nyc mayoral race

Why Progressive New Yorkers Should Rank Yang Over Adams

The lesser of two weasels? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Shutterstock

Eric Adams would like you to know that this column is a racist, opportunistic attempt to prevent a person of color from becoming mayor of New York.

Or so the Brooklyn borough president’s recent remarks would lead one to assume.

Adams has never been shy about deflecting criticism with preposterous allegations of racism. (In 2019, a Twitter user complained about Adams’s failure to stop the NYPD from illegally parking in turning lanes; he responded by likening his constituent to a Klansman.) But in the homestretch of this year’s mayoral race, Adams has taken the art of baseless, self-serving invocations of white supremacy to new heights.

Earlier this month, Adams suggested that asking whether he actually lives in New Jersey is as racist as “saying Obama was not born in America.” Even if one ignores the greater factual basis for suspicion of Adams’s New York City residency, the analogy is absurd. Saying “the Black, U.S.-born president is actually a Kenyan noncitizen” plays on white-supremacist sentiments in ways that “one of several Black candidates for New York mayor might not live in the city he wants to govern” plainly doesn’t. There is no racist stereotype about how Black New Yorkers love secretly living in Fort Lee.

Now, Adams is using cynical charges of racism not just to deflect criticism but also to delegitimize all impediments to his assumption of power. Over the weekend, Andrew Yang campaigned with Kathryn Garcia and encouraged his supporters to rank her as their second choice for mayor (Garcia didn’t explicitly return the favor, but her decision to campaign with Yang sends the same basic signal). The logic of this alliance is straightforward: If polls can be trusted, neither Garcia nor Yang has the votes to beat Adams in the first round. But both have a good chance of finishing in second place. If Garcia comes in second — and every Yang voter puts her down as their second choice — then she would likely prevail over Adams in the final tabulation (and vice versa, should Yang come in second). There is nothing unusual or unseemly about this kind of alliance. It is common practice for candidates in ranked-choice systems to issue reciprocal second-choice endorsements. If anything, it is more small-d democratic for Yang and Garcia to make their respective second choices public, as it gives voters more information about their political instincts and priorities (which might be why every candidate in the mayoral field was asked to disclose their No. 2’s at an early debate). Further, Yang’s embrace of Garcia is not a last-minute act of opportunism; since April, he has pledged to give the former Sanitation commissioner a top post in his hypothetical administration.

None of this stopped Adams from arguing that, by campaigning together, Yang and Garcia were effectively “saying we can’t trust a person of color to be the mayor of the City of New York when this city is overwhelmingly people of color.” It is unclear whether Adams is aware that Andrew Yang is of Asian descent. In any case, after Yang confirmed that he is not white, Adams refined his indictment of the Yang-Garcia alliance, saying that their decision to campaign together on Juneteenth was an insult to “Black and brown people in the city as well as all New Yorkers.” Finally, on Monday, Adams likened Yang’s decision to share his second choice with the public to Jim Crow–era “poll taxes.”

It isn’t unusual for politicians of all colors to weaponize ethnic grievances. By itself, the fact that Adams is ruthlessly cynical in his campaign rhetoric would not indict his candidacy; or at least, it would not establish that Adams is a worse fit for mayor than the mediocre businessman turned master media manipulator who still might be his closest competitor. But the front-runner’s reflexive appeals to Black solidarity illuminate a central question in the intra-left debate over whether Yang or Adams would be the “lesser evil,” should the mayor’s race come down to them: Is Adams’s deep-seated support from African-American voters — along with other mass constituencies in the city — an argument for him over Yang or against him?

Progressive reporter Ross Barkan has argued the latter case. With a stalwart base of of Black voters, longtime relationships with virtually all of the city’s power brokers, and the backing of most of New York City’s labor unions, Adams “would be strong enough to tell the socialists, the progressives, the Working Families Party, the NGOs, and the ordinary activists shouting outside Gracie Mansion that he does not need them to run the city,” Barkan writes. By contrast, Yang would enter office with neither “a clear base of his own,” nor a ton of knowledge about how the city government is supposed to function. In Barkan’s estimation, these deficiencies would give the left a shot at winning concessions from Yang’s administration, as the political neophyte scrambles to assemble a voting base and policy apparatus.

