Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Andrew Yang, Bloomberg Without Money
What his City Hall could look like
When it comes to Andrew Yang, front-running candidate for mayor of New York City, some intense emotions have formed in a remarkably short amount of time.
Yang graduated from affable, long-shot UBI guy in 2020 to villainous Trojan Horse for every nefarious special interest in a matter of months, all thanks to his rise in the mayoral race. It’s almost May and Yang has led in every single poll, provoking genuine fear on the left that a man with no involvement in New York political life could be living in Gracie Mansion next year.
For the NGO left—the constellation of organizations that identify with left causes, like the Working Families Party—Yang is not so much an existential threat as the child telling the emperor he’s really wearing no clothes. If these organizations that purport to represent mass constituencies of working class people can’t even power one of their three endorsed candidates to the Democratic nomination, what value are they? At least DSA, which has a vibrant constituency, had the good sense to avoid this race altogether. Unless something dramatically changes—and life isn’t looking so hot for the nonprofit left’s chosen son, Scott Stringer—it will be Yang or maybe Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, running New York City. And it will be these self-identified progressive consultants, NGO leaders, and liberal machers, so good at shoveling quotes to the New York Times, who will be left on the sidelines.
First, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what it would mean if, indeed, Yang wins the June 22nd Democratic primary and coasts in the general election against nominal Republican opposition. He will have demonstrated the hollowness of most political institutions in the five boroughs. An entrepreneur who got famous running for president and hardly bothered to vote in New York at all, Yang was able to capture, in a matter of months, constituencies that ladder-climbing political lifers could not, despite their many attempts. It only took four months or so for Yang to completely lock up the Hasidic vote in Borough Park, Brooklyn, for example, despite the fact that Adams and Stringer have been pandering to this community for years, and Stringer once cheered on rocket attacks on Gaza. That work, clearly, was for naught. Yang gave ground on all their issues to a distressing degree, particularly on BDS and Palestine, but most Democrats have been doing that for a while. The Hasidic leaders are a pragmatic bunch and they clearly see the writing on the wall. This Yang guy, who they had barely heard of before January, might be going places.
The best way to understand Andrew Yang, municipal Democrat, is to imagine Michael Bloomberg without billions of dollars—and with far more sympathy for the left wing of the Democratic Party. Yang’s top consultant is Bradley Tusk, Bloomberg’s former campaign manager. Tusk, a multimillionaire, waged war against the de Blasio administration, successfully defending Uber’s explosion in the five boroughs, allowing for-hire vehicles to clog city streets and decimate the yellow taxi industry, spurring a rash of suicides among immigrant drivers. Uber’s business model has been borderline fraudulent, relying on endless venture capital cash to price rides at an artificially low rate, and perfectly encapsulates the Big Tech ethos that Tusk and his allies celebrate. (Let’s pause here to note that many Democrats cheered on Uber’s invasion of New York, including Scott Stringer.) Tusk is very open about his disdain for progressive Democrats and his wish to wrench the party in a more neoliberal direction. His firm, which also lobbies the city, has consulted for the PBA, the reactionary union representing NYPD officers, and his dislike of the teachers’ union has bled into Yang’s campaign. Tusk’s significant financial interests in casino gambling very well could have influenced Yang’s bizarre and unworkable idea to place a casino on Governor’s Island.
In Yang’s City Hall, Tusk would probably be the new BerlinRosen. Before 2013, BerlinRosen was a small but growing consulting group known for working on left-of-center campaigns. One of their clients was the upstart mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio. In the years after de Blasio’s victory, BerlinRosen’s founders became highly influential and very wealthy, representing many well-heeled clients who had business before the city. Lyft, Uber’s top rival, retained BerlinRosen as they too fought de Blasio’s attempt to cap the ride-hail industry. Real estate developers who wanted action from City Hall, like Two Trees, Forest City Ratner, and SL Green, knew to retain BerlinRosen because their co-founder, Jonathan Rosen, functioned as one of de Blasio’s closest political advisors. De Blasio’s close working relationship with the city’s real estate elite made him not so different than the predecessor he reviled, Bloomberg, who achieved his long-sought goal of turning New York into a “luxury product.” Considering that both Bloomberg and de Blasio alums are piloting the Stringer and Maya Wiley campaigns, it’s not hard to imagine that their City Halls would have a comparable relationship with the real estate industry.
