the city politic

Andrew Yang’s Insider Campaign

How did he become the front-runner? Not simply by being a national celebrity and excellent campaigner.

Andrew Yang in Queens. Photo: Mark Peterson
Andrew Yang in Queens. Photo: Mark Peterson
Andrew Yang in Queens. Photo: Mark Peterson

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From the moment Andrew Yang sat down in the back corner of a dark restaurant in the Bronx — brow knitted, wearing an overcoat and scarf that would stay on for the whole lunch — he was not the same cheerful New York City mayoral candidate of our popular conception, the one who cheeses for photos and tweets things like “It’s Friday!” when it’s Friday or shouts “Yankee Stadium!” while standing in front of Yankee Stadium. Politicians are always a little different behind the scenes, their ambition harder to conceal in close quarters, but the man sitting across from me was particularly unfamiliar. Since entering the race in January, Yang has pitched himself as the happy warrior for the Everyman, an energetic presence promising to lead New York out of its grim recent past. While other candidates have emphasized the city’s need for an experienced and empathic crisis manager, Yang has acted like a constant human joy machine.

But today, he was serious, even a little crabby. Gone was the man who wants to bring TikTok Hype Houses to New York; he was replaced by a bristly high achiever, albeit one who has a habit of punctuating somber statements with outbursts of giggles. I asked him, Did other people ever note this difference?

“I really appreciate the line of inquiry,” Yang said. (He actually seemed mildly offended by it.) “I think people underestimate what a disciplined operator I am.”

“Anyone who’s an operator sees me and this campaign and says, ‘Oh, I get it, Andrew Yang’s an operator,’ ” he continued. “And then if you put a businessperson next to me for ten minutes — or, I’m guessing, the vast majority of people who also are operators — they get it. Like, we speak the same language.” Yang, 46, seemed to be saying he wasn’t just the goofy, smart guy from the 2020 presidential-debate stage who wore a MATH pin that made some fellow Asian Americans cringe. Yang — he of Phillips Exeter, Brown, Columbia, white-shoe law, start-up wealth, godfatherdom to Teddy Roosevelt’s direct descendant — could hang with the city’s power brokers.

He also appeared eager to reflect the value systems of those places of power: Yang, who calls himself the anti-poverty candidate based largely on his proposal for annual $2,000 direct payments to the poorest New Yorkers, said he envisioned himself spending his first six months in office luring back the city’s elite by calling the many Masters of the Universe who have recently decamped to Florida.

“ ‘Like, what are the issues that drove you out? What were the decisions?’ And then be like, okay, here are, like, the things that drove people away. If we resolve them, can we get them back?” he had told me previously. “It’s a pretty tight community, so if the mayor is calling people asking these questions and trying to get them back, I think there are a lot of people who would be thrilled about it.”

He slurped black spaghetti, continuing to sketch out his ambitions for the early days of his mayoralty. Aside from working the phones, his plans were vague. He was fuzzy about how exactly he would be able to wrest more control from Albany over the subways: “I haven’t had those conversations.” He said he thinks the MTA board should be altered to give the city more power, which sounds simple enough but, close up, is an incredibly complicated political proposition. One concrete move Yang knows he wants to make is to hire Kathryn Garcia, the former head of the Department of Sanitation and one of his rivals in the race. “What I appreciate about Kathryn is that she’s an operator,” he told me. He’s big on the idea that he would hire the right people to do the job, just like Michael Bloomberg did.

Yang said he calls Garcia at least once a week to say, “Hey, Kathryn, we’re gonna need you.” (It’s true he calls a lot, according to her campaign. “Makes her crazy,” said Christine Quinn of the implications that Garcia should be Yang’s No. 2. Quinn was the front-runner in the 2013 mayor’s race until Bill de Blasio overtook her in the final weeks.)

On June 22, New York City Democrats will nominate a mayoral candidate for what is widely expected to be an uncompetitive general election, and polling currently suggests a three-person race between Yang, Eric Adams, and Scott Stringer with Yang ahead in most polls. He has never worked in government, or voted in a New York City election, or started anything bigger than a hundred-person nonprofit, yet he’s convincing a not-insignificant number of people that he can run a bureaucracy of 325,000 municipal workers in a city of more than 8 million at one of the most challenging eras in its history.

