the city politic

The Voters Propelling Andrew Yang’s Lead

Yang making the rounds. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Since he leapt into New York City’s mayoral race, Andrew Yang has become adept at inflaming much of the city’s established political infrastructure (and seemingly all of Twitter) on a consistent basis. Detractors hammer him over his questionable New York bona fides (he fled during the pandemic), his failure to comprehend how the city works (a casino on Governors Island is unlikely), and his policy positions that don’t meet the progressive smell test (the latest: a crackdown on unlicensed street vendors). The worst part, by their lights, is that if the polls are to be trusted, none of his offenses seem to be bothering Democratic voters all that much.

Through it all, Yang naysayers and rivals have tried to soothe themselves with the notion that his appeal is ephemeral, his rise to the top based mostly on name recognition and celebrity.

“My daughter had a Howard Dean Beanie Baby and that didn’t help him,” rival Maya Wiley said last month. “T-shirts don’t win elections.” Scott Stringer, another rival, projected assurance to New York that Yang’s appeal would fade in time for the June primary (Though a press conference he called on Monday to address Yang’s tweet about vendors showed that he is certainly paying attention to the candidate’s doings in the meantime.)

But supporters and less-invested observers said there’s more to Yang’s persistent polling advantage than his elevated profile. “Andrew thinks about problems in a way that addresses the root cause of the issue,” said Ramona Ferreyra, a 40-year-old Bronx community organizer and public-housing resident who received $1,000 in pandemic relief from Yang’s Humanity Forward foundation. “He’s able to do that because he’s not political.”

And in interviews with New Yorkers, Yang’s appeal as an unburdened outsider crossed boroughs, income brackets, and color lines.

Outside Citi Field last week, Yang, an avowed Mets supporter, greeted baseball fans with elbow bumps and selfies ahead of the team’s home opener, a 20-percent-capacity affair under the state’s COVID-19 reopening rules.

“You’ve got my vote,” said Chris Martens, an educator from Queens who watched as Yang filmed a commercial with Mets fans as extras.

Martens, 36, said he was being “a little bit facetious” when he made that promise. But the advent of ranked-choice voting — which might help a candidate whom most voters seem to find agreeable — makes guaranteeing some kind of commitment a little easier. “He’s definitely in my grid,” Martens said.

Martens said he likes Yang, and more than that, he admires him. He marveled at how Yang — seemingly out of nowhere — came for “WrestleMania” czar Vince McMahon over company labor practices that Martens finds inhumane.

“I like that he’s somebody who uses his higher profile to get in the faces of people who need someone to get in their face, because most people are going to stay away,” Martens said.

Christopher Garrett of Brooklyn, a 54-year-old photographer, posed for pictures with Yang. Garrett admitted that right now he knows Yang better as a presidential candidate than a mayoral one. “I haven’t been paying attention too much to the local election,” he said, “but I was watching him on television and I read his articles, and he seems pretty confident. He seems pretty cool.

“And he’s a Mets fan, too,” Garrett said, affirming that Yang will be in his ranked ballot’s top three.

More-dedicated Yang fans highlight the candidate’s ability to excite people who had previously disengaged from politics — an ability reminiscent of Bernie Sanders and, yes, Donald Trump.

Three years ago, Linda Tseng was all about her work. The Greenpoint resident had a busy career in commercial-packaging design that left her little time, in her mind, for outside pursuits. And then one evening she attended a talk by Yang.

He was running for president in his first try for elected office and had just published a book calling for guaranteed universal income — direct cash payments to people to soften the impact of job destruction caused by automation and other forces. When he spoke, “His concepts really frickin’ blew my mind, made me care about the possibility of politics again,” Tseng, 55, said. She recalled Yang’s positivity and his conviction that America’s atrophied problem-solving capabilities were a case of misplaced political will, not depleted wealth.

“And from then on I was like, Wow, I don’t care if he’s got one in a kabillion chance,” Tseng said. “I’m gonna do everything I can to help this man become president and get his ideas out there.”

Being pro-Yang sounds like lonelier work in the activist circles traveled by Ferreyra; her fellow community organizers are all voting for Stringer.

But she brushed off the knocks on Yang — his move out of town during the pandemic, his stumbles over New York folk knowledge, such as what constitutes an actual bodega and which subway train goes to the Bronx. She called the criticisms “silly,” and did not fault him for his nonexistent local political resume and prior absence — including not voting — from New York City’s political life.

Ferreyra, who runs a small infant-clothing line out of the South Bronx apartment she shares with her grandmother, said her own experience proved that giving cash to people when they need it works. She also thinks well of Yang’s proposal to establish a local currency, “Borough Bucks,” that could circulate in poorer communities — an idea dismissed by some observers as public-housing scrip from the guy who also wants to make New York a cryptocurrency hub. “People were laughing at it, but why shouldn’t we be able to create a barter economy?” Ferreyra said.

Interviews also found constituencies Yang hasn’t won over and doubts about his rightness for the job.

“I seem to have more problems with people from business trying to work in the political field because it didn’t mix with Michael Bloomberg,” said Britton Alston, a Brooklynite and retired New York City corrections officer, referring to the last tech-savvy philanthropic capitalist to venture into New York politics.

Bloomberg, of course, served three terms as mayor. Alston, 54, who was active in the jail guards’ union, doesn’t remember the time fondly and said a lot of working-class New Yorkers don’t, either. He is supporting Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department captain with powerful union backing, and Yang’s strongest rival in polling. For that to change, Alston said, “Somebody would have to really sweep me off my feet.”

Plenty of hurdles — demographic and otherwise — remain for Yang. Tseng and Martens, the Mets fan, represent what polls have borne out about his campaign: that it is running strongest with Asian and white voters.

Hispanic voters like Ferreyra and Black voters like Garrett are, as distinct blocs, less supportive. But two Yang campaign staffers speaking on background said that internal polling shows Yang to be a consistent No. 2 among nonwhite and non-Asian voters who plan to make ranked picks. With the primary more than two months out, and the field starting to shake out, “We like where we are,” a staffer said.

There is plenty of time left in the campaign for polling numbers to change. And there’s also no doubt that name recognition  — built on whatever public portfolio-building has gotten him this far — is carrying him at least some of the way. “He’s the only one I’ve heard about,” Rodolfo Killingbeck, 48, a Brooklyn resident and building porter at Rockefeller Center, said, in a not-uncommon refrain.

Still, in a city that prides itself on its skepticism, Yang sometimes seems to have opened up a lane for almost magical thinking, presenting himself as the post-pandemic, despair-proof problem solver who won’t succumb to political pressure. Whether enough people ultimately buy that pitch will determine whether he ends up fading down the stretch, as his rivals keep hoping he will.

The Voters Propelling Andrew Yang’s Lead