Crime Is The Key Issue In New York City Mayor's Race

Jun 11, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021 9:23 pm

A major primary election kicks off across New York City on Saturday as voters prepare to pick a new mayor for the first time in eight years.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is out at the end of the year because of term limits and as voters choose from a crowded field of would-be successors, the issue of crime and public safety has overtaken COVID-19 as the leading concern among voters — boosting moderates and serving as a stress test for the city's progressive left.

So far, more than 33,000 city residents have died from COVID-19, more than any other major city in the United States. But as virus rates go down and vaccination rates go up, New York City voters increasingly say that crime and public safety are their biggest concerns, according to a recent poll.

Shootings are up 77% year to date, including a spate of recent high-profile incidents. Last weekend, a shooter aimed into a Queens home and killed a 10-year-old boy. A few weeks earlier a 4-year-old was wounded by stray bullets on a Saturday afternoon in Times Square.

"If the city cannot stop shootings in Times Square, what does that say about what's happening in Black and brown communities throughout our city where we are underinvesting and we know that rates of gun violence are higher?" said Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate who is now one of the leading Democratic mayoral candidates.

He's running neck and neck with Eric Adams, a former New York City police captain who currently serves as the Brooklyn borough president.

Both oppose cuts to the NYPD. Their more moderate stance on policing is shared by Kathryn Garcia, most recently the city's sanitation commissioner, who notched the endorsements from both The New York Times and The New York Daily News.

To their collective left is Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and onetime member of the de Blasio administration. She's called for moving $1 billion from the NYPD's $6 billion budget and reinvesting that money in communities hardest hit by gun violence.

She picked up a major boost last weekend when New York City Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the left needed to coalesce and endorsed her. "At the end of the day we're going to have to pull up that ballot and fill it out and I'm going to put Maya as number 1," Ocasio-Cortez said.

That reference to "number 1" was a nod to the new ranked choice voting system which will get its first citywide test in this primary, allowing voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. Voters adopted the new system through a 2019 ballot referendum.

As the candidates make their pitches, voter Jose Martinez, 79, said he wants someone who will focus on curbing gun violence. "The police are supposed to be more tough. Here everybody has a gun."

He was among the voters walking past Elmhurst Hospital in Queens on Monday, the epicenter of the city's COVID-19 pandemic, who told NPR about their concerns over policing issues.

At the height of protests against police brutality last summer, there was a major push by some reform activists to slash the NYPD's budget. Those cuts never fully materialized, but the debate over police funding remains very active.

"I think that it was very unfortunate phrasing to say 'defund the police.' I would be very much against that," said Nancy Davis, who moved to the city 50 years ago from Ohio. "I like seeing them and I think most New Yorkers do, too," she added.

"I think we should defund the police slightly," said Mohamed Rahmen, 19. "I feel like a lot of people are too radical with it, like they want to chop the NYPD budget in half or something," he said. "I'm not really for that."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In New York City tomorrow, voters will begin casting their ballots in primary elections for mayor. While there is a Republican contest, most are watching the very crowded Democratic primary. Remember; Democrat Bill de Blasio cannot run because of term limits. After a year of this pandemic, voters in this deep-blue city say policing is their top issue. From member station WNYC, Brigid Bergin has the story.

BRIGID BERGIN, BYLINE: Here, across from Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, the epicenter of the city's COVID-19 pandemic, Nancy Davis says the effects linger.

NANCY DAVIS: You probably noticed virtually everybody wears their masks still to this day. Everybody saw the truck that was filled with bodies. You know, we walked right by it.

BERGIN: And yet with the virus down and vaccinations up, she says the biggest issue for her in this mayor's race is public safety.

DAVIS: Very few people want to do away with the police, and I think it was very unfortunate phrasing to say, defund the police. I'd be very much against that. I like seeing them, you know?

BERGIN: And she's not alone. Here are Mohamed Rahmen and Jose Martinez.

MOHAMED RAHMEN: I think we should defund the police slightly, but I feel like a lot of people are too radical with it. Like, chop the NYPD budget in half or something - I'm not really for that.

JOSE MARTINEZ: The police are supposed to be more tough. That's it. Here, everybody has a gun; nobody ask him where it goes (ph).

BERGIN: Voters' emphasis on public safety has bolstered the more moderate candidates in the race, especially with shootings up 77% year to date, including a spate of high-profile incidents. Last weekend, a shooter aimed into a Queens home and killed a 10-year-old boy. A few weeks earlier, a 4-year-old was wounded by stray bullets on a Saturday afternoon in Times Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW YANG: What does that say about what's happening in Black and brown communities throughout our city, where we are underinvesting and we know that rates of gun violence are higher?

BERGIN: Andrew Yang is the former Democratic presidential candidate best known for his proposal for universal basic income. He jumped into the race in January as an immediate front-runner. He's been running neck and neck with Eric Adams, former New York City police captain who currently serves as the Brooklyn borough president, a position with little actual power but a very large megaphone. Both oppose cuts to the NYPD.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: We cannot wake up when those gunshots alarm us because they are near our homes. We must wake up when all families are dealing with the issues of gun violence.

BERGIN: To their left is Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and one-time member of the de Blasio administration. She's called for removing $1 billion from the NYPD's $6 billion budget.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYA WILEY: Because we know what leadership looks like in our communities, and that means a seat at the policy table.

BERGIN: For months, the city's progressives were divided. But in a surprise move last weekend, New York City Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said the left needs to coalesce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: At the end of the day, we're going to pull up that ballot, and we're going to have to fill it out. And I'm putting Maya No. 1.

(CHEERING)

BERGIN: No. 1 because, for the first time, primary voters will be using the system known as ranked choice voting, which will allow them to rank up to five candidates. Back in Queens, Cornelius Watkins says he's considering Yang...

CORNELIUS WATKINS: I like the Asian brother.

BERGIN: ...And Adams.

WATKINS: That's No. 2. Now, he's smooth.

BERGIN: The voting itself will likely be the easy part.

WATKINS: Vote for one, two, three, four, five - yeah, that's better.

BERGIN: Waiting for results may be the challenge. Elections officials say it will be at least a week before voters know who won the Democratic primary.

For NPR News, I'm Brigid Bergin in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PECAS SONG, "T-SHIRT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.