In the last few months, the man who would be New York’s most famous mayoral candidate acted like anything but one.
He spent more time barnstorming Georgia than he did the five boroughs. He openly contemplated cabinet roles and lobbied Washington lawmakers around stimulus relief. And he often made television appearances from his weekend home in the Hudson Valley rather than from his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.
Andrew Yang has a habit of practicing politics in unexpected ways.
He began the presidential race as an unknown candidate and stayed relevant longer than more accomplished politicians did, building an ardent fan base through his quirky style, warnings about automation and championing of a universal basic income. He now turns to the New York City mayor’s race with significant name recognition, a vivid social media presence and a demonstrated ability to raise money.
But he is still every bit the unorthodox contender, and that approach offers Mr. Yang both opportunities and monumental challenges in the race to lead New York out of a pandemic-fueled crisis. His candidacy — which may be officially announced as early as this week — would offer a clear test of whether New Yorkers want a splashy but inexperienced contender with bold ideas for navigating the city’s recovery, or whether a mood of citywide emergency propels a more familiar local figure with a traditional governing background.
Mr. Yang, who most recently has been a CNN commentator, nonprofit founder, campaign surrogate and podcast host, embraces being a political outsider in a city where he has lived for 24 years — indeed, he has never voted for mayor, the office he is poised to seek.
Now, he is betting that he would instantly inject a dose of star power into a muddled, crowded field, and that his pledges to be an ambitiously anti-poverty candidate would resonate in an economically ravaged city.
But he is also sure to face scrutiny and pressure of a wholly different magnitude than he ever confronted as a genial presidential candidate who dropped out last February, as voters, rivals and the news media dissect his experience, views and basic knowledge of the city.
“If someone’s looking for a candidate who has spent the last couple decades steeped in city government, like, I will likely not be their candidate,” Mr. Yang said in a Friday morning interview from his weekend home in New Paltz, N.Y., about 80 miles outside Manhattan.
Detailing the public health and economic challenges facing New York, he continued, “If you look at that situation and say, ‘Hey, city government has been working great for us, and we need someone who has been a part of the firmament for X number of years,’ I would disagree with that assessment.”
Mr. Yang grew up in Schenectady, N.Y. and Westchester County, attended Columbia Law School and stayed in New York City afterward, working, raising two young children and maintaining fond memories of Mayor Ed Koch from his suburban childhood.
He has a slate of ideas for revitalizing a city reeling from the pandemic, proposing “the biggest implementation” of a basic income in the country, addressing broadband internet access and urging the establishment of a “people’s bank of New York” to assist struggling New Yorkers. Some operatives and lawmakers doubt the feasibility of his vision, and Mr. Yang, a neophyte when it comes to city political battles, will need to explain how he would achieve such sweeping goals given the city’s staggering financial challenges.
Although he has never run for office in New York, Mr. Yang’s presidential bid showcased his fund-raising ability, especially among small-dollar donors. He has a larger national network than typical mayoral candidates, and intends to announce Martin Luther King III as a co-chair of the campaign, Mr. King confirmed.
Mr. Yang has also enlisted the prominent New York operatives Bradley Tusk and Chris Coffey, and has been in touch with New York political figures including members of the congressional delegation; the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson; the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams; the Queens borough president, Donovan Richards Jr.; as well as union leaders, legislators and stakeholders like the Rev. Al Sharpton.
But for much of his career — he has a mixed record of success in the nonprofit and start-up worlds — he has plainly been absent from New York politics.
“Is he a New Yorker? I don’t even know,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, who leads the Partnership for New York City, an influential business organization. “I’ve never run into him as a New Yorker.”
Asked about the most important thing he has done to understand the challenges facing New York and prepare for the mayoral contest after exiting the presidential stage, Mr. Yang cited the experience he and his family had of being in the city as it shut down amid the pandemic.
But Mr. Yang, the father of a son with autism, also acknowledged that he has not remained in New York full time since then, which Politico reported on Friday.
“We’ve spent more time upstate than in the city over the last number of months, but I also spent time in Georgia, as you know, I spent time in Pennsylvania campaigning for Joe and Kamala,” he said.
Noting the challenges of fulfilling his CNN obligations from his apartment, he continued, “We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. And so, like, can you imagine trying to have two kids on virtual school in a two-bedroom apartment, and then trying to do work yourself?”
