surrounding the 2013 de Blasio election, by contrast, rewarded complacency. Eight years ago, the city had no major problems. It boasted nearly 3.6 million private-sector jobs, a modern record. The city’s 332 murders were then the fewest in modern history. Its 8.5 million population was a record high.
De Blasio thus had the luxury of running on not much of anything, as his aimless “tale of two cities” campaign-year speeches demonstrated. Then the city’s public advocate, a largely ceremonial elected position, de Blasio coasted to primary victory against an uninspiring field of candidates with similar experience in local Democratic politics and government, including city council speaker Christine Quinn and now-disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. De Blasio then sailed to general-election victory against the competent, but uncharismatic, Joe Lhota, former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and top aide to Giuliani. With crime down and jobs up, the stakes seemed so low that fewer than a quarter of primary voters turned out, a record-low percentage that was then slashed in half in the general election.
Nearly eight years later, nobody calls de Blasio a great mayor, or even a good one. At best, he proved an adequate caretaker over his first six years in office. He continued his predecessor’s success in keeping violent crime low, as the murder level fell to 290 in 2017. He didn’t do anything terrible enough to screw up the city’s economic boom, as the number of jobs had topped 4.1 million by early 2020. He fulfilled one major campaign promise: to create a universal prekindergarten program. (Governor Andrew M. Cuomo thwarted his other major promise: to raise taxes on the rich.)
But seen from another angle, de Blasio squandered those six years of good times. Then, over his final two years, as the pandemic struck in early 2020, he failed to hearten city residents or help lead the city into a robust recovery. And he presided over a harrowing rise in violent crime that left many wondering whether the city was journeying back to its bad old days.
De Blasio’s will likely be a forgotten mayoralty. He will join two other good-time mayors, Democrats William O’Dwyer and Vincent Impellitteri, postwar officeholders who served from 1945 until 1953, in vanishing from history.
Now, we’re back to “normal”—in that the city’s 2021 election has taken place amid the biggest crisis that New York has seen since the 1970s. No attack has knocked down our office buildings this time, as in 2001—but the buildings have been emptied for a year and a half, as white-collar workers have shown that they can work from home.
No, the city doesn’t have an immediate budget crisis, as in 1973—but that’s because the federal government has poured $15.8 billion into New York’s budget over two years. The city has consequently made no layoffs, or even token budget cuts. Planned 2022 spending, at just shy of $100 billion, is actually slightly higher than de Blasio officials expected pre-pandemic.
And no, the city’s poorer neighborhoods aren’t facing immediate economic ruin, as in 1977—even though, as of April 2021, the city was still missing 511,000, or 12.6 percent, of its pre-pandemic jobs. But that reprieve is only thanks to extraordinary household relief from both the Trump and Biden administrations, enabling unemployed or underemployed New Yorkers to maintain their spending.
The city thus exists in a kind of suspended animation, except for one major issue: crime. New Yorkers are experiencing a violence uptrend not seen since the mid-1960s, when the murder rate tripled in a decade, from 548 in 1963 to 1,691 in 1972, and then consistently remained at elevated four-digit levels until the early 1990s. In 2020, the city’s murder total exploded from 318 killings in 2019 to 468, a 47.2 percent increase, by far the biggest one-year spike on record.
The upturn has continued in 2021. Through May, New York saw a 23.1 percent increase in murders over 2020 figures. The early-May shooting injuries of four bystanders, including a toddler, in Times Square were only the most visible example of a wave of shooting incidents, which have more than doubled over a year. Ten high-profile murders on the subway system over 15 months, starting in March 2020—contrasting with the one or two subway murders yearly since the mid-1990s—have made riders slow to return to mass transit, which has regained only 40 percent of pre-2020 ridership. In addition to shootings and killings, pandemic-scarred New York is suffering a plague of random street and subway crimes, particularly stabbing, punching, and shoving assaults targeting Asian-Americans, usually perpetrated by emotionally disturbed homeless men with long histories of felony convictions and short-term hospitalizations.
As in past elections, crisis has created single-issue clarity, with crime again defining the mayoral race. In the spring of 2021, nearly half—46 percent—of potential Democratic voters ranked crime and public safety as their top issue, the single most important issue by far, according to a Manhattan Institute poll, mirroring other surveys’ results. Back in 2013, by contrast, a New York Times exit poll showed that only 14 percent of primary voters viewed crime as the city’s top concern.
