With four months to go before the 2021 NYC mayoral primaries, there are approximately 37 million Democrats vying for the dubious honor of succeeding Bill de Blasio at City Hall. Only one of them has the name recognition of Andrew Yang, though, a fact that has propelled the former presidential hopeful to the top of the polls, where he leads by double digits, in spite of early gaffes regarding real estate and the definition of a bodega. (And the news that he’s never voted for mayor. And a proposal to put a casino on Governors Island, which is illegal.) Why does he want what is arguably the second-hardest job in America, made exponentially harder by a once-in-a-generation health crisis and an economic one that has decimated the five boroughs? Like most candidates, Yang thinks he has the best ideas (universal basic income for the 500,000 neediest New Yorkers, a small business czar, vaccine-verification cards, a People’s Bank of New York, permanent to-go cocktails, to name just a few) and the contacts (“I’ve literally got the vice president’s number,” he’s said, adding that Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are friends of his) to lead the city out of the shitstorm. Last week Vanity Fair chatted with Yang about everything from the COVID-19 crisis to Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home scandal to the worst mayor in New York City history to the NYPD. Also his bagel order, living in Gracie Mansion, and the massive, multiborough party he wants to throw when life is back to normal.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Vanity Fair: When do you think New York goes back to pre-COVID normality? And how does it get there?
Andrew Yang: So when I think about the crisis we’re going through in numbers, we’re down 27,000 lives; over half a million people have been infected; missing over 700,000 jobs, 60 million tourists who used to support over 300,000 of those jobs; several hundred thousand people have relocated out of the city…so if you’re trying to trace the path of recovery—and this is why I’m running for mayor, I think I can speed this process up—it rests first on the vaccine, and then second on a way for people to quickly and seamlessly demonstrate that they’ve either been vaccinated or tested negatively very recently, on your smartphone most likely, so that people can go back into office buildings and restaurants and bars and Broadway theaters and sporting events. I talked to someone who represents the Broadway theater industry, and she said something that’s very interesting to me, which was: “Look, our theaters are not the sort of thing where you can have socially distanced audiences and have that come anywhere close to break even.” She estimated that theaters needed to be something like 75% full in order for the shows to make money. And so you need to project forward to an environment where tourists are coming in at higher volumes for that to be the case. So if you’re down 60 million tourists right now in 2020 and 2021, then do you think even with widespread vaccination you’re going to get back to 65 million in 2022? Probably not. So the question is, like, where can you get to between 5 million and 65 million, and then how quickly can you get there? So if you use 65 million as your pre-COVID benchmark, in terms of 65 million tourists, your absolute best case is 2023 or 2024. And I think that would be incredibly positive if that is the time frame. In all likelihood it’ll be a longer time frame than that even if we do most everything right.
So how does New York make up for that shortfall if it’s going to be years until we have that revenue coming back from tourists?
It’s not even [just] tourists. Another number that sticks in my head is that Midtown commercial real estate is presently 82% unoccupied…and that’s not tourists; that’s just people commuting to work. And if you don’t have people commuting to work, then you don’t have security guards and cleaning staff and food trucks and street-level retail and everything else. And you have thousands of small businesses that are shutting down right now as a result. So that’s core to New York City, and so again, you have to try and improve that number as quickly as you can. I talked to business leaders yesterday, and at least some of them are starting to bring people back to the office, albeit on a limited schedule—one organization was doing two days a week, something like that. So that is the other curve that you are trying to speed up. And that curve I think we can have a more optimistic time frame for in terms of, you know, trying to get people back into the office. But at the same time, there are a significant number of offices that I think will have adjusted their practices, and that folks won’t be asked to be in the office five days a week. It might be something like, you know, three or four days a week. And then that ends up affecting your infrastructure needs.
Based on these timelines, do you think New York City is economically screwed for the next few years?
If you use the city budget projections as, like, a guidepost, you would realistically project multibillion-dollar deficits from the current operating level for several years. So we shouldn’t have any illusions; I certainly don’t. This has been a catastrophic and devastating time for New York City, and expecting us to snap back to pre-COVID conditions in a number of weeks or months is completely unrealistic. It’s going to be a tough path back. The main reason I’m running for mayor is that I think that I can help galvanize us toward an accelerated recovery by activating resources both inside and outside of government. I think you’re going to need the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. I think you’re going to need the technology sector. I think you’re going to need the private sector, as well as getting the city’s agency functioning at a higher level.
