With the primary weeks away, candidates are sharpening their attacks, ramping up in-person events and preparing to spend the millions of dollars that they have stockpiled.
It was opening day for Coney Island’s famed amusement parks, long shuttered during the pandemic, and Andrew Yang — the 2020 presidential candidate who has shifted his personality-driven campaign to the New York City mayoral race — was in his element.
“Coney Island is open for business!” he declared on Friday, pumping his fists as he made his way down a windswept boardwalk. “New York City! Can you feel it?”
What it felt like was a campaign event, and Mr. Yang was not the only mayoral candidate to take advantage. Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, mingled along the midway, playing games with his family; Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, rode bumper cars and visited small businesses.
New York faces immense challenges on the road to recovery from the pandemic. Thousands of deaths, economic devastation, rising violent crime and deep racial and socioeconomic inequality complicate the city’s path forward at every turn, making the upcoming mayor’s race the most consequential city contest in at least two decades. Now, as the city slowly comes back to life amid warmer weather and coronavirus vaccinations, the race is entering a new, increasingly vigorous phase.
After months of conducting virtual fund-raisers and participating in an endless round of online mayoral forums, candidates are sharpening their attacks, ramping up their in-person campaign schedules and preparing to spend the millions of dollars that several contenders have stockpiled but few have spent on public advertising.
About 10 weeks before the June 22 Democratic primary that is likely to determine the next mayor, four candidates currently make up the top tier of contenders, according to available polling and interviews with elected officials and party strategists. There is Mr. Yang, the undisputed poll leader; Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president; Mr. Stringer; and Maya D. Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a former MSNBC analyst.
But the race appears fluid enough for a candidate to break out late like Mr. de Blasio did in 2013, with many undecided voters only now beginning to consider the race, according to interviews with New York Democrats across the city and some polling data.
A confluence of factors — focus on vaccination efforts and debates over reopening, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s crises in Albany, and political burnout following the presidential campaign — have overshadowed civic discussion on a range of issues that will shape the city’s post-pandemic recovery.
The candidates are racing to change that.
“You can feel it beginning to really heat up,” said Representative Greg Meeks, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Queens Democrats, saying he believed the race would intensify further as the month goes on.
The next mayor, who will assume responsibility for a 300,000-person city work force, will inherit a series of staggering challenges. The race will test whether voters are in the mood for a candidate who exudes managerial competence, one who is a booster for the city, someone with the most boldly ambitious ideas, or the contender who best offers a mix of all three approaches.
The arrival of ranked-choice voting in New York City, in which voters can support up to five candidates in order of preference, has added another layer of unpredictability into the contest.
Many of the campaigns expect that the race will kick into high gear in May, when more contenders are expected to buy television ads and unions will accelerate in-person pushes. A series of official debates will also begin next month, and some campaigns are starting to think about debate preparations. Mr. Yang knows he is likely to be a focal point of that strategizing.
Indeed, a number of Mr. Yang’s opponents are intensifying their attacks on his candidacy.
Mr. Stringer has sought to brand Mr. Yang as a politically inexperienced promoter of ill-conceived ideas, like a casino on Governors Island. Mr. Adams has ripped into Mr. Yang for leaving the city during the pandemic. And Ms. Wiley has criticized how Mr. Yang has discussed issues like stimulus spending, while a Wiley campaign aide compared him to a “mini-Trump,” a serious accusation in Democratic politics.
Mr. Yang’s advisers — along with an aggressive group of “Yang Gang” supporters active online — have defended him at every turn, arguing that the attacks simply illustrate his standing in the race, and cast him as a proud political outsider with fresh ideas.
The field includes several candidates of color, and Mr. Yang, a son of Taiwanese immigrants, has worked intensely to engage Asian-American voters. Another significant question in coming weeks will be which candidate resonates with the largest number of Black voters. Mr. Adams, a Black former police officer and a veteran Brooklyn official, is well positioned to make his case, but he is not alone.
Raymond J. McGuire, a Black former Citigroup executive who has campaigned heavily in vote-rich southeast Queens, went to Minneapolis this past week with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, to attend the trial over George Floyd’s death.
