Andrew Yang has a tough fight ahead of him, but he says he’s the man to revitalize New York
It’s difficult to understand why anyone would want to be the mayor of New York City.
The role is thankless, New Yorkers are typically unkind to their mayors (go to any Mets game and you’ll hear fans booing their own team, that’s the kind of city this is). The job is one of the hardest in all of politics, and it’s a known career crusher: Every living mayor of New York City has attempted a presidential run, and not one has succeeded.
And yet Andrew Yang, the former tech entrepreneur and executive fresh off of a presidential run, wants the title.
Yang shot to political stardom seemingly overnight by bringing ideas like Universal Basic Income to the presidential debate stage. And to the surprise of political pundits, his ideas stuck.
Fans of his banded together, largely online, as the “Yang Gang” and rallied behind simple phrases like “Math.” He polled well enough and brought in enough money to stay on the trail until February 2020, far surpassing earlier predictions and cementing his name in national politics.
Now, Yang says he sees a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine New York’s economy as it begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic that took so many lives, jobs, and shuttered so many businesses.
His outsider approach to New York’s deeply-entrenched political order has shocked some, and New Yorkers are more than ready to jump on any faux pas, perceived or real. But he’s still winning. According to internal polls by the Yang campaign, he is currently polling in first, with 25% of first-choice votes, and a double-digit lead over his closest competitor, Eric Adams, the Borough President of Brooklyn. External polls also put Yang in first place, but with a smaller lead.
Still, half of likely Democratic voters are currently undecided about their top choice. Fortune spoke with Yang over the phone to discuss how he plans to win those voters over, his plans for the future of the New York economy, and why he wants the job.
Fortune: If you win this mayoral race, you’ll be taking office in January 2022. Hopefully most of the city is vaccinated by that point and we’re in COVID-19 recovery mode. What’s the first thing you do?
Yang: I’m a numbers guy, and you can see the depth of the crisis that New York City is facing in the numbers. We’ve lost 30,000 lives, including those of friends, family members and neighbors. We’ve lost 600,000 jobs, 84% of commuters, 60 million tourists, 70% of subway riders, and thousands of small businesses have either closed or on the verge of closing.
So, if you want to turn this around the first thing you have to do is give organizations and companies the confidence to get to go back to the office, because when workers are not in the office, it doesn’t just hurt the company. It impacts the security guards, and the cleaning staff, the food truck operators, the retail or the restaurants that are not seeing any business.
Hopefully by the time I take office early next year, many more people will be vaccinated and more people will be coming back to the city. But we should be realistic that it’s not all just going to snap back to the way that it was pre-COVID. Many organizations have meaningfully adjusted their operations to include higher levels of remote work. When I talk to CEOs, many of them say to me that they’re bringing people back to the office but it might not be five days a week, it might be three days a week. And so we’re going to be in a position where we’re going to have to encourage folks to commute as much as possible because that is one of the pillars of our economy. Imagine for example, if you were to commute into New York City five days a week, then you’d get a $50 gift certificate to a New York City restaurant or bar that you could use to stay a little bit later and get together with friends. Then the business can redeem that gift certificate with the city. Those are the kinds of measures that we actually should be adopting to encourage folks to come back.
We’re also missing 60 million tourists who supported hundreds of thousands of jobs. It’s going to be, in all likelihood, a multi-year process to recover that level of tourism. So we have to try and speed it up, however we can. One thing that I championed was a subway fare holiday on Memorial Day and that whole week. A lot more people would be riding the subway and exploring different parts of New York City, and it would encourage folks to come into the city, who right now maybe haven’t been in for a number of months. Historically, New York has invested relatively low levels of resources in encouraging people to visit, in part because we didn’t have to. Everyone has wanted to come here anyway. But now we’re going to have to invest more earnestly and consistently.
It’s an interesting idea to try to incentivize workers, but what about CEOs and businesses in general? How do you get them to stay in New York and invest in expensive office space if people aren’t coming in?
We need to make the case that there’s no better environment to build a world class organization than New York City, and that innovation and creativity happen at higher levels when people are physically together, and this happens to be true. Numerous studies have demonstrated that workers are more innovative and creative when they’re in the same place.
This, in many ways, is the central value proposition of New York City. Remote work is very good for some things, but it’s not good for culture building, not good for grooming the next generation of talent and leadership. You can get work done over Zoom but you can’t build a winning culture, and the facts show that there’s a massive advantage for teams that are in the same place. This is particularly true when you are in hyper competitive industries like technology or media or finance where there are massive economic returns to being more innovative and creative than others.
