It was during the administration of Fiorello LaGuardia that the position of New York City mayor became known as the “second toughest job in America”.
LaGuardia, New York’s 99th mayor and a man whose name now graces the city’s streets, parks, schools and an airport labeled one of the worst in the country, became regarded as one of the city’s greatest ever leaders, despite facing a collapsing economy, all-powerful crime mobs and civic unrest when he took office in January 1934.
When New York City’s next mayor takes office, however, they will face problems on perhaps an even larger scale, with the Covid-19 pandemic having ravaged a city already beset by deep income inequality and facing a reckoning over racial discrimination in policing and governance. The job could prove, once again, to be second only in difficulty to being the occupant of the Oval Office.
Despite the challenges, dozens of candidates are running in June’s Democratic mayoral primary – which, given New York City’s left-leaning political makeup, is likely to decide the city’s next leader.
The most pressing issue will be leading New York City out of the pandemic. The city was one of the worst hit by Covid-19, and many residents are still haunted by the scenes of April 2020, when ambulance sirens were a near-constant sound as hundreds of people a day succumbed to the virus.
In total, more than 32,000 people have died, and in the most densely populated city in the country, the need for a successful, continued rollout of vaccinations will be essential, as will guiding economic and emotional recovery.
“In communities across the city Covid is related to severe job loss in industries and occupations. It’s been differentially hard on the everyday workers of the city as opposed to the professional workers. So there’s a lot to be done to heal and revitalize those communities,” John Mollenkopf, distinguished professor of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said.
“All the candidates have lined up policy position papers on what they’ll do [regarding the recovery from the pandemic], but there’s also a kind of symbolic and emotional dimension to it – of going out to the communities and healing their pain, of inspiring them and giving them confidence in the future. That’ll be a very important thing the mayor will do.”
The winner of a mayoral election is frequently a reaction to how voters feel about the incumbent – in this case the term-limited Bill de Blasio, whose popularity has waned dramatically since his election in 2013. This year, however, with Covid recovery dominating the election “that dynamic is a lot less at play”, said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic strategist who has been active in New York politics for years.
A key issue for the incoming mayor will be schooling, Kwatra said – dealing with the lost year many children have experienced but also the struggle many New Yorkers have faced in balancing work and childcare.
“Especially for working-class, middle-class, poor New Yorkers, for whom there is no choice, they have to go to work, they are frontline workers in many of these industries that are helping to bring the city back on its feet,” Kwatra said.
“Figuring out how we get our schools open safely and securely for parents for teachers and for students is going to be an enormously important task for the next mayor.”
As if wrestling with the 1,700 schools, and more than 1.1 million students, isn’t enough, the city’s next leader will need to breathe life back into a hospitality industry that has been decimated by the pandemic.
“The job creation connected to those industries is enormous and significant, so I think part of what the next mayor is going to also have to do is figure out how to send a message to folks that New York is open for business, that New York is safe,” Kwatra said.
Looming over any recovery is the racial inequality and police brutality that many New Yorkers or color have faced.
In the summer of 2020 Black Lives Matter protests intensified the focus on racial issues, and the Democratic primary could yet yield only the city’s second non-white mayor. New York is still seeking its first non-male leader, with at least six women, two of them women of color, among the main contenders and a non-binary candidate also in the running.
The demonstrations of 2020, which brought out tens of thousands of protesters in New York, means the winner of the mayoral race will be under pressure to reimagine law enforcement in New York.
“I think it will be very high [on the next mayor’s agenda], but it also will depend on who is ultimately elected,” Kwatra said.
There have been demands among the left to defund, either completely or partially, the police, and the next mayor will be expected to take a firm line with the New York police department, the largest force in the country which employs 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees.
Some candidates have pledged to reform the NYPD, to various degrees. Dianne Morales a former public school teacher and non-profit executive, has arguably gone furthest. Her website has a section dedicated to “defund the police”, and if elected Morales would reallocate $3bn of the police’s budget to more socially minded services.
