‘Former Mayor John Lindsay once branded the post “the second toughest job in America.” The challenges today are as daunting as ever. But it could be a great opportunity.’

Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office.

City Hall

Now that the race for the White House is over, New Yorkers can focus their attention on the 2021 election and deciding whom to choose as their next mayor.

Former Mayor John Lindsay once branded the post “the second toughest job in America.” The challenges today are as daunting as ever. Racial tensions surrounding police encounters with Black men are higher now than at any time since Lindsay took office in 1966. A looming budget deficit caused by the pandemic is all too reminiscent of the fiscal crisis that brought New York to the brink of bankruptcy in 1975. Yet, more than a dozen individuals already have expressed interest in the job. Why the rush of candidates?

Well, simply put, it could be a great opportunity. Today is different, especially with Trump’s defeat. The racial protests that tore cities apart in the 1960’s—in places like Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and to a lesser extent in New York—were violent in nature. The demonstrations ushered in by the Black Lives Matter movement this summer were largely peaceful. Cities are not being burnt to the ground. Those who recently marched to demand police reform represented a broad multiracial coalition. There is a new hopefulness. Yes, in Trump’s America, we have witnessed frightening scenes of white supremacists toting assault weapons to make a political point; but gun control laws in New York will not permit such spectacles.

The structural issues that led to the 1975 fiscal crisis—middle class flight to the suburbs, the relocation of manufacturing and white collar jobs, the abrupt loss of federal programs—are not present today.  COVID-19 has driven some city residents to less dense suburbs, and the adjustment to remote work has depressed residential and commercial real estate markets; but it is too soon to assume these patterns will persist in the long run. Growth in the finance and tech industries that helped New York recover from fiscal calamity over the past several decades is not likely to reverse significantly. The tourist industry that also fed the recovery will rebound after the virus.

National Democrats will need to reach a consensus among themselves about what role the federal government will play in restoring the economy and correcting the inequality they helped engineer going back to Bill Clinton’s administration. Whatever they decide, their plan will need to include relief for cities and metropolitan areas where populations have been growing and where racial minorities have suffered most from the pandemic. President Joe Biden must find a way to work with Senate Republicans so that they can honestly address the health and fiscal crises affecting Americans across the country. Even Republican President Gerald Ford, who figuratively (not actually) told New York to “Drop Dead” in the midst of its financial collapse, eventually came around to understanding that New York’s survival was essential to maintain thriving national and global economies.

The dual concerns of race and recovery are likely to have a role in shaping conversations around the 2021 mayoral race. Will New Yorkers want a leader who can bring people together in a moment of racial strife or one who can guide them over the treacherous fiscal road ahead? The two priorities are by no means in tension, as suggested by the declared candidacy of Raymond McGuire, an African American executive from Citigroup.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer seems to have moved out ahead in lining up endorsements and displaying his bona fides as a guardian of the local treasury. Listening to him, I can’t help but to recall a former city comptroller named Abraham Beame, who ran for mayor in 1973 on the slogan, “He knows the buck.” Shortly after Beame’s election, Governor Hugh Carey effectively placed the city in receivership by creating several state agencies to oversee city finances. Once again now, ultimate responsibility for resolving the fiscal situation will lie with the governor’s office. If whatever assistance sent from Washington proves to be insufficient, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-controlled state legislature will need to supplement federal aid with new taxes on people and corporations that can afford to pay more.

Perhaps New York, especially in the current climate, is ready to elect a person of color or a woman. Maya Wiley, a former staffer for Mayor Bill de Blasio, represents both demographics, but she has plenty of competition from within each group. Could the city’s new system of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) have a decisive impact on the 2021 Democratic primary? Under RCV, voters rank order as many as five candidates. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the first choice ballots, those at the bottom are eliminated and second choice ballots get distributed. Might so many “minority” candidates function to eliminate each other? Early research on RCV systems enacted in San Francisco, Oakland and elsewhere indicated that RCV can be confusing, discourage participation, and exacerbate turnout disparities associated with education and age. Could such confusion become a factor when New York suddenly adopts RCV?

It is too early to predict the outcome of next year’s election. It won’t be easy; but whoever takes office as New York’s next mayor on Jan. 1, 2022 could have a golden opportunity to lead the city into a better future. Maybe that is why so many people want the job. 

Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College whose most recent books include The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York and Summer in the City: John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream.