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Race for Progressivism? How New York City's Mayoral Candidates Are Stacking Up

Maya Wiley may be the only true progressive in NYC's mayoral race, but even she may be falling short on the issues. And how will ranked-choice voting impact the election? Here's what voters may want to consider.

Race for Progressivism? How New York City's Mayoral Candidates Are Stacking Up

The New York City mayoral race continues to heat up. Ranked-choice early voting began for the first time in the Five Boroughs this week, and the Democratic candidates recently concluded their final primary.

On June 5th, Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Maya Wiley for Mayor of New York, giving her campaign an energy and attention boost not seen before this point. Polling indicates that Wiley has gone from the back of the pack to a frontrunner, now within striking distance of Eric Adams, the current poll leader. None of this information is definitive with ranked choice voting and so many candidates in the race, but it does add more drama to an already dramatic election. It is important to have a progressive to vote for in this city, but it’s also important to recognize that our elected officials do not have substantial answers for our everyday problems, ones that are obvious and growing.

The NYC Mayoral Race Thus Far

At the height of the Democratic primary, there were about 20 candidates in the race for mayor. Of those who announced, eight of them have withdrawn from the race, including progressive candidate Carlos Menchaca. Of the remaining candidates,  four found themselves at the top of polling: Ex-presidential candidate Andrew Yang, 14-year long public servant and former City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Among these four candidates, Stringer was the only one who could be called a progressive with policies like making community college free (through CUNY), advocating for a single-payer healthcare system, and taking on climate destruction through disinvestment. All of these are solid initiatives, but a recent scandal, where he has been accused of sexual harassment by two women, has caused endorsements from other progressives like Congressional representative Jamaal Bowman to be pulled.

With no other progressive near the top of the pack, Wiley’s recent endorsement from AOC is likely to focus attention onto a single candidate instead of spreading among the less-progressive candidates in the race. But the race is far from over.

Ranked-Choice Voting

Most of the top candidates in the race are, in some sense, moderate liberals with their fair share of poor positions. For example, Andrew Yang supports putting a Casino on Governer’s island in an attempt to “boost city recovery.”. Eric Adams, a former cop, has called for a return of the NYPD’s most controversial division, the plainclothes division, amid increasing violence towards people of color across New York.

The candidate who has most consistently stayed at the top of polling has been Eric Adams. The keyword here is consistency, not dominance, because this is the first time New York City will be using ranked-choice voting to determine its next mayor.

To those unfamiliar, ranked-choice voting is a system of voting that replaces the old first-past-the-post system, a system that only allowed a single vote for a single candidate. The new system will now allow New York voters to rank their five favorite candidates for mayor.

When the election counting starts, the candidate with the least number of votes gets eliminated and every vote will automatically transfer to their second choice. This process repeats until one candidate captures over 50% of the vote. Even though this is a new voting system for New York City, ranked-choice voting has existed in other states like Maine, where the multiple elections of governor Paul LePage led to serious voter reform.

Despite some candidates' low polling numbers, it’s still anyone’s race. Scott Stringer has been polling low toward the end of the race (about 9 percent), but he could be the second choice of every New York voter. Or maybe Yang. Or any of the other candidates. Polling is inconsistent in the best of times, so it becomes that much harder with a new electoral system. But as far as we are empirically able to determine, Maya Wiley is the current progressive champion.

Maya Wiley on the Issues

There are many ways to be “progressive,” as this race has clearly demonstrated. Look at the top positions of many of the top candidates and you’ll see mentions of “economic recovery” and “improving healthcare access” or whatever cynical cause may help them win a few more votes. But a lot of politicians are hopelessly out of touch. The classic example from this race occurred when the New York Times’ editorial team asked candidates Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire what the average cost of a home in Brooklyn was and both answered $100,000. The correct answer is about $900,000. The devil is in the details.

NYC Votes, an initiative of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, sent out a small booklet listing all the candidates to every home in New York City. In the booklet, each candidate for mayor was asked what their top three issues were and Maya Wiley listed the following:

  1. City Funds Creating 100,000 Jobs
  2. $5,000 Payments to Caretakers
  3. Public Safety & Police Accountability

Her campaign website goes into more depth on these top priorities and explains additional policies her campaign is running on, including her plans to improve New York City’s School systems and create small businesses. Each page has a small section attached where you can “Read the Full Policy,” which expands upon her bullet points listed above. The creation of 100,000 new jobs, for example, comes from a $10 billion capital spending program to invest directly in specific industries in order to restart the New York economy.

While each of the above-mentioned initiatives have pages of policy laid out, her plans are still vague. In Wiley’s housing policy section, she details a plan to “Aggressively roll back housing discrimination.” The section continues:

Maya will make critical investments in combatting discrimination against renters on the basis of whether they receive government subsidies or have histories of criminal justice involvement. She will amplify staffing and tools for enforcement.

What remains unclear is what “critical investments” or “amplify staffing” mean. Numbers, data, or anything else a curious voter might use to hold her future administration accountable are unavailable, though this is not uncommon. During their presidential campaigns, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden had plenty of issues they never entirely clarified. In the case of Biden, the lack of specifics were used to undermine key campaign promises.

The Limits of Electoral Politics

New York City is starting to pull out of a pandemic that has ravaged the economy and killed over 600,000 people nationally. NYC is currently sitting at an 11.4 percent unemployment rate, which has improved from last year, but is still three times higher than it was before the pandemic. More than ever, the city needs bold initiatives to make it a better place to live. This is where our elected officials tend to fall short.

A straightforward policy that you will not find in any of Wiley’s campaign material is an increase to the minimum-wage of the city. You will not find it in any other policy proposals either. Even though this city is one of the most expensive places in the country, its minimum wage capped off at $15 an hour in 2018 and has not increased since, yet the rent of an average apartment in Manhattan costs over $3,000 a month. This is because the Mayor of New York cannot increase the minimum wage; only the state legislature in Albany can.

For this reason, you will see no mention of candidates’ plans for improving the New York City subway system either. Even though major expansion on the subway has not happened in decades, you will never see a mayoral candidate run on this issue.

Many of the basic problems the city faces cannot be solved with the upswing of new legislature. For decades, mayors of New York have tried −and failed− to stop the increase of luxury development. The police union is as strong as ever even after a year of massive protests after the killing of George Floyd. All of these are kitchen table issues that would help average New Yorkers live better lives, but the inability of our electoral system reveals its weaknesses.

Democracy is not something that happens exclusively at the ballot box every two or four years. Rather, it comes in the forms of unionizing, solidarity fridges, mutual aid groups and many more. It’s good to have a progressive with a chance of winning, but this mayoral election will not topple the rule of the rich and powerful in New York City. It’s only ever the beginning.

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Vote in the New York City Mayoral Primaries (and primaries for many more local elections) on June 22, 2021! Find your polling place and all the info you need at the NYC Board of Elections.