BerlinRosen did “strategy” rather than direct lobbying, which allowed them to skirt disclosure laws. Though lobbyists are vilified far more in the media, it is these strategists who work on campaigns and then advise clients in front of the very politicians they help elect who represent the most troubling and durable aspects of politics in New York. Of course, many firms just register to lobby and consult, like Tusk Strategies and the Parkside Group, who are the quiet kingpins of the new Senate Democratic majority. Right now, Tusk is not a top 20 lobbying shop in New York City. Expect that to change if Yang wins, as real estate developers and other powerful interests seek out those lobbyists who have the ear of the new mayor. Given that Tusk’s employees also have close ties to Corey Johnson, the front-running candidate for city comptroller, the next eight years could be very lush for the firm.
Yang is often presented, on the left, as a revanchist neoliberal, the kind of Democrat who will open New York’s hen house to Bloombergian wolves. On one hand, this is understandable, because it is undeniable Bloomberg veterans will have much more of an opportunity to influence this City Hall than they did under de Blasio.
But the activist left, in their fatalism, do miss a crucial point. Yang is not Bloomberg because Yang does not possess world-historical wealth. Yang is a Manhattan renter who sends a son to public school and may have made a few million bucks a while ago. Bloomberg could buy and sell what Yang is worth—and the rest of us—billions and billions of times over. Even now, all these years removed from Bloomberg’s New York, we forget how much money he really had. In his successful quest for a third term in 2009, he blew more than $100 million on his campaign. Later on, he spent more than $1 billion on a vanity bid for president and still probably increased his net worth in those wasteful months.
Bloomberg altered the political gravity of New York like few men in history. With his billions, he bought the silence of untold numbers of activists, advocacy groups, cultural organizations, and special interests that got noisy again once de Blasio became mayor. Would a nonprofit or lobbyist or consulting firm really go to war with Bloomberg, knowing one day he’d be a private citizen again, prepared to deploy his billions however he saw fit? Bloomberg entirely owned a chamber of the state legislature, the Republican-controlled Senate, and could happily push around governors like George Pataki and David Paterson because he had more money than whichever finance titan wanted to cut them a check.
In a normal New York, a Republican mayor would have difficulty forcing bills through a Democrat-dominated City Council with its fair share of progressives. But when Bloomberg wanted bills to pass or be completely shut down, like anodyne legislation to give workers paid sick days, the Democratic speaker, Christine Quinn, gladly obliged. Did she do it out of goodwill for old Mike? Not quite. She did it because Michael Bloomberg could destroy her tomorrow if he wanted. (Occasionally, the Council would override Bloomberg vetoes to demonstrate some independence.) All of your union and activist allies couldn’t stop the millions that would rain down upon you, that could pump up political action committees, fatten campaign coffers, and neuter those who dared step out of line. Ultimately, with the exception of the high profile failure of the West Side Stadium in Manhattan and the disastrous tenure of a Department of Education chancellor, Bloomberg got pretty much everything he wanted in New York.
A deeply unpopular third term? With a little effort, rammed through that Democratic City Council. An extraordinary number of new charter schools, opposed by many public school parents and teachers? Done, because the Republican Senate would always raise the charter cap when Bloomberg came calling. Ask Scott Stringer’s campaign manager, who was once Bloomberg’s wunderkind lobbyist in Albany—for a guy who governed a Democratic city, Bloomberg rarely walked away disappointed. In his third term, he was sick of all those insolent labor unions with their public sector workers wanting raises, so he stopped negotiating new contracts with them.
Who was gonna make him? Andrew Cuomo, with sociopathic glee, bullied de Blasio over his eight years as mayor. Do you really think Cuomo, who fundraised hungrily from all the rich men with Hamptons compounds a short drive from Bloomberg’s, could’ve pushed around such an alpha? Bloomberg would’ve told the greasy pauper to get lost.
Here we come to Yang. To hear the broad left, on Twitter at least, bemoan Yang is to wonder whether the apocalypse is really upon us. Yang is fundamentally a moderate, “normie” Democrat with some intriguing left impulses. He is against defunding the police, but you won’t get a defund mayor as long as the middle class Black and Latino voters of Brooklyn and Queens don’t want one. Dianne Morales probably isn’t winning the race and if you really think Stringer or Wiley, facing down this electorate, will enact deep NYPD cuts at a time gun violence is spiking, I’ve got a Governor’s Island casino to sell you. Yang’s flirtation with cracking down on street vendors, as concerning as it is, will probably be negated by the City Council’s expansion of licenses, which Yang says he supports. There will probably be no lasting reforms of the NYPD—it will remain the highly-militarized citadel that it is—which will be of great disappointment to the left.
