Washington Square Park was filled with sunlight, circus performers, brass bands, and NYU graduates in purple robes and matching mortarboards. It was a Saturday in May, and New York City had burst back into life after a year of lockdowns. And there, sitting quietly on a bench in one corner of the park, wearing a gleaming green dress, a black cardigan, and a “Can you believe this is happening to me?” expression, was Kathryn Garcia.
Next to her was Kim Hastreiter, the co-founder of Paper magazine and host of the meet and greet, and Julie Ragolia, a fashion stylist who recently received recognition for dressing LaKeith Stanfield for the Oscars; on the other side of the bench sat Garcia’s sister Molly McIver, who runs an event space in Bushwick, and next to her sat Joe Rodriguez, a city garbageman nearing retirement who counted Garcia as his ex-boss. Along the perimeter, volunteers handed out leaflets but declined to give their names, since many of them worked for the city government and didn’t want to get in trouble.
Until eight months ago, Garcia was Bill de Blasio’s sanitation commissioner, and before that, she was the head of day-to-day operations at the Department of Environmental Protection under Mike Bloomberg; she is one of the few people to have worked continuously at a high level for the two mayors, who loathe each other. She was in the command center when Hurricane Sandy struck, keeping the city’s water systems running. Despite her considerable experience, she has mostly muddled along in the mayoral race’s vast second tier. But earlier this month, her luck changed: The New York Times editorial board announced that Garcia, whom it called “the most qualified” in the field, had landed its endorsement. Suddenly, someone whom insiders and opponents had mostly dismissed as running to be the eventual winner’s first deputy mayor seemed to have a shot at the top job herself.
“When I first heard about Kathryn, I thought about an emergency room,” Hastreiter said when her turn came to hold the sparkly karaoke microphone she had brought for the event. “I feel like New York City is in the emergency room, and if I were having a really bad heart attack, I don’t want a doctor who is the best salesman or the cutest or the trendiest or the biggest talker. I want someone who activates expertly in triage situations.”
Garcia told her story to the crowd of 30 or so writers and artists, how she is one of five siblings who grew up in Park Slope, three of whom, including herself, were adopted. Her sister Elizabeth, who was adopted after her, is Black, as is her brother. When the foster agency called Garcia’s mother about taking in a 7-year-old girl without a home, she agreed before even checking in with her husband. In a race that has occasionally asked the question “What does it mean to be a real New Yorker?,” Garcia’s bona fides are top-notch: stickball in the streets, Stuyvesant High School (class of ’88), and wearing candy-apple-red high heels to sneak into Studio 54 as a 14-year-old.
Garcia’s father, Bruce McIver, was chief labor negotiator under Ed Koch. The McIver children used to play in a secret tree house in the backyard of Gracie Mansion. Her parents separated when Garcia was an adult, and McIver now lives in the same building as Andrew Yang. Garcia knew Yang had fled during the pandemic when her father asked her if it was a requirement that mayoral candidates actually reside in New York City. Yang, he said, did not. (Garcia has denied back-channeling this to a reporter: “I don’t back-channel.”)
As sanitation chief, Garcia modernized the department, cracked down on private garbage haulers, and expanded the city’s composting capabilities. (Garcia got divorced in 2016 and met her current boyfriend after noting that his dating profile mentioned his affinity for composting.) De Blasio was so impressed that he put Garcia in charge of reducing childhood lead exposure, then named her the interim chair of NYCHA, and when COVID hit, he tasked her with making sure New Yorkers weren’t left starving in the streets. Garcia put together a program that ended up distributing 1.5 million meals a day during the depths of the crisis.
Garcia’s base, and her most enthusiastic supporters, are people who have worked in city government and so have an understanding of the job she seeks. Even operatives for other candidates said that they would be pleased if Garcia ended up the winner. Young female staffers in the de Blasio administration started a group text they called #TeamGarcia, in which they shared news clips and gossip.
