Kathryn Garcia, the Dark Horse Who Just Might Win?
Garcia's campaign is as ideally suited as any for ranked-choice voting
When Kathryn Garcia, Bill de Blasio’s former Sanitation commissioner, entered the Democratic primary for mayor last year, I did not initially think she would win. With well-known candidates in the race, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, it did not seem she could get that far. At the time, the quiet field cried out for a disruptive outsider, and one arrived in Andrew Yang. He gobbled up airtime for months and that, it seemed, would be that.
Now Garcia has a real, credible shot at being elected the mayor of New York City. Polling has shown her consistently close enough to Adams that the race, in these final days, maintains its volatility. And the nature of ranked-choice voting clearly favors Garcia. She has alienated neither moderate nor progressive voters, and is going to show up on many ballots in vote-rich neighborhoods throughout the city. White progressives on the Upper West Side, Park Slope, and elsewhere will be ranking her highly, while white outer borough ethnics, pleased she’s eschewed any kind of tangible left-wing branding, will be find her acceptable enough to put her on their ballots. And her last name, Garcia—she was raised by an Irish-American father, but her ex-husband is Latino, as well as her children—is likely going to lend her an ability to show up on ballots in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
For Stringer in particular, the rise of Garcia must be especially galling. For many months, Stringer’s operatives argued to me and others that there was a path to victory in RCV for a candidate who could build a broad coalition and not polarize too many voters. Garcia, in essence, accomplished what Stringer set out to do—win the endorsement of the New York Times, lock down the backing of enough white liberals, and scoop up Latino votes. Two allegations, one of sexual assault, doomed Stringer’s campaign, though they were lacking in evidence. Garcia benefited very directly from this, as the Times dismissed Stringer and elevated her instead. The Daily News followed suit. Newspapers no longer sway opinion like they used to, but endorsements still confer validity and signal to other news organizations, especially TV stations, that a candidate deserves more attention. Soon, reporters would be trailing her everywhere.
In the old system, Garcia would probably be doomed. Before 2021, if no candidate cleared 40 percent, there would be a runoff between the top two vote-getters. These low turnout elections were never easy for white candidates, especially those counting on an educated, liberal coalition. In 2009, John Liu crushed David Yassky in a runoff for comptroller, and Letitia James did the same to Dan Squadron in the 2013 public advocate race. Adams knows he would’ve been a better runoff candidate; like James in 2013, he would have consolidated the support of the large labor unions and run roughshod over Garcia in Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.
This does not mean RCV is bad for Black candidates. It means, ultimately, it is a bad system for polarizing candidates, and Adams, with his history of incendiary statements and controversies, can certainly polarize. It is not hard to imagine another Black candidate, like Hakeem Jeffries or Jumaane Williams, doing quite well under this system. For months, however, Adams benefited from a concerted push, mostly among progressives, to make sure people dropped Yang from their ballots, without much—if any—mention of Adams. Yang was the original front-runner, the vehicle for Bloombergians to return to power. With so much focus on Yang, Adams coasted for months, mostly unscathed. Meanwhile, Yang promoted Garcia everywhere he went, telling reporters she was his number-two pick and implying he’d farm out the day-to-day governing to her if he won. At first pleased, Garcia later deemed such rhetoric “sexist,” and rightly shot back that if Yang and others thought so highly of her, they should make her mayor. (On Saturday, Yang and Garcia began campaigning together, so the hatchet apparently was buried.)
Adams is now under attack daily. The only question is if this criticism has come too late. Had the negative campaigning against Adams started even sooner, Garcia’s path to victory would be quite clear. As of now, she has a deep challenge—how to not get completely shut out in working-class and middle-class Black neighborhoods that reliably vote. These voters were the backbone of de Blasio’s 2013 victory. Garcia will either need to pick up some votes in Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Southeast Queens, or hope she’s on enough ballots elsewhere to make up for these deficits.
If Garcia does not finish in first place on Election Night but goes on to win once votes are tabulated in July, there will be deep distrust of the system in nonwhite communities, and many thousands of people will wonder whether the fix is in. It won’t be, but this is a scenario politicians and election officials must prepare for. Some of Adams’ supporters are already raising such a possibility, quietly casting doubt on a new type of voting they never wanted in the first place. “he's going to be our next mayor unless that new voting system is rigged.i don't understand if something happens to the first person it jumps to the second to win,” wrote a man named Rick Williams on the Facebook page of Laurie Cumbo, a city councilwoman who is one of Adams’ top surrogates. “what can possibly happen? no one is explaining this. all i know is if that kathryn Garcia wins i'm PROTESTING[.]” Cumbo very quickly “liked” the comment.
