NYC's Mayoral Primary: How to Choose

Today is New York City’s mayoral primary, where the two major parties select which candidate will represent the party.

Due to my being on the board of the NY Tech Meetup, I got to be part of a small group that interviewed almost all of the major candidates. (Basically, everyone except Anthony Weiner, whose presence I didn’t particularly miss.) If you have the time, I strongly recommend watching all of the video interviews with the candidates. Though they obviously focused their conversation on the fact they were talking to members of the technology industry, each presentation began with a 10-minute talk about their candidacy overall, and the questions that followed weren’t limited to being about technology.

A broad range of representatives from the technology world were present, including people involved in policy, education, entrepreneurship, civic organizations, and even venture capital, well described by Fred Wilson. I am incredibly proud of NYTM for organizing and hosting all of these candidates; When I ran for the NYTM board, my greatest wish was that the Tech Meetup community would become a political force, working as a positive actor in New York City. As I said then, “We must be a community that is able to hold officials accountable.” I think today’s election marks a point where the technology community can truthfully say that we have reached that milestone.

Now the question is what we do with our power. Do we use it to enrich ourselves, or to help our city?

Foot in the Door

Access to the candidates is a powerful opportunity for all of us in technology. From this point on, I’ll diverge from describing what the NY Tech Meetup community has done to representing my own point of view, which doesn’t represent the NYTM board or our members.

As an ordinary citizen, I don’t often get to talk to the likely next mayor of New York City, so I asked the candidates the question that I thought mattered most: Given the success and privilege that the tech sector has seen so far, how would we be asked to serve and give back to our city? I framed the question in terms of how we could help address injustices like our city’s Stop and Frisk policy, but the key point here was that we should be asked what we can give, not just telling what we want to take.

Price of Independence

For me, this exercise is mostly an intellectual one; I don’t belong to a political party, so I can’t vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, and there’s no runoff for independent candidates ahead of the general election. It’s very likely that we’ll see a post-Bloomberg return to having a major party win in the general election, so though I’m friends with Jack Hidary, one of the leading independent candidates, and I found independent candidate Adolfo Carrión to bevery fluent in the issues of his constitutency, I don’t have much of an opinion about their chances of an upset in November.

Leading Contenders

Before getting a chance to spend half an hour with each of the candidates, my bias amongst the Democratic candidates had been slightly toward Christine Quinn. Though I share the near-universal disgust for her horse-trading to enable Bloomberg’s third term, the prospect of having a true ally for LGBTQ rights in office, and the prospect of our first female mayor were very appealing, especially given that I perceived a lack of substantial policy distinctions between the Democratic candidates. The interview with Quinn also shows her strength, especially during the Q&A: She feels real. She talks like a normal person, and has a great instant rapport with a room in a way that doesn’t feel like a pandering politician. I was impressed, and surprisingly charmed, and her literacy in the minutia of making policy happen in the city is absolutely the strongest of the field. Despite the misgivings many have about her brusque manner, I would have no major qualms about having Quinn as mayor, given the long history of prickly types who’ve inhabited the office.

Another surprise to me was Bill Thompson. I’d been cautiously impressed by his performance in an earlier town hall meeting where I’d seen 3 or 4 of the Democratic candidates speak. He was passionate about housing equity issues that few other candidates addressed. In his NYTM interview, he had by far the most detailed and inspiring plan for using technology to help the city. You can see him outline his 10-point tech plan in the video, but my takeaway from the admittedly impressive plan was more “I wonder who he got to write that for him?” rather than “He has really brilliant ideas about this!” I do respect leaders who are smart enough to get great policy advisors, though, and this put Thompson into my second place overall for desired candidates.

Tech Cred

Any detailed response to how candidates might either help the tech industry or take advantage of tech to make the city run better was well-received, but most candidates generally regurgitated the 7-point policy platform that the NYTM outlined on its site (see bottom of the page). Any deviation from those expected nods to their hosts was very welcome.

One of the few other candidates to do a strong job in thinking of ways to use tech was Joe Lhota, the lone Republican candidate to sit down for an interview. Given that his main opponent is running on the farcical reputation of having built the Gristedes grocery chain (Slogan: “Slightly less shitty than C-Town!”), he’d be hard pressed to not do well in the Republican race. That being said, a close alignment with some of Giuliani’s most indefensible policies, was off-putting, and worse was that he oddly took credit for some MTA open data efforts that I actually helped to launch under his predecessor Jay Walder. Given that Lhota could have easily, and fairly, just focused on the remarkable job that he did getting MTA back up and running after Hurricane Sandy, this seemed like needless stretching for credit with techies.

A Different Perspective

And then, one of the last candidates came up to speak and fundamentally changed how I saw the race: Bill de Blasio. His opening 10 minutes spoke frankly and forcefully about income inequality in our city and in our country, in a way that very few politicians of any stripe have articulated. He mentioned clearly that his children would be the first of any mayor’s to have gone to public school for their education. He articulated a clear plan for preserving our gains in fighting crime while undoing the everyday humiliations of Stop and Frisk. He supports his campaign with public dollars, allowing him to avoid being financially dependent on big donors without being a billionaire. And when I asked the same question about how the tech community could serve, rather than the bland platitudes I got from nearly every other candidate, he answered with specifics about how successful startups could pair with individual schools in order to offer students specific examples of the kinds of careers they could pursue post-graduation.

I get to hear a lot of elected officials talk, and I’m a little inured to the predictable cadence of people telling an audience exactly what they want to hear. Telling a room that has Fred Wilson in the audience, “I’m going to tax rich people” was pretty unexpected. I do not find it at all surprising that, in the weeks since this interview was recorded, de Blasio has seen a precipitous uptick in support for his candidacy. I think it’s well-earned and based on substance.

Do I think Bill de Blasio is the most tech-friendly, tech-literate candidate out of the field of contenders for the mayor of New York City? Probably not. I don’t support a candidate based on their blind fealty to an already-wildly-successful industry. But like any of these smart people, he’ll have access to as fine a coterie of technical advisors as he’s willing to embrace.

Get Off Your Ass

Overall, we’re lucky. I don’t love any of these candidates, but given the disproportionate amount of attention that’s been paid to lunatic sideshows in NYC’s elections this year, I’m very glad to see that there’s a deep list of smart, engaged candidates. They all had very good ideas, and none of them were embarrassing to watch when talking about how they’d improve the city.

As an independent, I don’t have much of a vote in city politics, and by the time I do, it’ll probably be too late. But if you’re reading this, you might well have a say as to who we put into office. I think the best choice is Bill de Blasio, and it seems many New Yorkers would agree. But I’m certain the worst choice would be to miss a chance to vote on these candidates, so please do watch the videos, read up on the candidates and issues, find your polling place, and get out and vote!

Further Reading