After announcing at a press conference by Columbia that he was running for mayor, Andrew Yang took a walk through Harlem with Ritchie Torres, a 32-year-old freshman congressman. Torres is the first Afro-Latino member of Congress and is widely considered a comer, and so his support was something of a coup for Yang, whose entrance into the race had been marred by the revelation that he had not only decamped for New Paltz in the midst of the COVID crisis but had given an interview to the New York Times on the eve of his announcement from his second home in which he suggested that it would have been nearly impossible to navigate his job as a CNN commentator with two small children in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. “Like, can you imagine?” Yang told the newspaper. (Many New Yorkers can.)
A slate of polls have put Yang — who enjoys high name recognition after his run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — in first place, and it is easy to imagine that he stays there. In his first week in the race, Yang was inescapable, appearing on The View, on local radio, on CNN, and making Twitter gaffes about New York City bodegas and pizza that prompted ridicule from his rivals but put him at the forefront of voters’ minds. His race tests an uncertain proposition: Can someone become mayor of New York with limited institutional support from elected officials, labor unions, clergy, and neighborhood leaders, running a campaign online and on the airwaves, and, stretching the boundaries of what kind of in-person campaigning is allowable in the era of Covid. As other campaigns stuck to Zoom, Yang was out on the streets, taking walking tours of neighborhoods with local elected officials and neighborhood press, until an aide ultimately contacted the coronavirus, forcing Yang into quarantine.
A recent internal Yang campaign poll obtained by Intelligencer gave him an eight-point lead over Eric Adams and a 13-point lead over Scott Stringer in first-choice votes under the city’s new ranked-choice-voting system. It also showed Yang leading as the second choice among his rivals (which is important under the new ranked-choice-voting rules that will decide the primary). He beats both Adams and Stringer by more than 20 points in a head-to-head matchup and has the highest favorability of anyone in the field, a number that has increased over the past month as, on Twitter at least, Yang was getting battered for his New Paltz interview and his lack of local ties.
As the Yang team sees it, if this campaign follows the trajectory of campaigns past, if the same 650,000 New Yorkers vote as they voted the last time there was an open Democratic primary for mayor, Yang will have a tough go of it. But there are 3.2 million registered Democrats in this town, and if he can get them paying attention to local politics, he can win. It came out this month that he has never voted before in local elections, and so his campaign is premised in part on exciting voters like Andrew Yang who pay more attention to national issues than local politics.
The rest of the field is eyeing Yang warily, hoping the bubble surrounding him will burst. Yang is the only candidate in the race whose announcement was followed by barbed statements from his rivals “welcoming” him to the contest. “Eric doesn’t need a tour of Brownsville. He was born there,” the campaign of Eric Adams said in a statement after Yang did a walking tour of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Meanwhile an elected official who is supporting Stringer said the city comptroller was “probably having a heart attack” watching Yang soak up the attention for the past few weeks. “For now, it’s everybody against Yang,” said one operative working for another candidate in the race. It has not gone unnoticed in YangWorld that everytime he tweets, there are a legion of supporters of Stringer’s ready to pounce, usually in not-so-subtle overtones questioning his New Yorkiness.
Yang’s campaign, like much of Yang himself, is extremely online (one of his campaign proposals is to make New York more welcoming to TikTok hype houses), and when a cameraperson accompanied him on a post-announcement walk with Torres, Yang used the occasion to tell some of his war stories from his presidential campaign.
“You know who I actually got along with on a personal level? Tulsi Gabbard,” Yang said while Torres nodded along. “I also got along really well with Kamala Harris. She became a pretty good friend. One debate, I was standing between Kamala and Tulsi and they were just going after each other with attacks. It was the weirdest feeling, standing between two humans on a national debate [stage]. I was on good terms with both of them, and the human impulse is like, I really want this to stop.”
“I got along with Bernie well. You know who is actually really easy to get along with? Joe Biden. Even before Andrew Yang was a thing, Joe was always very gracious.”
It is the kind of thing a national politician tells a newcomer to impress him, or the kind of thing you say to have B-roll on your campaign videos, but it is also central to Yang’s pitch: He knows the major players in Washington who can help steer the city out of this crisis. Harris called Yang on Thanksgiving. He is in regular text contact with his fellow former presidential candidate and the Transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg. The newly elected U.S. senator Jon Ossoff — who Yang campaigned for in Georgia — called before his announcement to wish him well in the race.
Later, as they walked through Torres’s district in the South Bronx, Yang told him about getting interviewed by “The Breakfast Club” on Power 105 and getting recognized on the subway afterward. “When I was kid growing up, listening to Hot 97 and Power 105, who ever would have imagined that I would be getting interviewed!”
Torres told Yang about his own story, about being the son of a single mother, raised in public housing, now serving in the House, and how he had gone out to dinner with his mother and she told him she never thought she would be sitting down to have a meal with a congressman.
“It is a beautiful thing when your family is energized about your work,” Yang said, turning to face the camera. “And let this be a lesson! The sky is the limit. I’m sure Ritchie would never imagine that he would be voting to impeach the president, giving a floor speech on the House, joining me on the launch of the mayoral campaign.”