What are some of your big picture ideas for the economy? Would you bring universal basic income to New York?
We need to do everything we can to help keep people in secure and stable situations, so I’m for targeted cash relief. I’m for getting more New Yorkers high speed internet. I’m for getting more people access to basic financial services. Almost one in eight New Yorkers does not have a bank account, which is unconscionable in the world financial capital.
I do think one of the major areas of opportunity for New York City is to attract the next generation of entrepreneurs and compete to make New York City a major tech hub at an even higher level than it is. I think that we should be number one, and New York City’s economy is larger and more diverse than any other place in the U.S. If we were a country, we would be the 11th biggest economy in the world. There are massive opportunities for technology companies in particular to take advantage of close proximity to leaders in consumer products, media, finance, culture, and fashion to build the next generation of companies. I think the next set of innovators are going to be incorporating technology into other industries, and New York City is the ideal place for that.
I’m thrilled by Google just about there investing over $200 million in their New York City office. I have a friend, Eliot Horowitz, who’s a very accomplished founder, he’s starting a new technology company in New York City and he says that it’s a massive competitive advantage in terms of getting talented people here because people are excited about New York. Letting Amazon and its 26,000 jobs walk away from New York City was not a good thing, and so I’m going to be championing New York City as a place for companies big and small, and for companies both new and mature.
You’ve mentioned that you want to turn New York City into a hub for cryptocurrency. What would that look like and how would you make that happen?
Again, New York City is the world’s financial capital, and at this point cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin are a trillion dollar asset class. Many major New York firms and banks are already investing in cryptocurrencies and their applications. My goal would be to support the development of these technologies and find more uses for blockchain technologies in order to spur adoption. If you’re the world’s financial capital and you have a trillion dollar asset class, it’s something of a no brainer to invest in innovation in that area.
We’re talking a lot about innovation and finance, but what about protections for freelance workers? What would you like to see done, particularly in New York, to protect and add to the financial security of freelancers?
There are things that we can do to better protect freelance workers like having a lower threshold for when a contract is necessary and having some proportion of payment upfront, which I think really does screen out bad actors.
A lot of what we need to do is try to develop for freelancers some of the benefits that traditionally full time employees have enjoyed. That’s health care obviously, that’s various worker protections. One of my goals is to initiate a portable benefits program that will help internalize the cost of hiring freelancers to a fund that will help provide benefits to freelancers, so that it’s more sustainable.
New York appears to have reached a deal to legalize recreational marijuana, that’s a potential $4.2 billion industry. How would you utilize that if elected mayor?
I’m thrilled that New York State is joining the other states utilizing marijuana. I agree that it’s a massive economic opportunity, where many entrepreneurs are going to take advantage of the new status of marijuana, and I want New York City to be a leader in that.
I think that one thing we’ll want to do is ensure that some of the communities that have been impacted by the way marijuana laws have been enforced are in a position to benefit directly from its legalization. That may not happen on its own, so we might need to provide some help to make sure that there’s a real opportunity for folks in those communities to participate in what should be a boom. I think that it could drive hundreds of millions of dollars in the local economy. I’m excited about the legalization of marijuana in part because it’s frankly safer than some of the other substances that have been taking lives away in many cases for many Americans, in terms of pain management.
Many former New York City mayors have tried, and failed, in presidential runs. It’s a tough job, and kind of a dead–end job politically, too. Do you have political ambitions beyond City Hall?
If you’re going to become the mayor of the greatest city in the world during a generational crisis, I think it would be sheer folly to be thinking about anything other than that job and that role. If I’m able to speed up our recovery and bring us through this time, I would look at that and say, ‘this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done’ and I’m going to be thrilled with this as a high point of my working life. I think that should be the only approach someone has to this kind of job and this type of role.
I’m laser-focused on getting our city up and running again as quickly as possible and see to it that, we are still a place that businesses are excited to invest in and grow within, that families are excited to raise our kids here, that individuals can show up like I did 25 years ago and still have the kind of lives that they could only have dreamt of in another part of the country. So, it’s invigorating to potentially have a hand in our city’s recovery. But I will say I think if you’re thinking about anything else at this point then you are doing it wrong.
You’re pretty active on Twitter and have quite a following there. What’s your approach to the medium?
My Twitter was something that I used on the presidential trail to generate energy and awareness about the campaign, but now I think it does give you a bit of a glimpse into what I’m seeing and doing and I find that useful. I do think that for whatever reason some people are a little bit too interested (laughs) and that they seem to be trying to discern subtext that may or may not be there. In our case we’re just trying to get our vision out and get our message out.