Do his comments on casinos, yeshivas and the teachers union suggest that his campaign has not done its homework?

Adi Talwar

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang campaigns on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in February.

Andrew Yang’s experience as a candidate in the 2020 presidential race prepped him for many of the rigors of running for mayor of New York City. He raised money and managed a campaign staff, made speeches, sat for media interviews, participated in debates. He received endorsements and responded to headlines. He offered ideas. Lots of them.

The one clear difference between 2020 and 2021 is this: Yang had no realistic chance of becoming president, but he is the front-runner in the race for mayor, with name recognition, more than $2 million in contributions to date and a growing slate of endorsements.

Yang’s strength in the polls has created friction with his fellow candidates, as when Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams recently issued the totally false and rather ugly statement that, “People like Andrew Yang never held a job in his entire life.”

It has also brought a more substantive kind of scrutiny—to Yang’s platform. During the 2020 race, some of Yang’s policy ideas generated discussion, in particular his Freedom Dividend version of a universal basic income. However, most of his proposals were never much in the spotlight, because Yang was never going to be president.

Now an intense glare follows his every word and the light has not been flattering. Over the course of two months on the mayoral campaign trail, Yang has called for a casino on Governors Island, questioned the need for a secular education in a naked effort to win support in the Hasidic community and blamed the teachers union for the delays in resuming a regular public-school schedule.

A bet on casinos

During a Jan. 14 appearance on The Breakfast Club, a radio program, Yang was asked about how he’d leverage the city’s wealth to deal with quality-of-life issues in the city like rats and litter.

“One way I think we can generate money and also make New York City more fun: New York City should have its own casino on Governors Island. And who’s going to use that casino? A lot of tourists. It’s going to generate tons of money,” Yang declared. “It’s going to be in an environment that right now is essentially unused. You can see that becoming a major draw, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We do need to continuously develop new reasons to visit….That’s one thing we can do to dig us out of this hole. That casino would generate so much money it’d be bananas.”

Governors Island, a former Army and Coast Guard base located between the tip of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Coast, has been slowly transforming over the past 16 years into an open-space destination and cultural center. There have been several design processes for different parts of the island. In 2018, the city proposed a major rezoning of the island to permit hotels and commercial development. Last fall, the mayor’s office announced plans for a related climate-resiliency research center—the product of years of planning. While that plan has its detractors, the critics generally want to see less development, not more.

A casino is not a new idea for the island: Mayor Rudy Giuliani proposed one back in 1997, prompting Rep. Carolyn Maloney to quip, “A casino is like putting a burlesque joint in the Grand Canyon. It’s totally inappropriate.” The Giuliani proposal helped hold up the federal transfer of the island to local authorities. At one point, there were separate city and state commissions for how to plot the island’s future, a stalled legislative effort to prompt the transfer from federal ownership, and attention from two presidential administrations, before the little piece of land came under local control and began its slow transformation.

Yang’s plan would basically have turned back the clock on that tortured backstory. History is not so easily forgotten, however: The 2003 deed prohibits a casino on the island, meaning Yang’s location idea was a nonstarter.

But what about the larger notion that a casino in New York City would draw lots of tourists and generate mucho moolah for the city? Even if the Governors Island idea was a dud, Yang’s argument to that effect could strengthen general support for casinos in New York City. Some budget proposals considered in Albany this year would have opened the door for awarding licenses for up to three casinos in the New York City area, though that was left out of the budget agreed upon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature on Tuesday.

It’s been a long time since casinos were a sure bet. Casinos in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and upstate New York were flagging even before COVID-19 shut their doors, with revenue substantially lower than predicted. New York state’s existing full-scale casinos this year pushed for lower tax rates because of their poor performance.

A recent report prepared for the New York State Gaming Commission does predict that New York City casinos would make big money—as much as $4.5 billion a year. But they could very quickly face competition from several potential facilities: a New Jersey casino at the Meadowlands, a Connecticut casino (perhaps in Bridgeport), a casino on Long Island built on the Shinnecock Reservation, and a video-lottery terminal facility in Orange County, all at a time when online gaming and casino automation clouds the future of in-person gambling and the workforce that supports it. New York City casinos would still make money, but maybe not as much as people hope.

