NEW YORK — There’s a new favorite in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary — for second place.
Kathryn Garcia, the six-year sanitation commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio, is well-regarded within government and political circles as a go-to problem solver, with a commanding grasp on the levers of the city’s vast bureaucracy.
But, despite having what supporters say is among the best resume to lead the city on Day One, Garcia is polling in single digits and would-be endorsers have been reluctant to lend their unqualified support. But people are still gushing over her.
Rival Andrew Yang, the current frontrunner, has repeatedly said he’d mark her down as his second or third choice on his ballot under the city’s new ranked-choice voting system. When the two ran into each other on the campaign trail recently, Yang said he calls Garcia “all of the time” and that she’s an “awesome” person he’d want to work with.
Even at events Garcia herself held in April, state Sen. Diane Savino and former Council Member Costa Constantinides endorsed her for second place. Political analyst Eli Valentin called her a possible “candidate for the deputy mayorship.”
That leaves a quandary for the Garcia campaign: How does she improve her name recognition with voters to show she’s viable and gain momentum if the people that admire her the most keep citing her as their second-place pick?
Garcia has worked in and around City Hall for the better part of three decades, after starting out as an intern in the sanitation department she’d later run. She was the chief operating officer for the Department of Environmental Protection. She was named the city’s lead czar when an exposure crisis erupted on de Blasio’s watch. When the city’s public housing authority was placed under a federal monitor, the mayor tapped Garcia to serve as interim chair. And when Covid-19 hit the city last year, Garcia was tasked with keeping food supply lines open and expanding the city’s delivery system.
Her relegation to second place has led many to conclude that if she were a man she wouldn’t be struggling to break out of the pack. New York City’s mayoral history lends some credence to the theory: The so-called progressive bastion has never had a woman as mayor.
“I think first and foremost that is so sexist it’s mind boggling,” said Alicia Glen, who as de Blasio’s former deputy mayor for housing was once one of the most powerful women in the city. “I don’t think if you had a man who had been a commissioner and served in many different roles and were running as the candidate who actually knows how things work, that the press or cognoscenti would be saying, ‘That’s a great idea; they’d make a great deputy mayor.’”
Garcia tends to agree.
“Men aren’t being asked the question on viability,” she said in an interview.
But she also contends that, for better or worse, the fact that she’s seen as a strong number two means she’s doing something right.
“I think what it shows is that we got into this later in the race but what we bring to the table — the vision, the ability to execute — is coming in loud and clear,” she said. “People really are desperate for execution. They want to ensure what you tell them you’re going to do isn’t going to sit on the shelf, but actually happen. And having the experience and track record to point to really matters to voters.”
So far, the odds aren’t in Garcia’s favor. Every poll released thus far has the newcomer Yang leading the pack, usually followed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
Only 4 percent of primary voters said Garcia would be their first choice for mayor, according to an April poll commissioned by Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos.
Her supporters say she’s emphasizing the right issues for a city still recovering from a global pandemic, even if her candidacy lacks the sweeping rhetoric of some of her opponents. Voters generally list stopping the spread of Covid-19, creating new jobs and addressing homelessness, crime and safety as their top issues.
Candidates emphasizing those problems over their ideological platforms have so far been faring better in the polls, but that benefit has not been extended to Garcia. She jumped into the race late and took longer to raise money than her rivals, some of whom have been plotting mayoral runs for years.
“If it’s going to be a value-based election, you probably shouldn’t have Yang doing so well. And you definitely shouldn’t have Eric Adams coming in second because he’s more moderate too,” said Matt Wing, a former spokesperson for both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio, who supports Garcia’s campaign. “Joe Biden has shown us all how attractive really boring, competent governance is.”
Garcia’s slogan is “get shit done” — a mantra meant to embody her skill at cutting through the red tape of city bureaucracy. One of her marquee policy ideas is to streamline permitting for new businesses to only require one application — an idea that earned the backing of Yang, who did an event with her to promote it.
Those who have worked in the labyrinth of city government often point to her as among the most qualified candidates for the job.
Roughly one-third of the donations to Garcia come from city employees, many of whom attended a March fundraiser hosted by Glen and Kathryn Wylde, head of the prominent business consortium Partnership for New York City, according to the Garcia campaign. She was endorsed by Harry Nespoli, president of Teamsters Local 831, and three other unions representing the workforce she used to manage — but hasn’t garnered much new backing as of late.
Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, a Republican, told POLITICO he’s a “huge fan” — an acknowledgment of her crossover appeal in politically conservative areas. That can be a benefit while governing, but areas like Staten Island do not account for a bulk of Democratic primary votes.
She’s also won accolades from Council Member Antonio Reynoso, a left-leaning Democrat running for Brooklyn borough president who recently joined her for a press conference on organic waste. A New York Times editorial introducing readers to the candidates urged them to give her a closer look.
Garcia contends there’s still plenty of time to break out.
“If it was all locked up, then I’d be concerned. But it is not locked up,” she said. “They know these other folks and they’re not buying it.”
At least a quarter of voters are still undecided, the Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll found. Others point out that the mayoral race tends to heat up late in New York, with de Blasio lagging at this point in the 2013 primary.
“We are two months out. Not everyone has gone out on the air yet and, historically, New York races change in the last few months,” said Andrea Hagelgans, a former senior adviser to de Blasio, who has donated to Garcia’s and Maya Wiley’s campaigns.
Garcia’s New York City roots run deep.
She, her brother Matthew and her sister Elizabeth were adopted into a crowded household with five total siblings in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her father, Bruce McIver, was the chief labor negotiator for former Mayor Ed Koch and her mother, Ann McIver, was an English professor at Medgar Evers College. She attended public elementary school and later Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious magnet school in Manhattan, and still lives two blocks away from her mom.
Garcia earned a reputation as a policy wonk early in her career. Council Member Brad Lander recalled knocking on Garcia’s door in 2009, seeking her vote for City Council by asking what issues mattered to her. Garcia immediately asked for his stance on the city’s water rates — a perennial issue among city property owners.
In Lander’s telling, he was “rope-a-doped.”
“If you’re at a door, the right answer is almost certainly, ‘The water rates are outrageous — the city is overcharging us,’” Lander said. “And she’s like, ‘You’re wrong’ and she patiently explained to me why what I said was not true and how much investment there is in the city’s water system and what is required.”
The exchange changed his mind.
“It reveals a long-standing focus on public infrastructures and what it takes to maintain them and a passion for that even when that’s not the sexiest thing. But also adding in the element of the wry trickery — of setting me up — just reveals a sense of humor about it as well,” said Lander, who is running for city comptroller and doesn’t plan to endorse in the mayoral race.
People close to Garcia’s campaign said they think her message can fare well among more moderate voters who care about the nuts-and-bolts of city services. They see potential to reach residents in the outer boroughs, but also in voter-rich enclaves like Garcia’s native Park Slope and the Upper West Side.
While Garcia touts progressive policies such as a pledge to make Rikers Island entirely renewable, she has distanced herself from that lane. She skipped the Working Families Party endorsement screening process, for instance, urging its members to instead back Dianne Morales, who eventually got the second-place endorsement behind Comptroller Scott Stringer. Stringer on Friday lost the party’s support after facing a sexual assault allegation.
“There are candidates who are further on the left than I am,” Garcia told POLITICO. “I have a more practical bent than others do.”
While Garcia has made strides in fundraising in recent weeks, she lacks the cash of some of her competitors to get her message out. She has raised $590,000, but the city’s public matching fund program brought her total to $2.6 million. Adams has about $7.8 million in his account, and is going after a similar voting base as Garcia. Yang has roughly $5 million to spend.
One thing that could change the equation is the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, allowing voters to rank up to five different candidates on their ballots. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, then the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are parceled out to voters’ second choice — a process that’s repeated until somebody wins.
For a candidate like Garcia, the system could give her a boost.
“Can she cobble enough number one’s and lots of two’s and three’s to be a player? Maybe.” Oddo said. “Theoretically you can make an argument that she’s going to be up top for a lot of people’s ballots.”
For that to work, Garcia would need to develop a strong starter base to ensure she collected the votes of the candidate who is eliminated first.
It’s not a strategy her campaign is leaning into, according to people close to her campaign. The thinking is ranked-choice voting is still too new and unknown to try and mathematically game out the system. Most voters still aren’t familiar with it. But campaign insiders do think the groundswell of support for second could certainly boost her odds. As one person familiar with her campaign put it, “she’s a good bridge candidate.”
Garcia said the general plan now is to peak when the most people are tuned in.
“We intend to make sure we are popping when they are paying attention,” she said.