And on Friday, Ms. Wiley — a Black woman who already had the backing of the powerful Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union — was endorsed by Representative Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Dianne Morales, the most progressive candidate in the race, identifies as Afro-Latina and has sparked intense interest among left-wing grass-roots activists.
Mr. Stringer, with his significant war chest and roster of prominent endorsements, is competing for the city’s most progressive voters along with Ms. Wiley and Ms. Morales. Left-wing activists, alarmed by the perceived strength of Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams — two more centrist candidates — are strategizing about how to elevate a contender or group of contenders more aligned with their vision.
A number of organizations, from the left-wing Working Families Party to the United Federation of Teachers, are in the midst of endorsement processes, which could help voters narrow down their preferred candidates. Decisions may come as soon as this week.
There is still time for the race to evolve. Ms. Garcia is deeply respected by some of the people who know City Hall best. Mr. McGuire and Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary, have aired television ads and have super PACs aiding them, a dynamic that could boost their ability to compete, though neither has yet caught fire.
Mr. McGuire, in particular, was embraced as a favorite of the business community early on — with the fund-raising to prove it — but there are growing signs that other candidates may also be acceptable to the city’s donor class.
Mr. Yang has been courting Mr. McGuire’s donors, encouraging them to take something of a portfolio management approach by investing in multiple candidates who are supportive of the business community, according to someone with direct knowledge of the conversations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. The Yang campaign declined to comment.
Lupe Todd-Medina, a spokeswoman for Mr. McGuire, suggested there had been such “rumors” before, but pointed to his significant past fund-raising hauls despite that chatter.
“Ray is a serious candidate who has built and led the kind of teams New York will need for an inclusive comeback,” she said.
In contrast to his energetic but failed presidential bid, which was centered in part on a pitch for universal basic income, Mr. Yang’s mayoral race is defined less by any particular policy platform and more by a political idea. He wants to be the chief cheerleader for the city’s comeback, a message that his team believes cuts a sharp contrast with the current mayoral administration.
From the beginning of Mr. Yang’s campaign, he has pursued perhaps the most aggressive in-person schedule of anyone in the race, contracting Covid and a kidney stone along the way. He has commanded attention at ready-made campaign events that other candidates have not matched.
When the movies reopened, he and his wife caught a film. He was at Yankee Stadium on opening day, and at Citi Field for the Mets’ home opener. Last week he appeared with Huge Ma — better known online as “TurboVax” — who is beloved by some New Yorkers for his Twitter feed and a website that helps people find vaccine appointments.
The question for Mr. Yang is whether that attention translates into votes — and rivals are aware that it could. Mr. Yang has no government experience, he has never voted for mayor and his record of business success is uneven. Many New Yorkers — elected officials, voters and party leaders — have serious questions about his managerial capabilities and the depth of his city knowledge.
Some left-wing leaders are beginning to discuss what it would take to stop him. So far, no serious anti-Yang effort from them or from unions supporting other candidates has materialized.
Then there is Mr. Adams, who has secured several major union endorsements and has worked to build ties to a range of key constituencies across the city. Mr. Adams, who has long pushed for meaningful policing changes, has been notably outspoken about the rise in shootings, an approach that may resonate with voters who are especially attuned to the spike in violent crime.
“I would like to see the actual mayoral candidates begin to talk more about how they’re going to address the gun violence,” said Jumaane D. Williams, the city public advocate, who has not endorsed a contender. “Out of everyone, he may have been talking about it the most. My hope is that we see more and more folks talk about it.”
Representative Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat whose district includes a slice of Queens, cited Mr. Adams’s work on both police reform and public safety in explaining why he endorsed him last week.
Back at Coney Island, Mr. Yang declared victory after procuring a hot dog from Nathan’s: ketchup and mustard, no relish or sauerkraut.
“Delicious,” he proclaimed. As he chewed, the conversation turned to campaign strategy in the weeks ahead.
“I feel a little bit bad for the TV watchers of New York City because they’re about to be bombarded by a bunch of political ads,” he laughed. “I think my campaign will, for better or for worse, be part of that.”