What do you think of Andrew Cuomo’s decision to reopen indoor dining and sporting events when thousands of kids aren’t even going to school in person?
Well, to your point from a public school parent, I’ve got a child in first grade, and it’s frustrating because the data shows a number of things. Number one, it shows that kids are falling further behind, particularly at-risk kids. Online learning is 30 to 70% as effective as in-person learning. And 29% of New York City residents don’t have high-speed internet at home. So for many New Yorkers, particularly the ones who are most vulnerable, they’re being left behind. The data also shows that small children in particular are not spreaders of the coronavirus to any significant measure. So we should be fighting very hard to reopen schools for young and at-risk children as quickly as possible. So that’s one thing that—I think I speak for many families when I say that that’s been frustrating.
Now, if you look at something like partial restoration or indoor dining, I think that’s appropriate given the data, because the fact is: If you have 25% capacity in a restaurant, you might be the only table sitting in a restaurant, or certainly there are, like, three empty tables next to you, and then there’s a divider. So if you’re able to have those kinds of precautions, I think it’s appropriate. And it’s the same thing with sporting events: They’re letting in 10%, so if you can imagine, you go there with one person and there are two of you, and there are 18 empty seats around you, like that, you know, that seems pretty safe. So I think those are appropriate steps, particularly given the fact that many of these restaurants are dying, and giving them any indoor dining might help some of them survive. They’re huge parts of New York City economically, employment-wise, and in terms of having a city that people feel is still vibrant and active.
On your website you say you want to host “the biggest post-COVID celebration in the world with a party in every borough” once it’s safe. Can you share any other details of what these parties would look like? Would they basically be like giant raves? Will there be streaking?
Maybe we���ll do something a little bit different for each borough. But the reason why I thought this was important to put out there is that you were missing 60 million tourists. And at some point you have to signal very clearly and powerfully to the world that New York City is open for business. It’s open for concerts; it’s open for Broadway. And I will say, too, I think it’s really important for our community to mark the end of the deepest, darkest period that any of us has experienced. The last number I saw was something like 35% of Americans are experiencing anxiety, depression, stress, mental health issues. And I’m sure a lot of New Yorkers can relate to that. And so when we’re able to actually get together in large numbers to mark the end of this time, like, we should do so in true New York fashion. Get entertainers and artists and cultural figures and everyday New Yorkers and community leaders and people that represent the city, but also people that you’d just be excited to see perform.
Who do you want to see perform?
I mean, I certainly have my own tastes and ideas, but one thing I’ll say as mayor is, like, I’m not going to impose my tastes on everyone.
But if they said, “Mayor Yang, who do you want to headline at this big party?”
Well, so one person that comes to mind for me is Dave Chappelle. I feel like he’s marked our recent elections in a particular way. He has very, very strong ties to New York City. His wife is from New York. He obviously spent years here. He and I are friends. So he’s the first name that comes to mind that, like, post-COVID, I think New Yorkers would be thrilled to see Dave. I feel like a lot of New Yorkers regard him as one of us, or a New Yorker. So that’s one person I can very easily see on a very big stage. I want to livestream this concert to the world. I want to make it so that everyone sees that New York is back. It’s going to be so much fun. So having a vision for something like that, I think, is something that New Yorkers can look up and say, “This winter will pass. This time will pass. There will be a time when we can all get together in large numbers and celebrate the end of the pandemic.”
You want to do UBI on a very local level by giving 500,000 of the neediest New Yorkers $2,000 a year. What do you think the odds of actually getting that done are, given what the city is going through right now?