Michelle Goldberg takes a different view. The New York Times columnist is no fan of Eric Adams. But she prefers him to Yang for the same reason that Barkan doesn’t, writing:

I think Barkan is right that Yang would be less hostile to left-wing organizations. But I suspect that Adams, precisely because he’s more beholden to Black voters, would end up giving us more progressive governance … For Yang, I suspect, a successful mayoralty would mean restoring Michael Bloomberg’s New York, an extremely safe, pleasant place for tourists and well-off families like mine, but one where many poorer people were financially squeezed and strictly policed.

… As David Freedlander wrote for New York in his excellent, damning deep dive on some of Adams’s shady connections, Adams would most likely be an old-fashioned machine mayor. But at their best, the old machines delivered for their supporters. For Adams, that would mean, among other things, protecting his voters from bad policing as well as rising crime.

I think this analysis is quite reasonable. At a 10,000-foot level, it is kind of odd for the left to favor a self-promoter with few staunch allies in New York politics beyond Bradley Tusk over the candidate whom Black voters and trade unions overwhelmingly prefer. Eric Adams is backed by more than 19 different unions, including home-health-care workers, transit workers, hotel workers, an SEIU local, and various other heavily nonwhite organized-labor forces — which is to say, from the very sorts of progressive, multiracial institutions of class solidarity that the left ostensibly exists to empower.

Ultimately, the “Is Yang better than Adams?” question hinges on subjective intuitions about fundamentally unknowable future events. Adams is a pragmatic shape-shifter; Yang an attention-hungry cipher. It’s impossible to say whether Adams’s accountability to the Black working class will render his administration more progressive than Yang’s or whether Adams’s stalwart support from that constituency (among others) will make his mayoralty uniquely immune to left-wing pressure and susceptible to corruption.

But I’m putting Yang fifth on my ballot and leaving Adams off it. My reasons for doing so are twofold: First, Adams is simply the more right-wing politician. And, in some cases, Adams’s conservatism is inextricable from his strong ties to certain unions and nonwhite voting blocs. The front-runner is the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association’s favorite Democratic candidate and, also, the only one in the mayor’s race who wants to expand the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails. Yang, by contrast, has vowed to ban the practice, which mental-health experts and the United Nations deem a form of torture. And Yang also sits to Adams’s left on other criminal-justice issues, including the decriminalization of psychedelics. 

Second, Yang’s newfound, formal alliance with Garcia makes his mayoralty a bit less of a black box than it was even last week. Yang had vowed to offer Garcia a top position in his administration months ago. But if Yang manages to defeat Adams — after Garcia shepherds her supporters into ranking him second — she will (almost certainly) be guaranteed exceptional influence over Yang’s policies. And while Garcia is a moderate with her share of demerits, she is also the only candidate calling for a citywide ban on single-family residential zoning — which is, more or less, a prerequisite for resolving New York’s housing crisis, itself a prerequisite for resolving a hefty percentage of the city’s largest social and economic problems.

Garcia would struggle to execute that vision as mayor, let alone as Yang’s chief deputy. But it would be nice to have Gracie Mansion enter negotiations with a maximalist position on increasing housing supply. Which is unlikely to happen under Adams. As Alex Yablon argues, the core of the Adams coalition is less Black voters per se than outer-borough homeowners of all colors. And that constituency’s interest in the appreciation of their home values makes it a potential obstacle to achieving affordability through a massive expansion in the city’s housing stock.

Garcia also boasts progressive positions on child care, bike lanes, green infrastructure, and public housing, along with the managerial acumen to advance such initiatives. With Garcia poised to put a hard limit on a Yang administration’s incompetence and conservatism, Barkan’s case for favoring Yang looks stronger than it did a few weeks ago. Adams may find that assessment problematic. But I, for one, won’t be silenced by “woke,” identity-obsessed, social-justice torturers.

Why Progressive New Yorkers Should Rank Yang Over Adams