The operative word is might. It’s still very early in the race. Ten weeks before the 2013 mayoral primary, it looked like the top candidates were Anthony Weiner and Christine Quinn, then the City Council speaker. This year will be New York City’s first time using ranked choice voting in such a primary, and no one knows quite what that’s going to mean. It could help Yang because he’s so well known, leading supporters of other candidates to pick him as their second or third choice. Or it could hurt him by consolidating the votes of constituencies Yang has alienated.
John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is skeptical that the Yang boom will last. His “gut feeling,” he said, is that the energy around Yang is mostly based on the press appreciating “how he’s interacting with people when they see him, and not much beyond that.” Mollenkopf argues that mayoral primaries are hard to poll, since only a fraction of Democrats — around 20 percent in 2013 — vote in them.
And he believes that celebrity and excitement don’t win Democratic primary elections in New York City. What does? “Having an organic relationship to the constituencies that follow city politics and depend on city politics,” he said, particularly “the various unions that represent people who are directly or indirectly dependent on government money, contracts, support for nonprofit organizations and so on.”
In Mollenkopf’s analysis, the city’s politics, unlike the country’s, are still mediated by a thick web of institutional relationships. Yang agrees that this has been true in the past. He just thinks that this time will be different.
“The more the electorate expands, the better it is for someone like me,” he said. “And I think the electorate will expand this time. And this is knowing full well that just about any time a candidate makes the case that the electorate will expand and that’s how they’re going to win, they lose.” He’s convinced that “there are a lot of folks who have not been plugged into New York City politics who are actually going to vote this time.”
Not long after Yang said this, a young man walking by the restaurant did a double take, eyes widening. He pointed at Yang: “I am so excited for you to be the mayor, man!”
Luke Hawkins, a 36-year-old actor and dancer, described discovering Yang on the Joe Rogan podcast. “I wish he were the president,” he said. “I can’t stand pandering politicians. Just the fact that there’s no BS, he’s just completely genuine.” Hawkins said he leans left but doesn’t like what he calls the “woke stuff” and viewed Yang as a “problem-solver.”
So, I asked, would he definitely vote in the primary? “I frickin’ hate politics,” he said. “But I will vote for him.” Then he asked, “When is the primary?” It’s June 22. The future of New York City may hinge on how many voters like him remember.
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