In the world of New York politics, it is easy to find people who admire Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former commissioner of sanitation. Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and Mayor Bill de Blasio asked her to serve as the city’s emergency “food czar,” a local headline dubbed her “New York City’s go-to crisis manager.” In September, when Garcia, who has led or helped lead three large city agencies through two mayoral administrations, was preparing to run for mayor herself, a supportive op-ed argued that she had long been “a kind of shadow mayor” for the city. In March, she was described in the Times as a “deft manager” and a “bringer of accountability.” And yet, for all the admiration, most people in city politics give Garcia little chance of actually being elected mayor. She would be great, her admirers say, if she could win. A candidate can spend an entire campaign trying to untangle herself from such logic.

Many of the same insiders who give her little chance of victory also say that the next mayor, whoever it is, should make full use of her experience and skills, perhaps installing Garcia in the job of chief of staff, or deputy mayor. The most notable figure to embrace this view is Andrew Yang, the race’s front-runner, who has repeatedly said that Garcia is his second choice on the ballot for the Democratic Party’s mayoral nomination, behind himself. “I think she’d make a phenomenal partner in my administration,” he said in a recent interview. “She’s the kind of experienced operator that can deliver a lot of value [for] New Yorkers.”

A few days ago, I sat across from Garcia, who has placed no better than fifth in the polls, in the back yard of her handsome row house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and asked her about being Yang’s second choice. “I would like Andrew Yang to stop saying that,” she said, wearily. “I’m not running for No. 2.” Garcia believes that Yang, who has never worked in government, is trying to address questions about his lack of experience by swiping some of hers. “And he’s not the only one, by the way,” she said. “Eric Adams”—the Brooklyn borough president, whom polls have shown in second place in the race—“has straight up told other people, particularly when going for endorsements, ‘Well, I’d make her deputy mayor.’ ” Garcia sat casually in a wrought-iron chair below a patio umbrella, wearing a pink blazer and a necklace that spelled out her first name in gold letters. “It’s totally sexist. Totally sexist,” she said. “It makes it sound like they’re giving me a compliment, but they’re not.” She continued, “Are you not strong enough to actually do this job, without me helping you? You should be strong enough. You shouldn’t need me. To be quite clear: I don’t need you guys, to run this government.”

Garcia would be a first for New York City on at least two counts. The city has never elected a woman as mayor. It has also never promoted a bureaucrat from within city government—the agencies and departments that execute the policies set by elected officials—up to the top job at City Hall. Garcia is a second-generation civil servant; her mother worked in the city’s Human Resources Administration, and later taught English at Medgar Evers College. Her father was a labor negotiator for Ed Koch, and served as president of the Long Island Railroad. Garcia grew up in a house two blocks from the one where she now lives. And, while her mother was born in Texas, and her father in Montana, she speaks with a hint of an old-Brooklyn accent. In 1992, she got an internship at the Department of Sanitation, where, she has said, she “fell in love with garbage.” At one point in our conversation, she informed me, with a happy gleam in her eye, “You can see the wastewater peak at halftime during the Super Bowl.”

During Michael Bloomberg’s administration, Garcia worked for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, eventually rising to chief operating officer. In 2014, Bill de Blasio picked her to lead the Department of Sanitation, where she pushed eco-conscious reforms, including expanded compost programs and electronic-waste pickup. Many days, she woke at 3:30 A.M. to attend the department’s morning roll calls. She also developed a reputation as a general-purpose municipal Ms. Fix-It. In 2018, two years before asking Garcia to be his “food czar,” de Blasio asked her to be his “lead czar,” overseeing the city’s efforts to reduce childhood lead exposure. In 2019, he asked her to temporarily run the New York City Housing Authority, the city’s public-housing agency, which was under fire for mismanagement.

Last September, she quit, sending de Blasio a resignation letter touting her record, and protesting the budget cuts and policy changes that he was planning to implement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I leave with a heavy heart as many of our most innovative programs designed to fight climate change were the first to fall to the budget axe,” she wrote. The letter quickly and conveniently made its way to the press. Really, she was leaving to run for his job.

I asked Garcia why she thought agency heads or deputy mayors, the people most closely acquainted with the city’s operations, hadn’t made viable mayoral candidates in the past. Richard Ravitch, for example, who helped steer New York City through its financial crisis in the nineteen-seventies and then served as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, came in third in the Democratic Party primary in 1989, in what the Times called a “predictable defeat.” Elected officials, well-financed outsiders—that’s who New York City voters have picked for their mayor. Garcia chalked this up partly to the strictures that city-agency heads, who control large government contracts, face in fund-raising. “My general counsel, as I was getting close to leaving, was, like, ‘You may ask no one for money. You may not discuss it,’ ” she said, of her final days at the Department of Sanitation. But Garcia also acknowledged a difference between securing budgets and executing policy, and the popular politics it takes to win an election in a city of millions of people. “I’m actually a relatively shy person,” she said. “The concept of being watched all the time was something I needed to have a little courage to get over.” In September, the same month she quit her commissioner job, Garcia set up her first Twitter account.

What Garcia is asking voters to imagine, essentially, is a City Hall without Bill de Blasio getting in the way of Kathryn Garcia. She has tried to make a clean break from her former boss. “You have someone who does not know how to manage, and does not understand how to get the city to run,” she said. “We don’t want fancy right now. We want bread and butter, get the work done.” Her voter, she said, is “someone who wants the city to function.” Like most of her opponents in the race, Garcia speaks of her candidacy in two registers: grand-vision rhetoric, and nitty-gritty policy detail. Her grand vision is of a city that addresses climate change head-on, and where it is possible for people to raise families on civil-servant-level salaries, as her parents did, and as she hopes her two children will have a chance to do. But she seems happiest when discussing the nitty-gritty, like her plan to convert the city’s school-bus fleet to electric vehicles. One big public-policy takeaway from the pandemic, in her mind, is that the city agencies that were set up to handle emergencies—the Fire Department, the N.Y.P.D., the Department of Sanitation—weathered the crisis well enough, while the agencies that weren’t—the Department of Education, the Department for the Aging—buckled under the pressure. The next mayor, she believes, should fix that discrepancy.

In pitching herself as a competent manager, Garcia has also set herself apart from the candidates in the race, such as Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales, who have made explicit overtures to the left wing of the Democratic Party. “We’re not quite in as progressive a moment in the electorate as we were six months ago,” Garcia said. “You have to run the race that you want to run. And not get moved around by what’s happening.”

Ranked-choice voting, which New York City is adopting in its municipal elections this year, will allow voters to support up to five candidates on their ballots, in order of preference. This can create incentives for candidates to team up, or triangulate off one another. A front-runner like Yang may be talking up someone lower down in the polls, like Garcia, out of genuine enthusiasm. “Andrew has enormous respect for Kathryn Garcia and that’s why he’s often said he’d seek her partnership at city hall if elected mayor,” Sasha Ahuja, Yang’s co-campaign manager, told me in a statement. “If there’s anyone else he’d be happy to see elected, it’s Kathryn.” Pointing his supporters to a less-competitive second choice may also have a tactical benefit: encouraging voters to rank his more popular competitors lower on their ballots.

The basic challenge facing Garcia in the next seven weeks is that so few New Yorkers even know her name. “It’s going to be retail politics,” she said. She recently cut her first TV ad, and she spoke about the importance of voter contact: calls, texts, getting out there, earning votes. “I really do deeply love this city, and I deeply believe that it needs someone who can insure that you are keeping the lights on,” she said. “I wish we didn’t have to talk about viability.”



READ NEWS SOURCE

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here