‘The need to compete everywhere’: New York mayoral candidates face new challenge
Candidates competing in the Democratic primary are banking on support in New York’s traditional battleground areas. But the advent of a new ballot system has scrambled political conventions.
NEW YORK — They’re visiting shops along bustling thoroughfares in the Bronx, addressing parishioners at churches in Southeast Queens and lining up for pictures with children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But little ground has been so heavily trafficked as the area outside Brooklyn Borough Hall, where stores, government buildings and a transit hub converge in the heart of one of the city’s most voter-rich districts in its most populous
The Democratic primary candidates have been making stops outside Brooklyn Borough Hall: Andrew Yang received a Covid test at a mobile truck there in March. Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, and Shaun Donovan, an Obama administration official, kicked off petitioning there in March. Kathryn Garcia, a longtime city manager, handed out campaign literature during morning rush hour last week, departing one hour before Maya Wiley — a lawyer and former mayoral aide — arrived to greet commuters. And Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, needs only to walk outside his office.
It’s no wonder: The perimeter of Borough Hall lies in a state Assembly district where 46,517 people voted in four recent elections — more than in any other district across the city, according to an independent analysis conducted by consulting firm BerlinRosen.
“It’s the civic center of Brooklyn,” City Council Member Steve Levin said. “If you’re running for mayor, it’s kind of a perfect place.”
Candidates competing in the June 22 primary are banking on support in New York’s traditional battleground areas. But the advent of a ballot system allowing voters to rank up to five people in an eight-way field — with six first-time candidates who have no proven bases of support — has scrambled political conventions. Contenders are hitting low-turnout neighborhoods they would ordinarily bypass, while also trying to secure support on their opponents’ turf, with the hope of being ranked second or third.
Garcia and Wiley are trying to cut into Stringer’s base on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, while all three also compete in Brownstone Brooklyn. Adams expects to outperform his rivals in Central Brooklyn, though Wiley is refusing to cede that ground. Adams and Ray McGuire, a former finance executive, are dueling for support in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Southeast Queens. And Yang, the former presidential candidate, is banking on piecing together a coalition of white moderates, Asians and Orthodox Jews — eating into voting blocs Adams had been counting on to expand his base.
And all are making a play for Latino voters, who are politically diverse, growing in numbers and have never had representation in the city’s highest elected office.
“The need to compete everywhere is magnified by ranked-choice voting,” Alex Navarro-McKay, who prepared the voter analysis for BerlinRosen, said. “In that respect, this election will look different than past multi-candidate primaries, where candidates focused on consolidating and mobilizing their bases.”
Further complicating candidates’ calculations is a shift in voting patterns since the last competitive mayoral election in 2013. A movement supporting far-left ideals has taken root in neighborhoods along the East River, though it remains to be seen whether their interest in national races translates into excitement for a municipal election without a candidate who has captured their devotion. Dianne Morales, who would seem a natural fit for those voters, has been dealing with a staff revolt over the past week.
New Yorkers of Hispanic and Asian descent are expected to be more consequential than in prior years, particularly since Yang, would make history as the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
Meanwhile, Stringer has been visiting churches in Southeast Queens — a predominantly Black area where voters generally favor moderate Democrats. It would seem like prime territory for Adams and McGuire — Black men with more centrist positions than Stringer, a white man who in 2019 backed a challenger to the local congressman’s pick for district attorney.
But Stringer, who has lost some support following contested allegations of sexual assault, sees an upside to campaigning in that area, which includes the two Assembly Districts that together accounted for 26,287 votes in the 2013 primary — making them the most civically active in the borough that year. The comptroller stopped by four churches in Jamaica, Queens on May 9, just as he was seeking to rehabilitate his candidacy from an accusation of sexual misconduct from 20 years ago.
“People in this community are raised to come out and vote,” Dennis Walcott, president of the Queens library and a lifelong resident of Southeast Queens, said recently, as he recounted the attention his neighborhood had been receiving from mayoral candidates.
Voters there appear split between Adams and McGuire, if endorsements and campaign cash are any indication.
Adams has received 424 donations totaling more than $80,000 in those two districts, according to a POLITICO analysis of data provided by the city Campaign Finance Board. That dwarfs financial support for his competitors in the area.
But McGuire has won endorsements from prominent Southeast Queens politicians, including Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), state Sen. Leroy Comrie and Assembly Member Vivian Cook. Perhaps more important, according to McGuire adviser Tyquana Henderson-Rivers, is support from civic organizations that drive people to the polls.
“We didn’t just go after grasstops and elected officials, and we certainly have our share out there. We’re holding our own with Eric,” Henderson-Rivers said in an interview. “We have the leadership of civic, tenant and block associations.”
“That’s what’s priceless,” she added. “I’ll take them anytime and twice on Sunday over some of these electeds.”
Another hotly-contested area is the Upper West Side of Manhattan — home to the 69th state Assembly District, which produced the largest vote total in the 2013 primary. Stringer grew up as a politician in that area and expects a strong showing, despite the recent allegation that cost him progressive endorsers.
In the days following the accusations that he groped a 2001 campaign volunteer against her will — a claim he has denied — several residents in the area told POLITICO they plan to vote for Stringer.
“I still support him. He’s a great candidate,” said 68-year-old Brent Saunders. “I always think of sexual harassment of someone using their power against someone. It’s becoming irritating for me because you’re hearing more and more of these stories, and it’s very irritating — the fact that almost anything is an issue.”
Others were dismissive of Wiley, who worked as City Hall attorney under outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio for two years and provided legal analysis on MSNBC. Wiley, a first-time candidate who would become the city’s first female mayor, is hoping to peel progressive voters from Stringer. But on the Upper West Side last month, one person referred to her as a “media personality” and another called her a “political dilettante.”