In fact, many New Yorkers have experienced just that dynamic, or far more challenging circumstances. Asked to respond to voters who expect their future mayor to have stayed in the city in its darkest moments, Mr. Yang suggested that his location was not relevant to his work at the time, and that New Yorkers would prioritize plans to move the city forward.
“I was very focused on helping Joe and Kamala win, and then helping flip the Senate,” he said, though Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign was not especially fast-paced during the early days of the pandemic. “Most New Yorkers would be very excited about those goals, and are fairly indifferent to where I was doing that work from.”
Mr. Yang’s allies hope that some of his strengths at the national level will translate in New York.
During his presidential run, Mr. Yang connected with younger people, but the youth vote has not traditionally been influential in New York mayoral primaries. His candidacy will test whether he can bring more young people into the process, though he already has significant competition for the support of young progressive voters in particular.
He demonstrated little traction with Black or Hispanic voters last year, but hopes that his universal basic income proposal will help him resonate across a range of communities of color, which were disproportionately hard-hit by the pandemic.
That is an untested calculation in a diverse field that includes a number of candidates with much deeper ties to those communities and records of working on behalf of those voters. Mr. Yang may face an uphill battle in introducing himself as a New Yorker who understands the intricacies of the challenges at hand.
Yet despite his untraditional background — and in some ways, because of it — he also possesses a set of political assets that may make him formidable.
His signature issue, universal basic income, has growing political resonance as millions of Americans face unemployment, and the government cuts stimulus checks.
“No elected official in the country has done more to shine a spotlight on the need for a basic income than Andrew Yang,” said Representative Ritchie Torres, who was recently elected to represent the South Bronx, adding that Mr. Yang was on a “very short list” of candidates whom he was considering endorsing.
Mr. Yang also generates enthusiasm with a base of devoted fans that rivals may struggle to match in the sprint to the June Democratic primary.
“There’s been a lack, I think, of excitement in this mayoral race,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim of Flushing, Queens, who recently dined on Korean barbecue with Mr. Yang in the area. “When Andrew was walking around, I saw an element of excitement.”
Mr. Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, would make history as New York’s first Asian-American mayor. Mr. Kim said he expected that Mr. Yang would connect with many Asian-American voters in New York, a constituency that has demonstrated growing political power across the country.
In addition to meeting with New York elected officials and endorsing a number of them last year, Mr. Yang has engaged in some local philanthropic work in recent months.
He launched Humanity Forward, a nonprofit organization that promotes direct cash relief, including to New Yorkers. For example, the organization promised $1 million in emergency cash relief to families in the Bronx. Justine Zinkin, the chief executive of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, which received that grant, confirmed the disbursement of $1,000 each to 1,000 Bronx residents.
But in his own telling, Mr. Yang has primarily been focused on national obligations until recently. He said he did not begin to focus in earnest on a mayoral run until after the November election.
Even then, he spent much of his time in Georgia. Mr. Yang argued that his efforts to help flip control of the Senate to the Democrats were significant for New York, citing the critical need for federal assistance for the struggling city.
And it was in Georgia that he spent time with at least one of his future co-chairs of his expected mayoral campaign: Mr. King, the eldest son of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a human-rights activist, who cited Mr. Yang’s focus on the poor as especially compelling.
But some New Yorkers said his time in Georgia has little relevance to his presumed next job as mayoral candidate.
“Good for him as a human, but it wouldn’t be how I would use my time if I were running for mayor and the race were in six months,” said Eric Phillips, formerly a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “He’s certainly done nothing that I’ve seen that demonstrates a command for city issues or the kind of really difficult decision-making that’s involved in managing 325,000 people and $90 billion. He hasn’t been involved in the civic fabric of the city.”
News that he has not even voted for mayor also stunned some New Yorkers.
Asked to explain that record, Mr. Yang acknowledged that in the past he may have taken city government “somewhat for granted.”
“Right now we’re facing an historic crisis,” he said, adding that many New Yorkers “right now are engaging in different ways.”
He promised that in the coming weeks, he would be accessible to his hometown.
“Anyone who wants to talk to Andrew Yang in the days to come, like, I want to talk to them,” he said.