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N.Y.C. Mayor Election: Do Voters Want Another White Mayor?

Six months ago, the 2021 race for mayor in New York City seemed to be coalescing around three well-known Democrats, all male elected officials, and two of them white.

The white men, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, and Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, had name recognition, fund-raising advantages and institutional support, making it hard to fathom any other candidate’s having a serious chance to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio, who will step down because of term-limit requirements.

But then New York City was confronted first by a pandemic that has killed nearly 24,000 people in the city, many of them Black and Latino, and then waves of civil unrest stirred by Black Lives Matter protests.

With 10 months before the 2021 mayoral primary, the race may still come down to Mr. Stringer, Mr. Johnson or the third well-known Democrat, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who is Black.

But the results of the recent Democratic primary offer evidence that some New Yorkers may be seeking an alternative: a fresh face, perhaps someone more progressive, and not a white candidate who is part of the city’s political establishment.

Three Democratic candidates of color won congressional primaries in New York, following in the footsteps of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset Joe Crowley, then the No. 4 House Democrat, in the 2018 primaries.

Two of the three victors are poised to become the first openly gay Black or Latino men in Congress; the third, Jamaal Bowman, a Black middle-school principal, unseated Representative Eliot L. Engel, a 16-term incumbent.

The altered political calculus extended down the ballot, with Democratic women unseating incumbents in state legislative races. Many of those winning candidates were backed by organizations like the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America.

“Politics centered around the value of Black lives and a recognition of the role of Black leadership is now the center of the conversation of how we move forward as a city,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the New York State Working Families Party.

The movement has not gone unnoticed by people like Mr. Johnson, who said he has tried to find opportunities to allow Council members of color to take the lead on certain issues.

“There’s always going to be a real concern and a legitimate concern over whether a white elected official with white privilege can ever fully understand the experience of people of color in the city,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview earlier this month.

Mr. Johnson had pledged to cut $1 billion from the Police Department in response to calls to defund the police after George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis. But the $1 billion turned out to be largely cosmetic, shifting responsibilities from the Police Department to other agencies, and partially relying on what budget watchdogs called an “unrealistic one-time reduction in overtime expenses.”

In an explanation during a virtual budget hearing at the end of June, Mr. Johnson, who appeared drained, said that he wanted to cut more. But he said he chose to support Black and Latino council members who thought $1 billion in cuts would jeopardize public safety in low-income and middle-class neighborhoods struggling with a spike in shootings and homicides.

“It would be perfectly appropriate if a voter or a voter writ large decided they wanted a person of color to be the next mayor,” he said in the interview. But on issues of racial justice and equality, Mr. Johnson said that he has “been there as a friend and an ally.”

Yet the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as a memorial service held in Brooklyn for Mr. Floyd, hinted at how Mr. Johnson and Mr. Stringer may be poorly positioned to capitalize on the moment.

At the memorial, Mr. Stringer was politely received by the audience, until he mistakenly referred to Mr. Floyd as “Greg Floyd.” Groans and jeers followed.

And when Mr. Johnson used Twitter to criticize the Police Department’s attempt to arrest a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, his tweet had 10 times fewer retweets and likes than a similar post by Maya Wiley, a Black Democrat who is considering a bid for mayor.

Ms. Wiley, a civil rights lawyer who worked as a commentator for MSNBC and as a legal counsel for Mr. de Blasio, has harshly criticized the mayor’s response to the George Floyd protests and, with 340,000 followers on Twitter, has more social media reach than all of the major declared mayoral candidates combined.

“We need leadership that is bold in imagination but collective in spirit,” Ms. Wiley said. “That’s what my neighbors of all races are looking for as they assess the qualities they want in a champion for this city.”

It remains unclear if Ms. Wiley will be able to assemble a multiracial and progressive coalition, as Mr. de Blasio did in 2013. The mayor relied on his African-American wife and biracial children to suggest that he understood the experiences of Black people and Latinos.

That formulation helped Mr. de Blasio receive 18,000 more votes than a Black man, the former comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., in predominantly African-American communities.

Candidates who have a strong base in the Black community will start out with a tremendous advantage in a Democratic primary for mayor if they are able to create enough of a coalition with Latinos and college-educated whites, said Peter Ragone, a former top aide to Mr. de Blasio and now an informal adviser.

“There won’t be another mayor elected who does not have strong support in the African-American community and maintains that support throughout their tenure,” Mr. Ragone said.

Mr. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, is a former police officer whose candidacy could draw from a broad swath of people across the city. He is more moderate than Ms. Wiley, but has a strong base among Black voters in Brooklyn.

Mr. Adams said in a statement that the pandemic “laid bare injustices faced by people of color that were created by failures of past city governments.”

“Those injustices were not news to people of color in the city,” he added. “My goal is to make sure that the city provides more for a young person of color tomorrow than it did for me years ago.”

Ms. Wiley has the potential to build a coalition uniting women, white progressives and Black and Latino voters, especially Black women, said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University.

Her challenge is to “introduce herself to Black voters who are not in the WNYC and MSNBC crowd,” said Professor Greer, who is Black. “She has been clear in her thinking about this political moment, and that translates into a managerial style that seems attractive, and that’s why she’s getting this level of interest.”

There is also speculation that another Black man, Raymond J. McGuire, the global head of corporate and investment banking at Citi, will enter the race as a moderate Democrat and sell himself as the best person to guide the city’s economic recovery.

The white male candidates in the Democratic primary have picked up on the shifting political environment.

Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary and budget director under President Barack Obama, said it was time “to reimagine policing and all these systems that perpetuate systemic racism,” and that his experience working under the first Black president gave him the tools to do so.

Mr. Stringer, who briefly ran for mayor in 2013 before dropping out to run for comptroller, began aligning himself with the progressive shift he saw taking place in the city four years ago.

“We have had three mayors over 28 years who have failed to take on racial inequality,” Mr. Stringer said. “Mayor de Blasio made a lot of promises but he hasn’t delivered.”

He was one of the first citywide elected officials in 2018 to endorse progressive challengers seeking to unseat members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a caucus that helped Senate Republicans control the chamber and block progressive legislation.

“You can say he’s a white guy, he has a lot of privilege,” said Yuh-Line Niou, an assemblywoman in Manhattan who was backed by Mr. Stringer, and said she planned to endorse his mayoral bid.

But she said she has seen Mr. Stringer repeatedly “go to the uncomfortable places and have those uncomfortable conversations.”

“There’s been a lot of people of color that have disappointed me in their stances and position on issues in our communities,” she said. “I’m not going to vote against my own interests because of the color of someone’s skin.”

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