Political Newbie Andrew Yang Says He’s the ‘Leader for This Moment’ in NYC Mayoral Race

NEW YORK -
andrew yang
Andrew Yang on a Zoom interview with Hamodia.

Political neophyte Andrew Yang is running for mayor of New York City as the Big Apple is trying to dig out from the COVID pandemic, a rise in gun crime, and an economic downturn.

Getting the city’s economy going will be “the number-one job of the next mayor, and this is where my focus would be every day” says Yang, 46, in a Zoom interview with Hamodia. “We are down 600,000 jobs, 60 million tourists, 82% of commuters, 70% of subway ridership. And, unfortunately, violent crime is rising even as 300,000 New Yorkers have left. These problems are not born of politics, but politics has the potential to both make them worse and slow down our recovery. I believe that if you don’t have the engine of New York City’s economy functioning, then we’re not going to be able to solve any problem … I’m an operator, I know that what counts most is improving those numbers. And I have plans on how to help speed up our recovery on every front.”

Yang, an accomplished entrepreneur whose political resumé consists of one presidential run in 2020 — unsuccessful in that he didn’t win, wildly successful in that it brought him nationwide fame — says the next mayor must incentivize the return of tourists and workers. He would seek to create something akin to Israel’s “Green Passport,” verifying that people have been vaccinated and inspiring confidence among New Yorkers that the city is safe again. He’s also proposing inducements for commuting — “either tax incentives or something even consumer-facing, where if you commute in five days a week, then we’ll give you a gift certificate to a New York restaurant” — and seeking to promote commerce and tourism by calling on current government officials to give a fare-free week on subways and buses this Memorial Day.

“We’re going to have to be smart and tactical about trying to provide resources,” says the candidate. “I’m going to be very practical and targeted in the way that the city invests its resources to try and revive the economy. But I also think I’ll make a fantastic champion and ambassador for an open New York City, because that’s what I’m all about.”

**

Yang, renowned for a slew of unorthodox policy proposals, is most associated with his universal basic income (UBI) plan, as a presidential candidate, to have the federal government give $1,000 a month to every adult. His mayoral UBI proposal is less ambitious, as he acknowledges that “you can’t give everyone in New York City 1,000 bucks a month,” though “I would do just that if we could.”

The program would “start with providing those who are living in extreme poverty with an average of $2,000 per year,” which would cost the city $1 billion annually, according to his campaign website. “This program can then be grown over time as it receives more funding from public and philanthropic organizations, with the vision of eventually ending poverty in New York City altogether.”

andrew yang
Yang announcing his mayoral candidacy in January, in Morningside Heights. On the right is Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), Yang’s campaign co-chair. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The candidate believes some of the funds for the UBI program would pay for itself, by preventing people from becoming homeless or falling into the criminal-justice system, where the city spends far more per capita than the UBI amount.

“This to me is a targeted effort to both relieve human suffering,” he says, “but also keep the city from spending more on people who wind up in truly desperate circumstances and in some cases behave in a way that costs us both on a human and economic front.”

He would also seek to pay for the UBI funds by “asking enormous landowners in New York that are presently exempt from property taxes to pay for some of the services that they currently enjoy, including Madison Square Garden, and my alma mater, Columbia University, which are both multibillion dollar institutions that aren’t really paying meaningfully into the city for services that are, frankly, in some cases, ensuring their property’s value.”

Yang says he would not immediately seek to force these entities to contribute, but ask them to. “I think that people understand that there are different approaches, and that you start with the friendliest approach, and then move on from there.”

But while he is calling on “the largest tax-exempt landowners in the city to come to the table to temporarily increase their contributions to the city’s tax base,” the candidate says, “that will not include religious institutions and faith-based schools,” adding; “I’m a big believer in religious freedom and a supporter of community-based religious institutions, which are an essential part of our fabric,” and that; “as mayor, I will work closely with religious groups.”

As to the question of raising taxes on individuals, Yang says “there are many New Yorkers who have done phenomenally well during this past period who can afford to pay more to help support our city.” But he acknowledges that some wealthy people have already left the city during the pandemic, and a tax hike might increase that trend.