Yang’s surprising dominance hasn’t just been luck. He has cannily deployed his fame, charisma, and hustle, bringing his very modern celebrity to a field otherwise low on name recognition and charm. But another part of his success, perhaps more central than most voters realize, must be credited to his team of advisers and close supporters. Many of the city’s most well-connected, savviest strategists have bet on Yang, and in less than two months, eight years after rejecting the legacy of Bloomberg for someone defiantly to his left, New York may very well elect an heir to the billionaire ex-mayor’s worldview. Yang is a couple of generations younger, with business ideas that are more tech inflected than Wall Street honed, but his vision for the city is fundamentally Bloombergian — not only appealing to the same privileged, progressive-to-a-point audience but shaped by some of its very same architects.

Photo: Mark Peterson

Yang’s mayoral candidacy started as a game of telephone. Although played out on Twitter and in the press, the dynamics were both personal and particular to a small group of former Bloomberg staffers. At 8:45 p.m. on February 11, 2020, Howard Wolfson, then a senior adviser on Bloomberg’s ill-fated presidential campaign, tweeted out a Politico piece about Yang dropping out of the Democratic primary: “@AndrewYang would make a very interesting candidate for NYC Mayor in 21.”

“I didn’t really give it a lot of thought. It was one of those tweets that went from brain to fingers fairly quickly,” Wolfson told me. A few days earlier, the New York Times had run a story about Shaun Donovan, a former Obama-administration and Bloomberg appointee, running for mayor. Chris Coffey, another Bloomberg alum and now one of Yang’s campaign managers, noted that, at the time, Donovan was playing down his Bloomberg connections. That rubbed some people in the ex-mayor’s orbit the wrong way, and derisive quotes in the story made it clear that his set was still searching for a candidate.

Yang’s biography reflects Bloomberg’s New York: constant onward-and-upward striverdom. He grew up in Schenectady and Westchester, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and he has written about the regularity of the racist taunts he endured in school. Yang was a good student, scoring over a 1500 on the SAT and a 178 on the LSAT, but he also focused on fitness. He has said that he worked out too much, naming his pecs Lex and Rex — “Probably my proudest achievement in college was that I could bench-press 225 pounds eight times in a row” — and always related to the underdog. He liked to find the awkward kids at parties and make them feel welcome.

Yang came to New York for law school, graduating from Columbia in 1999 and briefly taking a job at Davis Polk. By 2002, the first year of the Bloomberg mayoralty, he had made and lost money in the tech bubble. In 2006, he joined and soon became CEO of the test-prep company Manhattan GMAT, where he had worked as a tutor. Yang and his partners sold the company to Kaplan in 2009 at a price in the low tens of millions, he has said. In 2011, he started Venture for America, a nonprofit that aims to reinvigorate flagging American cities by injecting them with young entrepreneurs — sort of a business version of Teach for America. Yang has acknowledged it didn’t achieve all he had wanted; a recent Times report found that, despite its setting out to employ 100,000 people in those cities, only 150 of the jobs remain. Still, it generated a significant sense of personal accomplishment and professional acclaim; Yang likes to mention how President Obama named him a “champion of change.” He stayed at Venture until he entered the Democratic primary in 2017.

As the Wolfson tweet suggests, Yang quickly distinguished himself among the candidates as a bright, interesting young thing. He was never going to win, but, unlike Tulsi Gabbard, he seemed to know that: Yang was out to raise his profile and spread the good word about his ideas. Those ideas were easily digestible and not particularly new, but he managed to redirect the conversation toward them more than many Democratic insiders had expected. He called attention to the looming automation job crisis, and, in what became the centerpiece of his mayoral race, he introduced many Americans to the concept of a universal basic income.

Yang first fell in love with the idea of paying Americans direct economic relief — a policy once championed by Martin Luther King Jr. — while running Venture, where he realized that bringing new jobs to cities couldn’t offset the total wages lost to automation. On the presidential-campaign trail, Yang was open about the fact that his Freedom Dividend of $12,000 a year was just a rebranding of an old policy proposal, but it was still a pretty radical one. “An economy where big tech and Wall Street are held accountable,” one Yang presidential TV spot proclaimed. Little did he know the federal government would soon be making $2 trillion in direct payments to Americans during a pandemic.

