Brooklyn, N.Y.

The few small polls that track New York’s mayoral election show

Andrew Yang

shaded into second place. Yet rivals at the first Democratic debate on Thursday treated him as the candidate to beat.

Shaun Donovan,

a former Obama cabinet member who’s trailing badly in the polls, went so far as to accuse Mr. Yang of not loving “citywide composting” enough. The debate was that picayune.

Mr. Yang’s appeal isn’t hard to explain—up to a point. He’s the only one of an eight-person Democratic field whose photo needs no identifying caption. Every American who follows politics knows who he is, thanks to his quixotic—but not charmless—run for president in 2019. Brooklyn Borough President

Eric Adams

—the tenuous mayoral front-runner, with 19% support to Mr. Yang’s 16%—is unknown to most New Yorkers. The other six could walk down Broadway without turning a single head—even after a televised debate.

A frisky, upbeat arriviste stands out in a herd of longtime public servants and activists. These include Mr. Adams, a former cop;

Scott Stringer,

the city’s comptroller; and

Kathryn Garcia,

a former sanitation commissioner (whom Mr. Yang has said he’d hire to work for him if he becomes mayor). There’s also another nonpolitico:

Ray McGuire,

a former


executive who polls in the single digits. Amid candidates who pay obeisance to all the leftist pieties—with occasional exceptions from Mr. Adams—Mr. Yang purports to offer a palate-cleansing alternative. While everyone at the debate brandished the view that New York is a hostile place for minorities, Mr. Yang steered clear of racial ululation. That may prove attractive to voters who are tiring of lectures on “equity.”

Mr. Yang might have had reason to feel relieved at the debate. He went into battle under a cloud of his own making, with a little help from New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Three days earlier, he tweeted that he “condemned Hamas terrorists” and stood with “the people of Israel” in its current state of siege. Hours later, he was dodging fire from AOC, who called his statement “utterly shameful.” Other critics lit up


with a #YangSupportsGenocide hashtag, an incongruous charge to hurl at a nerdy start-up-guy who made his modest fortune running a GMAT prep company.

Mr. Yang scrambled to placate the mob, pleading guilty to having “failed to acknowledge” the pain of the Palestinians. When I ask him in an interview to explain this apparent dilution of his support for Israel, Mr. Yang answers unpersuasively: “My new message expressed empathy for the people who are suffering on both sides. I didn’t walk anything back.”

That he was caught off guard by reactions to his initial—presumably more heartfelt—position confirms what many in New York believe: that he’s a political naïf with an undercooked ideology.

It was a fun run for president, though, and it wasn’t hard for him to be the shiny new toy in a gray and weary Democratic field. Although he dropped out after the New Hampshire primary, his upstart presidential campaign was greeted with some enthusiasm. A universal basic income, or UBI, was his leitmotif. It would, he said, pay $1,000 a month to all Americans 18 to 64.

This appealed to many on the left, and his promise to decriminalize marijuana use attracted libertarians. The UBI scheme now has its New York version. Mr. Yang wants to give $2,000 a year in “targeted relief” to roughly 500,000 New Yorkers “struggling at the edge of extreme poverty right now.”

Despite his retractions on Israel, Mr. Yang thumbs his nose at his party’s AOC wing with a firm stand against defunding the police. “That’s the wrong approach for New York City,” Mr. Yang says, a position he reiterated after the shootings in Time Square earlier this month in which three bystanders, including a 4-year-old, were wounded. A secure city is the “No. 1 concern” of families, he says. “I’m committed to making safety my No. 1 priority as mayor.” He promises “daily briefings on the latest crime statistics.” He is adamant, however, that “stop and frisk is not on my list of measures that are right for New York City.”

Mr. Yang breaks with Democratic orthodoxy, also, in his willingness to scold the United Federation of Teachers, which he’s accused of acting to block the reopening of New York’s public schools. “I’m a public-school parent and I’m frustrated that we still don’t have 50% of our kids back in schools,” he says, adding that “online education is 30% to 70% less effective.” New York needs “a clear plan to open our schools by this fall. Certainly, I hope that by the time I’m mayor, everyone is back in school.” (This week

Randi Weingarten,

the New Yorker who heads the national union, said the same thing after resisting for months.)

Some of Mr. Yang’s ideas seem like hot air compressed into fancy words: He promises to set up a “people’s bank” and an “education opportunity fund.” He will also make New York “a destination again, for people to visit, to celebrate, to experience culture, food and everything the city has to offer.” You get the impression that he sees a revival of tourism, and the return of office workers, as the panacea for New York’s economic malaise.

Mr. Yang says his role model is

Mike Bloomberg,

the billionaire outsider who served as mayor from 2002 through 2013. Part of the candidate’s appeal lies in a Covid-battered people’s desire to believe that urban recovery could be as simple as Mr. Yang makes it sound. We’ll know if that’s enough on June 22, when New Yorkers vote in the Democratic primaries. In a city that’s a Republican wasteland, that’s the election right there.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

Main Street: What’s progressive about fighting public schools where racial minorities succeed? Images: Getty Images/Success Academy Charter Schools Composite: Mark Kelly

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