“We have to acknowledge that the effective tax rate between New York City and Florida is about 13% apart, and that there are very significant incentives for people to go to someplace that has lower taxes, and that any tax increase will affect people’s behavior. I’m a very data-driven guy. I don’t operate in political arguments,” says the candidate. “I try and figure out what’s actually going to solve the problem. We should not have any illusions that people don’t have the capacity to head to an environment where their tax rates will be lower.”

**

Amid a sustained period of shootings and murders soaring in the Big Apple, along with calls for defunding the NYPD, the candidate says, “We have to do everything in our power to make people safer, and I do not think that defunding the police is the right approach,” noting that in response to violent incidents in the subway this year, he called for the NYPD to add officers to the subway system, “so that gives you a sense as to my approach as mayor.”

But Yang also says, “I don’t think every situation requires an armed response,” and that the city’s crime-fighting approach should include more spending in mental-health and substance-abuse resources.

The city (and nation) have also been grappling with hate crimes. Anti-Semitic incidents still dominate the hate-crimes statistics in New York, though they are markedly down from their 2019 high. Meanwhile, during the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China, hate crimes have risen against Asians.

“It’s been a heartbreaking time in the Asian-American community, where we are experiencing new levels of violence and hatred that are unprecedented,” says Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, who is seeking to become the first Asian-American mayor of New York. “But this is, unfortunately, something that has been with the Jewish community for generations. And these problems are worse right now because we are a badly wounded city, where if you are missing 600,000 jobs, and many people are lost and insecure about what their future will hold, then you wind up with people targeting folks who are different from them.”

Yang has a three-pronged approach for fighting hate crimes. He would “dedicate city resources to protect the most vulnerable among us,” including “assigning NYPD to vulnerable communities, and places of worship.” Secondly, he believes that reopening the city will make it safer, “because if you have an empty subway, it’s significantly more dangerous than a crowded subway. If you have a darkened street where the storefronts are closed, it’s a much more dangerous environment than one where people are out and about.”

“I don’t have any illusions that reviving our economy is going to solve the problems of hate that we’re seeing, both towards Asians and the Jewish community,” the candidate acknowledges, “but it would help a lot with the sense of safety that people feel.”

And finally, “We should be doing all we can to expose our young people — and high school students in particular across the city — to people of different backgrounds and environments so that they regard everyone in our great city as a human being just like them.”

Yang says he was inspired by hearing a story about a Holocaust survivor’s visit to FDR High School in Brooklyn, where, what was intended as a small event for some students turned into an hours-long experience for a great many, as more and more youngsters came to participate in what they realized was a unique opportunity.

“We should be able to take advantage of our diversity in ways that humanize all of us. And certainly, I would be pushing for that for the Jewish community, for the Asian-American community, for everyone.”

**

As New York is in the midst of a debate over government regulation of private-school curriculum, Yang has advocated for these schools’ and parents’ right to educate their children free from government oversight.

andrew yang
Yang touring the Jewish community of Kew Gardens Hills. To Yang’s right are Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal, Rabbi Yaniv Meirov of Chazaq, and David Schwartz, Yang’s Jewish Community Outreach Director. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

“If you have people that are looking to enforce various rules and regulations [on private schools], my first question is, ‘Based on what data?’ When I was first told about these yeshivah issues, my question was the same, which was, ‘Well, what are the outcomes? How are people doing?’ And then, when I was presented with data suggesting that the outcomes are the same or better [than public school students’], I looked up and said, “Well, then why do people seem to have an issue around the way that these children are being educated?”

While any specific guidelines would be made by the state Board of Regents, enforcement would fall to the local school authority. But Yang says that as mayor, “I would be pursuing our top priorities as a city, which are around trying to improve people’s lives and get us back open.”

The candidate says his views were shaped by his research into yeshivos, discussions with his friends who send their children to yeshivah, as well as his own interactions with yeshivah students.

“When I was in the Bobov community, they brought me a book of essays that were written by sixth graders,” Yang recalls. “And it was very impressive. I just got to leaf through it myself and just pick essays at random. And they were actually thoughtful and well-formed. It was the kind of thing that you’d be proud of in any school environment.”