Despite polling toward the bottom of the pack, Yang became a celebrity politician in the span of a campaign cycle. (Yang’s wife has since said she thought of his run as “just a phase.”) After dropping out of the race, he moved to Georgia to help the Democratic candidates for Senate there. He was leading the perma-campaign-trail life, sometimes appearing on CNN, always trying to figure out what to do next. Running for mayor was on his mind. “There was, like, a groundswell of people trying to get me to run as soon as I ended the presidential,” he told me in early March while we were waiting for the subway. “I don’t know if you saw that.”

In February 2020, outlets like The Atlantic were pushing the idea of a Yang mayoral run, speculation that the Yang campaign was allowing if not seeding. Zach Graumann, Yang’s presidential-campaign manager, told me it was actually the Times editorial board that had joked that Yang should be running for mayor, not president, an implication that “always made us mad.” For his part, Yang told me that the first person who told him he should run for mayor was an old law-school friend.

Many core members of Yang’s mayoral-campaign team work for Tusk Strategies, a political consultancy founded by Bradley Tusk, a man The Village Voice once called “the Manchurian consultant.” Coffey says he and Tusk were connected to Graumann in the early spring of 2020 by Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s then–campaign manager. Tusk, who worked for both Chuck Schumer and Rod Blagojevich before running Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign, is a native New Yorker who has gotten rich as a political strategist for companies like Uber and AT&T (Tusk Strategies) and as a venture capitalist (Tusk Ventures).

Tusk, 47, is mostly a VC these days, representing companies like the keyless-entry app Latch and the urban-scooter start-up Bird, but business-friendly- politics remains a time-consuming- hobby. He so despises de Blasio that in 2016 he embarked on a campaign to recruit a candidate to replace him (Donovan turned him down) and funded ads that fixated on the mayor’s perceived laziness. To Tusk, de Blasio’s New York is hostile to business and tech and more invested in stoking class warfare than in bringing innovation to the city. (“How about we go to start-ups and say, ‘Okay, we’ll give you free rent for the next five years; you have to commit to being in New York for the next 20,’ ” he told me of one policy idea he would like to see.) Tusk’s specialty lately is helping start-ups, some of which operate in gray areas of labor law and fight regulations related to wages and working conditions. Tusk’s blitzkrieg on behalf of Uber against de Blasio’s City Hall was both innovative — his team created an in-app way for customers to contact public officials and say they wanted to keep their Uber rides — and horrifying to progressive critics of the gig economy. “He is one of these people who combine both creative vision and the ability to execute against it,” Wolfson, his friend, said.

Until September 2020, Tusk and Coffey had a preferred mayoral candidate: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has close ties with Governor Cuomo and espouses a more centrist strain of Democratic politics. But then Johnson unexpectedly decided not to enter the race, citing the mental-health stresses of the pandemic. Tusk, who had been informally advising Johnson, found himself in the market for another candidate who might embrace a progressive yet business-friendly agenda. Yang wasn’t the only such person out there (former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, for example, could have fit the bill), but he had something else going for him: celebrity.

Since the 1970s, a class of moneyed elites has posited that it is the “permanent government” in New York City. No matter who occupies the mayor’s office, its members say with pride, corporate and civic leaders will guide the city out of crisis and toward economic growth. They argue that mayors need tax revenue to pay for their higher-minded policy goals, like expanding universal pre-K, and that the better life is for business (retaining wealthy individuals who are willing to pay high taxes in the city), the more the mayor can do to support those on the bottom. De Blasio, with his tale of two cities, promised a deliberate departure from that arrangement, and even those sympathetic to his politics may acknowledge that his efficacy as mayor suffered as a result: For much of the past eight years, it has felt as if he were at war with everyone, with no powerful interests on his side. Tusk and his cohort were looking for something of a return to permanent government and for a candidate disinterested in ideological crusading. In many ways, what they have found in Yang isn’t dissimilar to President Biden’s appeal, with each promising optimism and consensus after years of rancor.

