The race to replace Bill de Blasio: Who will be New York City's next mayor?

The new mayor will inherit a city reeling from Covid, high unemployment, surging gun violence and an exodus of residents

On New Year’s Day 2014, the New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, entered office promising to end the “tale of two cities” with a progressive agenda that he said would address the economic and social inequalities that “threaten to unravel the city we love”.

But seven years and a global pandemic later, campaigning to decide the Democrat’s successor is heating up, and the next mayor looks set to inherit a city where experts say those disparities are not only on the rise, but are in a state of crisis.

In the wake of coronavirus, which to date has killed more than 25,000 people in the city, New York faces an unemployment rate of 12.1% – almost double that of the US overall – the threat of mass evictions, surging gun violence and burglary, a multibillion-dollar funding gap and an exodus of more than 300,000 residents.

“This is undoubtedly the toughest situation any mayor has had to face,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of business group the Partnership for New York City. “9/11 was difficult, but it was contained to one geographic area of the city.”

People wait in line at the St Clements Food Pantry for food in New York City, 11 December.
People wait in line at the St Clements Food Pantry for food in New York City on 11 December. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

While she said the health implications of Covid-19 were becoming better understood, the economic impact is only just unfolding. “So nobody really knows the consequences there, that’s still a moving target and an increasing number.”

And yet despite the unprecedented challenges, there is no shortage of people vying to become the next mayor. So far, 32 candidates have filed paperwork to participate in the 2021 race, according to the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB).

It is a diverse field that includes several former members of the De Blasio administration, a member of Barack Obama’s White House cabinet and a former New York police officer. The former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has filed paperwork and is reportedly preparing to launch a run in early or mid-January.

De Blasio’s term does not officially end until 31 December 2021. But with less than six months to go until the Democratic primaries on 22 June – which, due to the left-leaning politics of the city, will probably decide the winner of November’s election – candidates will not have long to make their case.

With industries including retail, tourism, restaurants, culture and entertainment suffering, and a third of the city’s 240,000 small businesses predicted not to reopen, the city’s economic recovery is likely to take centre stage.

Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future said the city was on the verge of a “potential fiscal catastrophe” if it did not get the help it needs from the federal government, which could lead to major cuts in subways, sanitation and parks.

Although the $900bn stimulus bill passed by Congress in December included some funding for public transport, it did not include aid for state and local governments, and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority still faces an $8bn deficit.

“Even as the city is losing all sorts of revenue, tax revenue, the needs for the safety net are growing. People are going hungry, they’re standing in line for soup kitchens, there are more people becoming homeless, so these are massive issues that are facing the city,” said Bowles.

“At the same time, the way that the pandemic has changed the economy, with people working from home, it creates all sorts of risks that some people will move out of New York or people that have moved temporarily may not come back.”

The next mayor needs to prioritise building back more inclusively, he said, because “too few New Yorkers got ahead during the boom times of the last decade and a lot of those disparities, those racial and ethnic disparities, have been accelerated in this pandemic.”

Other issues likely to be on the incoming mayor’s immediate priorities are education, social and racial justice and crime.

Mayoral candidate Eric Adams was a New York City police department (NYPD) officer for 22 years.
Mayoral candidate Eric Adams was a New York City police department (NYPD) officer for 22 years. Photograph: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

“The first thing is jobs, schools, crime. That’s it. You get any one of those working, you’ll be better than the current mayor,” said Mitchell Moss, an NYU professor of urban policy and planning. De Blasio, he said, had “clearly checked out” and lost the trust of teachers, police, parents and his own staff.

While his successes include implementing free prekindergarten for all, the mayor has faced criticism of his leadership – including his handling of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd – and his failed 2020 presidential run. He has also been known to publicly bicker with the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Bill Neidhardt, a spokesman for the mayor, said: “Mayor de Blasio just made the single largest move in decades to integrate public schools on the same day as committing to over 20 new NYPD reforms … If someone doesn’t believe that work is important or urgent, then I’m not sure what to tell them.”

At the moment, Moss said, it is a “wide open race”. As well as campaigning during a pandemic, candidates will also be faced with educating voters on a new ranked-choice voting system, which critics argue has not been sufficiently explained to voters.

They will also need to convince New Yorkers to come out to vote. In 2013, De Blasio won the Democratic mayoral primary – in which only registered Democrats can vote – with the votes of only about 3% of all New Yorkers.

Among the frontrunners so far are the city comptroller, Scott Stringer; the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams; the lawyer and civil rights activist Maya Wiley; Obama’s housing secretary and the budget director Shaun Donovan; the ex-sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia; the former non-profit executive Dianne Morales and the former Citigroup vice-chairman Ray McGuire, who launched his campaign with a video narrated by Spike Lee.

Adams, 60, was a New York City police department (NYPD) officer for 22 years and in 2013 was elected Brooklyn’s first Black borough president. He decided to join NYPD after he was beaten by police when he was 15 because he wanted to change it from within.

“I know New York City, I’ve had some challenging times, I’ve overcome them and now we need a mayor that can overcome and help people overcome the challenging times that they’re facing,” he said.

He does not believe in “defunding” the police, but says police spending could be improved to “move from being reactionary to crime and become proactive”.

The New York City comptroller, Scott Stringer.
The New York City comptroller, Scott Stringer. Photograph: Europa Newswire/Rex/Shutterstock

He wants to improve relations between New Yorkers and its police force by hiring more officers from the city and would also have a “zero tolerance” approach to abusive police officers.

He called for ranked choice voting to be postponed because he said the city has failed to educate voters on the new system which in effect will “disenfranchise voters”.

Stringer, 60, who has been city comptroller since 2013, said if he became mayor he would “turn the page on the last eight years”.

His first order of business, he said, would be to “close our budget gap and get to work on kickstarting the economy in a just and equitable way”.

Donovan, 54, said his experience with crises, budget handling and relationships with the Biden administration from his time at the White House would serve him well as mayor. He added: “Building back has to begin with repairing our civic fabric and repairing our quality of life.”

He plans to focus on equity and to appoint the city’s first chief equity officer and make New York “the leading equity city in the world”.

Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley said Covid-19 has caused a ‘historic humanitarian crisis’ in the city.
Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley said Covid-19 has caused a ‘historic humanitarian crisis’ in the city. Photograph: MediaPunch/REX/Shutterstock

If Wiley, 55, who was a top counsel to De Blasio and has worked as a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, becomes mayor she would be the first woman and only the second Black person in the role.

She said New York needs to learn from the city’s previous crises where the city recovered but did not fix its underlying problems.

“For every single time we have had crises in this city, we have recovered – we just haven’t recovered everyone.”

Instead, she said, the city should invest its budget “fairly and justly” and in ways that preserve its diversity.

She said coronavirus has created a “historic humanitarian crisis” in the city and the subsequent loss of life has caused “unspeakable” trauma.

“We are traumatised as a city, we are afraid, we have lost. And that’s why we need a leadership that actually calls us together to pull on our strengths, to pull us together.”


Miranda Bryant in New York

The GuardianTramp

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