A Garcia victory, if it comes, would be remarkable on several different levels. She would, of course, be New York City’s first female mayor. And unlike all other candidates in modern times, she would have won without having held a prior office, something usually reserved for those enjoying celebrity or being inordinately wealthy.
Garcia is not a favorite candidate of organized labor, either—none of the very large and influential unions in the city, like the United Federation of Teachers or 1199 SEIU, are backing her. With Stringer’s downfall, she has started to gather up the support of more local Democratic clubs, but never a critical mass. Just eight elected officials have endorsed her as their first choice for mayor. The professional left—the Working Families Party, the NGO’s, and associated activists—is entirely missing from her campaign, since she has actively opposed defunding the police and rejected the idea of raising taxes on the rich. Garcia is not a natural progressive, and has never sought, in any serious way, the backing of these groups. The WFP originally ranked three candidates for mayor, and Garcia was not one of them.
All of this makes Garcia, for the Left, far more of an ideal opponent than Adams. Like Yang, she would enter office with few institutional ties and less of an ability to resist activist pressure. Garcia, a first-time politician without a natural base, would be a mayor the Democratic Socialists of America, for example, could more easily organize against than Adams, a Black man with deep relationships with labor unions, outer borough Democratic politicians, and real estate elites. Adams, a machine mayor, will relish fights with the Left and probably win his fair share. If Adams becomes mayor, he will be incredibly hard to primary, with his multiracial base in the outer boroughs. Garcia, as a white mayor with weak liberal bona fides, could theoretically be driven out of office by a Black progressive challenger.
In Garcia, New York would have a mayor fundamentally more conservative than de Blasio—a supporter of charter schools, more skeptical of rent-stabilization—and perhaps even less charismatic. But in this moment of crisis, with the city recovering from the pandemic and shootings on the rise, both realities may work in Garcia’s favor. Many New Yorkers just want agencies to function and corruption to disappear. De Blasio was never as incompetent as he was portrayed in the media, but he was a micro-manager and was, at one time, under federal investigation for his dubious fundraising practices. Angering leftists and conservatives alike, de Blasio, too often churlish, wore out his welcome with large swaths of the city. On Friday, in Bensonhurst, I heard Garcia promise a voter she would not be as “far to the left as de Blasio” and later say she’d be a “pragmatic” progressive, which is coded language for someone who resists the redistributive goals of broader left movements.
I decided to ask Garcia, like I had of Adams and Yang, whether she would encourage the Rent Guidelines Board to freeze or rollback rents in the future. The state legislature and the governor control most laws impacting tenants in New York, but the mayor appoints members to the Rent Guidelines Board who determine if rents will increase, freeze, or decrease on more than two million rent-stabilized units. Under Michael Bloomberg, the board routinely approved large hikes, because Bloomberg was a capitalist in the purest sense, a friend to landlords all over. De Blasio, like Bloomberg, forged a close relationship with real estate developers but had far more sympathy for working-class tenants. For the first time in its history, the de Blasio board approved a rent freeze, and froze rents again during the pandemic.
Garcia, in Bensonhurst, did not seem terribly warm to this idea. “You’ve gotta follow the data. What does it say in terms of the expenses owners have?” Garcia told me. “Obviously I want to have the lowest possible or zero percent rental increase but we can’t do that if we’re raising property taxes.”
It was notable, in her answer, that she hardly invoked tenants at all. Her first concern, seemingly, was for the property owners, all of them absurdly wealthy when matched up against the people paying to live in their apartments. The average apartment in the five boroughs belongs to a 21-property, 893-unit portfolio. The top landlords in the city are billionaires. Garcia surely knows this. Her sympathies simply lie elsewhere.
At 86th Street and Bay Parkway, a stretch with many immigrants and non-voters, Garcia walked with a local assemblyman, Bill Colton, passing out her campaign literature. It was a lonely scene I knew well—I had once spent many hundreds of hours doing the same, jamming palm cards into the hands of people who’d rather do something else with their day than talk to a wannabe politician. With few reporters around her and most of the Brooklynites unaware of who she was, Garcia was not exactly in her element, but she had spent the last decade as a manager in city government, not as a Democrat hustling for votes on a Friday afternoon. In the final days of the 2013 primary, reporters flocked to de Blasio, and each staged event was almost valedictory, a celebration of what was to come. Garcia walked up the block, with an aide and a camera trailing, carefully waiting for Colton to pull voters in. Perhaps the people who spoke to her will remember, years from now, the time they met the first female mayor of New York City.