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Kathryn Garcia: The Anti-Yang
Can you win on the basis of being qualified?
New York City mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia
As I mentioned in my wrap-up a week and a half ago, I got some pushback from some readers of my column on Andrew Yang for contributing to the puffery of a fundamentally unserious candidate for mayor of New York. Why didn’t I write about some of the other candidates who maybe aren’t already getting piles of free media?
Well, the criticism hit home, so I thought I’d talk a little bit here about my preferred candidate for mayor, someone who’s pretty much the opposite of Andrew Yang: former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia:
Garcia developed a reputation as a go-to fixer, called upon to tackle challenges like lead exposure in children and delivering meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to holding down top positions in the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Sanitation. Garcia’s tenure in those roles has been marked by some concrete achievements that both labor and progressive activists applaud, such as spearheading sustainability initiatives and helping to reform the city’s inefficient commercial waste collection system. But some of those achievements have yet to be implemented, thanks to delays caused by the pandemic, meaning New Yorkers may not be able to see the results in time for the election.
Where Yang has essentially no experience, Garcia has more relevant experience than virtually anyone else in the race. Indeed, she’s a classic lifer, someone who started as an intern in the sanitation department and rose to become department head. Where Yang is a dilettante who grabs at ideas quickly, Garcia is immersed in the details of how the city actually works, and ready to call politicians to account if they aren’t up to speed themselves:
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.”
That’s from this profile piece in Politico that asks a peculiar question: is there room for someone with this kind of experience to become mayor?
It’s a peculiar question because you’d think that of course there would be — but in fact, Americans don’t tend to prefer leaders with a lot of experience, and New Yorkers aren’t all that different in that regard. The most experienced candidate in the last contested Democratic mayoral primary was Christine Quinn, but she was passed over in favor of De Blasio, who, while not quite an outsider, was far from the inner circle of city politics, and promised to turn the page on the Bloomberg years. (Promise: kept.) Before that, Bloomberg himself — who had a great deal of experience in management, but none in city government — won in part by running as an independent outsider. Experience implies entanglement: a record that can be questioned, a litany of favors owed that the public will never fully know about. Garcia has the enthusiastic support of many city workers, who know her as a colleague and a boss. It wouldn’t shock me if some voters paradoxically look at that a bit askance.
That’s assuming they even know about it — Garcia’s biggest problem to date has been getting attention, because, while she’s a lifer within city government, she hasn’t made her life in politics. So she doesn’t have the fundraising network that a lifetime politician has, nor longtime loyal campaign staffers, nor experience courting voters. That might be one reason she still comes off as a normal human being — and, ironically, it’s a reason why she might properly be considered a kind of outsider, since she hasn’t accumulated a politician’s favor debt; she’ll be in a better position than most to do tough negotiating with the city’s municipal unions, because she knows intimately precisely where the pressure points are. But it’s also a reason why she’s had trouble getting traction.
Instead, as that profile among others have been suggesting for a while, she’s being tagged as a plausible deputy mayor — someone who’ll do all the behind-the-scenes work while the mayor does media and closes deals. But that’s not really an adequate description of what the mayor of New York does, or needs to do. De Blasio has been such a failure as mayor for a number of reasons, but one of them is that he hasn’t kept himself engaged with day-to-day governance. He’s easily bored, and in the absence of mayoral involvement things drift. You can delegate tasks, but you can’t delegate leadership.
All of that having been said, if Yang were looking for a Cheney to his Bush, the Biden to his Obama, he’d be hard-pressed to do better than Garcia. And while she’s the opposite of Yang temperamentally, they’re a good fit in other ways: both outer-borough natives, both supporters of development and of cutting red tape that frustrates small businesses, both pushing back against the litmus-test approach of the activist class. But Garcia has a lot more substantive to say about how to actually tackle problems where city services matter. And while Garcia has positioned herself as a no-nonsense pragmatic moderate, she’s got a lot more credibility with left-wing groups than Yang does, because they’ve seen her in the trenches, have taken her measure, and know that, even if they don’t always agree with her, she’s someone they can trust to play it straight with them. That could be worth a lot to someone who, if he wins, will come into office profoundly distrusted by those same people.
A lot of other candidates are talking up Garcia as their preferred second choice. But strategically-speaking, if she ends up at the back of the pack, that’s a meaningless preference. She needs to get high enough in the rankings that when other candidates fall by the wayside, she has the opportunity to pick up their second-choice ballots. So if Garcia is really the consensus pick that Yang voters, Adams voters, Stringer voters and Wiley voters would be happiest to live with, then at least some of those voters should consider picking her first, and voting for their preferred candidate second, for fear that, otherwise, they might wind up with someone they like even less.