Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. This past Tuesday, New York City voters cast their ballots in the much-anticipated Democratic primary for mayor. Mayoral general election is still months away. The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to come out on top in November.
Right now, Eric Adams, former NYPD officer, and Brooklyn borough president is the front runner, followed by progressive activist and attorney, Maya Wiley, in second, and former sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, in third.
Now, I just want to note right here for the sake of full transparency, that before beginning my work as guest host for The Takeaway this summer, I publicly supported my friend and colleague Maya Wiley in this race.
Now, the reason that we're waiting on a winner, ranked-choice voting. In fact, a winner isn't expected to be announced before July 12, and we're going to dive into that and so much more with the unofficial mayor of New York City himself, Brian Lehrer, host of WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. Brian, I am so happy to have you with us.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you for asking me. I'm so pleased to be with you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'll just say this, perhaps, also in the spirit of transparency, that there was a great deal of cheering and excitement here on The Takeaway team when we learned that you were going to be joining us.
Brian Lehrer: I'm not the unofficial mayor of anything. I'll just say that. Just happy to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Much of the money for candidates for this race actually came from mega donors outside of New York City, and that many of those best-funded candidates had single-digit showings in this crowded primary. I'm wondering why is it that so many non-New Yorkers care about the NYC mayor's race and what is it they apparently don't understand about it?
Brian Lehrer: In my personal opinion, it was outrageous some of the funding that was coming in to this campaign, and you're right, it wound up being mostly for candidates who did not do well at all. Shaun Donovan, former HUD secretary under President Obama, donated or got donated $2 million from his father at one point.
Another candidate, Ray McGuire, who was a city group vice president, raised all kinds of money from outside or had independent expenditures on his behalf from all kinds of people outside, including most notably from the head of the Hess Oil company, so there was big oil money in his campaign. You're right, Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire did not do well at all, so money does not always buy success in politics, I think we're both happy to say.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just back up say four months. If I came to you four months ago and said, give me a sense of where you think this race is going, what it is that's on the minds of New Yorkers, and therefore which candidates you might think would be in the top three. Would it have been these three?
Brian Lehrer: Yes, it probably would have been these three. I think there's been a tension in the race between whether this is more of a social justice moment or more of a gun violence problem moment in New York City and the city seems to have chosen a gun violence problem moment.
I don't think it's surprising that Eric Adams is in the lead at this point. He's been well-known in the city since the 1990s, first as a reformer within the police department and then as a New York State Senator, and for the last eight years, the Brooklyn borough president. He was a frontline candidate, to begin with, and he ran a very smart campaign, portraying himself as the missing link between pro-police politics and criminal justice reform politics and Maya Wiley, the civil rights attorney and well-known around the country for her many appearances on MSNBC, not surprising to me that she's coming in second.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's dig into this question around police reform and Eric Adams becoming this-- is a nice language, the missing link. Given what we know about where we are as a country, as a state, as a city, is this a message that will hold?
Brian Lehrer: I think that's going to be maybe the most interesting question if Eric Adams is in fact elected and only time will tell. As the polls showed crime emerging as the leading issue, he built his campaign very much around no defunding the police and getting ready to crack down on guns on the street.
On a personal level, he campaigned very much on his own story along those lines, being a police misconduct victim as a young person himself, but also losing people close to him to civilian crime and he ran as the kind of missing link, the working-class candidate of essential workers. He seems to have done extremely well in the most Black and brown neighborhoods of the city.
In fact, in national politics, Democrat versus Republican, we're a country largely divided by race nationally, I think it's accurate to say. In New York where almost everyone is a Democrat, I think we're a city divided by age. The Marist Poll taken shortly before the election found Adams winning comfortably among people over 45, but Wiley winning among people under 45 and Adams only coming in third and that seemed to cross racial lines.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did race show up in this campaign?
Brian Lehrer: Race always shows up in campaigns, even though people sometimes like to say race shouldn't show up in campaigns and there shouldn't be racial appeals. If you look at the history of New York City back when the dominant voting groups were Irish and Italian and Jewish, there were always the Irish candidate, the Jewish candidate, the Italian candidate who would get more votes from their groups than any other group.
One thing interesting early in the race was the early emergence of Andrew Yang, who of course is Asian-American, as an early front-runner. He faded as the campaign went on, but there was a potential historic first there as an Asian American mayor, potentially, and certainly, he seems to have gotten a big turnout and a big concentration of votes from Asian-American New Yorkers.
People are very aware that 30% or so, probably the largest share of any individual group of primary voters, is Black, and so there was a lot of appeal to what people thought would be Black people's interests and that's where the divide on police reform came in. Again, by age, both Maya Wiley and Eric Adams were very much trying to make an appeal as an authentic Black candidate. For the moment, at least, until all this ranked-choice voting kicks in, Eric Adams won that debate.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Brian, let's talk about ranked-choice voting. This is part of the reason that we don't know yet who's won this primary.