I think the odds are very high, in large part because there’s a billion-dollar commitment that we’ve made. We intend to dedicate public resources to it, but I’ve already talked to private philanthropists who are very interested in participating in some way, so that could augment resources. But the resources, I believe, will be there. And then there’s the actual mechanics of distribution, and one of the commitments I’ve made, which I’m very excited about, is getting the unbanked percentage of New Yorkers down from its current 12% to a more manageable level. So I think these efforts are going to go hand in hand. I think the goal will be to get IDNYCs out to a significant number of people who right now are completely disconnected from our city and our systems. And then show them that we can actually improve their lives in a way that improves everyone’s lives here in New York City, because the fact is, when someone ends up on our streets, it’s very costly in both human and economic terms. And if we can keep people in more stable situations, it will pay off. So I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to implement this. There’s a lot of excitement around it.
Is it something you could get done the first year, or would it be a longer timeline?
I think my goal is to have certainly the tracks laid in the first year and then the cash out either in year one or year two.
You’ve said that you want a civilian commissioner to lead the NYPD. How else would you rein in police officers? As my friend Elie Mystal has said, Bill de Blasio “explicitly campaigned on his commitment to standing up to the police and holding them to account for their violence,” and once he was actually in power, “turned into a shill and apologist for police brutality.”
So the way that I plan on holding the police accountable, in addition to having a civilian police commissioner, is that independent of the culture—because I think that if you’re going to shift the culture, it needs to start at the top—the other way is going to be through data. So what are the numbers I’m thinking of? I mean, number one is getting the resolution rate to crimes up. Your job should be to catch people who were committing crimes. And so when people are not being apprehended, then that’s a form of police accountability. But the other number that I think we should be very mindful of is the level of resources the city is dedicating to settling civil lawsuits against police officers on an annual basis, which right now is in the hundreds of millions, and everyone in New York can think of a thousand better uses of hundreds of millions of dollars right now than settling lawsuits against abusive police officers. So we should be holding the police accountable for that number too. And one thing that I’m very happy to say that it seems like people have caught onto is that we should have new police officers live in the city, preferably in the communities that they’ll be policing. This is something that actually applies to other city employees, and I think most people would agree that having policemen understand the communities that they’re serving and protecting would be even more important than having another city employee that lives in the city. So these are some of the things that I think we can do that will improve the culture. I will say just yesterday I was in Harlem, and I had a really positive exchange with a couple of police officers. One was a Black man; the other I think was a Latino woman. There are a lot of police officers who are just trying to do a good job. And I run into them on the streets of New York just about every day.
Are you in favor of the defund-the-police movement?
I think that most of us agree that we need to ramp up the resources that we’re investing in mental health interventions and substance abuse interventions, and not every situation requires an armed police officer. A portion of the people who are killed in contact with police each year are mentally ill and aren’t adhering to police commands during an encounter that sometimes can become tragic. So we need to dramatically increase the levels we’re investing in those kinds of interventions, in violence interrupters, and in the communities themselves in terms of education and health. And I do think that we should be looking at the resources we’re dedicating to the police department, particularly in some of the overtime practices and these civil lawsuits. Like, you have to look at it and say, like, Look, are we spending money in ways that are actually enhancing public safety? So that’s my approach to it. I think that if you say something like, “defund the police,” it sounds like a very absolute statement. And I think it’s just a more nuanced issue than that.
Do you agree with the state Democrats who have said that Cuomo tried to obstruct justice by not just disclosing the nursing home deaths?
I haven’t really dug into that. I don’t know anything that anyone else doesn’t know. So I wouldn’t want to comment on something that I didn’t have any real insight on.
They’re talking about stripping him of his emergency powers. Do you have the information to comment on that?
I feel like that’s going up to the folks in Albany.
Cuomo allegedly threatened to “destroy” Assemblyman Ron Kim for speaking out about the [nursing home] issue to the Post. Do you have any concern based on that and Cuomo’s current relationship with the mayor, knowing that the mayor and the governor need to have a pretty good relationship [for things to run smoothly], about his possible authoritarian tendencies?
I think that the city of New York and the state of New York have very aligned interests. I mean, chief among them is getting an appropriate level of aid and support from Washington, D.C. New York City is the economic driver of the state, but you could argue that it’s one of the main engines of the entire national economy—the New York metro area accounts for almost 10% of the country’s GDP. So I think what’s good for New York City is good for New York state and vice versa. And I think having the governor and the mayor, or Albany and City Hall, on different pages is not a positive thing for anyone.