Most important, even the rosy predictions of the Gaming Commission’s consultants doesn’t forecast a boost in tourism when New York City opens casinos. People don’t need to come to New York to go to a casino, because almost all Americans have one much closer to their homes. Instead, the casinos would make money from the city’s existing tourist crowd, and it’s hard to predict what other forms of entertainment—Yankees games, fancy restaurants, Broadway shows—might lose tourist business to the gaming halls. Casinos would also rake in cash from New Yorkers who forego trips to out-of-state casinos, or who decide to take up slot machines or table games because of their proximity. The consultants predict that one in three New Yorkers will visit the casinos an average of 12 times a year.

Whether that’s “fun” or “bananas” depends on one’s take on gambling, but a casino-driven tourism boom probably isn’t in the cards.

An unorthodox stance

Yang’s most controversial comments to date came during a Feb. 18 forum sponsored by New York Jewish Agenda. The moderator, longtime American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, asked, “As mayor how would you ensure that every child receives what the New York State Constitution calls a ‘sound basic education’ on secular topics, including not just the public schools but including the yeshivas and the other religious schools?”

The question went to a topic that has divided the Jewish community. It concerns a relatively small number of yeshivas, or Jewish religious schools, serving boys in the city’s large and growing Hasidic community. In 2015, a group of advocates and parents from 39 of those schools wrote to city education officials complaining that the schools were failing to provide the basic secular education that all students in New York—regardless of whether they go to public, charter, private, or religious schools—are supposed to get. Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), an advocacy group, has alleged that the Hasidic yeshivas typically provide only 90 minutes of instruction per day four days a week in secular subjects like English and math, only until students are 13, and that the few schools that offer secular education at the high school level effectively make those lessons voluntary.

A 2019 report by the city’s Department of Education found that 26 of 28 schools investigated were not providing as much secular education as they are required to. The findings were nuanced: While five of the schools were failing to provide any secular education, eight were proficient in some secular areas, and 12 were moving in the right direction. The report details efforts by a group called PEARLS (Parents of Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) to develop a secular curriculum for use in religious schools, suggesting that getting sectarian schools to meet secular standards isn’t an impossible goal.

Yang’s answer to Weingarten’s questions, however, had none of that nuance:

“So, when I looked at the yeshiva question, the first thing I wanted to see was, what were the outcomes? What is the data? I do not think we should be prescribing a curriculum unless that curriculum can be demonstrated to have an improved impact on people’s career trajectories and prospects afterwards. I mean, if the school is delivering the same outcomes, I do not think we should be prescribing rigid curricula. And I will also say that when I was in public school, we studied the Bible for a month—the Bible as literature. If it was good enough for my public school, I do not see why we somehow are prioritizing secular over faith-based learning.”

It was an extraordinary statement by someone running to take control of the largest public-school system in the country. Bizarre was the suggestion that Yang’s studying the Bible in one high-school class for one month was in some way equivalent to students receiving no secular instruction. As for the data Yang says he wanted, it’s not clear that he actually looked at it. One of YAFFED’s central arguments is that the failings of yeshivas are one reason for poverty and the receipt of public benefits within the Hasidic community.

In the aftermath of the statement, several prominent pols in the Orthodox community signaled their support for Yang’s stance (or at least rejected media skepticism of what Yang had said). A few weeks after the forum, Yang picked up the endorsement of Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal, whom The Forward called “one of the youngest and most influential Jewish politicians in New York.” Rosenthal credited Yang’s outreach to the Jewish community, and especially his comments denouncing the BDS movement—he did not mention yeshivas.

