NEW YORK — Everybody’s ganging up on Andrew Yang.
The New York City mayor’s race has grown more vicious in recent weeks — and the favorite target is Yang, who has come under attack for everything from his basic income and tax plans to his employment history and his second home upstate.
The aggressive hits on Yang reflect his status as front runner in recent polls, as the more established politicians who are now trailing him in the Democratic primary race scramble to take him down a notch and make an impression with the roughly half of voters who remain undecided.
New Yorkers will, for the first time, choose a new mayoral candidate in the June primary using ranked-choice voting — a system that allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference, and which proponents predicted would cut down on negative campaigning.
But lately, the race has looked more like what Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams predicted over a year ago, when he declared, “Trust me, It’s going to be a dirty campaign.”
Adams, a Black former NYPD captain who is polling second to Yang, has been among the most aggressive in going after the former presidential contender.
“This is not a startup. This is a city where a leader must have been a worker. People like Andrew Yang never held a job in his entire life,” Adams said at a recent event where he snagged the endorsement of the city’s largest municipal workers union.
Yang has in fact been employed in several jobs, but Adams is betting that his opponent’s background as a Brown and Columbia grad who worked as a corporate lawyer, and then at startups and a tech non-profit, won’t resonate with working class voters.
“We don’t need someone that has never gotten up in the middle of the night to walk, to eke out a living for their family,” Adams said.
The broadside drew a particularly pointed response from Yang’s camp, who accused him of hateful rhetoric amid a spike in anti-Asian attacks. “Eric Adams today crossed a line with his false and reprehensible attacks. The timing of his hate-filled vitriol towards Andrew should not be lost on anyone,” said campaign managers Sasha Ahuja and Chris Coffey.
So far, neither the hits from his rivals nor a series of early missteps by Yang himself show evidence of halting his momentum. But with scarce public polling in the race and a large share of voters not yet tuned in, the contest remains very much up for grabs. Around the same time in the 2013 mayoral election, current Mayor Bill de Blasio was polling in fourth place.
With that in mind, Yang’s rivals are trying to define him as an out of touch neophyte with little knowledge of the city’s inner workings, while the frontrunner goes for the image of cheerleader-in-chief, rooting for the city’s comeback from the Covid-19 crisis.
Adams has gone after Yang’s plan to give cash payments to some New Yorkers, a modified version of the universal basic income program that was the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Adams calls it “U-B-Lie” and a “snake oil” plan.
He has also slammed Yang for leaving the city at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, after POLITICO revealed that he spent much of his time at his second home in upstate New Paltz. “When others fled, I led,” Adams said, comparing Yang to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who took a much-mocked trip to Cancun during a power crisis in his state.
Stringer called the comments proof that Yang is “pandering” and can’t be trusted to stick to his pro-transit stances. “The first sign that somebody pushes back on innovative transportation infrastructure, Mr. Yang takes it all back,” Stringer said.
Stringer also took the opportunity to blast Yang’s proposal for tax incentives to lure commuters back to mostly-empty Manhattan offices.
“Giving tax breaks to Fortune 500 companies is not going to bring the workers back,” he said. “This is Andrew Yang’s version of municipal Reaganomics.”
Meanwhile, Maya Wiley, the former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, bashed Yang in a series of escalating statements in response to his call for the city to hold off on spending all of its federal stimulus aid.
By the end of last week, her campaign was comparing him to Donald Trump.
“Andrew Yang just can’t get his story straight and that makes him dangerous for New Yorkers,” Wiley spokesperson Julia Savel said. “Our city deserves a serious leader, not a mini-Trump who thinks our city is a fun play thing in between podcasts.”
David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, said the escalating attacks on Yang are no surprise.
“The answer is simple: he’s the frontrunner. People have to take him down if they’re going to take his place,” he said.
So what about the new system making everyone nice to each other? It turns out Adams was right — there is still plenty of room for ugliness in ranked choice voting.
Alex Clemens, a veteran Bay Area political strategist and lobbyist with Lighthouse Public Affairs, has some experience with ranked choice dynamics in San Francisco where the system has been in place for more than a decade. He said certain time-honored rules of politics never go away.
“Most ranked choice voting races wind up with the same dynamics of the non-ranked-choice races — where the person in the lead wins,” he said. “If you’re winning, you don’t change the narrative. If you’re not winning you must change the narrative.”
Clemens said it would make sense for Wiley and Stringer to create a one-two alliance — they’re politically similar in approach and are running to the left of Yang.
“The classic RCV opportunity is where you have a person in the lead, similar to Mr. Yang, and two ideologically compatible contenders who, in the aggregate, out-poll the leader,” Clemens said. “In a situation like that, it would make a great deal of sense for them to align; advantages can be created when a candidate says, ‘I’m Maya. Vote for our values by ranking me first and Scott second,’ and the other does the same.”
So far, Wiley and Stringer together wouldn’t overtake Yang’s lead, but the dynamics of the race could still change dramatically.
There have been some signs of campaign trail comity, particularly from the lesser known candidates: Kathryn Garcia, former city Sanitation Commissioner, joined up with Yang to promote her proposal to cut red tape for small businesses.
Yang and Wiley also appeared together to receive a joint endorsement from the Freelancers Union.
“After an incredibly difficult year full of loss, sadness and Zoom, New Yorkers are looking for hope, joy and positivity, and that’s what Andrew Yang is focused on delivering,” Yang spokesperson Jake Sporn said. “New Yorkers are drawn to the hope that Andrew is bringing our City, and they’re rooting for him the same way he’s rooting for New York’s comeback.”
New Yorkers, Sporn said, want “a new kind of leadership — rooted in a positive, hopeful vision to help people.”
“And right now, Andrew Yang is the only candidate in this race who is delivering on that,” he said.
But the slaps at Yang will continue, his rivals say.
“Andrew Yang never spent a minute caring about how the city was run until he decided he wanted to run it — and it shows in his campaign of gimmicks, half-baked ideas, and telling every audience what they want to hear,” Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said. “We will continue to make the contrast between Andrew Yang’s dilettantism and Scott Stringer’s deep commitment to New York City and proven track record of getting big things done in government.”
Savel, the spokesperson for Wiley, said she “will say what she believes without hesitation.”
Jonathan Custodio and David Giambusso contributed to this report.