So do you see yourself having a good working relationship? How would you get along with him better the current mayor is?
Well, I think one thing is that I’m going to do whatever I can to improve the lives of the people here in New York City. And that is easier to achieve if you have a collegial relationship with the folks in Albany. And I genuinely think that we ought to be aligned on the vast majority of issues because I know, like, at this point, everyone should be focused on recovery. So that’s my approach. And I think I’m going to be able to build a very constructive relationship, in part because I’m not someone who particularly cares about who gets credit for solving a problem. I just want to see something get better. So if the people in Albany want to put their name on something, I’m very happy to do that. I just want to do what’s best for the people in New York.
What do you say to the people who believe it’s time for New York City to have a mayor who’s a woman?
I think that’s an awesome sentiment. I think that there is no doubt in my mind that there will be a woman mayor in the not-so-distant future. I hope that that’s true not just here in New York, but that’s true for just about any major elected office or position of authority. I think we need more women leaders in just about every area of public life and the private sector. I think things tend to just work much better when you have women in positions of authority and leadership.
How do we fix the subways? When’s the last time you rode the subway?
I rode the subway quite recently, right before I came down with COVID. So it’s been two weeks or so—there are pictures of me. One of the things I’ve advocated for is that I think the city needs to control the subways. The city having control of the MTA board would be very positive. Improving the subway is a must; ridership is down 70%. There are increasing safety concerns. I see the subways and the buses as the circulatory system of New York. And I think one of the compelling value propositions of New York City is that you should be able to live here and not own a car. And the subway is part of that. So I’m advocating for city control. I do think that if you look at the situation right now, the first thing is to get people’s confidence up that the subway is safe and reliable.
What, if anything, would you do to desegregate the public school system?
I think the public school system right now has a number of things that I think we can improve on. I think making them more racially integrated will be a by-product of if we can accomplish these goals. I think that we should be giving more authority and autonomy to teachers and administrators in individual schools, particularly when it comes to establishing both enrichment and remedial programs. We need more guidance counselors and other resources in the schools too. I think security personnel outnumber guidance counselors something like three and a half to one, and that includes all social workers and mental health counselors and everyone else. And one big, very big part of this in my mind is not to cede so much of our judgment to what they call these, like, high-stakes tests. The high-stakes tests really send the message that, like, “Oh, if I, if you don’t go to a particular school, then you’re kid’s not going to have as effective an environment.” And I think the thing that I find frustrating about that is, like, no one knows our kids better than their teachers, and so ceding judgment about our children, as a parent myself, public school parent, to a single data point in the form of a test seems very, very strange, like outsourcing of judgment.
So would you get rid of the them?
No, well, what I’ve said, and so I’ve said very publicly, is it’s like, look, I think getting rid of these existing programs with no clear replacement sends a bad message to parents, because it’s like, ‘Hey, we don’t like this. We don’t know what comes next.’ Because parents have to try and think about things, frankly, like months or years in advance. So when you make a change like that and then say no one knows what comes next, then it sends a very, very negative message. So I certainly would not be trying to get rid of these tests when you don’t know what comes next. But what I’m saying is that we should not be ceding our ability to do what’s right for our kid to these tests. If you identify a talented kid in your classroom or a kid that needs remedial help, you should be able to refer them in that direction without having to subject them to a test that’s administered, like, X times a year. And if we are able to do that in each individual school, then I think you would see integration rise, because if you have public schools that are meeting the needs of the kids in their community, then families are going to feel less of, like, an onus to try and send their kids to another neighborhood and vice versa. But as a public school parent myself, the vast majority of parents just want to send their kid to their local public school, and they want that public school to be reflective of the community and good for their kids. And it’s only when those things are not there that parents end up going to great lengths, and unfortunately, the lengths they go to in many cases end up not improving racial integration.
I saw there was a little bit of a Twitter scuffle with AOC the other day after you guys unveiled your Green New Deal proposal for public housing, and then you two chatted on the phone. What did you discuss and are you hoping to win her endorsement?