This isn’t the first time the political power of the Orthodox leadership has shaped public discourse. Simultaneous with the release of the DOE report on yeshivas in 2019, the city’s Department of Investigation and the Special Commissioner of Investigation, a watchdog that monitors the city’s school system, reported that the de Blasio administration had slow-walked the yeshiva investigation, presumably to avoid angering the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox community.

For YAFFED executive director Naftuli Moster, that’s what made Yang’s yeshiva comments disappointing. He’d thought of Yang as above that kind of pressure. “Honestly, it was particularly hurtful coming from Yang for several reasons. One, people painted Yang as kind of a Mayor Bloomberg 2.0,” Moster says. Bloomberg took huge flak when he required that Orthodox parents who want their child to undergo a controversial circumcision ritual sign a waiver about its health risks. Bloomberg could do that, Moster says, because of his independence. “That was the impression I had of Yang. Yang had principles. But here we’re talking about tens of thousands of kids who don’t learn math. Who don’t learn math. How can he be OK with this?”

It’s not clear whether Yang’s comments on yeshivas were meant or taken as a symbol of how he’ll approach other pinch-points involving the ultra-Orthodox community, which over the years have included COVID-19 restrictions, the circumcision ritual and bike lanes. But David Bloomfield, an education expert based at Brooklyn College, believes the baldness of Yang’s comments could ultimately undermine that community’s desire to chart its own path.

“Ironically it hurts the supporters of Hasidic insularity. It was so extreme, so outrageous and so irrational that somehow sectarian education is the same as secular education or that a month of bible study convinced a candidate of the worth of the ultra-Orthodox vehicle that it made it harder to make a case for that side,” Bloomfield says. “And it amplified the issue for the campaign, where it became virtually impossible for any candidate to say that they wouldn’t comply with the law.”

Adi Talwar

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang speaking with passerbys on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in February.

Singling out the teachers union

In an interview with Politico published on March 18, Yang said, “I will confess to being a parent that has been frustrated by how slow our schools have been to open, and I do believe that the UFT has been a significant reason why our schools have been slow to open.”

When the quote hit the Web, Yang won kudos for braving the wrath of one of the city’s largest and most politically powerful unions. Of course, in a year when hundreds of thousands of parents are tearing their hair out trying to manage online schooling, it might not be bad politics to challenge the UFT. In fact, despite his comments, the UFT might still endorse him, given his strong chance of winning the mayoralty.

Politics aside, Yang’s attempt to blame the union for the slowness of school reopenings glosses over some significant facts.

The teachers union’s threat to take a strike vote did lead to a delay in the start of in-person school for a few weeks in September. But New York City schools still began opening that month, well before many large districts around the country. The city shut them down again in November when the city’s overall COVID-19 test positivity rate jumped to 3 percent.

But the union then moved away from supporting the 3 percent cutoff, and the mayor followed. Elementary schools were back to hybrid learning by mid-December. Middle schools reopened in late February and high schools on March 22, and the mayor recently invited all-remote students to sign up for partial in-person instruction. It was only in February that the Centers for Disease Control said schools could open safely—and only if a long list of safeguards, like social distancing, were in place. Social distancing requirements create physical limits for how many students any school can accommodate at one time.

The UFT certainly has critics who agree with Yang that the union is stymying a return to normal education. The union is supportive of the controversial “two-case” rule, which many scientists have questioned and is behind hundreds of temporary school closures since the phased general reopening of elementary- and middle-school buildings. On the other hand, within the UFT, there are teachers who believe the union has not protected their safety enough in a rush to get schools back up and running.

“The truth is that the science on this is highly uncertain and shifting all the time, with the new variants spreading, the number of cases and the positivity rate increasing,” says Leonie Haimson, executive director of the education advocacy group Class Size Matters. “Not to mention that in most schools, class sizes are too large and classrooms too small to ever allow for five days a week attendance with any kind of social distancing.”

