As presidential dust settles, New York City turns its eyes to historic mayoral race

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NEW YORK — Hundreds of supporters filled the street outside Bill de Blasio’s Park Slope row house in January of 2013 to witness him launch a long-shot bid to become New York City’s 109th mayor.

It was a lively affair, the size of the crowd belying de Blasio’s underdog status at the time. Bundled in winter gear, supporters chanted his name as he delivered a soaring speech pledging his commitment to New Yorkers disappointed in the technocratic tenure of multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

Nearly eight years later, with the city in the throes of a ceaseless pandemic, the election to replace de Blasio is shaping up to be a very different race.

Two candidates looking to succeed him next year, Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley, announced their campaigns at relatively muted affairs. They each gathered just a few dozen supporters who sat several feet apart, their faces and cheers obscured by masks, as they somberly promised to guide the city through a time of profound crisis. Other candidates, including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, past Citigroup executive Ray McGuire and former nonprofit head Dianne Morales, must navigate concerns over a second wave of Covid-19 as they prepare to announce their bids in the coming weeks.

As the presidential election draws to a close, the contest to succeed de Blasio, whose term ends on Dec. 31, 2021, will be unlike any other in city history. It features a crowded field of contestants who must consider both the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party and a creeping unease over safety, the economy and quality-of-life matters in a city transformed by the ongoing pandemic.

“This will look different than any race, except for the very bizarre eight-week run between Sept. 11 and the November general back in 2001,” Jonathan Rosen, a consultant who worked on de Blasio’s 2013 race, said in a recent interview. “Then, as in now, the city faced real existential questions about its future. Unlike then, the pandemic and what it means for the city is yet to be determined and there’s no end in sight.”

The virus-era restriction on gatherings is not the only novel factor in the upcoming election.

The primary contest — which will likely decide the race in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 8-to-1 — has been moved by state law from September to June, compressing the political calendar and robbing candidates of standard summer opportunities to connect with voters.

If Covid-19 continues apace, gone will be the annual parades commemorating American soldiers during Memorial Day weekend and Puerto Rican heritage in June. The West Indian American Day parade along Eastern Parkway, an all-but-mandatory stop on every candidate’s path to office, takes place several months after the primary on Labor Day. Campaigns’ in-person efforts to register and turn out voters will likely be complicated.

The pandemic has already begun affecting the rituals of campaigning.

The candidates were forced to skip the traditional, lively Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club visit, instead answering questions from the host on individual Zoom calls. Wiley is launching a series of online forums titled “People’s Assemblies,” which will run from Nov. 16 through Dec. 15 and will provide voters a chance to interact with her on issues.

In-person fundraisers are smaller, presenting a difficulty for newer candidates in raising money, according to several campaign advisers. As a result, they are relying more on social media and online efforts. Further changing the roadmap is a new, voluntary campaign finance system that limits individual donations while increasing the size of taxpayer-funded matches.

Even if the virus abates and restrictions are lifted during the election, the earlier primary means candidates will not have a chance to schmooze with voters at street fairs and block parties.

The advent of ranked-choice voting, which will make its debut next year, is another big factor altering the election’s dynamics. Backed by government reform groups — as well as Stringer and Wiley — it is intended to avoid subsequent runoff elections in inconclusive primaries by allowing voters to rank their choices. But the reform, approved by voters on a ballot question last year, is being challenged by people close to established Democratic organizations who argue it will ultimately disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

“I will call it BS forever. We can undo the law. We are going to have more than 10 candidates per race. More people’s vote will not count because people will not rank all 10. We institute a program to ‘empower the minority’ when we are no longer that. We’ve gentrified our vote,” Patrick Jenkins, a Queens-based political operative, tweeted on Saturday, responding to a post about ranked-choice voting.

In a follow-up interview, Jenkins said he is discussing efforts to delay the reform with lawmakers in the City Council.

Jenkins is close to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a powerful figure in the Bronx Democratic Party, but said his opposition to the measure is his alone.

“Now that minorities are the majority in this city, things like ranked-choice voting are there to dilute their power,” Jenkins said.

Supporters of the measure are holding educational training sessions ahead of the election, and argue it will better reflect the will of voters, particularly in crowded races.

Dennis Walcott, a deputy mayor for Mike Bloomberg and current president of the Queens Public Library, said ranked-choice voting will change how candidates craft their messages.

“Vote for me, but then vote for this person in the second slot. I think it really raises a level of sophistication in how you campaign,” Walcott, who volunteered on Bloomberg’s 2005 and 2009 campaigns, said in an interview. “You’re campaigning, but you don’t necessarily have the hand-holding that’s going on in the streets to reinforce your message.”

“The other piece is you really can’t dog that many people because there are implications in really trying to tear other people down,” he added.

Walcott is also a regular church attendee in Southeast Queens, and often accompanied Bloomberg to church services when he was running for re-election. Some of the city’s larger religious institutions, such as the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, are regular stops for candidates looking to connect with large audiences of consistent voters.

To that end, Walcott said most churches are holding Zoom sessions, which enable candidates to cut down on travel time and connect with even more potential voters than they normally would — albeit without any in-person contact.

Jessica Ramos, a state Senator from Queens and surrogate for Stringer’s campaign, agreed the tactic of trying to appeal to every voter rather than discounting certain blocs is likely to discourage negative campaigning.

“It really will bring us closer to being much more solution-oriented, which is what I’ve always thought government should be, and it’s hard when electoral politics get in the way,” Ramos said in a recent interview.

She said she recently participated in a cell phone poll that she believes was conducted on behalf of a mayoral candidate.

Ramos said the survey, which lasted for 18 minutes, inquired about her race and education level and the importance of a spate of issues including the pandemic, crime, public transportation, racism, the economy, public schools and homelessness. It specifically inquired about Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ history as a police officer, she said.

She was asked what she thinks of several mayoral hopefuls, including Stringer, Wiley, Adams, McGuire, former Obama and Bloomberg official Shaun Donovan, former de Blasio commissioner Kathryn Garcia and City Council Member Carlos Menchaca.

Many of the candidates volunteered for Joe Biden in recent weeks as the election wound down, and quickly reminded supporters of their own ticking clocks.

“After four LONG years, we did it,” Wiley wrote in a blast email to supporters. “We can breathe a sigh of relief, and NOW is the time to turn to real solutions to the problems that plague us."

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