Ever since the calendar flipped on New Year’s Eve, the 2021 mayoral election has become a top conversation starter in New York City. This race is not for the faint-hearted: the person we elect will have a mandate to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented threat to our economy and livelihoods, especially for low-wage workers, women with children, people of color and immigrants.
The campaign ramps up at a time when 25,000 New Yorkers have died from coronavirus and public school cafeterias have been retrofitted to operate like soup kitchens. A time when neighborhoods are facing a looming eviction crisis, 12 percent unemployment, surging gun violence and a mass exodus from the city. The situation is far worse than after the Great Recession of 2008, when the U.S. economy fell further and faster than any downturn since the Great Depression.
This is a very dangerous moment indeed, and it would be disastrous for voters to elect a mayor who lacks gravitas and a thorough understanding of how the city works. The COVID-19 crisis has made this mayoral race less about electing a big-talking inspirational leader, than about someone with budget proficiencies, policy smarts, coalition-building skills, and the toughness to get things done.
Thankfully, New York City is fortunate to have an impressive, diverse field of mayoral candidates. They include several women and people of color, established elected officeholders and accomplished professionals, including a civil rights lawyer, a Wall Street executive, a former police officer, a federal budget official and former city commissioners and major nonprofit administrators.
My organization, the Community Service Society (CSS), together with Community Voices Heard and Make the Road NY, is sponsoring a virtual candidates’ forum on January 26. With COVID-19 ranking as a top concern for low-income New Yorkers based on CSS’s annual Unheard Third survey, we have singled out healthcare – and how the candidates intend to address long-standing racial disparities in the healthcare delivery system – as deserving of its own debate. The following candidates have confirmed their participation:
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer; Maya Wiley, former counsel to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; Ray McGuire, former vice chair of Citigroup; New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca; Dianne Morales, former executive director and CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods; Shaun Donovan, former budget director and HUD secretary for President Barack Obama; Loree Sutton, former New York City Veterans’ Services commissioner; and Kathryn Garcia, former New York City sanitation commissioner.
On March 23, CSS will host a second mayoral forum, this one examining where the candidates stand on housing and economic security issues. CSS is also producing a voter guide with candidates’ positions on addressing a range of issues, from the disparate economic impact of COVID-19 and the preservation of affordable housing, to healthcare affordability and criminal justice reform. We hope the guide will help voters make informed choices ahead of the June primaries. [Editor’s Note: As a nonprofit organization, CSS does not endorse candidates for political office.]
Our next mayor may be forced to make mass layoffs and deep, painful budget and service cuts to close a projected multi-billion budget shortfall. They will face other dire challenges, such as restoring trust in the public education system after the coronavirus school closings, pent-up demands for police reforms, racial justice, and jobs for the legions of unemployed.
The obvious question is, who wants such a tough and thankless job? There is little research about what inspires people to run for election as big city mayors, especially at a time of crisis. “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy,” President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.”
Is it ambition for higher office? In U.S. history, only three people who served as mayor have succeeded in becoming president: Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Johnson. But that poor track record is not for lack of trying. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, both tested the 2020 presidential campaign waters. Rudolph Giuliani ran in 2008.
Motivations may vary, but one thing is certain: we need a mayor who is concerned with now, someone undaunted by the challenges before us. Someone who works well with others and can rally state and federal government to deliver at a moment when so much is beyond the mayor’s control. It is unclear if New York City will get enough much-needed aid from the federal government to halt future layoffs and doomsday budget cuts. What is more, Albany and Washington, D.C., hold sway over huge chunks of New York City’s operations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for instance, dominates the Financial Control Board, which has the legal power to control New York City’s finances.
Without a doubt, this is the most consequential mayoral race that many of us have seen in our lifetimes. We invite you to join us and learn more about the candidates so you can make the best decision possible at the polls.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.