“As Black men continue to be essentially executed by the state day in and day out in America, it’s impossible for that to not begin to more profoundly affect this mayoral race,” Kwatra said.
Maya Wiley, a lawyer and civil rights executive with experience in New York City government, could lean on her experience as chair of the agency responsible for handling complaints about the New York police department. Eric Adams, the current borough president of Brooklyn, who joined the NYPD after being beaten by police aged 15 with the aim of changing the department “from within” has also pledged reform.
Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur who ran for the US presidency in 2020, has drawn much of the early media attention in the mayoral race, but in recent weeks has also attracted scathing criticism from his rivals, who have attacked his commitment to the city and his governing experience.
It is a point they are likely to continue making, as whoever wins will have a battle on their hands as they grapple with the city’s post-pandemic finances.
Reuters reported that a net total of 70,000 people left New York City in 2020, but the data is less straightforward. According to location analytics company Unacast, 3.57 million people left the city between 1 January and 7 December , and “some 3.5 million people earning lower average incomes moved into the city during that same period”. Unacast claims that this resulted in a scarcely believable $34bn in lost revenue.
As government income has dropped, fears have been raised that the situation could be as dire as that of the financial crisis the city faced in 1975. Back then the city nearly went bankrupt, and leaders attempted to rectify it by introducing swingeing budget cuts.
Kimberly K Phillips-Fein, a professor of American history at New York University and author of Fear City: New York’s fiscal crisis and the rise of austerity politics, said the current situation does not rival the fiscal chaos of the 1970s, but said it was important any incoming mayor “recall the dangers of widespread service cuts as a way of addressing fiscal shortfalls”.
“At this moment in particular, such cuts could be disastrous. We need more faith in our public sector, not less. We need a coherent plan for reopening schools safely, and a commitment to use resources to accomplish this; we need public health programs that we can trust to protect us,” Phillips-Fein said.
“Should budget shortfalls emerge, the city should strive to find ways to address them without stark service cuts. In the 1970s these helped to accelerate political and economic polarization, and the same might well happen today.”
The picture does at least look rosier than it did a few months ago, after New York agreed on a $212bn state budget in April. The budget, if signed by Andrew Cuomo, the state’s governor, will increase taxes on the wealthiest residents in New York City, and, Democratic lawmakers say, release money for schools, rent relief and childcare, but the next mayor will inevitably face tough decisions over spending.
The mayor’s spending will be fraught with danger as they bid to rectify wealth disparity in the city. The Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York found that income inequality, even pre-pandemic, has grown over the past 10 years, and the issue of affordable housing has been highlighted by the fact that Covid-19 rates were particularly high in neighborhoods already suffering from soaring rents.
Data from Streeteasy revealed traditionally lower-income areas like Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights saw dramatic numbers of coronavirus cases, whereas wealthy neighborhoods like Battery Park City and the West Village saw the lowest numbers. In the last six years, according to Streeteasy, it is the former that were already struggling to cope with rising rent.
“Between July 2014 and July 2020, rents in the zip codes that would be most affected by Covid-19 rose by 22%. That’s twice the rate of the city overall, where rents grew 11%. In what would turn out to be low-Covid-19 zip codes, rents rose by 10% in the same period,” Streeteasy said.
Putting all these issues together, it is clear that the next mayor will have a daunting task ahead in terms of hauling New York City back on track. But as the city reports an encouraging vaccination rate, and as bars, restaurants and sporting venues begin to reopen, there are plenty of people who think reports of the city’s demise are exaggerated.
“We’ll need a mayor that understands that the Covid crisis revealed in new ways the underlying class and status divisions in the city,” Mollenkopf said.
“But New York is going to come back faster and better than the skeptics think. There’s a reason that the [population] concentration levels were as high as they have been in New York City – very good economic, social and political reasons. And the virus has given that a bruise but it hasn’t really changed anything.
“So yes, it’s going to be a challenge. But it’s a great opportunity, also, for the next mayor.”