The disruptor

Casinos, yeshivas and schools aren’t the only topics where Yang has made bold and sometimes questionable pronouncements. He proposed that the city ought to take over the NYC Transit Authority from the state, then revised his approach. People had pointed out that the state provides enormous revenues to operate the subway and bus systems. Yang called on the city, which is facing an historic budget crisis, to spread out its federal stimulus payments over several years, defeating the purpose of Washington’s multibillion dollar infusion to the city. He indicated he might end a busway pilot program in Flushing, Queens—then admitted that he hadn’t really researched the issue.

He implied that his family, which fled the city during the height of the pandemic, faced unique challenges in doing online learning and remote work from a two-bedroom apartment. On a lighter note, Yang seemed to indicate that Shake Shack was, at some point, cool.

Inside his policy platform are other ideas that raise questions. His plan to reopen schools, for instance, includes a notion that the city might syndicate its online instruction to other school systems as a revenue driver—effectively using city employees to replace teachers elsewhere in the country, a variation on the automation threat that Yang himself has done so much to highlight.

Meanwhile, his signature policy, a basic income for the poorest New Yorkers, could have a costly flaw. Yang pitches his $2,000 a year payments as “supplementary” to existing safety-net benefits and vows that money “will not be categorized as ‘income’” so that “New Yorkers currently receiving SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, housing assistance and more would have no interruption to these benefits.”

But that won’t be for Yang or the city to decide, experts say. It would take federal and state cooperation to get the city payments to not count as income, and it might even require legislation. Other universal income programs have been forced to create funds to compensate recipients for lost benefits. Such a fund could be enormously expensive to create in New York City.

Asked about this, Yang’s campaign says the state’s decision not to count federal stimulus payments against Medicaid eligibility set an important precedent. Yang’s camp says that as mayor, he would order the city’s social services agency, HRA, not to count the UBI money as income. But it is not certain that the state would apply the same approach to UBI, and the benefit programs HRA administers are largely controlled by federal rules.

The consultancy guiding Yang’s run is Tusk Strategies, founded by Bradley Tusk. A former aide to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Tusk managed Mike Bloomberg’s $108 million 2009 reelection campaign, then ran an effort called “NYC Deserves Better” to undermine Bill de Blasio in 2016. Over the years, Tusk’s firm has repped companies like Tesla, Uber, Handy, and FanDuel that seek to disrupt existing industries.

In a sense, that is what Yang is doing in the mayor’s race—shaking up the conversation, brainstorming, throwing out ideas with bro-ish bonhomie and shrugging when they don’t work. The approach was described well by Yang co-campaign manager Chris Coffey when the casino idea blew up. “Andrew believes in constantly discussing new and creative ideas to help rebuild our city — but he also believes that any major development project must be community led,” he said. “That’s why this idea, like many others, would not advance unless stakeholders believed in the process, which is far from even beginning.”

Not all Yang’s rivals have offered detailed plans for every policy problem. And many candidates propose ideas that are impractical, impossible, or downright foolish. But in the short time he’s been running, Yang has gotten the most ink for saying big things that end up looking pretty problematic on closer inspection. What’s more, Yang’s closest competitors all have what he doesn’t: experience in government. They include a former federal cabinet member, recent city commissioner and one-time mayoral counsel. In a field like that, Yang is the ideas man. With no record to run on, his ideas and positions really matter.

Yang’s platform certainly has valid ideas, like auditing the NYPD’s use of surveillance technology, improving the way the city deals with nonprofit contractors, and a public bank. The questions about how his basic income program would work are important. The comments about casinos, yeshivas and unions suggest Yang, for all his professed wonkiness and devotion to math, takes a simplistic approach to complex problems.

Fact is, Yang still has not fleshed out major parts of his agenda. According to his website, plans for the economy, jobs, labor, K-12 education, the CUNY system and higher education, vocational training, environment and climate resiliency, a full transit and street redesign, the budget process, addressing budget shortfalls, and “making the Mayor’s Office more transparent, ethical, and available to the public” are all promised to be “released in the coming weeks.” Early voting for the June primary begins in 66 days.

Jarrett Murphy is a Wayne Barrett fellow at Type Investigations. This story is part of a series on the New York City mayoral race.