Kathryn Garcia’s Wide-Open Future

She’s out of a job and lost the primary, but the almost-next-mayor of New York is now a political celebrity.

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux
Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

But for 7,197 votes — less than one percentage point — Kathryn Garcia would be the next mayor of New York City.

As it stood, Garcia had plenty of time to meet me for a morning coffee in Park Slope 12 days after she conceded to Eric Adams in the topsy-turvy Democratic primary. Adams had spent the intervening days going to the White House and considering his Gracie Mansion move-in. Garcia, meanwhile, had gotten her first post-pandemic manicure (a subtle buff pink), seen Springsteen on Broadway, spent some quality time with HGTV, made a triumphant return to the gym, and dealt with a “major plumbing issue.” Despite her recent life of leisure, she came to coffee dressed for work in a gnarled-tweed dress, wedges, and a red lip. A gold KATHYRN nameplate hung around her neck. “I don’t tend to wander around in sweat clothes now that I am recognized more often,” she said.

Garcia, the 51-year-old former head of the Department of Sanitation, was pretty much unknown back in December. Now, people stop her on the street to talk about STOP signs they want installed and Open Streets they want kept open. And when you run for office as a woman, you experience the grand tradition of backhanded compliments. “People would tell me, ‘You look much thinner in person,’ ” Garcia said.

The mayor’s race was Garcia’s first foray into politics, and it has been an education. The workers she oversaw for six years had cared about what she looked like too, but her image projection felt less loaded. “I represent them,” Garcia said. “I couldn’t be wandering around looking slouchy. So the fact that I got up” — for early-morning roll calls before they ran their 5 a.m. routes — “and was dressed and wore heels and talked to them on a garage floor, they appreciated it.” If running Sanitation had been about actually showing up and grinding, politics was all about perception. Her early conversations with political insiders were deflating. “I spent a lot of time in the beginning with people saying, ‘I think you would be great, you’d be such a great mayor, but, you know, you’re not gonna win.’ ”

But really she came quite close. Especially considering the war chests of some in the race. Businessman Ray McGuire (who finished with 2.7 percent in first-round voting) had $17.45 million in campaign and PAC spending on his side, while Adams benefited from $18.9 million. Garcia had only $8.5 million, less than the other top woman candidate in the race, Maya Wiley. Garcia was, by her own admission, not very good at soliciting donations. “I wouldn’t ask anyone for money at the beginning,” Garcia said of fund-raising calls. (She said she improved at getting to the point.) There was also a lot of competition for cash, and Shaun Donovan, a Bloomberg alum like Garcia, had already secured a lot of the big donors she might have hit up. (Donovan, whose campaign received $6.8 million from his father and had a PAC on his side that spent another $6 million, got only 2.5 percent of the first-round vote.) “The people who are big donors in New York City are accustomed to giving to men,” Garcia said. “We are just beginning to have them think about giving to women.”

As we sat outside at a spindly bistro table and talked, Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue talked back. Cement mixers and buses rumbled past, and for the bulk of an hour, a loud thrum emitted from a large truck parked nearby. It was a scene befitting a Richard Scarry version of the busy city. Garcia informed me that we were not far from tunnel No. 3, which delivers drinking water to parts of the city but has been under construction for more than 50 years. Where do I live? she wanted to know. Garcia’s ultimate bureaucrat party trick, it turns out, is letting you know the provenance of your drinking water and the final destination of your waste. My water comes from tunnel No. 2 — “I like tunnel No. 2 the best,” she said; apparently it has a cleaner taste thanks to its use of chlorine gas versus the hypochlorite used in tunnel No. 3 — and my toilet flushes into Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. She was, however, slightly worried about one thing. “The air-quality maps are really bad,” she said of my neighborhood.

Garcia’s campaign tried to parlay her granular knowledge of the city into an image of the hyperqualified bureaucrat — New York’s gravelly-voiced, broad-in-a-leather-jacket answer to Elizabeth Warren. The fact that two women finished in the top-three vote-getters the first time the city used ranked-choice voting — in the first round, Adams finished first, Wiley second, and Garcia third — is itself something of an argument for the merits of the system. Ranked choice, for all the Board of Elections buffoonery in reporting results, basically did what its proponents want it to do: make people of color and women (and your occasional hyperqualified bureaucrat) more viable to both skeptical political insiders and voters. The city that almost voted in a female mayor also elected its first majority-women City Council.

Still, Garcia, though no longer unknown, is currently out of a job. She’s taking calls and Zooms and considering her options. When pressed about her future — including one in an Adams administration — Garcia parried with vagaries and a smile. She’s a politician now, as Mayor de Blasio had bitterly observed of her and Wiley in June; Garcia knew better than to run her mouth. She has learned to let silences speak volumes. When asked why conversations between her campaign and Wiley’s about a ranked-choice partnership never came to fruition, she just smile-shrugged and let a pause simmer. She wouldn’t tell me how she had ranked her own ballot.

Garcia also wouldn’t offer specifics about what the early days of an Adams mayoralty should look like. “It’ll be up to Eric to figure out how he wants to run this administration. I do not presume to give him advice,” she said, before running through a couple of issues that were “clearly important to me”: climate change, NYCHA funding, education, and foster care. For all the happy summer vibes radiating off New York, long-term concerns linger about life and work in the city. Tourism is coming back — “We have slow walkers again” — but it remains to be seen whether the commuters will come back, too. “We will find out in September; they’re not there now,” she said. One way to attract people, Garcia said, is to make sure the city is a pleasant place to be, with heat-absorbing green space and trains that run on time. We turned to look down Fifth Avenue, and she mused about what the street — and the city — should look like in five, ten, 20 years. “How do we really green it so that you’re absorbing storm-water?” Garcia said, waving hello to a child walking by who had turned to stare. This corner should have less cement and more green space, the bike lanes should be wider, and the buses should run express, utilizing a technology that keeps lights green for them. And there should be more public bathrooms — that’s a pet peeve of Garcia’s. (“I have never understood why we’ve never been able to do what any other city in the world can do on public restrooms.”)

Famously, Adams’s pet peeve is rats. He theatrically showed reporters one that had been drowned in a chemical mix at a press conference in 2019, but if this reporter’s neighborhood is any indication, rats have had a banner year. Although Garcia doesn’t presume to give advice to Adams, this seemed like one area where her Sanitation background might elicit concrete guidance: Did she think the war on drowning rats could reach new heights with Adams in Gracie Mansion? The old bureaucrat in Garcia — not the newly minted politician — won out.

“The most effective rat program is when you do a combination of really managing the garbage in an area but also that you deal with all the burrows” — huh? The boroughs? No, the burrows. “Fill them with dry ice and collapse the burrows.”

You could almost feel the rats of Fifth Avenue shudder.

Kathryn Garcia’s Wide-Open Future