Beyond Morales, however, it’s hard to see any candidate shifting the funding and practices of the police department in a radical direction. A Yang mayoralty, like a Stringer or Wiley mayoralty, would probably come to resemble what we saw under de Blasio: deference to police leadership, a few very high profile and controversial police incidents, and an incremental approach to reform that manages to anger progressives and moderates alike. One big difference between the left-leaning candidates in the race and Yang is their willingness to support non-police solutions to mental health and homelessness calls. De Blasio has begun a pilot program in Harlem to do just that. If Yang manages to win, he should seek to expand the program, and ignore his law-and-order consultants. Assuming he won’t, it’s a cause for worry.
Education, for leftists and various reformers, presents more reasons to oppose Yang. He does not support eliminating the SHSAT, the standardized test used for New York’s specialized high schools. The SHSAT has been a target of the left’s ire because, in addition to overburdening kids with test prep, it has led to elite schools that have very few Black and Latino students and many more Asian-American students. If the SHSAT is eliminated, many Asians will see it as an attack on Asian success, since Asian-American students form large majorities at all of these schools. (In New York City, white, wealthy students usually end up at private schools. High-achieving nonwhite students can also go to private or charter schools.) Still, a system that relies only on a standardized test, and nothing else, is quite odd.
But let’s talk about what’s really going on here. Currently, there is no chance the SHSAT is eliminated for the “big three”—Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and the Bronx High School of Science—because that requires approval from the state legislature. Democrats don’t want to go anywhere near the issue. John Liu, the state senator who chairs the city education committee, is against striking the test, and his colleagues have his back. Many of the mayoral candidates would get nowhere on this. Yang won’t even try.
Some elected officials argue the real segregation is caused at the middle school level, with the Gifted and Talented programs and the screened schools. Affluent parents compete to get their kids tested into the “right” middle schools. Morales and Wiley would eliminate G&T, which would decrease segregation, and Yang won’t. These programs, though, are very popular in certain neighborhoods and Wiley has even sent one of her children to one.
Screens should be eliminated for good. My own radical idea is to make city public school students do what students in the rest of America do every day: attend their zoned neighborhood schools. School choice, pitched as a way to end segregation in New York, has only done the opposite. And with gentrification and immigration, neighborhoods themselves are much more diverse than their schools. School districts can be redrawn, if need be, to encourage integration.Most city neighborhoods, with a few exceptions, are integrated enough to produce schools that would not be exclusively one or two races. A zoned Astoria school, Flatbush school, or Bay Ridge/Sunset Park school could easily mix kids together. Yang won’t do this. And it’s not a fight the more cautious Stringer or Wiley would be expected to take on. Morales stands apart, but Morales is still polling in the single-digits.
Whatever you think of Yang’s ideas—from the admirable, like a public bank and cash transfer proposal modeled on a successful program in Stockton, California, to the misguided, including a tax break for working in-person—the reality of his City Hall is that it would have to play by the existing rules of politics. As Matt Thomas pointed out, Yang is guaranteed to welcome some sleazy and dubious local business tycoons into the fold who pitch him destructive ideas. But unlike Bloomberg, the left can easily organize against all of that. Yang will be a conventional Democrat, like de Blasio, and he will not have an endless reserve of money to draw from. He will not be able to bludgeon anyone. It’s possible, even, that he farms out the day-to-day governance of City Hall to one of his mayoral rivals, like Kathryn Garcia, who led Sanitation and NYCHA for de Blasio.
The City Council, come 2022, is guaranteed to be the most left-wing in New York history. As many as six DSA members may sit in the chamber, along with many Democrats who agree with DSA on a vast majority of issues and will want to mimic their politics to avoid a primary challenge. With the outer borough Democratic machines severely weakened, the next speaker will be repeatedly challenged from the left—if he or she doesn’t just end up being one of their own. The state legislature, for perhaps the first time in modern history, will operate to the left of the sitting mayor. Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers.