Yang was endorsed last week by Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal — the first Orthodox official to endorse a mayoral candidate in this race — at an event in Kew Gardens Hills, across the street from Shevach High School. Several dozen students attended the press conference.

“I asked them whether they enjoyed their high school,” says Yang, “and they were all unanimous and immediate in saying, ‘Yes, we love our school!’ which is something that frankly, I was awestruck by. Because if you went to just about any group of high-school students in America and asked that question, you would get a different response.”

In January, Politico published a questionnaire in which they asked Democratic mayoral candidates whether they would investigate religious schools and cut funds from those deemed lacking in secular education. Yang (who had not yet hired Boro Park activist David Schwartz as his campaign’s Jewish Community Outreach Director) responded in the questionnaire that schools “need to trust that the next mayor has a coherent policy and is working in good faith to both respect religious freedom and ensure curriculum guidelines are being met,” but said that “schools failing to meet baseline standards should be investigated.” Asked by Hamodia if he held different views on religious schools at the time he gave that response to Politico, the candidate replies, “My principles are the same, which is that we should not be interfering as long as the educational outcomes are good. But we need to be driven by the data.”

Throughout his campaign, Yang has spoken strongly against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In an op-ed in The Forward in January, the candidate wrote that BDS is “rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses.” He used similar language in a Forward questionnaire the following month, and wrote that “a Yang administration will push back against the BDS movement, which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment.”

Yang’s opposition to government regulation of yeshivos and the BDS movement has made the candidate popular in the Orthodox community.

But at a mayoral forum last week hosted by the Muslim-American organization Emgage, after Yang was challenged over his comparison of the BDS movement to fascism, he somewhat softened his tone on BDS supporters.

“I believe that BDS is the wrong approach,” Yang said, according in a video of the exchange tweeted by Forward journalist Jacob Kornbluh,  “but I appreciate and would never begrudge people who are standing up for what they believe in, and have a political perspective on it, which is why my response [to The Forward] reads in that way.” He went on to say that he had made that characterization of the BDS movement after “I had seen materials that suggested that folks who are supportive of BDS had refused to disavow the activities of certain extremist elements that had adopted violent, or at least had not disavowed violent, measures towards Israel, which I took as a line that I thought was inappropriate,” but that “since then, I’ve spoken to people who have made a different argument … that BDS is non-violent. I don’t think targeting Israel in this way is the right approach, but I certainly appreciate people who are standing up for what they believe in.”

Israel supporters decried what they deemed to be the candidate’s backtracking on his earlier strong opposition to the BDS movement, but Yang quickly said he regretted his comments to Emgage.

“I used a poor choice of words in that forum,” Yang tells Hamodia, echoing the statement he issued the day after the forum, “and I regret that it’s caused pain to people. BDS does not recognize the right of Israel to exist, which is itself anti-Semitic. I strongly oppose BDS, as I’ve said numerous times.”

andrew yang
Yang at a Pesach food distribution at the Brooklyn Navy yard.

A New York Post article last month detailed how Sasha Ahuja, one of Yang’s co-campaign managers, “is a longtime progressive activist with ties to controversial Palestinian-rights fighter Linda Sarsour.” Ahuja had praised Sarsour on social media, saying Sarsour “has raised a generation of activists. She paved the way for all of us … We love you and stand with you always,” that Sarsour “is a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight,” and calling Sarsour “my hero.”

Following the Post’s revelations, Yang said in a statement, “As I’ve said before, I strongly disagree with Linda Sarsour on many, many issues including BDS and Israel.” He also indicated he wouldn’t be influenced by Ahuja’s views on Israel, declaring, “Policies are decided by me,” and that he is “proud to have pro-Israel Congressman Ritchie Torres as my campaign co-chair and advising me on issues important to the Jewish community, including Israel.” Yang vowed that “if elected, Israel will be my first international trip. I am a proud supporter of this community. Always will be.”

The candidate also tells Hamodia, “I certainly don’t agree with many things that people that work on my campaign have associated with,” and reiterated his promise to make Israel his first international trip: “I think that building stronger connections between Israel and New York City is a must,” noting that some of his own work was partially inspired by the book Start-Up Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, about Israeli entrepreneurship. “I believe that the United States really could try and benefit from that.”