Backing an inexperienced candidate to push an agenda that would require bringing together a diverse electoral coalition and navigating the prickly outposts of political power may seem odd, but it has its advantages. Yang has no governmental record, so no past votes or policy fights can be used against him. He’s open to taking on unorthodox positions to satisfy the city’s various voting blocs, as when he took the stance that Brooklyn yeshivas, which a recent DOE report found had failed to provide any semblance of a secular education, don’t need additional government oversight. To me, Yang described his approach to politics as “apolitical,” and it’s true that in some ways he eludes our strict notions of progressive and conservative. “While he has some very progressive ideas, he’s a candidate who’s also willing to defy progressive orthodoxy,” said the journalist and former State Senate candidate Ross Barkan, pointing out Yang’s stance against defunding the police. When there was a spike in subway crime, Yang was quick to call for more cops. “That definitely makes him attractive to Bloomberg acolytes,” Barkan said. (There are staffers from the former mayor’s administration and campaigns at the top levels of the Adams, Stringer, and McGuire camps as well.)

“Andrew and I started spending time together and talking about what the job really means” in the early fall, Tusk told me. Yang wanted to ask about how New York City functions: “How do all the agencies work, what powers does the mayor have, what powers doesn’t the mayor have, what’s the interface with the City Council?” Tusk said. “Did he know as much as some of the other candidates? No, of course not.” Bloomberg hadn’t either, Tusk reasoned, and he did just fine in the office. When it was finally time last fall to call people and feel them out on a Yang mayoralty, “no one really knew him that well — everyone had heard of him,” Tusk said. “There was a lot of ‘I didn’t know he was a New Yorker.’ ” A few told Tusk they didn’t love the field and could be tempted to talk to Yang.

That was enough to make a go of it. On January 13, Yang declared his candidacy with a Darren Aronofsky–directed campaign video. “I came of age, fell in love, and became a father here,” Yang says over brooding background music. “Hang in there. Help is on the way.”

The candidate with his wife, Evelyn, and their sons, Christopher, 8, and Damian, 5, at a Hell’s Kitchen playground. Photo: Mark Peterson

Yang’s rivals have been scathing about his candidacy, mercilessly trolling him for being a tourist in the town he’s running to govern. They dogged him for not voting in past mayoral races, for not knowing where the A train terminates, and for riding out the worst of the pandemic at his home in New Paltz. (He and his family rent an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen; his children attend schools in the city, one public, the other a private school for kids with special needs.) “I’d be the first to admit that I’m learning a ton about New York City,” Yang told me one day out on the trail. But while he has been easy to roast, Yang has been hard to catch in the polls.

His celebrity was on full display on April 1, opening day at Yankee Stadium. I found him by Gate 4 only because of the roving mass of cameras that followed him as he bumped elbows and cheered the city’s return to normalcy. Yang worked the snaking outdoor queue, taking pictures, at one point finding a guy who had gone to the same high school as he did. Even if they didn’t seem to know his name, people knew who he was.

Yang’s approachability is undeniable. “It is completely addictive,” progressive Queens assemblymember Ron Kim said. “Many in the media kind of reduce that as something immature. But it’s clear that when he’s walking around, people are drawn to that energy.”

Although he is a gifted glad-hander, Yang can be a stilted speaker, pausing for long stretches between big thoughts. At a joint event with Yang and Maya Wiley, it was notable how polished she was — how practiced at projecting, even above the din of the trains running over the Manhattan Bridge — and how tinny and strained he sounded. (The way Wiley stepped in at moments to answer a question directed at Yang made me wonder how the debates, not scheduled to start until May 13, may go for him.) She and others argue that he’s all celebrity, no substance. “T-shirts don’t win elections,” she has said, deriding him as someone who “doesn’t understand how government works.” Adams has blamed the media for Yang’s success: “We are creating a Donald Trump with Andrew Yang.” Stringer, who has spent his entire adult life building toward this run, can barely contain his contempt. He has called Yang pandering and mock-applauded him for passing the “smart test” on one policy idea. Yang spins all of this around, labeling his opponents defeatists. “They’ll immediately have five reasons why it’s either difficult or can’t be done,” he said of the responses of government types.

