Andrew Yang Wants to Be New York City's 'Evangelist and Cheerleader in Chief'

andrew yang new york city mayor
New York City Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang at a press conference on January 14, 2021 in New York City, announcing his candidacy for mayor. Michael M. Santiago /Getty Images

Andrew Yang's 2020 presidential campaign garnered zero delegates, but it propelled him and his signature idea of Universal Basic Income into the national consciousness. Now he's running for mayor of New York City—and recent polls suggest he's already a frontrunner.

Yang and his fan base—dubbed the Yang Gang—campaigned hard for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, as well as for other Democratic candidates across the country. The entrepreneur turned politician is bringing that same energy to New York. Other frontrunners include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Meanwhile, Raymond McGuire, a top Wall Street executive has shown a strong ability to fundraise—raking in $5 million for his campaign as of mid-January. Maya Wiley, an academic and former lawyer in current Mayor Bill De Blasio's administration, has been endorsed by one of the city's most powerful labor unions, the SEIU 1199. Overall, the field is wide and diverse, with some 40 New Yorkers seeking to lead the city. If Yang were to win, he'd be the first Asian-American to lead the nation's largest metropolis.

Prior to entering politics, Yang led test preparation company Manhattan Prep, which was later sold to Kaplan Inc., from 2006 to 2012. He also founded and led the non-profit Venture for America in 2011, which recruited and trained top graduates to work in startups in cities around the country. Yang stepped down as CEO of the successful non-profit in 2017. The mayoral hopeful believes his combination of business savvy and recent political credentials will win over New Yorkers.

Yang has put addressing the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, racial and income inequality and a speedy economic recovery at the forefront of his campaign. Among his policy ideas, Yang is pushing for a scaled-back version of his presidential campaign's national UBI plan and the launch of a new People's Bank of New York to serve the unbanked and underbanked, which he believes will go a long way toward addressing poverty in the city.

He also sees his close personal ties with Biden, Harris and other powerful friends in Washington as a key benefit for New Yorkers. As Yang puts it, he wants to be the "evangelist and cheerleader in chief" as he makes the case for the city's future to those in Washington and the general American public.

Newsweek spoke with Yang about his campaign and his goals for New York City in a recent Zoom interview. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Newsweek: When did you start thinking about the New York City mayoral race and was it something you had thought about before you launched your presidential campaign?

Yang: I first started thinking about it after I suspended my presidential campaign. There was a bit of an effort to get me to run at that point. A number of people reached out to me and said, "Hey, now that you're out of the presidential, run for mayor?" That was in early 2020, but at the time I was very intent on helping Joe and Kamala win. I thought having Donald Trump in office would be catastrophic for another four years. Throughout 2020, some people followed up with me and started to give me a better sense of the opportunity in New York City. At the same time, the COVID crisis unfolded and the recovery from that crisis seemed like the most important thing I could help accelerate. So, I thought about it all through 2020 but really homed in on it after Joe and Kamala won.

You're kind of new to politics. Right now it seems like there's backlash against establishment politicians. Do you think someone like you benefits from that in this race?

I think that right now a lot of Americans are frustrated that our systems of bureaucracy have not been functioning at as high a level as we had hoped. And certainly you could blame a lot of that recently on Trump. But there have been problems very far away from Trump. There have been struggles around this vaccine rollout that were not Trump's fault. I think that's a frustration that a lot of Americans and New Yorkers feel. And everyone's trying to figure out, "OK, how do you improve that? How do you get our systems working better?" I think that that's something I could help with. I think it's one reason why people are being drawn to my campaign: Because they have an instinct that if someone has been embedded in government for years and years, they may not be the person that's going to necessarily improve the way that some of these systems are functioning.

On the flip side of that, what would you say to people who say, "This guy has no experience in New York City politics. He's unqualified to be mayor"?

I would say that I've run a small business in New York City and as the head of a small business in New York, you have to deliver for customers, day in and day out. No one cares about anything other than whether they're getting what they expect from your company, reliably and cost-effectively. And that's the kind of thing that a lot of people crave from city government right now. They just want the city to be working better. I think that having someone who is going to be free of some of some of the entanglements that have been holding the city back is vastly appealing to a lot of voters. People sense that here in New York things are not working as well as they should.

