Andrew Yang, Mayor of New York City?
Would a woman with his credentials be taken seriously?
The Venture for America entrepreneur is leading the early polls for mayor of New York City and NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg is frustrated, declaring “There Could Never Be a Female Andrew Yang.” While her thesis is unfalsifiable, it’s based on the adage “men are judged on their potential and women on their accomplishments,” for which she provides a smattering of evidence.
The problem, though, is twofold. First, again, it’s very early in the campaign. The primary isn’t until June 23 and one imagines few are paying much attention at this point, especially coming on the heels of the exhausting 2020 election. Second, Yang is running against who he’s running against, not a female version of himself.
In the latest round of polling for New York’s Democratic mayoral primary, Yang continues to lead. A Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll shows him with 22 percent of likely Democratic voters, followed by the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, with 13 percent. The progressive polling firm Data for Progress shows Yang with 26 percent, double Adams’s 13 percent. A survey by the Siena College Research Institute and AARP has Yang leading with voters over 50, getting 24 percent of the vote, followed by Adams and the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, who each get 13 percent.
You might notice that neither Maya Wiley nor Kathryn Garcia are among the top three, despite their obvious qualifications. On paper, Wiley looks like the perfect candidate to recreate the coalition that elected Mayor Bill de Blasio. A mediagenic former MSNBC commentator, she served as both counsel to de Blasio and chairwoman of the city’s police oversight agency. She is a progressive Black woman with an Elizabeth Warren-like arsenal of plans.
Kathryn Garcia is the former commissioner for the New York City Sanitation Department and should be an obvious choice for those who care most about competent crisis management. As a City & State article noted recently, she has a “reputation as a go-to fixer, called upon to tackle challenges like lead exposure in children and delivering meals during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
But the Civilian Complaint Review Board and sanitation department are not usually a direct pathway to the mayor’s office. Sure, they’re important and provide really useful administrative experience. But they’re not high-profile jobs likely to get people excited about a mayoral candidacy. I can’t find much about the CCRB, other than that it was a part-time job Wiley held in addition to several other posts. But the Sanitation Commissioner job in its current incarnation goes back to 1933 and I don’t recognize any of the names; I’m pretty sure none of them went on to be mayor, let alone directly from the post.
Last month, Yang’s pollsters asked New York voters what they wanted in a mayor, giving them seven options, all worded positively. The top two responses were “a unifier who can bring the city together” and “a visionary who can figure out what it’ll take for N.Y.C. to recover from Covid.” Third was “a manager who understands city government.” Dead last was “a public servant who has spent their life working for others.”
Unfortunately, women are rarely seen as visionaries. It’s impossible to imagine any woman traveling the path of, say, Pete Buttigieg, from mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana to credible presidential candidate to cabinet secretary. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the great political talents of her generation, but I doubt she’d be taken seriously if she ran for New York mayor, despite being far more politically experienced than Yang. One woman in the mayoral race is running a left-wing outsider campaign, a former public-school teacher and nonprofit executive named Dianne Morales. In the Data for Progress poll, she’s at 3 percent.
So, again, this is all unfalsifiable. But mayor is an elected political position. No woman has ever held it. Ditto the governorship of New York state. That’s odd, in that women have held those posts in other major cities and states for decades. Still, New York has had two women Senators, including incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand and her predecessor Hillary Clinton. And many women US Representatives. Regardless, in this particular race, we have three relatively unknown women, none of whom seem to meet the criteria the voters say they prioritize. (Whether AOC would be “taken seriously” as a mayoral candidate is unknowable since, well, she’s not a mayoral candidate.)
Writing in The New Republic, Alex Pareene contrasted Yang with Cynthia Nixon, a celebrity with a deep history of civic engagement whose 2018 primary challenge of Gov. Andrew Cuomo “never stood a chance.” Yang’s innovation, Pareene wrote, was to “become a celebrity by running for president,” legitimizing himself by sharing a stage with the leaders of the Democratic Party. It’s a good point, but it leaves out what is probably an even more salient difference between Yang and Nixon.
Male candidates can embody possibility and run as repositories for people’s diffuse hopes. Women usually have to pay their dues. It creates a double bind. There’s never been a female mayor of New York City, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a woman to be the candidate of change.
So, here’s the thing. Neither Yang nor Buttigieg should have been on the debate stage in the Democratic primaries. Neither had resumes worthy of the presidency or had sufficient popular support in the early going to be viable. But the rules of the game had been changed for this particular cycle to allow those savvy at online fundraising to qualify. And, when they did, they managed to impress the hell out of the elite journalist class and some subset of the voters.
It’s notable that Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar all did better in the primaries. All three were serious candidates for Vice President, with Harris ultimately getting the nod. But, yes, Buttigieg catapulted himself into consideration for Transportation Secretary through his performance and his perfectly timed withdrawal from the race and endorsement of Biden.
And Yang, of whom I had never previously heard, made himself into something of a household name. That gave him early name recognition and buzz when he threw his hat into the ring. Whether he can sustain his momentum and go from 22-26 percent to 50 remains to be seen. I don’t know the other candidates at all but it certainly looks like Adams is the biggest obstacle.
Further, Nixon is simply not a reasonable comparison. She was running against an incumbent mayor in a party primary; Yang is running in an open race. And Nixon was known for her role on Sex and the City, whereas Yang is known as “that guy who ran for President.” Lots of candidates have turned a failed Presidential bid into other political offices.