One progressive strategist, who said he thought Yang as mayor would be “pretty bad” because of his friendliness to big business, begrudgingly admired his approach. “Bradley Tusk outsmarted us. He saw something in the way that national politics was realigning that would allow for a candidacy of this sort to bust in with this name ID.”

A number of influential politicians on the left, like Kim, also see something in Yang. Kim was up front in saying he had endorsed Yang precisely because he thought he could bend him leftward. Initially, he had been turned off by Yang’s UBI plan, calling it a “campaign gimmick” during the presidential primary, and by an April 2020 op-ed Yang wrote saying Asian Americans needed to be more overtly patriotic to fight against “China virus” slurs during the pandemic. But Kim’s wife suggested he talk to Yang before putting him on blast. Kim and Yang met in January, and Kim introduced him to activists and massage-parlor workers in his district. After that meeting, Yang announced his change of heart on decriminalizing sex work. “There’s a whole list of other policies that they put out that I don’t actually agree with,” Kim said. “But because I have his ear and trust, if he does become elected, I can help move him toward confronting inequality.” The energy Yang generates can’t be replicated, Kim told me, so “how do we now use that for good?”

A couple of times, Kim brought up both hope for and what I interpreted as lingering skepticism of a Mayor Yang. Although Yang had come around on decriminalizing sex work, his campaign hasn’t taken “60 to 80 percent” of Kim’s policy suggestions for Yang’s “People’s Bank,” for instance. Kim is still waiting for Yang to prove himself as the anti-poverty candidate and not just another mayor out to restore a playground-for-the-rich version of New York. “Are you going to sell us out?” he asked. “Or are you going to leverage that trust that you’ve earned?”

“I feel like I can shape him on every issue,” Representative Ritchie Torres of the Bronx said, summarizing the Yang appeal to insiders on all sides. They feel they can pour ideas into his ear since Yang is relatively new to politics and still finding his footing on issues. For Torres, viability is a top consideration, and Yang has proved he can cut across demographics — the campaign touts its popularity among immigrant New Yorkers, Hasidim, and brownstone-Brooklyn types. Carlos Menchaca, a progressive City Council member who dropped out of the mayor’s race, has also endorsed Yang, a nice little coup given Menchaca’s standing among New York’s lefties. Meanwhile, the leading progressive candidate, Stringer, has lost a number of key endorsements after facing a sexual-assault allegation. He disputes the claim, and his campaign has noted that his accuser filed ballot petitions on behalf of Yang as a volunteer.

Yang rankles at the suggestion that he is at all malleable. He was reticent on the question of Tusk’s influence, tensing when I brought him up. “I’m a very independent person. I have my own judgment,” he said. Tusk was more open. He told me that he and Yang have talked and texted a lot about policy and strategy throughout the race. He finds a lot of his job is telling Yang, “Don’t worry about all this noise. Ignore it,” or “Keep doing what you’re doing.” The campaign they’re running “is premised on the notion that the inside game” doesn’t matter.

Barkan believes Yang’s relationship with Tusk and the Bloomberg set is symbiotic. “Yang gets ideas wrong and has no experience in the firmament of New York City politics. He’s also not stupid and not untalented,” he said. In Yang, Tusk has “a vessel potentially for his own interests, whether it’s Uber, cryptocurrency, or gambling.”

Occasionally, Yang will tweet out or say whatever seems to have popped into his head (he recently caused a small firestorm by suggesting the city ramp up fines on street vendors who operate without a license). Tusk said that Yang is “this very creative thinker” and that often “all he was doing was brainstorming” and the media didn’t understand. Yang once mused about how it would be cool to build a casino on Governors Island, though there’s a federal deed restriction that specifically forbids that. (Tusk has gaming holdings, so it was pretty easy to guess where that idea came from.)

