Memo to 2021 mayoral candidates: Find issues to own
Right now, if you made a list of the top issues for the 2021 mayoral candidates, it’d be the usual progressive hot topics. Turnout in the mayoral primary is usually very low (Bill de Blasio captured both of his primaries with around 300,000 votes in each — less than 4% of the city’s total population), the voters who participate tend to be very political and very activist and they typically want to hear an agenda that reflects their worldview. That makes sense.
But the candidate who wins doesn’t just conduct a poll and then repeat the findings verbatim back to the voters. The candidate identifies issues the voters could care about, might care about, should care about and claims those issues as their own. De Blasio, for all of his myriad flaws, did this extremely well in 2013 when he identified affordability as the key issue driving primary voters (and, in a Trumpian way, he saw the frustration of many normally successful people who can’t afford to live here and wanted someone to blame, giving them an outlet for their frustration).
Voters value authenticity more than ever, so just adopting my list is no better than developing your own policy agenda via focus groups and polling. But with that said, here are three issues the candidates may want to start looking at:
The MTA. Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to his great credit, has already taken this issue on, arguing for city control of its own subways and buses. As of late, Gov. Cuomo has finally started to focus on the MTA and to take responsibility for its success or failure, which removes some of the heat from local officials over poor performance. But ultimately, the safe bet is that the MTA will continue to be a disaster and the voters will want a mayor who gets that and is doing something tangible about it — even if that means taking on a competent, usually effective governor. The earlier the candidates grab the mantle, the more credible their belief in a new approach to governance and operations (to his credit, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has also endorsed city control). Eventually, the polls will drive the other candidates to all do the same, but by then for them, it may be too little, too late.
Seawalls. The MTA and NYCHA are the two obvious major infrastructure challenges facing us. But the threat of our coastal city being swallowed by the oceans and destroyed by climate change is just as concerning to many primary voters as crumbling subways or inadequate public housing (it’s not just theoretical goodwill for the environment, it’s protecting your own property). Actively developing a plan to protect the five boroughs (or as much of it as possible) from rising tides and unpredictably harsh weather patterns shows a vision for the future and demonstrates far more creativity than just attacking the construction industry or endorsing the green new deal. It’s also something that could be funded without massive taxpayer investment. Voters don’t just want a candidate who follows the trends. They want a candidate who can see the future and set the trends.
Cybersecurity. The NYPD has done an excellent job protecting New Yorkers from physical crime for almost 25 years, making us the safest big city in the nation. But for many New Yorkers, the real threat is digital harm. Other than looking for possible terrorist activity, there is very little effort underway to protect average New Yorkers from hacking, from losing their privacy, from being impersonated online, to being defrauded online, from having their identity stolen or any number of cyber risks. It’s 2019; it’s much easier for someone to steal from you digitally than to mug you physically. This may not be a problem New Yorkers realize they have just yet, but as virtually every single New Yorker is now online. Almost regardless of income, this is a real-world problem for everyone. Even city government itself isn’t immune to these threats; just look at how easily a group of hackers seized control of Baltimore’s government. The first candidate to recognize this and own it will have a significant advantage.
These are just three issues. Dozens more will come up. But the trick is to not just sit there with your staff and ask, “what can we say about education, housing, traffic, policing, etc., that polls well and won’t offend anyone?” Those candidates lose — at least when the office is big enough for voters to actually care. The trick is to identify the issues that the voters will care about, establish yourself as the expert and innovator on those issues, and own them exclusively. That rewards the candidates with the courage and vision to think big and act early. We’ve seen Johnson and Diaz Jr. grab the mantle once already. Who’s next will tell us a lot about 2021.