Yang charms business in push to be New York City’s mayor

New York’s power brokers did not know quite what to expect when Andrew Yang joined them by Zoom on a recent morning to audition for the city’s top job. An hour later, many were quietly impressed.

For starters, the mayoral candidate addressed the crowd from an empty Midtown office building — a recognition of the urgent need to bring workers back to the city. He struck a pragmatic tone on the divisive issue of raising taxes. And he cast business leaders as partners and allies in the effort to heal a wounded city — not enemies or obstructions.

“We can’t let Covid become the moment when business concluded they didn’t need to be here,” Yang said, calling it “embarrassing” the city was losing jobs to Florida.

“The greatest city in the world is open for business!” he declared, with unabashed enthusiasm. 

That performance, and others like it, have begun to thaw the opinion of the city’s business leaders towards Yang, an outsider candidate many regarded warily for his limited experience and a political orientation that is, at times, hard to pin down.

After dismissing Yang, executives are now increasingly contemplating the possibility he will be the city’s next mayor as several polls show him opening a sizeable lead ahead of the decisive June 22 Democratic primary. 

In a recent survey conducted by think-tank Data for Progress, Yang took 26 per cent of first place votes, compared with 13 per cent for his nearest rival, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. Surprisingly, Yang, who is Asian American, led the field among black voters. Another poll from NY1 and Ipsos yielded a similar result, with Yang on 22 per cent, Adams at 13 per cent and Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, at 11 per cent.

Yang, meanwhile, is stepping up his courtship of the business community by arranging one-on-one meetings with top executives, said people familiar with the matter.

“Andrew Yang has begun to be seen in a much more favourable light because he doesn’t demonise the business class and he actually repeatedly acknowledges its centrality to the city,” said Mary Ann Tighe, chief executive of the tri-state region for commercial real estate broker CBRE, who admitted she did not at first take Yang’s candidacy seriously or believe he had the credentials to run the city. 

“The thing I always am startled by is the failure to recognise that commerce has been New York City’s raison d’être since the Dutch West India company landed in 1624,” added Tighe, a past president of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York developers group. “And I think one of the things that people love about Yang is that he embraces that.” 

Travis Terry, president of Capalino, one of the city’s most influential lobbying firms, has noticed a similar shift. 

“My sense based on a variety of conversations with business leaders is that, yes, they are warming up to him,” Terry said. “They may have been apprehensive at first on Andrew because of his lack of experience but it has become more evident that he sees the business community as an important partner.”

Some remain cool. One executive, who asked not to be identified, described Yang as a Trump-esque candidate — a celebrity without governing substance. “He talks a good game but he’s not a proven commodity,” this person said, dismissively.

Business leaders have anticipated this pandemic-shaded election with a sense of growing dread. Many regard the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, a progressive who came to power spinning a tale of two cities, as one of the worst in New York’s history. 

With Covid-19, the city’s challenges — considerable in the best of times — have metastasised: multibillion-dollar deficits are forecast for years to come; racial divisions have deepened; schools, basic services and public safety have all frayed; and there is now an existential threat to the city’s economic engine if workers decide not to return to office buildings like the one where Yang spoke. 

In short, many executives worry the city is at a crossroads and cannot afford another de Blasio, a Boston Red Sox supporter who they see as an ideologue with weak managerial skills. The recent move by a left-leaning state legislature to raise taxes on business and the wealthy has only deepened their sense of being under siege.

“This is a moment. The city could go either way,” one adviser to a top developer explained.

Given the stakes, many executives are inclined to put aside their dream candidate to back the moderate with the best chance of winning.

That appears to be weighing against Ray McGuire, the former head of investment banking at Citigroup, whom business leaders tend to regard as the most accomplished manager, and one of their own.

“We need a mayor who knows how businesses work — not one whose first management job will be running a big city,” McGuire said recently, in an apparent potshot at Yang.

McGuire, who is black and grew up without a father, has also become an eloquent spokesperson for a corporate vision of a more inclusive city. Yet the neophyte politician has failed to generate much momentum in his first campaign. 

Adams, a black former policeman who has pledged to restore safety to city streets while healing racial divisions, draws favourable — if uninspired — reviews after a long career in city politics. Some analysts still view him as the eventual winner.

Stringer, meanwhile, is respected for his grasp of the complexities of city government. But he alienated much of the business community by pivoting in recent years towards an emerging group of anti-corporate progressives. Developers were stung last year when Stinger announced he would no longer take their contributions. Business is also leery of Maya Wiley, a lawyer and civil rights activist who served as de Blasio’s chief counsel.

One politically-connected New York executive predicts a front-running Yang will face withering fire in the coming weeks. If he can withstand it, then even those who are wary of him may opt to back him.

“In the end, the business community is practical,” the executive said. “Nobody wants to be the last person on the train.”

For the first time, New York City will use ranked choice voting. If no candidate wins a majority after the first round, then the least popular candidate is excluded and their votes redistributed. That means that there may be value for Yang, or others, in swaying voters — even if the candidate is not ultimately their top choice.

Yang, 46, was born in Schenectady, a city near Albany, the New York state capital, and grew up in Westchester County before moving to Manhattan to attend Columbia Law School. He worked at Davis Polk & Wardwell. He eventually became chief executive of a test preparation company, Manhattan Prep, that was sold to Kaplan, the education company.

He emerged as a quirky star in a crowded field seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency for his advocacy of a universal basic income for citizens. Where most candidates wore an American flag pin on their lapel Yang sported a button that read: Math.

Chris Coffey, Yang’s co-campaign manager for the mayoral contest, said the candidate did not fit neatly into any one box: He was a progressive who championed UBI, an outsider untainted by city politics, and also a pragmatic former executive who believed businesses — big and small — were essential to the city’s recovery.

While Yang still supports a pared-down version of UBI, he now talks a lot about the less-lofty issues of rubbish collection and other basic administration that are dear to New Yorkers. When JetBlue recently mentioned the possibility of moving jobs to Florida, Yang did not issue a scalding press release but instead sought a meeting with the company’s chief executive to hear his concerns.

“I honestly don’t think it’s any one issue,” Coffey said of executives’ growing fondness for Yang. “I think it’s: ‘is there someone who will listen to me?’”

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