“With $100 billion in stimulus funding” across the public and household sectors, says George Lence, a former top tourism official for the city, “New York is awash in cash, which neutralized the economic recovery as a local issue and allowed public safety to rise to the fore.” As a PR exec, Lence now represents clients in the industry, which is particularly sensitive to perceptions of public safety.
The top-tier mayoral candidates quickly got that message. No 2021 candidate rose to the top three polling positions—or stayed there in the final few weeks of the race—by musing about the tale of two cities, as de Blasio had done. Instead, the race quickly coalesced around three candidates who gradually honed tough-on-crime messages. The three consistent front-runners in the final months of the race—Adams, Garcia, and Yang—showed a willingness to ignore left-wing anti-law-enforcement orthodoxy on public safety. Instead, they agreed: police have a big role in cutting crime.
This focus became clear in May and June. Each of the front-runners had offered some version of a policy proposal that promised to direct police toward preventing violent crime, especially shootings, while “reforming” the police so that cops don’t mistreat the people they’re policing. Each had also promised to increase mental-health interventions to prevent crimes committed by the emotionally disturbed.
The top candidates began emphasizing this issue, above all, in day-to-day appearances. Yang took a break from selling his plan to give poor New Yorkers $200 a month and instead showed up in Times Square, just blocks from his own family home, hours after the May shooting. “The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police,” Yang said. “If the city cannot stop shootings in Times Square, what does that say about what’s happening in black and brown communities throughout our city, where we are underinvesting and where we know rates of gun violence are higher? There’s nothing more fundamental than the ability to walk in your own neighborhood with your family without fear.”
Adams, in the final formal debate in early June, was equally forceful: “No one is coming to New York . . . if you have three-year-old children shot in Times Square.” The next day, noting that “we are witnessing the rise of violent attacks in our subways, threatening the lives & well-being of New Yorkers as well as our recovery,” he pledged “a more visible police presence.” His website put it starkly: “If we are for SAFETY—we NEED the NYPD!”
Garcia, the final candidate to reach the top tier, ably applied the attribute that had in recent weeks won her the endorsements of the New York Times and Daily News—a reputation for competence as longtime sanitation commissioner—to her plan for public safety. After a Memorial Day attack on a Chinatown pedestrian, allegedly by a homeless man with a long history of violence, she vowed that “we need to have a police presence,” calling, too, for more mental-health treatment. She promised that her experience in managing the uniformed, unionized sanitation workforce would help her manage the police force. Not to be outdone, Yang doubled down on the emotion: “We’re fed up, but all New Yorkers should be fed up,” he said about the Memorial Day attack. “He”—the alleged perpetrator—“was victimizing New Yorkers. It’s unacceptable.”
The race, of course, also boasted plenty of “defund the police” candidates. Morales, the former homeless-charity executive, was the starkest, promising to slash the police budget in half, and repeatedly saying, “I’ve watched my children be pepper-sprayed by the NYPD.” Wiley, de Blasio’s former lawyer and a longtime civil rights executive, repeatedly promised to “fire” the current police commissioner, Dermot Shea. Comptroller Stringer, too, embraced “defund,” saying in the summer of 2020, “It’s time to defund the NYPD now.” Donovan, Obama’s budget director, purposely got himself arrested in May 2021 at an antipolice protest.
Yet none of these candidates gained traction. One could argue that each failed to win over the public because of other flaws. Wiley couldn’t disassociate herself from the de Blasio administration’s failures. Donovan took millions of dollars in campaign contributions from his wealthy father. Stringer faced two sexual-harassment allegations. Morales couldn’t even manage her own campaign, with high-profile firings and defections in the final month. But voters ardently supporting a “defund” message would have overlooked these flaws—just as they overlooked those of Adams, once caught up in a casino-corruption cloud, and, in the last two weeks of the campaign, even having to prove that he lives in Brooklyn, in a cramped basement apartment decorated with his adult son’s belongings; or those of Yang, who had never voted in a municipal election before 2021; or Garcia, who, like Wiley, was tied to the de Blasio administration. (Like the other top candidates, McGuire, the former Citigroup investment-banking head, chose the reform, not defund, route, but he never caught on in the race.)
The center held, and not just with policing but with economic and fiscal issues. No tax-the-rich candidate consistently captured voters’ attention. None of the three leading candidates supported the far-left state legislature’s “invest in one New York” campaign, which promised even higher tax rates on top earners, as well as a new wealth tax. The candidates who did support the legislature’s program—Stringer, Wiley, and Morales—won no kudos from voters for doing so. There was no successful de Blasio imitator in this race, propelling himself to the top by repeating, ad nauseam, that the wealthy must pay their “fair share.”