“But most importantly, my wife wants to go. And she’s the boss around here.”

At the end of last year — before Yang had officially declared his mayoral candidacy, but when he was widely expected to run — past statements he had made against circumcision surfaced, causing disquietude in the Orthodox community.

When then-presidential candidate Yang was asked on Twitter in 2019 for his view on circumcision, he replied, “Against the practice.” In an interview the same month with the Daily Beast, the candidate said, “I’m highly aligned with the intactivists [anti-circumcision activists], and that “history will prove them even more correct.”

“From what I’ve seen, the evidence on it being a positive health choice for the infant is quite shaky,” Yang said in the Daily Beast interview, adding that he wants to “inform parents that it is entirely up to them whether their infant gets circumcised, and that there are costs and benefits either way,” and that “the more choice we give parents, and the more we diminish the possible preconceptions or misinformation various parents are receiving, then the better off we’ll be as a society.”

But Yang has subsequently said that as mayor he wouldn’t impose any restriction on circumcision. Asked by Hamodia whether he would “enact any policy, restriction, limitation or regulation of any kind against circumcision, or any element of the Jewish circumcision ritual,” the candidate replies, “No, I would not. I’ve been to multiple friend’s brises myself in the past. To me, again, this is something that should be entirely up to the family and the parents.”

**

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City has created and expanded bike lanes, bus lanes, Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs, at the expense of driving lanes and parking spaces. Yang says that “part of the value proposition for New Yorkers is the ability to get around in different ways, and I myself am a cyclist, so I like bikeability and walkability.” However, he says he would not enact a one-size-fits-all plan, but cater to each community. “There are different neighborhoods with different needs,” says the candidate. “I am someone who does not want to imagine that I have a solution to a problem when there are people on the ground that know their neighborhoods best.”

andrew yang
Yang riding the subway while campaigning in Brooklyn. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

In 2019, Amazon abandoned plans to build a headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, following a progressive backlash. Yang calls this “a colossal mistake for New York,” and that it sent a message “that New York is not open for business, that we’re somehow unfriendly to companies that want to expand here.”

“We need to turn that around. I’m going to be a salesman for New York City being open for business,” says the candidate. “I’ve had multiple conversations with business leaders who are right now waiting on this mayoral race to decide whether or not they’re going to invest in New York City.”

Amid an MTA budget crunch and a backlash against Amazon for generating large revenues, harming local businesses, and adding truck traffic, Brooklyn Assemblyman Robert Carroll is seeking to help fund the MTA with a $3 fee per box ordered online and delivered in New York City (besides food and medicine). Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia has told Hamodia she would consider a fee on Amazon deliveries, “to incentivize people to use their local stores, and to help reduce the amount of boxes that are moving through, and in many ways, clogging our streets.”

Yang says, “We’re all ordering from Amazon at very, very high levels. It is causing infrastructure problems, among other things. So I’m open to different approaches. But I want to do it in a way that both addresses the city’s problems but doesn’t hurt consumers who right now are relying upon those packages.” But he is noncommittal on whether he would support such a per-box tax, saying, “It’s something that I would look at, but I don’t have anything definitive.”

**

The political outsider is flying high in the polls, among candidates in the Democratic primary election to be held June 22: A Fontas Advisors/Core Decision Analytics survey released last month showed Yang with 28% support, followed by  Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at 17%. And a poll this month by WPIX-TV/NewsNation/Emerson College showed Yang at 32% and Adams second, at 19%. Overall, more than 30 candidates have tossed their hat in the ring.

“I came to New York City as a 21-year-old law student, and this city has given me the kinds of opportunities that I could not have dreamt of when I arrived here,” says Yang. “There have been so many things about New York City that I’m grateful for. I want to help make our city the city that we know it can be. I genuinely think I’m going to speed up our recovery more than any other candidate in the field. I think that many of them do not understand the nature of the challenges we face. I think that many of them see things through a political lens. And politics, unfortunately, has not been helping us that much here in New York over this past number of months and years. I think I’m the leader for this moment.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com