The biggest story of the 2021 mayor’s race is a story that didn’t happen. On the first Tuesday after Labor Day, the day that the city usually lumbers back to life after a somnolent summer, Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller and by many accounts the likely next mayor of New York, picked a spot near his boyhood home in Washington Heights to announce that he was in.
Surrounded by some of the city’s leading crop of newly elected ultraliberal state lawmakers, Stringer made clear that even as he was the first candidate to announce, he was going to be occupying the left flank of the body politic while still promising to “manage the hell out of this city.”
You may have heard the quip on Twitter, or on a local news broadcast, but you did not read about Stringer’s kickoff in the pages of the New York Times. That’s because, in the next day’s edition, the Paper of Record didn’t mention the campaign launch. To kick off this column, a weekly look at the 2021 mayor’s race, I emptied my Rolodex, reaching out to the political operatives who have been toiling in this town for decades, most of whom are involved in this race in one way or another, to get their thoughts on how the campaign was shaping up. And over and over again, this omission in the Times was mentioned, not so much as a piece of media criticism but as evidence of the wide-open landscape this campaign will be battled on, and that the old rules of how mayoral campaigns unfold have to be thrown out.
“I can’t ever remember a time where we are, what, five months out and there is so much we don’t know,” said one person close to Stringer. “You have all these people running, nobody knows any of them, everybody is focused on what is going on in Washington, or making sure they don’t die in a pandemic. I like where we are and I think people know us, but if you think I have any predictions on how this is going to turn out you are out of your mind.”
“The old calculus is gone,” agreed Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn city councilman. “It’s not like we are just electing another mayor. It’s a matter of which candidate can make people believe — make people believe in the city, make people believe they are going to do what they say they are going to do, make people believe they understand what people are going through and that they have a plan to get us out of this mess.”
Stringer is an Upper West Side liberal of good standing, someone who has spent most of his 60 years slowly climbing the city’s political ladder, and is such a Timesian type of character that he was first profiled by the paper in 1977, when, as a teenager, he was appointed to his local community board by Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. (The paper took note of Stringer’s “dark‐rimmed spectacles and colorful striped shirt,” and that “with his pen ready to jot notes, he remained, however, the picture of studious behavior,” yet one who snuck out during a break to visit the candy machine.) When Stringer was first running for comptroller in 2013, the Times wrote an editorial actively dissuading former governor Eliot Spitzer from challenging him, arguing in essence that Stringer deserved to run unopposed and was entitled to “better treatment” than to face a challenger. And yet here he was, kicking off his campaign into the void for the kind of New Yorker that still gets their news from the paper arriving on their doorstep every morning. (The paper did send a reporter to the event and had a small write-up in its “New York Today” newsletter.)
The paper’s understated treatment of Stringer’s launch suggests that many of the old rules of local politics are gone. The last time we did this, back in 2013, there were a half-dozen reporters covering the race for the Daily News alone, a paper that was once the city’s largest-circulation daily but now operates with a skeletal staff and recently closed its Manhattan newsroom. The Working Families Party was a colossus, electing a sizable bloc to the City Council and helping Bill de Blasio, who was instrumental in the group’s founding and rise, steamroll the opposition to become mayor. Now, much of the party’s membership has fled at the urging of the WFP’s archnemesis, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the Democratic Socialists of America has emerged as a legitimate force, knocking off a half-dozen entrenched state lawmakers in the past couple of years. The group isn’t nearly as entrenched in the political life of the city as the WFP is, and it is unclear how involved, if at all, it will get in the mayor’s race, but it has an army of canvassers at the ready should it decide to back a candidate.
Which assumes there even is canvassing. The subway-stop handshakes and diner drop-ins that are a staple of city mayoral campaigns are on pause for the moment, and no one is sure if they will return by Election Day. And Election Day is in June this year, moved from September in order to sync up with the statewide primary day. The campaigns aren’t sure who will still be in the city in late June, especially since millions of people have left during the pandemic. The unions, which have played such a role over the past several election cycles that grabbing the backing of a few big ones was practically a guarantee of victory, are dealing with their own political operations in disarray as they refocus on the more pressing human needs of their members.
And this will be the first citywide election under the new ranked-choice voting law, which means that voters will not pick their favorite candidate but will pick their five favorite, ranking them accordingly. When ranked choice was tried for the first time in Oakland, California, the candidate who came in second in the first round of balloting ending up the winner. In 2021, it is a wrench so large in campaign strategy that almost no one I spoke to had a real plan for how to deal with it, and most are pretending that it doesn’t really even exist.
“The challenge for anyone running for mayor is you have to make a case for yourself but also have to disqualify your opponent, albeit artfully in a ranked-choice context,” said Neal Kwatra, a former de Blasio adviser currently unaffiliated in this race. “That’s the alchemy of a race where you have a wide-open field with a couple of politicians who have been on the ballot before running against a bunch of newcomers.”
Despite all of this, for most of last year, the race still looked like a plodder, especially after the City Council Speaker, Corey Johnson, a 38-year-old HIV-positive man known for doing aerial splits at the front of parades and dancing to ’80s music with morning-show hosts dropped out, citing mental-health issues. It was going to be Stringer, the white progressive, versus Eric Adams, the Black outer-borough moderate, slugging it out among the small group of voters who don’t vote along racial lines. Most people I spoke with still saw the two as the front-runners.
They are the only two to have been on even a boroughwide ballot before, and so have a sense of how the rhythms of a campaign run in a city that still has a press corps as large and aggressive as anywhere. The late apparent entrance of Andrew Yang has thrown this line of thinking into disarray. The former presidential candidate comes to New York after exceeding expectations in the 2020 Democratic primary, and a handful of polls have come out showing him leading the field. People close to him think that Yang can generate enough excitement and bury the rest of the field in fundraising that it will render some of the institutional players moot. A similar calculation has been made by Maya Wiley, a lawyer and civil-rights activist who garnered fame as a commentator on MSNBC, and who is thought to be able to cross some of the unbridgeable boundaries between Black and white voters. Shaun Donovan, a former Obama administration official, is running on a return to Bloombergian technocratic competence, as is Ray McGuire, a former Citibank CEO who is betting that the city’s apparent left turn isn’t what it appears, while City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca is betting that it is. The field includes two former de Blasio administration officials, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and Loree Sutton from Veterans Services, as well as nonprofit executive Dianne Morales. Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker who underperformed to expectations in the 2013 race, is also said to be weighing a run.
The first step, for all of them, is to find a way to be taken seriously. Do that — show that you are a contender with a committed base of supporters — and money and attention will flow from there. Once that happens and only a few of the above names become legitimate, the race’s contours should start to clear up. In the meantime, we are facing one of the city’s wildest and most open primaries in 40 years, one that is now a little over five months away.