In the course of just the few weeks before early voting to pick a new mayor began this weekend, New Yorkers changed their minds about the challenge they are most concerned about.
In April, likely voters told pollsters that curbing COVID-19 was the top challenge facing New York. But as vaccination spread and the virus stopped spreading, a new threat asserted itself as the top challenge New Yorkers are counting on their new mayor to confront: the surge in crime and violence.
This shift has helped power the campaign of retired police captain Eric Adams, who himself listed public health as the city’s number one challenge when he filled out the city’s voter guide some time ago. He now is campaigning squarely on how his experience can restore public safety while strengthening police accountability.
But this shift also dramatizes a larger question. The success of any administration is measured in how well a mayor meets the moment. But moments change, sometimes with surprising speed, as we see right now. How do we pick a mayor who will be right for the moment ahead?
That is one of several factors that have combined to make this a particularly daunting election from a voter’s point of view. The city is, of course, emerging from a health and economic crisis as severe as any in its history. Add the introduction of Ranked Choice Voting, which asks more of voters than simply deciding who you are for (or against).
This complexity is energized by a more generous campaign finance system that encouraged candidates to get in, and stay in, the race, helping to create the largest field in any mayoral election since 1977.
“It is a complicated and difficult moment,” said Chris McNickel, historian and New Yorker.
Voters are clearly looking for help. One undecided voter wrote to Straus News asking if there were lessons from the city’s history that could help sort through the multiplicity of candidates and the complexity of the challenges facing the new mayor. “Who were the best mayors?” the writer asked. “And what did they achieve that made them rank among the best?”
For guidance we turned to McNickel, author of three books about New York Mayors.
“What makes a good mayor?” McNickel summed up the question. “A mayor has to be a skillful electoral politician who can respond to the needs of New York City’s impossibly diverse population, absorb the public mood and find a way to project it back to the city in a single voice in a way that responds to a broad need.”
That’s quite a skill in itself, but only half of what’s demanded, he continued.
“That’s the public facing job,” he said. The other half of the job is to serve as a “skillful manager” of the city’s sprawling government of 300,000 workers and three score agencies that do everything from snuffing out fires to teaching our kids. “It is a remarkable breadth of responsibility a mayor has,” McNickel said.
Two Top Choices
Indeed, this challenge seemed to underlie the endorsements Friday by Citizens Union, the 125 year-old reform group born in the fight against Tammany Hall. The group said it had two top choices, Kathryn Garcia for her municipal managerial skill, and Adams for his vision, as if it will take two candidates to fulfill the requirements for one successful mayor.
McNickel was one of several savvy political observers who noted that the shift in how voters rank key issues is less significant than the core challenge that this election has always been about: an equitable recovery which will require public safety, public health and a broader distribution of the city’s economic opportunities.
“All races evolve, as you go on, with different issues,” said George Arzt, the veteran political strategist who is advising the campaign of Ray McGuire, the former Citigroup executive. “This is no different. But in the long run this race is going to be about opening the economy. But right now it’s crime and violence. Notice how the pendulum has swung from defund the police.”
McNickel rejected the notion that this field of candidates was some how inferior to past choices.
History of Picking Mayors
Another expert added that the history of New York mayoral elections should give us confidence that voters are up to the task of sorting this out.
“The electorate always seemed to express the common sense of a jury,” said Sam Roberts, veteran political reporter and author of “A History of New York in 101 Objects.”
Roberts reviewed the city’s modern history of picking mayors to show that voters seem to find their way.
“After the ‘Eisenhower’ years of Bob Wagner when everyone was tired, New Yorkers wanted the fresh John Lindsay,” Roberts said. “After too much Fun City and fiscal cliffhangers, go back to the clubhouse guy who knows the buck, Abe Beame.” But after Beame’s “pathetic performance literally and figuratively over his head as the floodwaters of debt rose,” voters took a chance on a plainspoken cheerleader, Ed Koch.
“After 12 years of in-your-face schtick and racial tension,” Roberts continued, voters switched to “a balm-thrower like Dinkins.” Then “when Dinkins didn’t immediately ‘do something’ about crime,” voters turned to Giuliani. “9/11 elected Bloomberg; and after a plutocracy that revived the city, a return to progressive roots with de Blasio.”
Roberts acknowledged that “the pandemic, the crowded field, and ranked choice voting have created a handicapper’s nightmare” in this election. But that’s more a problem for handicappers (read journalists and political operatives) than for the city’s future. The job of voters is to pick a mayor, not predict the election.
For more on what the mayor does, go to NYCVotes.