We discussed the fact that there had been existing proposals on greening NYCHA, and I was excited to dig in and see what those were because I’m always eager to take ideas and policies from folks who’ve been working on an issue. I’d be thrilled for AOC’s endorsement; she’s a very powerful voice for many New Yorkers and Americans, and in many ways I think she’s the voice of her generation. So I’d be thrilled for her endorsement. I didn’t have that conversation with her, but I’d be very happy about it.
What is your bagel order? And do you get your bagel toasted if it’s from a good place?
I get a whole wheat bagel with scallion cream cheese, and I often do ask to get it toasted if I have the time. I sometimes sub in lox for the scallion cream cheese.
You sub for lox cream cheese?
Yeah, sometimes I’ll do a lox cream cheese.
Will you live in Gracie Mansion?
Almost certainly. Yes. I mean, it’s a lot nicer than my current place.
Who has been the worst mayor in New York City history?
Hopefully someone that predates me ’cause, I mean, New York’s been around for a while. I think there’ve been dozens of mayors. So I’m sure that there’s a particularly lousy one in our distant past, but—
You don’t have a name?
Well, I mean, I’m confident that the worst mayor in New York City happened before my adult lifetime.
So you would not include de Blasio or Giuliani among the worst?
I mean, [campaign staffer] Jake, you can correct me on this, but, like, there’ve been, like, 45 mayors, right? Is that right? Or is it more than that? What’s the number? Forty-five was president, so it’d probably be a higher number. Let’s look this up.
Jake: One hundred nine. Sorry, way off.
So I’ve experienced maybe five mayors, like, you know, as an adult. And so if you say to me that there are 104 mayors that predated them, statistically, it is almost certain that the worst mayor is one of those folks that, that predated them.
Okay, of the mayors in your adult life, could you say who the worst one was?
I’m on the record saying that I think that the ideal New York mayor would be a composite of the mayors that I’ve seen.
What aspect of de Blasio would you put in that composite?
Certainly I think de Blasio’s rolling out of universal pre-K has improved tons of people’s lives, including my family’s. That’s very significant.
What aspects of Giuliani and Bloomberg would you put in there?
Giuliani is very tough given Giuliani’s recent past. There was a period when I think he represented a lot of New Yorkers post-9/11. For Bloomberg, I think he was someone who tried to identify the best people, including people who might not have been in New York at the time, and then put them in positions of authority. I think that had a positive impact on many aspects of life in New York.
Last question: Is there any building in New York that you wouldn’t consider a bodega?
[Laughing] That’s so mean.
Okay, I’ll change the question. What is your, for the record, definition of a bodega?
I’m happy to have you break this scoop because I know this is a thing. So I literally spoke to someone who represented the bodega trade association the day prior [to the infamous bodega video]. And she told me, “Look, bodegas are having a tough time.” And so I had in my mind the technical definition of bodega, which would be anyone who belongs to this association, which is, like, essentially any corner, deli, convenience shop, etc. So that is what I had in my mind, and I think technically that is correct, according to the owner of that establishment and the trade association. So that was the backdrop of my, like, little bodega video. Like I literally, literally talked to someone from the bodega trade association, and then it was like, Oh, like, let me try and do something for the bodegas.
And, you know, I genuinely do go into that convenience store very regularly. So that was the backdrop. But I know people got a good laugh out of it. I don’t know if you saw my sequel online, which didn’t get as much attention, but we were at a bodega that had, like, the cat and you couldn’t move your arms and the rest of it, and I’m like, “I’m here in another bodega,” and then we come out and it says “deli” on the front.
But I will also say that anything I can do to raise attention to some of the everyday issues in New York City, I’m very happy to do. I’m not above doing things that may end up being a little hammy. I’d rather be trying to put out snapshots of what’s happening in New York in various ways. Because I think I’ve got a megaphone in a spotlight, and I want to use it as productively as I can. And there are probably going to be aspects of that that some people will think, like, Oh, you know, that particular use of it like that, I didn’t find particularly appealing. But hopefully people will sense that there’s the spirit of being a cheerleader for New York behind it all. And I think that New York could really use a cheerleader right now. New York could use a salesperson in chief. I think New York could use an evangelist.
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