Yang’s awkward affability can also sometimes backfire spectacularly. “I genuinely do love you and your community,” he said to the Stonewall Democratic Club, an LGBTQ group, on April 21. “You’re so human and beautiful.” (Some members found the comments tokenizing, and the club president told the Times that Yang’s remarks felt “outdated.”) Another time, in a video of something that happens often — Yang chatting with people who recognize him on the street — a young man asks, “While he’s fucking bitches, can a man keep his Timbs on?” Yang replies that it’s up to your partner. Then, pleased that a politician has bitten on his jokey line of inquiry, the man asks, “You choke bitches, Andrew Yang?” Yang laughs and turns away while making a cutting motion at his throat, his adolescent attempt at playing along imploding.

“You’re in a posture where you’re trying to be friendly to someone and then you’re shocked and surprised that all of a sudden it goes in that direction,” Yang said in his defense. Still, it seemed to touch on a more serious vulnerability in his campaign. Yang has been accused before of fostering a sexist work culture: A woman employed at his test-prep company said Yang had fired her because she got married and, she recalled him saying, she wouldn’t “want to continue working as hard.” (Yang has denied this.) And a report surfaced that a woman in Yang’s presidential campaign alleged that she had been passed over for a promotion in favor of a less experienced man; in response to the piece, Yang said, “We didn’t account for how much our male-dominated culture alienated female and nonbinary employees. I wish we had.”

So far, allegations of sexism seem to have slid off Yang. New York’s mayoral race historically doesn’t heat up until the final weeks, when ads flood the airwaves. (Lis Smith, the media mind behind Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, has launched a pro-Yang PAC with the goal of raising $6 million for TV ads.)

Most voters will likely never hear about Yang’s controversies, which is just fine with the Yang Gang and the most irritating thing in the world to everyone else in the race.

Andrew Yang campaigning across the city in April. Photo: Mark Peterson.
Andrew Yang campaigning across the city in April. Photo: Mark Peterson.

Foremost among the problems the next mayor of New York will face is the city’s economic recovery. Whoever is elected will have the power to shape budget priorities, including how to spend the billions of dollars in federal relief the city is receiving through the American Rescue Plan. And unlike billionaire Bloomberg, who could further his policy goals and drown out his opposition through massive donations to nonprofits and political campaigns, the next mayor won’t be able to personally bankroll their ambitions.

Some candidates have said they would support major reductions to the NYPD budget (a.k.a. defunding the police), which snowballs into the messy debate on how to best confront the issue of rising crime in a city where police violence has long been a hot-button issue. Yang has come out in favor of getting more officers patrolling the subways and staffing the hate-crime unit. The next mayor will hold a lot of sway over how to deal with police misconduct — like deciding whether firings should fall to the police commissioner (Yang’s proposal), the mayor (Adams’s) or the Civilian Complaint Review Board (Stringer’s) — and how to change an entrenched departmental culture. Yang’s critics have pointed out that Tusk Strategies used to represent the Police Benevolent Association, suggesting that police stances would be articulated to Yang via an inside track. Tusk dismissed the idea. “We’re certainly not going to consult with them on who the police commissioner should be,” he said. “But yeah, if some crisis popped up, and I was the right person to call Pat Lynch and talk to him, I would certainly do that.”

The mayor also has ultimate control over the city schools, and after a year of virtual learning, providing high-quality public education is a top-of-mind issue for many voters. How to make up for pandemic learning losses, improve student access to technology — a new reality of education — and tackle the sticky issue of equity in schools will fall to the mayor and the mayor’s schools chancellor. Yang said he wants to keep the city’s controversial gifted-and-talented programs and the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which runs counter to liberal Democratic orthodoxy but is popular with many Asian and white parents. Tusk Strategies lobbied against a 2019 bill to get rid of the test. Yang has also struck out against his peers by criticizing the United Federation of Teachers, something that could play well with parents after a year of remote learning and school closures for which many blame the union.

