It is hard to pick a favourite moment from the New York mayor’s race, entering its final stage of the primaries this week. It could be the episode in which two candidates – Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire – were asked to guess the average house price in Brooklyn and answered $100,000, which would have been correct in 1985. (For those operating in 2021, the correct answer is $900,000).
It could have been the implosion of the Dianne Morales campaign, the most progressive candidate by far, predictably destroyed from within when staffers complained she’d created a “hostile” environment and that the work, presumably stuffing envelopes, was “repetitive and unstructured”. Meanwhile, it is hard not to love the storyline still playing out around Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president and current frontrunner in the primary and therefore the election: that he secretly lives in New Jersey.
The mayoral race in the US’s biggest city has always been a weird combination of national and parish politics, a magnet for cranks and hustlers, as well as Bloomberg-style billionaires. Four of the last six mayors in New York have been Democrats – Republican voters are outnumbered six to one in the city – and the lion’s share of coverage goes on the Democratic field; this year, not even the rightwing New York Post bothered to endorse a candidate in the Republican primary.
Still, even among Democrats it can be hard to get New Yorkers to pay attention to the race much in advance of the final election. A few months ago, the only candidate with name recognition and the early frontrunner was Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate and CEO of assorted failed startups, running on the “visionary” ticket, and about whom it remains a mystery that he has ever sought election for anything.
Yang’s lead took a hit during the pandemic, when it transpired that he had cleared out of the city to his second home upstate. For a hot second, Scott Stringer, the 61-year-old New York City comptroller and the most experienced politician in the field, glided into first place, until two accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced (he denies them) and that was the end of him.
And so we arrive at the portion of the campaign represented by Eric Adams’ fridge. New Yorkers will tolerate, even celebrate, a certain amount of eccentricity in their mayor; look at the enduring affection for Ed Koch, the Democratic mayor of the late 70s and 80s whose theatrics made him loved even as the city slid into bankruptcy. Anthony Weiner, the disgraced candidate in the 2013 race, was given a second chance after his sexting shenanigans largely based on the force of his personality.
Adams, 60 years old and a police officer before he went into politics, is not a showman in this style. The fact that the biggest of scandal of his run for office has been so entertaining, however, has probably helped his campaign more than it has hindered it. Two weeks ago, in a move worthy of Matt Hancock, Adams invited press to his apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, in an effort to shut down rumours that he actually lived in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Reporters scoured the scene, noting, despite Adams’ dietary preferences, the number of non-vegan items in his fridge (salmon, dairy), and the presence of sneakers that appeared to belong to Adams’ adult son, Jordan. If his judgment is off – the main takeaway from the episode was the foolishness of inviting a reporter to your home – Adams came out of it looking relatably shambolic.
There has never been a female mayor of New York. By far the sanest candidate, endorsed by the New York Times and running just behind Adams in the polls, is Kathryn Garcia, the former head of the city’s sanitation department and popular on both left and right of the party. She hasn’t been involved in any scandals, save for her brilliantly amateurish campaign video in which, after uttering a few lines in an Ingmar Bergman-esque monotone, she broke through a sheet of glass stamped with In Case of Emergency Break Glass and stalked off in a leather jacket straight from an 80s Heart video.
Garcia’s weakness is one that often dogs competent women outflanked in politics by flamboyant and incompetent men: her public persona is not “fun”. It is serious and impressive. In some inchoate way, someone who knows the sewers of New York – and the 10,000 public service workers who maintain them – would seem to know the city at an unparalleled level. And yet a quick glance at Bill de Blasio, the current mayor and a man the city unites in despising, reminds us that serious and impressive doesn’t always win the day. De Blasio popped up last week to illustrate how ranked choice voting works, by holding up a chart of his favourite pizza toppings. (Number one: green peppers. The man’s a disaster.)