Nevertheless, Wiley has raked in nearly $92,000 from 1,171 donations in that Assembly District — more individual contributions than any candidate other than Stringer, who received $134,610 from 1,346 donors.
None of that was enough to move Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, who represents that district and endorsed Garcia — a first-time candidate who worked as de Blasio’s sanitation commissioner and go-to crisis manager.
Garcia has been gaining momentum since the endorsement of the New York Times, which holds sway among left-of-center white Democrats. Her poll numbers have been improving and her fundraising has picked up steam. As her standing improves, Garcia has been spending more time on the Upper West Side, and on Friday greeted students and parents at a public school on West 84th Street.
“This is a citywide campaign that is building a grassroots coalition of number one support from every borough. Kathryn is going everywhere and talking to everyone, which is why she has the highest percentage of donations from New York City — 84.7 percent,” campaign spokesperson Lindsey Green said. “We'll continue to be on the ground, citywide, through election day.”
Wiley’s team sees her path to victory as a mix of white liberals and Black voters, particularly those who reliably turn out in Central Brooklyn. The strategy mirrors de Blasio’s winning coalition and she has received some of the same endorsements he did in 2013 — most notably health care workers union 1199 SEIU.
At a recent campaign stop outside Brooklyn Borough Hall, Wiley told POLITICO she intends to campaign on the Upper West Side and in Central and Brownstone Brooklyn in the final weeks. “That’s where we have a lot of voters, but it also represents this broad coalition I’m pulling together which is Black, Latino, progressive and white, particularly white women,” she said.
Her staff has divided the city into three tiers based on demographics and past turnout. The team then determines how many first-, second- and third-place votes Wiley needs to win in each of those districts and focuses her time accordingly, according to a person involved in the strategy.
Wiley is hoping to steal support from Adams in his home base of Central Brooklyn, and capitalized on his weak relationships with high-profile politicians in that area to secure big-name endorsements like Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke. She planned to campaign with Jeffries Tuesday morning along Utica Avenue.
She has received 854 contributions totaling $52,842 in the 57th Assembly District, where a progressive upstart unseated an incumbent in a 2018 primary. Adams, by comparison, has $60,800 from 345 donors, according to POLITICO’s review.
“There’s some pretty striking commonality across neighborhoods. Eric’s traditional support in Central Brooklyn is definitely something that you see in Southeast Queens, but then also the very small but big-in-a-primary population on the North Shore [of Staten Island] and in the West Bronx,” Adams consultant Matt Rey said. “And the more people get to know him, the more they like him.”
In private, several people close to Adams have acknowledged Wiley’s potential to seize votes from him but believe she has been an underwhelming candidate.
Adams drew a lively crowd one recent Friday as he opened a campaign office in Crown Heights.
After the celebration, one supporter from East New York explained why he backs the former NYPD captain.
“As a Black man who has lived the majority of my 53 years on the planet in this city, and having been stopped, frisked and beaten several times by police officers in the city, I need, want and dream of change,” Derek Caldwell said.
Caldwell, who works in a homeless shelter, said he likes Wiley and appreciates “the sense of pride [Yang] has given Asian Americans” but does not like “his seeming lack of knowledge concerning police reform plans.”
He said he connects with Adams, who grew up in hardscrabble Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods. “His 20-some-odd years in law enforcement, his founding of the 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and his experiencing of police abuse personally at 15 speaks volumes to me,” he said.
Adams has faced his share of setbacks this cycle at the hands of Yang, a former presidential candidate embarking on his first run for local office.
Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, received the backing of prominent Asian politicians, including Rep. Grace Meng and state Sen. John Liu. Adams — recognizing the difficulty he may face as a moderate former cop appealing to white liberals — went into the race hoping to win over Asian-Americans, who have been voting in bigger numbers in recent years.
Yang also peeled away Orthodox Jewish leaders who bring the promise of a unified voting bloc in Brooklyn. Without Yang in his way, Adams had a much clearer shot at those endorsements.
And both are competing with Garcia for moderate white voters in lower-turnout areas like South Brooklyn and Staten Island. They are generally overlooked in Democratic primaries, but have become coveted in a muddled election with so many candidates and ranked-choice voting.
The entire borough of Staten Island, which has a healthy Republican population, produced just 23,219 votes in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor — fewer than a single district on the Upper West Side.
“Staten Island doesn’t have a ton of votes, but one of the things we were trying to do from the beginning is start with a base of votes,” Yang co-campaign manager Chris Coffey said. “We’ll do really well with Jewish votes; we’ll do really well with Asian votes. And if you add Staten Island onto that, plus we expect to win Latinos, that’s a great place to start from.”
Adams has dominated the money race on Staten Island, receiving 454 donations that total $167,098, according to POLITICO’s analysis. Yang yielded $30,134 from 413 contributions.
The Bronx, which has a large Latino population and reliable voters in Riverdale, Norwood and Throgs Neck, has emerged as another battleground in the race. No candidate comes from the Bronx and all are hoping to claim its voters as their own.
Yang launched his campaign with the backing of Rep. Ritchie Torres, Wiley has been campaigning aggressively across the borough and Donovan has been frequenting Bronx mosques. Meanwhile Stringer is hoping to appeal to Latino voters with a general market ad focused on his Puerto Rican family ties.
Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president who for years considered a run for mayor, believes the borough will deliver for Adams.
“Candidates have to play small ball. No one’s going to hit the big home run where one big community is going to come out in big numbers anymore. That’s not the way it works,” he said after a recent event with Adams outside City Hall. “So therefore the candidate that can put together the best diversity, the most diverse group of volunteers, supporters and validators I think wins the day. So far you see that out of Eric Adams.”
Jonathan Custodio, Amanda Eisenberg, and Jesse Naranjo contributed to this report.