In April, regarding the wealthy, Adams told the NY1 news channel that “there’s a loud chorus out there: ‘We don’t care if they leave or not.’ I don’t share that chorus. I want them to stay.” The same month, Yang told the Association for a Better New York business group that “if you raise taxes at a level where people actually vote with their feet . . . then you’re not serving the policy’s goal, which is generating revenue.” Garcia, too, told former Bloomberg aide Howard Wolfson in a Bloomberg Opinion interview: “If any candidate is telling you that they’re going to pay for their plan by taxing the wealthy . . . they haven’t paid for that plan. . . . Raising taxes is the last tool in the toolbox we should be using. The unintended consequences can be severe.”
Adams and Yang promised sales-tax holidays for small businesses; Garcia and Yang promised to reduce regulations and fines. “The business community is excited that so many candidates are competent and have ideas,” says Jessica Walker, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, which represents many small companies. “Small business has been front and center. It’s exciting to see support for entrepreneurship.”
Winning was one thing. Governing—beginning January 1, 2022, after a bizarre six-month waiting period, because of the June primary election—will be another. In the first 100 days in office, the new mayor must show real results on violent crime. The new mayor must convince white-collar employers that they still need their acres in the sky of pricey office space. And with most labor contracts with the municipal workforce either expired or soon expiring, he must pragmatically sign new labor agreements before future-year deficits—$11.5 billion over the new mayor’s first three fiscal years—become public-service-cutting crises.
Cutting crime is partly straightforward prioritization: rather than “defund,” for example, hire thousands of new police officers to replace a record number of retiring cops. Reassess—two decades after 9/11—how much money the department spends each year on counterterror exercises and how forces might be more smartly deployed, at least temporarily, to neighborhoods with high shootings. But it will also require mettle in a public-relations crisis: if cops are expected to secure the subway, for example, their elected leader must show support when an officer, say, subdues a suspect refusing to cooperate when caught jumping over a turnstile and the altercation gets caught on video.
The city’s economy and budget will require long-term thinking. Says Walker, of the Manhattan Chamber, “The fear is that people think that we’re pretty much out of the woods, when this is going to be a long haul. The focus needs to be on how we are going to be bringing back our tourists, how we are going to be bringing back our remote workers. . . . Obviously, public safety is a huge deterrent that needs to get under control quickly. More than that, more companies are willing to have flex time, to [let workers] work remotely; people have more choices. . . . How are we going to remain competitive?”
As for the city budget: “Look, it’s really hard,” says Carol Kellermann, former director of the Citizens Budget Commission. The new mayor “should be thinking about the things [that de Blasio] didn’t think about,” such as productivity and health-care-benefit savings from labor unions. “This mayor has to think about less of an optimistic cheery view and be prepared for what happens if we don’t bounce back as quickly and as robustly as we all hope we will.”
With his or her first budget, the process for which begins in January, the new mayor should thus plan for the worst: “The federal aid has saved us temporarily, but we still have to be worried about commercial-tax revenue,” Kellermann says, as the value of office buildings potentially falls. “We don’t know what the impact of the state tax increase”—higher tax rates on high earners, enacted last April—“will be. We don’t know how many people will start claiming that they don’t have to pay New York taxes,” after having worked at home, perhaps from another state, for more than a year.
The new mayor, of course, doesn’t have absolute power to shepherd these public-safety and fiscal results. First, he depends on the new city council—likely peopled with further-left voices. Just as important, the mayor depends on the governor and state legislature, which control the state bail laws under which the NYPD and prosecutors can either keep suspects off the streets or must let them go. The new mayor “will still have major problems with Cuomo,” says veteran journalist and NY1 commentator Gerson Borrero, “because there’s a factor he uses as a weapon, and that’s deflecting, removing blame” from himself for the city’s problems. “I would steer clear” of Cuomo, Borrero says—easier said than done. Finally, the new mayor will depend partly on the policies of the recently elected Manhattan district attorney, who decides which crimes to prosecute in the high-profile borough.
Adams, then, must have the cheery, fresh vision of Lindsay, the relentless bully-pulpit knack of Koch, the pragmatism of Bloomberg, and the sheer stubborn intensity of Giuliani even to want the job—let alone to do it well. “The reality of the unknown that we’re living in, that is scary,” says Borrero. New York has navigated the unknown before—but not, to this degree, in well more than half a century.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images