When Torres pointed out his speech at the Yang kickoff was less nerve-wracking than the floor speech to impeach the president, Yang interjected, “Here is one bit of experience. I have had the same thought multiple times that this was the speech of my life, and at this point, I have lost track at how many speeches I have thought that about.”
“Except we’ve never impeached the president twice,” Torres responded.
That Yang did in fact become a thing in 2020 while running for president explains why he entered at the last minute in the unsettled race for mayor. Yang was perhaps the least known of any of the Democrats running for president last year, but he rode a single animating idea — universal basic income for every American — to outlast scores of governors and senators, raising $40 million along the way. Afterward, buzz began to build that he was a potential candidate for mayor of New York, and in the fall, he met with Bradley Tusk, a former aide to Mike Bloomberg, to sketch out what a race might look like.
Yang is one of the rare breed of politicians able to break through on sheer force of personality. He can be charming, gracious, and self-deprecating. He developed a legion of online followers who rival the Bernie bros for their vitriol and for their digital defense of their man. And he walks with a kind of swagger, bouncing on his feet, looking at times like an Exeter underclassman (he was class of ’92 at the elite boarding school) coming downtown to slum with the club kids. When people recognize him on the street, which they do fairly often — “Yo, that’s Andrew Yang, that’s our next mayor, I’m voting for you Yang!” rang out on the streets during his four-borough walking tour after his announcement — he responds with either a folded-hands bow of thanks and an “Appreciate you!” shout or a hang-ten thumb-and-pinky hand wag. He is flurry of elbow bumps. He will sometimes hear shouts of “Yang!” when none exists. Once he stopped to wave and shout “Thank you!” to a group of guys staring stone-faced from the entrance at a Bronx garage as his entourage passed.
If Yang is going to collapse, it is likely to happen sooner rather than later, as he faces questions about the city and its government that he had never considered before this year. While he made his way around New York on his opening day, reporters pelted him with questions of the type that end an upstart’s campaign.
How many City Council members are there? “Fifty-one. It’s 17 times three; that’s the mnemonic I use to remember.”
What do you think of the collapse of the Amazon deal, or the Industry City rezoning, or the Flushing rezoning? “I don’t want to comment on the specific decisions that have been made in each of them,” he says, before labeling himself more “pro-development” than anti-.
So you haven’t voted before, but are there other ways you have contributed to the life of the city? “I have been supportive of various nonprofit organizations in the city. If you look at our family, the superhero of the family is really Evelyn [Yang’s wife of nine years]. She is co-president of the PTA and is involved with a lot of other things with our kids’ schools and community. She has done a ton.”
Who was your favorite mayor? “I wish we could take attributes from different mayors and put them together. A Voltron mayor.”
Okay, which attributes from which mayors? “I think I’ll leave it there.”
And he is asked at every stop by some reporter not at the previous one about that “Can you imagine” comment, and responds that of course he gets it, that his whole campaign is based on giving people, especially the poor, a better life and more money in their pockets and that he has lived in New York City for the last 25 years, got married here, sent his kids to public schools, endured 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
“People look up and say, ‘I don’t know Andrew Yang, and so he is not a New Yorker,’” Yang told reporters in response to questions from his rivals that he is an arriviste on the city’s political scene. “There are a lot of people in New York City they don’t know, and they are just as New York as someone who has held a particular position or been a part of a particular committee … Any who thinks my New York–ness is in question, they should just come and say it to my face.”
Yang cultivates reporters, promises to answer every question, remembers their stories, and slides into their DMs when he is off the trail. “Ask me anything!” he said as he made his way through Flushing. “I’ll give you a thumbs up if I want to answer it, a thumbs down if I don’t.”
When he is asked about how this compares to running for president, he looks delighted. “Oh, so you just want to bullshit for a little bit?”
When Yang was making his way through Flushing, people came out of their homes and businesses just to take a picture of him. Vin Ho owns a steamed-rice-roll takeout restaurant and waited patiently as Yang met with a local politician at a nearby restaurant. He had heard about Yang on the Joe Rogan podcast. “He’s down to earth. He’s a champion for the people,” he said. “When I heard him on Rogan, I got hooked. He’s a guy who is really onto something.”
Yang is also banking on standing in the center left as other candidates rush to the left. He wants to expand but not eliminate the exam for specialized high schools, isn’t calling for new taxes on the city’s wealthiest, and thinks his relationship at CNN with Chris Cuomo will help improve the city’s relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo. He is against defunding the police, and has called for a civilian commissioner of the NYPD, a break from recent precedent. His association with Tusk, who created a super-PAC in 2016 to take out Bill de Blasio, was seen by some labor-union officials as proof that Yang wouldn’t court them.
When Yang ran for president, he was a bit of a novelty act. Pretty much all the press he received was complimentary, and few of his ideas got put through strict scrutiny, because it was so unlikely that he would win. This time, he is a front-runner and the knives are out — from the press, from rival campaigns, from influential voices and groups on political Twitter who are ready to pounce on someone who tends to exude a tech-bro type of exuberance.
“I am really not paying much attention to what the other campaigns are doing and what the other candidates are saying,” he told me the day after his announcement, after apologizing for not recognizing me sooner and blaming it on the fact that I was wearing a different coat. “I’ll leave it to other campaigns to operate the way they see fit.”