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Faced with a major change in how New Yorkers will select their next mayor, the leading Democratic candidates for the job are trying to pull off a delicate balancing act.
The city is experiencing a major spike in crime, and polls indicate the increase in homicides and other offenses is now voters’ top concern. At the same time, many of the voters in the Democratic primary — the winner of which is all but certain to become the next mayor — want serious reforms to the nation’s largest police force.
And for the first time ever, voters will be able to choose up to five candidates in order of preference via ranked-choice voting, or RCV. The implementation of RCV has made the race difficult to poll, meaning candidates are relying on some degree of guesswork as they look to attract the right combination of first-, second- and third-place votes that will decide the race.
During an appearance in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Tuesday, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who is seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, started with aggressive anti-crime rhetoric before promising to “weed out” bad cops. Adams, a former NYPD captain, has also said he doesn’t want an endorsement from the city’s police union — although he has happily accepted its blessing in past races.
Running as a plainspoken populist, Adams has a law-and-order message that appears to be resonating, particularly with Black New Yorkers (some polls have him winning nearly 50 percent of the African American vote), voters over 45 and those who never went to college. At the same time, he’s been pilloried by progressives who say his approach to public safety is dangerous and outmoded.
Those progressives are now rallying behind attorney Maya Wiley, who’s become a serious contender for the nomination in recent weeks following a string of high-profile endorsements, including one from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Adams, meanwhile, has two moderate rivals to worry about: Andrew Yang, a businessman who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, and former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
Garcia said in an interview that every New Yorker needs to feel safe, but then moved quickly to emphasizing that the job is bigger than one issue. She’s trying to catch Adams with a message that says the next mayor has to do more than cut down on crime.
“He runs a hundred-person shop,” Garcia told Yahoo News, referring to Adams’s job as Brooklyn borough president. “I ran 10,000 people at a time when I had one job, much less when I had several jobs at a time.”
Garcia has spent nearly her entire adult life working for the city in one capacity or another, and that experience is central to her pitch. She also rejects calls to “defund the police,” supports lifting the city’s cap on charter schools and has said she would emulate previous centrist mayors like Mike Bloomberg and Ed Koch.
“You've got to be able to work with labor unions, work with a massive city budget, to make sure that we are delivering, whether or not that's education or food or sanitation services or safety. It's bigger than one issue,” she told Yahoo News.
Early voting is already underway, with the primary set for June 22. Many voters are still thought to be making up their minds, and Garcia hopes she can get enough second-choice votes to pull off an upset victory. “I believe we have strong support across the board with many people,” she recently told the Wall Street Journal. “They may have other No. 1s, but I’m their No. 2.”
Garcia is claiming that the contest is a two-person race with less than a week to go. But Wiley is still gaining momentum and consolidating support among progressives. Recent polls indicate that Adams is getting first-place support in the low to mid-20s, while Garcia is in the high teens, with Wiley and Yang close behind.
However, polling has indicated there may be a ceiling below 50 percent for left-wing candidates like Wiley.
Joan Giardina, a recently retired educator from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, ran into Garcia on Tuesday as the candidate met voters on the sidewalk in front of a Whole Foods. Giardina said Garcia was her first choice and Wiley her second.
“I’m a progressive largely, but I think we need to do what works for the city, and right now a more balanced approach is more of what the city needs than ideology,” Giardina said.
Adams, in his Sunset Park appearance, talked about public safety as essential to revitalizing the city. The area is known for its large Chinese American population, and Adams emphasized that China is one of New York’s largest sources of tourist travel. As the city faces an uncertain post-pandemic economic recovery, which will depend somewhat on tourists and the money they bring, Adams noted that “no one wants to come here if they believe they’re going to be stabbed while riding a bike … or slashed on the train.”
And he talked in clear, colorful language about the need for safe and clean public spaces. “Our parks can’t be drug dens. You can’t have people openly injecting themselves with drugs in our parks. You can’t have open defecation and urination. This park here, this is the Hamptons for this community. This is the upstate. This is where they come. We don’t have the money to fly abroad to exotic islands somewhere. We can’t go to Martha’s Vineyard. This is our Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
But again, Adams stressed that a mayor can be tough on crime while still reforming the NYPD, and said his experience as a police officer gives him special insights into how he can do both at the same time.
“I can't tell you the number of times that police officers came to me as a lieutenant, a sergeant, and said, ‘I don't want to go out with this guy.’ We have not created a pathway for those good officers to feel comfortable enough to say, 'This guy is hurting us,'” Adams told Yahoo News in an interview after the event.
“We have really not allowed those good officers to come forward and make them feel confident that the internal investigatory process is not going to harm them. Many of those officers are targeted after they report bad behavior. We need to remove that. ... You will see a complete change.”
Garcia, meanwhile, told Yahoo News that while “crime is something that has to be tackled and kept under control … there are a lot of other issues.” She talked about increasing vaccination rates, reopening the city economy, getting kids back into in-person learning in the fall and tackling rising rates of homelessness.
Andrew Fine, a real estate broker who escorted Garcia around the Upper East Side, said he thought she “would have the respect of uniformed officers.”
“We need a mayor who’s not going to start off in an adversarial relationship” with the police, he said.
But Garcia has also been critical of the NYPD. “Their discipline system is just dysfunctional,” she told the Journal.
Garcia’s low-key approach was clear as she toured businesses Tuesday. She engaged with voters and shop owners but sometimes let the empty spaces in conversation around her go unfilled. If Adams campaigns in bursts of high energy, Garcia’s appearances are more sedate affairs.
Wiley, meanwhile, was not backing down from a confrontational approach toward the police department. She is former chair of the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board, which conducts oversight of the NYPD, and has proposed cutting $1 billion from the department's budget a year after current Mayor Bill de Blasio reduced the police budget by that very same amount.
Wiley released a new ad on Wednesday that said she would not be “another ally of the developers, the establishment and the police unions” and would have “the courage to take them on.”
Wiley said during an appearance in Brooklyn on Tuesday that the crisis of homelessness is “an impending catastrophe.” She is proposing a rent freeze and wants to use federal money to help landlords avoid evicting tenants who are behind on their payments. She also mentioned a rent subsidy for anyone making $54,000 or less a year.
The question for Wiley, however, is whether her staunchly progressive platform will alienate more voters than it attracts.
Dee, a retired architect who did not want to give her last name, met Wiley before her appearance as the candidate walked along the sidewalk next to the Brooklyn Central Library. She told Yahoo News that she was choosing between Wiley and Adams, but said she did not want to defund the police.
“It’s a big mistake,” she said. “We need police. But we need a different kind of police.”
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