Yang told me his first 100 days would be big on hiring the right people — Garcia, for instance. “If Mr. Yang’s strategy to be the mayor of New York City is to have Kathryn Garcia run the city, then he has in fact made the case for Kathryn Garcia to be the mayor,” her campaign responded. Yang also plans to implement a wholesale culture change in city government. How exactly would he go about doing that? Yang gave me the example of putting a moratorium on small-business fines and appointing a small-business-recovery czar. But most important to him was the human touch. He said, “One of the basic things that we can do is just have someone from the city reach out, and we will instruct them that your only message will be, like, ‘Hey, I’m xyz person, how can we help you?’ ”

Yang told me it would probably be two years until the half-million poorest New Yorkers get their $2,000 a year, and that’s assuming everything goes according to plan — he needs to secure money from private donors alongside cash from the city, which Yang wants to get by taking away the tax breaks of institutions like Columbia and Madison Square Garden. He will need state approval on that, as he will for many issues confronting the city, which will certainly complicate his ability to deliver. Yang isn’t well known in Albany, but he told me his friendship with Governor Cuomo’s brother, Chris, a sometime CNN colleague, would help. Also: “My team has some connections with some people on his team.”

Tusk will likely have some thoughts on whom Yang should hire for what — he knows more people in New York. (He recently released a Medium post dedicated to concerns about his undue influence on a Yang mayoralty, saying he wouldn’t lobby or talk to the mayor about anything that may be a business conflict of interest. Tusk’s newest venture is a bit smaller in scale: He’s opening a bookstore this fall on the Lower East Side. Tusk is an avid fiction reader.) But Yang chafes at the suggestion that Tusk will have outsize influence on his potential administration. “I think people know that there’s an enormous difference between appointing someone for the purpose of a mayoral campaign and then running something,” he told me.

I asked Wolfson what role he thought his friend would play. Tusk, Wolfson said, would occupy a space not unlike that of Felix G. Rohatyn — “Felix the Fixer” — the wealthy financier and politico from the FORD TO CITY: “DROP DEAD” era. “I think he will be one of the wise men that help ensure New York’s recovery from COVID, somebody who is doing it because they love the city.”

Much of Bloomberg’s power lay in the fact that he was his own Rohatyn. His independent wealth and business ties allowed him to bend the city to his own idea of what was best for it. After 9/11, even before taking office, Bloomberg had calmed the CEO class, which was frantic about the death of New York City. Yang doesn’t have that clout to reassure or cajole. “Bloomberg was a known quantity,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the pro-business Partnership for New York City, when asked about the comparison of Bloomberg and Yang. “First among equals in the business community.” Yang needs Tusk — who, by the way, is just a lowly millionaire — to give him any semblance of that same status. And he’ll need to engage in a lot more political horse-trading than Bloomberg ever did. “There is a danger to figures that appear unencumbered when in fact they are ripe for old-fashioned transactional politics,” said a City Hall veteran who worked under two administrations. “It’s clear the money and interests involved with this campaign will come with expectations and ties that will completely shape the administration.”

Lunch in the Bronx ended abruptly — Yang needed to get to an appearance nearby. As we stood to leave, the serious Yang I had dined with morphed back into the merry public Yang. He said hello to the guys at a nearby table and took a picture. His professions of sharkiness from the past hour rang in my ears; was I supposed to believe this guy was a secret Machiavelli with a moralistic streak? Was it hubristic — and naïve — wishful thinking on Yang’s part that he could get New York City voters to come around to his “let someone else handle the details and I’ll be the cheerleader” mayoral plan?

It was my first time eating inside a restaurant in a long while, which I had mentioned in passing to Yang. Meals with him were a lot of people’s first time back inside, he said. And this gets to the emotional heart of Yang’s campaign: the promise that New York can return to normal. He has practiced what he preaches, campaigning in person from the get-go while other candidates remained on the digital sidelines. He contracted COVID a couple of weeks into the campaign but didn’t dwell on it. For months now, it has felt as if he’s always banging around the city, grabbing lunch and saying hi to people on the subway and documenting it on Twitter. It is a spectacularly well timed alignment with the city’s mood. The vaccination campaign is well under way, and de Blasio and Cuomo have said that in a matter of weeks, New York will be once again open for business. The June 22 primary date feels like something of a spiritual advantage for Yang. He’s a young, energetic nonwhite guy in a diverse, energetic city, after all.

As Yang headed back into the light of day, he raised his hands over his head for an imaginary cheering crowd, a pose that would have looked preposterous if struck by any other politician. “Welcome back to the world,” he said to me, the charm turned on, then he headed out the door.

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