Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang officially jumped into the crowded race to become the next mayor of New York City on Thursday morning.
At a kick-off rally in Upper Manhattan, Yang promised to “revive” a city stricken by the coronavirus and introduced newly-elected Rep. Ritchie Torres as a co-chair on his campaign — a striking endorsement for a candidate with no experience in city politics.
“I’m running for mayor for a very simple reason,” Yang told a group of supporters in Upper Manhattan. “I see a crisis and believe that I can help.”
Largely unknown outside of tech circles before the 2020 primary, Yang won the affection — if not always the votes — of Democrats who appreciated his happy warrior persona on the debate stage and campaign trail. And he was backed by supporters branded the “Yang Gang,” who helped him raise $40 million over the course of his run — including a surprising $16.5 million as the race heated up in the final three months of 2019.
Yang filed the paperwork to run for mayor a few weeks ago, while he was campaigning in Georgia for the Democrats who would go on to win their Senate run-off campaigns and deliver the party a majority in the upper chamber. During his speech Thursday, Yang said Sen.-elect Jon Ossoff called him the night before to thank him for his help.
But Yang’s campaign got tripped up out of the gate after Politico reported that he left the city for his second home, in New Paltz — about 90 minutes north of where he spoke on Thursday morning — during some of the darkest days of the pandemic in New York. His answer, when asked about the decision by The New York Times in a recent interview, didn’t help matters.
“We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan,” Yang said. “And so, like, can you imagine trying to have two kids on virtual school in a two-bedroom apartment, and then trying to do work yourself?”
Many New Yorkers can — and in less spacious accommodations than Yang described. The comment set off blowback in the media and will surely be used by rivals to cast him as out of touch when the campaign, which has not yet spun into gear, ramps up in the coming weeks.
Yang, who has also been criticized for his lack of engagement in the city’s civic and political life before deciding to seek its top office, described his feeling when he moved here back in 1996.
“I felt like I was joining the center of the world,” he said, recalling his attendance at one of the most famous New York Knicks games of the past 25 years — no one has questioned Yang’s fandom and, as often follows, frustration with the team — and his walk north on the morning of the 9/11 attacks.
Yang said the work of rescuing the city from the pandemic’s devastation would require “bold ideas and a fresh approach” — an early nod to his unique platform, which includes a localized version of the “Universal Basic Income” pitch that was at the center of his presidential run.
The program, as sketched out on his campaign website, would target 500,000 people and begin by “providing those who are living in extreme poverty with an average of $2,000 per year.”
“As mayor, we will launch the largest basic income program in the history of the country. Right here in New York,” Yang said. “We will lift hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers out of extreme poverty, putting cash relief directly into the hands of the families who desperately need help right now.”
His campaign rollout, including a website that includes a characteristically rich variety of ideas and plans, has already grabbed the attention of the most online New Yorkers — in particular, his dedication to making New York “fun again” and a plan to make the city more affordable for local artists and creative types.
“Our administration would also work to attract content creator collectives, such as TikTok Hype Houses, where young artists collaborate. We need to help create similar artist collectives that utilize new technologies,” the site says, while on the same page that proposes a new position: “Deputy Mayor of Entertainment, Nightlife and Culture.”
Yang joins a packed field of mayoral hopefuls trying to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s two terms in office — including Shaun Donovan, former US secretary of housing and urban development, Brooklyn Borough President and former New York Police Department Capt. Eric Adams, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio.
The contenders are vying to take charge of a pandemic-stricken city where unemployment is skyrocketing, poverty and hunger are growing, and a budget crunch on the horizon could force the next mayor to make deep cuts to public sector jobs and services. Worries over mass layoffs has eased a little, though, since Democrats won control of the Senate, upping the chances that federal aid to state and local governments will be part of the next Covid relief package.
Yang suspended his presidential campaign last February, and he spent time as a CNN contributor after leaving the campaign trail. At the time he ended that campaign, Yang had said he had no plans to run for mayor in New York, where he has lived for nearly 25 years.
On Thursday, Yang touted his popularizing of the universal basic income as one of driving forces behind the congressional push to deliver direct relief to Americans as part of two stimulus packages — and likely a third, now in the works.
“Calling for a vote on the $2,000 stimulus checks that Joe Biden just endorsed should be one of the first moves that new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer makes,” he said, before talking up his relationship with Biden and his Transportation secretary pick, Pete Buttigieg, and the “dividends” that familiarity would play as he tries to juice the city’s financial comeback.
Yang also dug into some of the more prickly pieces of city politics. He promised to push for greater “accountability” from the New York Police Department, which has been criticized for its heavy-handed response to largely peaceful protests last summer, and said he would seek to take control of the city’s public transit system from the governor’s office.
Perhaps the most surprising moment of the day, though, came when Torres — less than two weeks since entering Congress — appeared by Yang’s side and endorsed him. Torres, Yang said, will be a campaign co-chair.
“I know those in the press are surprised to see me. I’m surprised to see me,” Torres said. “I’ve made two consequential decisions at the beginning of my congressional career. First, I voted to impeach Donald Trump. To save our country from authoritarianism. And today I have chosen to endorse Andrew Yang for mayor of the city of New York, to save our city from the failed politics of the past.”
On the eve of his announcement, Yang released a video produced by director Darren Aronofsky, the second world famous filmmaker to get involved in the mayoral campaign. Spike Lee did the same — plus providing narration — for McGuire, the former Wall Street executive who entered the race last month.
After leaving the presidential race, Yang founded Humanity Forward, a nonprofit he used to test some of the ideas that animated his campaign. In March, he began giving hundreds of working families in New York $1,000 a month to determine the effectiveness of such a program. The organization also endorsed down-ballot candidates across the country.
This story has been updated with background information and reporting from Thursday’s event.