For the first six months of 2021, if you asked a stranger on the street in New York City who they thought their next mayor would be, there was a good chance they would say Andrew Yang. The ex-presidential candidate entered the mayoral race as the man of big ideas, someone who could move New York into a new phase of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and past the tense political environment that colored the city after protests against police brutality last summer.
Not long after Yang dropped out of the presidential race last February, Tusk Strategies, the political consulting and lobbying firm that managed Mike Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral reelection bid, recruited him to run for mayor. The firm soon employed much of the campaign’s top staff, including his co-campaign managers, senior advisers, policy director, and press secretary. But 12 years ago, Bloomberg ran as a Republican. Though he tried unsuccessfully to recruit a primary challenger to Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, this was CEO Bradley Tusk’s first time backing a Democrat for mayor.
At the start, Yang was lauded as a political outsider with the clarity of vision to change New York. But by the end, he started to embody the failures of the consultant and political class his supporters at one time bet against. Yang’s outlook was positive and his plans were far-reaching, until people actually started asking him questions about them. And when the assertion that crime was reaching historic highs in New York City started to change the bounds of the race, Yang’s big ideas were nowhere to be found. Despite palpable flaws in the soaring crime narrative — shootings and homicides have increased significantly, but not consistently, in 2020 and 2021, while the causes and solutions for crime surges remain far more complex than most news coverage allows — Yang ran with it, appearing loyal to some donors yet unwieldy to trusted staff.
Yang’s campaign was the natural center of attention, earning almost daily coverage in city tabloids like the New York Post and the Daily News. National outlets soon followed suit. “Can Anyone Stop Andrew Yang’s Campaign for Mayor?” read one May headline in The Atlantic. He raised $4 million, and political action committees backing him drew in millions more from Wall Street. Yang had thousands of volunteers, many of whom had supported his presidential bid and wanted to see more success from his next campaign. But in the late evening hours of June 22, as voters prepared to wait another several weeks for official results of the city’s first venture into ranked-choice voting, Yang found himself in fourth place. Not long after polls closed, he became the first of the 13 Democratic primary candidates to concede. “I am not going to be the next mayor of New York City,” Yang told attendees at his election night party.
If you’d spoken to Yang just a few days earlier, he would have sounded certain of the opposite. According to staffers who worked on the campaign, Yang believed up until the last second that he was, in fact, going to be the next mayor of New York City. And then it all came crashing down.
“Andrew was used to the way he was on the streets of New York,” getting mobbed on the street and asked for selfies, said Chris Coffey, the co-campaign manager Yang hired through Tusk Strategies. “He [and I] used to say, if 10 percent of these people vote, I’m gonna win.”
But that energy didn’t translate into votes. Despite his claim that he had more individual donors than any other candidate in the race — and what his campaign said was the highest number of donors in the history of primary and general mayoral races in the city — Yang ended up with just over 135,000 votes in total. He was eliminated in the third-to-last round of ranked-choice voting. What started as something larger than life, one staffer said, “ended up being so small.” (Three Yang 2021 staffers spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity, fearing professional reprisal.)
When the election was about economic recovery and supporting small business, Yang was good, said one staffer. But, as they put it, Yang started out as the guy who mainstreamed the concept of universal basic income and ended by bashing homeless people in the final debate of the race. “What he started with — cash relief, anti-poverty — there was hope in there,” said the second staffer. “And we lost track of that.”
Yang did not respond to requests for comment.
The campaign’s initial strategy was to flood local news with coverage, and it seemed to work, according to staff — until it started to backfire.
Yang began not just as the change candidate, but also as the lovable guy who was just out of touch: buying bananas in a shiny bodega, telling the comedian Ziwe Times Square was his favorite subway stop, and proposing TikTok hype houses to help bring back the city’s nightlife. But eventually, his lack of experience stopped being funny.
“You had to find ways to make him look ready for the job,” one former Yang staffer told The Intercept. “There were just flaws everywhere.”
Yang struggled most where he also thrived: in public, unfiltered, often online.
In April, he prompted swift backlash after tweeting that the city wasn’t enforcing rules against “unlicensed street vendors.” In May, voters confronted him about a tweet he wrote in support of Israel as bombs fell on Gaza. The incident lost him volunteers, many of whom later met with Yang to express their frustration.
The moments showed “ultimately, a lack of a depth of knowledge around those topics, or not understanding the nuance,” said one staffer. “And then it fit the most potent critiques of [Yang] being a newcomer to politics, or not having voted before. … It showed a lack of civic engagement, or interest.”
Then in June, just a year after a summer in which New York City police officers routinely brutalized protesters demonstrating against police brutality, Yang won the endorsement of the NYPD Captain Endowments Association, the police union to which frontrunner candidate Eric Adams once belonged. Some of Yang’s staff advised him that if he was going to pursue the endorsement to at least keep quiet about it. But he wasn’t the blank slate they might have thought him to be, and Yang touted the endorsement.
“Andrew became obsessed with it,” the staffer said. “Andrew is much more conservative than any of us knew on policing stuff.” And, as the tone of the race shifted to focus on crime, “he became increasingly conservative,” they said.
Part of the campaign’s focus at the outset had been to try to keep Yang out of long-fought local policy fights and to maintain his image as someone who wouldn’t take sides. But as the rates of homicide and gun violence spiked in areas across the country this summer, rather than maintaining control of the race turf on Yang’s terms — keeping it positive and nonpartisan — Yang and some of his top staff leaned into the idea that New York City voters wanted a law-and-order candidate. In doing so, the campaign made a strategic error, said one staffer, and let the race become defined around crime.
