It is almost impossible to describe how scattered, mediocre, and boring those eight Democratic primary elections were. Small criticism and personal scandals abound. Current leader of the left, Maya Wiley, sees her legitimacy being challenged because her long-time partner contributed money to patrolling a private security car in her neighborhood – after a brutal robbery took him to the hospital. Kathryn Garcia is “charged” with not being a Hispanic American. Serious questions have been raised as to whether Eric Adams or Andrew Yang even live in the city they want to rule. Former front runner Scott Stringer’s efforts faltered after he was accused of touching a friend 20 years ago and a waitress 30 years ago. Dianne Morales’ campaign workers unionized and immediately went on strike, despite the fact that their campaign continues to advertise like a ghost ship.
What former Mayor David Dinkins once called the “beautiful mosaic” of New York seems to have been broken, with each candidate reaching for a shard. Adams has his Hasidic faction, Yang his. Adams and Wiley vie for the support of black voters. Ray McGuire has the Upper East Side, Garcia the Upper West.
Undoubtedly, the Byzantine format of ranked voting, in which voters are asked to pick their top five candidates in order of preference, has added to the confusion. The new system provides a kind of “instant run-off” that saves money while also ensuring that the winner is who it was Not the first choice of a majority of voters.
Certainly, most of the city’s past mayoral elections have been far from stirring doctrines in democracy. New York, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, was the first great city in history to be man-led – and people have often made hash out of it. Nineteenth-century mayors included wholly-owned creatures of Boss Tweed like John T. Hoffman and A. Oakey Hall, a radiant fool who loved dressing all in green on St. Patrick’s Day. The brazenly corrupt Fernando Wood sparked an uprising between rival police forces and suggested at the beginning of the civil war that New York City should also leave the Union and found a separate country of the “Tri-Insula”. (Maybe not such a terrible idea to revive …) A young Teddy Roosevelt who ran in a three-man field in 1886 only finished third, losing to the immortal Abram Hewitt.
Even Fiorello La Guardia, who is still considered the gold standard among American mayors, won the office in 1933 with just over 40 percent of the vote. Jimmy Walker, who knocked down La Guardia in the last election, was forced to resign and fled to France within days, his showgirl lover and an estimated million dollars in transplant with him. La Guardia’s successor, William O’Dwyer, fled to Mexico with his wife when evidence emerged that he had facilitated an infamous mob murder.
Even so, in times of crisis, New Yorkers have proven to be mindful of the issues ahead and select candidates and programs that represent a real break with the past. The shining example was La Guardia’s “Fusion” campaign in 1933, when a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, Socialists and other reformers decided they could no longer afford the incompetence and buyability of Tammany Hall at the worst of the Great Depression. Other changes of direction included the election of Ed Koch after going from Liberal in Greenwich Village to Law and Order overnight in 1977, Rudy Giuliani as the first Republican in nearly 30 years in 1993, and Michael Bloomberg, the first elected businessman in more than a century, when New York’s entire future seemed shaky after 9/11.
Crucial as they were, I would argue that all of these sharp right turns were taking New York in the wrong direction, ultimately exacerbating the city’s already sizeable race and wealth disparities and much of the public sector that had been built along the way privatized or erased the New Deal to make New York a city for all of its residents. I think a lot of New Yorkers have some buyer remorse for some of these choices. (Looks at you, Rudy.)
However, when dissatisfaction with the city’s chosen course became apparent in recent years, no individual at all, no great vision emerged. Bill de Blasio took over the mayor’s office in 2013 after the field collapsed into scandal and boredom that year. De Blasio has won two landslide victories without ever building a mandate or even attracting a large stake. This aimlessness has shown how New York has evolved in the last few years, even before the pandemic. We have wanted many things – more affordable housing and business rents, a police force that responds to the people who pay for them, better schools, businesses that offer real opportunities to all New Yorkers – but an effective agenda never seems to emerge. Instead, we just seem to get more super tall skyscrapers and land bank billionaires.
This year’s race was more like the same, reduced to discussions about crime and quality of life in its final days, as if nothing had changed since 1993. Questions about the bigger problems of today and tomorrow – the wealth gap, rising sea levels and, again, the police – were not the driving force behind the campaign. Candidates have generally talked about how they want all good things – better public education, higher wages, more health care, less abusive police force – but they say these things as if the desire were to achieve it without any substantial debate about it how to get there. This has resulted in candidates trying to distinguish themselves primarily through defamation and innuendo focused on each other’s personal life and by spending fortunes on ads.
New Yorkers used to take pride in treading the path when America reworked and redefined the ideas of freedom and democracy. Now we just seem distracted and listless and demand someone Get those noisy ATVs off the streets. Maybe it’s an aftermath from Covid, but the social distancing remains. It feels like we’ve lost faith in our own ability to make this a city for everyone and prefer to keep hiding, each in our own corners.