In the Assembly and Senate, there are young, charismatic leftists with their own large social media followings and ability to command conventional press attention. They just steamrolled Cuomo in the state budget negotiations. Mayor Yang could meekly ask them to raise the charter cap and they’d tell him to scram. Yang might be against taxing the rich, but Democrats in Albany can do it without him. After decades of city progressives being caged in by laws that gave the state great power over city affairs, a new dynamic will emerge, with a lack of local control working in the left’s favor. If Yang lunges in any disturbing directions, there will be senators, assembly members, and city council members to check him. It’ll be their New York too.
Should labor unions, particularly the municipal sector, panic if Yang wins? Yang wasn’t an anti-labor presidential candidate, though Tusk and the Bloomberg acolytes who might populate City Hall would rather these unions weaken or disappear altogether. Labor knows better, though; they haven’t endorsed Yang, but they probably aren’t readying massive independent expenditures against him either. Why? He doesn’t have Bloomberg’s billions. Bloomberg could defy organized labor because his wealth insulated him from their pressure. Wealth is its own political machine.
Yang will be ordinary, another elected official trying to placate interest groups that can make his life extraordinarily difficult. He will have to bargain with Mike Mulgrew, Harry Nespoli, Henry Garrido, and all the rest. Labor, like the broader left, will be well-positioned to apply great pressure on a Yang City Hall. If Yang attempts to stiff them or curtail public spending in a significant way, there will be a united left-labor front against him, because he won’t be able to triangulate like Cuomo, pitting the interests of public and private sector unions against each other. And if local media coverage is any indication, there won’t be a groundswell of adoring press to buttress him. From day one, the fight will be pitched.
On Wednesday, as Stringer denied he sexually assaulted a former campaign volunteer, Yang released his affordable housing plan. For a leftist who dreams of a social democratic New York City that decommodifies housing and saps the strength of predatory landlords, Yang’s proposal left much to be desired. But in the context of what Democrats have pitched over the last 20 years, it had a lot to recommend. His goal of hitting 250,000 affordable housing units over eight years, if reached, would exceed what de Blasio accomplished. He wants to fight back against the ability of a single City Council member to kill a rezoning because it happens to occur in their district. He would legalize single-room occupancy units, which gave millions of poor New Yorkers an affordable way to live in Manhattan for decades, and accessory dwelling units. He would end mandatory parking minimums, which fed the car culture.
If Yang pursues citywide rezonings rather than the neighborhood-by-neighborhood piecemeal plans favored by de Blasio and Bloomberg, he could go much further, circumventing the opposition of those opposed to any kind of new construction. It is, all the way, a YIMBY plan, but if Yang is pursues upzonings in wealthier neighborhoods, there is nothing wrong with that. The problem with traditional rezonings has been how they price out poorer residents and spur on gentrification; upzoning areas with higher incomes, like SoHo, will help avoid those struggles. New York needs universal rent control and socialized housing. If a mayor won’t deliver on those goals, building more housing is the consolation prize.
Yang does not represent a break from the post-1970s status quo: all mayors, from Koch onward, have made it their primary mission to make New York attractive to wealthy investors, heavily relying on tax revenue from Wall Street and pursuing policies to benefit that engine of uneven growth, real estate. Police are well-funded, in part, to safeguard capital. This is what neoliberalism is and Yang will not be any kind of departure from that reality. But no one, outside of Morales, promises a return to the pre-Crisis social democratic city.
The threat of Yang, which should be taken seriously, is that he would begin to privatize certain segments of government, welcome outside philanthropy that could function as de facto quid pro quo, and potentially seek reductions to social services if his aides push him to do so. What’s important to understand, if Yang makes it to City Hall, is that none of this is a fait accompli.
When Bloomberg entered office in 2002, Republicans controlled the State Senate, the Governor’s Mansion, and the White House. George W. Bush was very popular and liberalism, writ large, was in retrenchment. The organizing infrastructure that has been built up in New York City since then will be pivotal here in holding to account whoever the next mayor ends up being. With polls showing Yang and Adams ahead of the rest of the field, this organizing work will become even more important. And it would matter just as much if candidates the activists prefer, like Wiley, Morales, or Stringer, triumph in June. No one will deliver for you unless you make them.
This essay has been updated to reflect additional information about Uber and Lyft.