His frontrunner status was not a foregone conclusion. Yang entered this race with no experience in politics, other than his 2020 presidential bid. While his presidential campaign lasted longer than expected, having attracted a loyal group of supporters dubbed the “Yang Gang,” he exited the race after the New Hampshire primary without winning any delegates.
Yang, who had a brief stint in corporate law, has more substantial experience in business. He worked for a number of start-ups, headed an education company and in 2011, founded the non-profit organization Venture for America in an attempt to create jobs and bring high-tech work to cities that were suffering from the Great Recession. While the Obama administration listed him as one of the 500 “Champions of Change” and a “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship,” Venture for America so far has failed to meet its own goal of creating 100,000 jobs by 2025.
But this resume doesn’t compare to the kind of experience in politics and public service most of the other Democratic candidates bring to the table. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is a former captain in the New York Police Department. He served in the New York State Senate for almost seven years and has been in his current position since he was elected in 2013. Sean Donovan was the former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and served under three presidents. Maya Wiley, a professor and former legal analyst for NBC and MSNBC, served as the chair of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board. She was also counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and worked in the civil division of the US Attorney Office for the Southern District of New York.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a former New York State assemblyman and Manhattan borough president, is now struggling to stay in the race after a woman who worked on his 2001 race for public advocate accused him of sexual assault (Stringer has denied the allegations, saying they had a consensual relationship). Kathryn Garcia, the former commissioner of the New York City Sanitation Department, has long been in the trenches of city politics.
Diane Morales opened the Office of Youth Development and School-Community Services in the city’s Department of Education and was the director of the Teaching Commission. Morales also brings impressive non-profit bona fides, having started and headed various organizations that have focused on children and young people through education, development services and initiatives to tackle poverty. Even the other outsider, Ray McGuire, can claim a much more successful record in the private sector as a top executive at Citigroup.
But Yang has gained traction by pushing unconventional ideas like a universal basic income. His presidential bid centered around his proposal to offer $1,000 a month to everyone over 18 — a policy he has reworked and narrowed significantly to try to tackle extreme poverty in New York. He has also proposed the Big Apple Corps, an initiative in New York that would hire 10,000 aspiring college graduates to tutor 100,000 public school students.
But the key to his appeal has to do with his being a charismatic outsider in a moment of genuine crisis for the city.
Capitalizing on the name recognition he enjoys from his presidential bid, Yang is selling his personal story through Instagram and other social media platforms to connect with voters. From his upbringing as an Asian American in the suburbs of New York, where he was bullied as a child, to his passion for what the city can be even after being ravaged by Covid-19, his biographical-centered approach is working, at least for now. His social media posts are filled with him enjoying the life of the city, drinking boba tea, strolling through Coney Island and elbow bumping supporters. Don’t tell Yang that this city has no heart, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead, because — he appears to be conveying — he can hear it beat out loud.
Some critics compare him to Donald Trump in 2016, given his outsider status and lack of experience. They see a candidate who thrives on incessant media coverage rather than substance. One can imagine a future debate in which an opponent might turn to him, borrow a line from Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic debates, and ask: “Where’s the beef?”
A better comparison might be the 1976 Democratic primaries when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter defeated many formidable and experienced Democrats despite the common refrain, “Jimmy, who?” Carter then beat President Gerald Ford in the general election. Historians agree that the heart of Carter’s appeal was his outsider status. His campaign hammered away at the fact that Carter was a peanut farmer who worked far outside a Washington that seemed to have become corrupted after Vietnam and Watergate.
In a nation that had become deeply distrustful of elected officials and desperate for a leader who could bring the nation into a better place, Carter was the perfect candidate for the times. He turned the experience of his opponents against them. They were part of the broken system; he could do better. Voters, Carter said, could trust him. His campaign spots revolved around his life and family, as he offered himself up as a fresh voice in a broken nation. “1976. Across the land, a new beginning is underway, led by a man whose roots are founded in the American tradition,” the narrator says in one campaign ad over photos of Carter and his family.
To be sure, Yang is no Carter. The Georgian had a significant political record as governor and state senator plus his time as campaign chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
But his outsider status and biographical campaign resonate in a similar way to Yang’s. Yang is a fresh voice in the world of politics. While Trump offered rage, Yang offers optimism and enthusiasm. He is part of a new generation of people who are working to break through in the world of elected politics — at every level — and he comes from a sector of the economy that many young New Yorkers see as the heart of our future growth. For many of his supporters, his relative youth and fresh perspective is an asset, not a liability. His unyielding belief that this city can be even better than before is alluring to many residents.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. New York is a city still reeling from Covid-19. The streets are lined with boarded-up storefronts and empty office buildings. Public school children have barely been in the classroom in the last year and families are still trying to recover from severe illnesses and the deaths of their loved ones. Hospital workers have been through many traumatic months. The budget is in bad shape, the future is uncertain, and all the other chronic problems — including police brutality, unaffordable housing, budget shortfalls, economic inequality and more — loom large. It is also, however, a city filled with optimism, ready to live again.
It remains unclear whether Yang has the legs or substance to make it to the finish line. It would be big mistake to underestimate the ability of his opponents to thrive in the final months of the campaign. New Yorkers will also be using rank choice voting — which only makes the race all the more unpredictable. Meanwhile, Yang’s opponents like Eric Adams and Maya Wiley have received endorsements from major unions — like the Transport Workers Union Local 100, or Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union — that can deliver the vote in city elections.
But his opponents should be clear that Yang can win the Democratic nomination. A campaign that revolves around his regularly avowed passion and vision to make New York a center of the world again, a cool and exciting hub of culture and innovation, is what many residents are desperate for.
And at a moment when so much of the political system seems to have failed us, there might be a sizable number of voters willing to take risk on someone who has a different point of view. Despite all the skeptics on the campaign trail in 1976, it was ultimately Jimmy Carter — not Frank Church or Evan Bayh or Gerald Ford — who was sworn into office.