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It’s a move that may provide an important last-minute jolt of energy for undecided progressives: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY-14) has endorsed activist and civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley for Mayor of New York City.
And it isn’t just an Instagram moment: it is a recognition of what Wiley has already achieved. She has run a steady campaign with no errors. She has positioned herself to pick up progressive constituencies and endorsers as other, more experienced candidates stumble. And because of this, although she has no history in elected office, Wiley is beginning to look like a mayor.
The daughter of National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) founder George Wiley, Maya is no revolutionary. She comes from a left-wing tradition that demands a strong government and accountability from that government as a prerequisite for a worker-focused economy. Former counsel to the only moderately popular Mayor Bill de Blasio, an activist and a policymaker, Wiley has worked at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the N.A.A.C.P. Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement recognizes Wiley for what she is: the top progressive in the race, and one who will promote the policies New York workers and employers need as they recover from Covid-19’s attack on a city already grossly economically unequal.
Even those of you who aren’t New Yorkers have probably guessed that whoever wins the primary on June 22 will become mayor of New York City, and that person could be the first woman to win the office. Democrats outnumber Republicans 8-1. Joe Biden won 76% of the vote in November 2020, slightly down from Hillary Clinton’s 79% in 2016.
This year’s Republican field is also particularly uninspiring. New York has had numerous and popular Republican mayors, most recently Michael Bloomberg, who switched parties to run against Democrat Mark Green. This year, the Trumpy candidate is Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, a law and order vigilante group. He has a long history as a racist jerk and attention-seeker. In 1980, Sliwa faked his own kidnapping. Fernando Mateo, who hopes to become the city’s first Hispanic Mayor, is usually spoken of as a restaurant entrepreneur but is more Bloomberg-like than anyone gives him credit for. A Bush Republican with extensive civic—but no political—experience, he is unlikely to excite conservative white voters in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island enough to push him over the top in a general election.
But name recognition on the Republican side is, I suspect, at an all-time low because the Democratic race is eating up all the publicity. Furthermore, for the first time in history, voters in New York will be asked to rank as many as five candidates. This means that no one knows how to poll the race, so no candidate gets a boost from being declared the winner in advance.
In ranked-choice voting, any candidate who wins 50% of first-place goes on to the general election. If not, votes are reallocated until someone reaches 50%. As the New York Times explains it:
Think of ranked-choice voting as voting in rounds: If a single candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-choice votes in the first round, then he or she wins, and that’s the end of the race.
If no one exceeds 50 percent of votes in the first round, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and all other candidates move on to the next round. All the votes for the eliminated candidate will be reallocated to whichever candidate those voters ranked second, and then the votes are retabulated. Then the candidate in last place after that will be eliminated.
In New York’s primary, these rounds of elimination will continue until there are two candidates left — even if a candidate collects more than 50 percent of votes before the very end. The candidate with the most votes in the final round wins. In each round, when a candidate gets eliminated, his or her votes get redistributed to whoever was ranked next on the ballot.
Most of us are used to choosing a candidate and being done with it, but ranked-choice voting is intended to open up the field, and it has. There are 13 contestants, and it is perhaps the most racially and ideologically diverse group of candidates in the city’s history. Eric Adams, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, and Andrew Yang have emerged as the most serious candidates.
They are also very different people. Yang, the “bro” candidate who captured an early lead because of his presidential bid, is sagging: he seems to know little about the city, even less about governing, he keeps falling over his feet, and the “Asian-Not Asian” routine works less well in a city with a robust constituency of Asian-American voters. Comptroller Scott Stringer and former Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia have the most extensive experience. Hit with a sexual harassment scandal that initially seemed a little fakey-fakey, Stringer then lost key endorsements, many to Wiley. Now there is a second accusation, and you can stick a fork in him. Donovan, who worked for Bloomberg and Barack Obama, and Morales (whose campaign staff has been picketing her over long hours, low pay, and no benefits, which is in fact the normal state of affairs on a political campaign) have failed to thrive.
Here’s my call on the current state of play: expect Stringer supporters to split between Wiley and Garcia; Donovan supporters to flow to Garcia and Morales supporters (there were never that many of them) to Wiley. Yang, McGuire, and Adams supporters will cluster these three at the top of their ballots.
Right now, I still think that it is Kathryn Garcia’s race to lose, with Wiley and Adams as close seconds, but the truth is, this is all instinct on my part. The combination of the allegations against Trump, Stringer, and Governor Andrew Cuomo all point to New Yorkers being sympathetic to candidates least likely to have a penis. In addition, Garcia knows how to pick up the trash, which a city looking at a post-pandemic economic apocalypse appreciates more than non-New Yorkers can know.
But with ranked-choice voting, slow but steady really could win the race, and she could be the one candidate who is a second and third choice for voters who will have trouble caring enough about five candidates to rank more than a few. Wiley could pull second-choice votes from a variety of candidates: look to see her get some of those from Eric Adams voters who prioritize justice and economic growth for Black communities; from loyal Stringer partisans (yes, there will be many white progressives, mostly men, who will still vote for him) and Shaun Donovan voters; and from Yang-ganger voters who believe that outsiders to the Democratic machine have the most integrity.
And you know what else?
In the way she has conducted herself throughout the campaign, Maya Wiley has demonstrated what a candidate should in any campaign: that she would make a terrific mayor.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).