New York City on Wednesday night held its final Democratic mayoral debate before the Tuesday ranked-choice primary election that will almost certainly end up determining the eventual successor to term-limited Bill de Blasio in this deep blue metropolis. (Early voting is already underway.)
There were eight candidates on stage at 30 Rock, but only four who have been consistently polling in double digits: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former city Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, longshot 2020 Democratic presidential challenger Andrew Yang, and civil rights attorney/commentator Maya Wiley, in roughly that order. The mercurial Yang held the early lead in the race and then faded; the taciturn Wiley has vaulted into contention after being endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), the no-nonsense Garcia has climbed steadily while racking up newspaper endorsements, and the inscrutable ex-cop Adams has been the front-runner for weeks.
Given New York's size and status as a media capital, there is an almost irresistible temptation to read national implications into the low-turnout race. Like de Blasio's ill-fated presidential bid, such an exercise is fraught with potential humiliation for all involved.
Yet the campaign themes and voter concerns that keep pushing to the forefront are issues that are familiar in many Democratic-controlled big cities this year. And the gap in the treatment of those concerns between candidates/voters on one side and journalists/twitterers on the other suggests an interesting mismatch that may extend far beyond the five boroughs.
This post-debate tweet from The New York Times illustrates the dissonance succinctly:
Watch: Andrew Yang's response to a question about how he would handle mental health during Wednesday's NYC mayoral debate drew fire on social media from people who said it lacked empathy or understanding. https://t.co/frKMJ3naJf pic.twitter.com/g9VKD1CoX5
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 17, 2021
"Together," clucked the Gray Lady, "the comments reflected the aggressive rhetoric Mr. Yang has been using in recent days when talking about social issues and crime." Readers are left with little doubt about what good New Yorkers are supposed to think about that.
And yet voters—in a Democratic New York City primary, remember—are stubbornly refusing to meet the expectations of the local journalism gentry. A May 17–31 Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll showed crime/public safety dominating the list of voter concerns at 46 percent, compared to just 20 percent for fifth-ranked "racial injustice," and 12 percent for the eighth-ranked "police reform." With a polling exception or two, that has been the case throughout this campaign.
Shootings are up 77 percent and murders 16 percent this year, the latter after already increasing by 45 percent in 2020. Felonies on the subway have increased from one per million riders in the first quarter of 2019, to 1.48 per million in the first quarter of 2020, to 1.63 per million this year.
Anecdotally, too, the sketchiness factor is something New Yorkers have observed and talked about increasingly in recent months. I watched a severely intoxicated young man fall and crack his skull on a subway platform seven weeks ago, and then vomit and soil himself while we waited anxiously for the EMTs. The last time I took my 12-year-old daughter on the subway, a man peed on the platform 10 feet away from us on a Saturday morning. Another friend's 10-year-old daughter, typically New York tough, burst into tears recently at the mere thought of riding a train she'd been on countless times before.
The three mayoral candidates most vocal about the rise in violent crime and sense of pedestrian/commuter unease are the three that have led the most in polls: Adams, Yang, and Garcia. They also happen to be the three candidates most vocal about the avoidable pain inflicted on public K-12 students this year by school closures and remote learning. Their repeated comments about these issues are at direct odds with the dominant journalist/activist take on policing and education, which tends almost monomaniacally to focus on the roles of systemic racism and implicit bias, while advocating for a sharp reduction in punitive measures that are disproportionately meted out against poorer communities and people of color.
"The political class, I think, thought that the party, that the voters, had moved very, very far to the left…That they were at a moment where they wanted to do radical, radical change. I just never believed that that was true," Garcia told the Times last month, in a piece under the anxious headline of "Has New York Hit a Progressive Plateau? The Mayor's Race Is a Key Test."
The last great progressive hope is Wiley, who has been campaigning explicitly against the (noxious) New York Police Department union, and talking vaguely of replacing police officers with "violence interrupters." Wiley, a former talking head on MSNBC, was part of the de Blasio School Diversity Advisory Group that backed removing gifted and talented programs, phasing out admissions criteria, and aiming for each school to have the exact same socioeconomic and racial mix within 10 years.
Wiley may yet still win, and her presence near the medal stand provides some salutary skepticism about the unleash-the-cops ideas of Adams in particular. But her rhetoric about the admittedly difficult problem of dealing with occasionally dangerous mentally ill homeless is as fuzzy as The New York Times thinks Yang is "aggressive."
But when there's such a chasm between how the political class sees the world and how the (also left-leaning) electorate experiences it, specific policy choices inevitably take a back seat to clear populist signaling. Those alarmed by the sudden sharp reversal of the three-decade decline in violent crime want to know, do you even see what I see? The parents driven apoplectic by the union-first, kids-last approach from the Department of Education don't want to hear boilerplate, we-need-to-boost-our-schools talk, they want evidence that candidates feel in their bones what an outrage the past 15 months have been.
To the extent that some journalists, politicians, and activists respond to the New York City political reality, and others like it, by torturing statistics and arguing to voters that their own eyes are lying, is the extent to which they limit their own influence and make populist alternatives more inviting. At the risk of over-extrapolating from a New York City election, we may learn beginning Tuesday that the de Blasio era was the aberration, and the two decades of non-Democratic crime fighting before it the norm.