Brian Lehrer: Correct, and they're saying probably the week of July 12th is when we'll know because of various rounds of ranked-choice and absentee ballot counting. This is a complicated process by which of the 13, and believe it or not, there were 13 candidates on the ballot for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York. Each one has to get eliminated one by one by one, the one who comes in 13th gets eliminated first, the people who voted for that candidate, their second choice, third choice, fourth choice, then get distributed. They're going to go through 13 rounds of that before they have an ultimate winner it seems.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk about how that affected the actual campaigning, because it was an interesting sort of "vote for me second", that you only see in a ranked-choice voting situation.
Brian Lehrer: That's right. One benefit of ranked-choice voting is that it's supposed to result in less polarized and more issue-oriented campaign as candidates try to remain acceptable as a second or third choice to voters who don't choose them first. We did see some of that, especially a final week Alliance between Andrew Yang and candidate Kathryn Garcia that could still potentially wind up in Garcia who came in third, getting so many second-place votes from Yang supporters that she catches up with Eric Adams if he didn't get enough second-place votes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It is meant to focus in on issues it's supposed to allow folks to have both a strategic vote and what we might think of as voting their heart's desire but isn't it also possible that the ultimate candidate that emerges is someone that very few had as their first choice?
Brian Lehrer: Yes, but that would happen anyway, in this crowded field, if the current percentages hold up once the absentee ballot trove is counted. Adams is in first place, but he only got about 32% of the vote. Somehow you have to get to 50% to have an ultimate winner.
Under the old system, if nobody got more than 50%, the top two finishers would have a runoff election, and turn out for these runoff elections has tended historically to be really low as average citizens lost interest and only the most politicized people would go back to the polls another time and choose the nominees. This way, supporters of ranked-choice voting say everybody who votes in the primary and, for example, votes their heart for a lower down candidate first, but then puts a more realistic choice second or third gets a say in who the ultimate winner is, even if they weren't your first choice, just by showing up to vote one time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This was the first time that ranked-choice voting was used in New York City in decades. I'm wondering, here we are in the midst of multiple public education campaigns, including vaccination, and all these other things. Were the callers to your show, for example, well informed about how it worked before the election?
Brian Lehrer: Well, the callers to my show tend to be the politically obsessed, so they tended to be pretty well informed. Critics say when you look at the population overall, it's confusing and because since the computer crunches the ranked-choice numbers, eventually, to get to a winner by pressing a computer button and watching the numbers spin, critics say it could make voters suspicious of how the system might be getting manipulated in this era of people being suspicious of government.
There's that suspicion of, or there's that criticism of ranked-choice voting. Yes, a lot of people were confused. When you come right down to it, it's not all that complicated. People get to list up to five candidates in their order of preference. If your first-choice candidate gets eliminated, your next choices get distributed in a ranked-choice pattern like we described before. It's not that complicated. Ultimately, it's, pick your favorite one, pick your second favorite one, down through five, if you go that far.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We know that voters were telling pollsters and in a variety of other public communications, they were saying that the issue at the top of the list for them is gun violence, or as you were saying, that they were framing increased violent crime as a gun violence problem. What else is on the minds of New Yorkers and what is it they're going to use to judge the quality of their next mayor?
Brian Lehrer: Well, I said earlier that there was this choice between whether it's a social justice moment or a crackdown on crime moment. Eric Adams is trying to be the missing link candidate between the two. Wiley emphasize social justice over crime and is running second. Interesting to me to the question you ask is that here we are a city with a 10% unemployment rate still after COVID, much higher than the national average, and nobody ran centrally on economic recovery or really economic justice in the long term.
The media narrative got flattened, in my opinion, into this crime versus police reform story. The longer-term economic injustices, the longer-term economic disparities in this city that helped get Bill de Blasio elected eight years ago, got shut out of the media narrative, and a lot of the campaigns, the candidates' mouths, because they realized everybody wanted to hear about crime, and I think that's a shame.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, we know that those economic justice issues are often profoundly connected to issues of crime. Even talking about crime ought to be bringing us back to conversations about economic justice.
Brian Lehrer: That's right. That's the reformer's argument. That's certainly Maya Wiley's argument. That, yes, we have to do something about the spike in gun violence, which is real, but if we just focus on the short term, we're just going to continue the cycle of mass incarceration that's been going on for 30 years. She was hoping to find a new way, and to be fair to Eric Adams, he still says he's hoping to find a new way to crack down in the short term, but also not lose sight of the root causes of crime, and they do have so much to do with economic injustice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Brian Lehrer is the host of WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. Brian, thank you again for joining us.
Brian Lehrer: My pleasure.
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