“She is unapologetic about herself and getting her hands dirty cleaning up the city,” said one former de Blasio official. When she was named sanitation chief in 2014 and given the bulky oversize men’s jacket with her name on it that all chiefs are given, Garcia traded it in for a custom form-fitting one with a furry collar. “When they gave it to me, I just said, ‘No, I’m not wearing that.’ They actually do make jackets for women, you know.”
At the event in the park, the model Jessica Joffe said to Garcia that she was “the very obvious choice” but asked, “What is your plan to amp up and make sure that everyone knows who you are, because you clearly aren’t driven by your ego and you are not a self-promoter.”
Garcia mentioned something about everyone there signing up for canvassing shifts, but indeed, the fact that she is not a self-promoter, or even much of a politician, helps explain why she has failed to bust out.
Her résumé, like the gold “Kathryn” nameplate she always has hanging around her neck, is sparkling — her candidacy, not so much. Garcia’s biggest problems are these: She has a bare-bones campaign operation, she has struggled to raise money, and not many voters know who she is. She has received hardly any major union endorsements and has almost no prominent elected officials backing her. And she has been unwilling to play the political games often required to win. Some of the other candidates have said they would like Garcia to come to City Hall with them as their top deputy should they win. In interviews, Garcia has said such comments reek of sexism, but she hasn’t capitalized on them by cutting an ad featuring all of her rivals extolling her knowledge and competence.
Her campaign is banking on the Times endorsement to vault her into the top tier, and a number of recent polls show her grouped behind Eric Adams and Yang. The Paper of Record’s record, though, is spotty. The Times tends to endorse good-government progressives who don’t play well among the broader electorate, especially in major races, where voters tend to go into the booth with preconceived notions about whom they like.
Friends say this campaign hasn’t introduced voters to the real Kathryn Garcia, the one bursting with take-no-shit Brooklyn attitude who likes nothing more than laughing over drinks about the rubes in city politics. After the event, Garcia and I grabbed lunch in Chinatown. She explained how odd running for office is for a private person who hates public speaking. “Some of my competitors get fed on being noticed,” she said. “And for me, it’s never something where I feel like, Oh, I really need that today.”
It’s possible this anti-charisma could be an advantage. New York tends to elect disagreeable mayors — the awkward de Blasio, the peevish Bloomberg. In Garcia’s case, it has allowed people across the ideological spectrum to see her as one of their own. Hastreiter said she was a Bernie Sanders voter but supported Garcia as a progressive who could get things done. Kathy Wylde, the head of the Partnership for New York City, co-hosted a fund-raiser for Garcia and considers her “pro-growth” because she understands that “business development and job creation are the keys to the recovery.”
Garcia said she backed Joe Biden in the 2020 primaries, and his example is instructive. Her supporters mentioned the president’s campaign to me repeatedly, arguing that, in a post-Trump world, the media and Twitter chase after shiny objects and shinier primary candidates, but most voters just want someone who can quietly do the job.
By this point in the 2013 mayoral race, de Blasio had moved from fourth place into first, where he would remain for the rest of the campaign. For Garcia to pull off the same upset, her supporters say she needs to lock down moderate older white voters, hope her last name (by marriage) helps her with Hispanics, and become at least palatable enough to progressives and moderate Black voters that they will rank her in their top three. It’s a narrow path to victory, but it’s there. After all, de Blasio burst into first place by polling in the low 30s. Besides a few outliers, Adams and Yang have had trouble breaking out of the low 20s. That this primary is in June for the first time, instead of September, adds another note of uncertainty, and of course so does the fact that the primary is taking place as the electorate emerges from the pandemic.
In the midst of our lunch, an aide summoned Garcia: Word was just received that the Daily News had endorsed her as well.
Garcia seemed blasé. We cracked open our fortune cookies. Hers said, “Forget those things that aren’t worth remembering.” An experienced candidate would have been able to spin that little slip of paper’s message into a portent about the race, how it meant they were going to win and prove the doubters wrong. Garcia just shrugged. “This morning, someone told me that I look much thinner in person than I do on Zoom,” she said, then headed back out into the sunlight and into a city she hoped to lead.
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