“Against a candidate [like Adams] who has the lived experience of being a Black man plus being a cop, Andrew Yang wasn’t going to lead the nuanced conversation about it,” the staffer said. “Because crime is a number one issue that people are concerned about doesn’t mean that’s the only thing people want to hear about. I think Maya Wiley proved that to be true.”
Yang was almost the “presumptive mayor,” said another staffer, when tabloids and some local media started hyping up a right-wing narrative that crime was overtaking the city. So when the captains union endorsement came, staff “were kind of looking for ways to shake things up, because we knew we were slipping and we tried a bunch of stuff.”
The shift in focus came in part from Yang himself, but it also came from some of the Tusk employees running his campaign, according to two staffers. “There was a big sense from certain parts of the campaign that it needed to be all crime, and talking about it in a way that felt very antiquated and unsophisticated,” said one. “What a Democratic electorate wants New York to look like after crime is addressed, and how they want that to happen, is very different than how a Republican electorate would want that. So the idea that addressing crime means you’re law and order is a false narrative. And wrong.”
At the last Democratic mayoral debate on June 16, Yang was angry. He thought the media, which at times seemed to scrutinize his campaign more than those of his opponents, had become increasingly unfair. (Some staff say he rarely read the full coverage.) At that point, Yang had been spending a lot of his time with donors, and his comments on issues like crime, homelessness, and mental illness had started sounding more like theirs.
“When you’re new to politics,” said one staffer, “and you haven’t spent decades honing your own political views, and your own sort of views on these issues, I think you’re probably more susceptible to it.“
During the debate, in response to criticism of his plan to increase institutionalization of people with mental illness who don’t have housing, Yang said, “Mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighborhoods,” and that families were leaving because of it. Later in the debate, Yang doubled down, saying that city residents “have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us.”
Yang’s comments, which, according to several former staffers, were an attempt to look tougher on crime, prompted swift public backlash from people who criticized his remarks as ableist, harmful, and misinformed. “Aside from when it happened and for a few hours afterwards, it was not an issue that I heard a lot about,” Coffey said, adding that he was surprised it came up during an interview. “Doesn’t mean that there weren’t people that were pissed. Doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a big issue. But I wouldn’t have identified it as a top 10 issue of the mayor’s race.” According to his staffers, Yang came away thinking he had done a good job.
During the final weeks of the race, as the campaign struggled to direct its focus, Yang was still raking in money. While it may have posed a narrative challenge, Tusk Strategies presented a financial boon for the campaign: Salaries of at least seven top staff members, some of whom were making upwards of $10,000 a month, were all paid directly by Tusk Strategies.
It’s unclear how much exactly Yang’s core staffers made over the six months of the campaign, because campaign finance reports show only bulk payments to Tusk, which totaled some $300,000. Other campaigns that used similar firms show payments in the same way, but Yang was the only major candidate to hire his campaign managers through an outside firm. Other campaign managers’ salaries appear in campaign finance reports. The salaries of Yang’s co-campaign managers, senior adviser, senior communications adviser, policy director, press secretary, and a subcontracted communications director do not.
According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, questions arose earlier this cycle concerning how campaigns are required to report salaries of staff who may also work for a firm doing business with the campaign. For now, Yang’s campaign has complied with all relevant requirements. Per city campaign finance rules, each campaign is required to go under an audit, and “all campaigns are required to provide contracts and other documentation to the CFB,” NYCCFB director of public relations Matt Sollars said in a statement to The Intercept. Requests for that information won’t go out until after the November general election.
It wasn’t until just a few days before the election that Yang started to feel less sure about his chances. Even so, he didn’t think he would lose by as much as he did. He and many of his staff had trusted the campaign’s internal polling that put him within striking distance of the Democratic nomination. In the end, he made it to the sixth round of ranked-choice voting, pulling in 15 percent of the vote to Adams’s 35 percent, behind Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia.
The campaign that started as an experiment by one of New York’s most notorious lobbying firms had come to an unceremonious end. “I firmly believe that if the city had opened slower, if crime hadn’t been the dominant issue, it probably would have been different,” Coffey said.
“Andrew was always a change candidate,” a former staffer told The Intercept. “He always tried something unconventional, something a little different. Breath of fresh air — whatever you want to call it. But by the time the election had happened, we had already gotten our breath of fresh air. The city was back open, people were living their lives again. Things like the issue of reopening schools, which dominated the race as a top issue for a few weeks, are no longer top of mind. … The idea that we would’ve elected a mayor on the basis of their school reopening strategy now seems kind of silly.”
Adams spent a large portion of his campaign talking about crime, “and that guy won,” Coffey said. If the main question voters have on election day is “‘Who’s gonna keep us safe?’” he added, “then Eric Adams is gonna be mayor.”
Some media and pundits drew the same conclusions about the message voters were sending on crime — the same narrative that Yang staffers think shifted the race for good. A closer look at the results of the race shows that while Adams dominated working-class Black and brown neighborhoods of the city, residents in those same areas also voted for candidates far to his left: like Wiley or City Council candidate Tiffany Cabán. And while Adams certainly talked a lot about crime, he also had a reputation of being in favor of police reform, and as a former police officer who was beaten by cops as a teen, talked openly about racism among law enforcement. Adams’s ads balanced addressing community violence and acknowledging the need for police reform and the reality of police brutality, while Yang’s ads took a much different tone. One of Yang’s final ads of the race promoted his police captains’ endorsement as a sign that “shootings are out of control and NYC’s top brass know their former colleague, Eric Adams, isn’t up to the job.”
As for what’s next, Yang doesn’t have any firm plans. Last month, he announced his new book: “Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy.” Yang spoke openly during the campaign about his plans for publication, much to the chagrin of staff who informed him that doing so could make it look like he was only running to promote it. At one point, Yang posted a chapter of the book on his Medium site, where he published various communications during the campaign. Staffers convinced him to take it down.