The question is whether someone who has run a private company, and run a non-profit, and has started a national movement around humanizing our economy that activated millions of voters—whether that's a set of experiences that may equip someone to help accelerate our recovery through this crisis, rather than spending years at a city agency. I respect the folks who have different kinds of experiences. I certainly would want folks with different experiences—both inside and outside of government—in my administration. But I think it would be common sense for voters to value different kinds of experience. I don't think that there's any one set of experiences that you can point to and say, "OK, that is going to prepare someone to be mayor of New York City" at a time when we need to speed up our recovery from the deepest, darkest crisis we've seen in generations.

Your big issue is UBI [Universal Basic Income]. When you ran for president it was $1,000 a month for all Americans. Now that you're running for New York City mayor, you're saying $2,000 annually for 500,000 New Yorkers who most need it. Why is it not $1,000 for all New Yorkers?

First, UBI is now mainstream, popular sentiment in the U.S. Fifty-five percent of Americans are for cash relief for perpetuity. Eighty-five percent are for cash relief during the pandemic. But if you are the mayor of New York City you have a different operating environment than if you are the federal government. Now, the federal government passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act early on in the pandemic. It looks like it may pass the similarly-sized recovery bill. It is clear that as a country we have the resources to give everyone $1,000 a month if we decide to do so.

I think people know, if Andrew Yang had the ability to do so, I would love to give everyone in New York City $1,000 a month. That would be phenomenal. But we have a different operating environment. We have to be strategic about how we are going to deploy the resources that we have in a way that's both going to improve the way of life for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, but also help reduce the costs that were spending on homelessness services and shelters and other institutions that have a really significant human and economic cost.

Another big issue that you are pushing with your campaign is the People's Bank of New York. Can you just briefly explain how that works and what benefits it will provide compared to traditional banking?

Traditional banking works great for a lot of things, but it's going to miss a lot of both needs and opportunities as well. People's Bank is going to launch with $100 million in working capital from New York City. We're going to use that $100 million to catalyze additional resources among community development, financial institutions and credit unions to expand financial services to underserved communities. Generally, communities of color.

Right now 12 percent of New York City residents don't have a bank account, which makes no sense in the world's financial capital. If you don't have a banking account, you end up spending hundreds of extra dollars a year on check-cashing services, money-lending, pawn shops. If we can expand access to low-cost, safe, financial services for the unbanked and underbanked in New York City, we can make it less expensive to be poor. There are hundreds of thousands of families in the city that are paying check-cashing fees and the like that they shouldn't have to pay. They should have access to the same basic financial services as anybody else. The People's Bank will help make that possible. And it will also help make micro-loans and other capital available to more entrepreneurs of color that right now are being overlooked by traditional banks.

Last year, New York and the whole country saw these massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations. How would your administration tackle racism in the city's justice system and problems with policing?

I have a number of proposals in this direction I think will help. Number one is, I proposed a civilian police commissioner who will be independent of the culture of the NYPD. If you're going to change the culture of an organization it has to start at the top. I propose that new officers live in New York City, which will make them closer to the communities that they're meant to serve and protect. I am aligned with the fact that we need to do more to stop criminalizing poverty, which is targeting New Yorkers of color disproportionately. You know, there are people who are unable to pay fines and whatnot, who are unable to make bail, that are being incarcerated that should not be. It's something that I'm very passionate about.

We should also be mindful of the fact that we need to bring down the rates of violent crime that are rising. We have to be able to do a couple of things at once. And they're not mutually exclusive at all. They actually should go hand-in-hand. You need to improve police culture while also holding police accountable to bring up their resolution rates for violent crime. Unfortunately, they are going down right now. That is another form of police accountability—if you have higher rates of unsolved crimes, that is not a trend that you want to continue.

The business community in New York has been very critical of Mayor Bill De Blasio. What do you think is the right approach to addressing the concern from business leaders while also ensuring that workers and average New Yorkers have the opportunities and support they need?

I generally think that we're all aligned on this. Business owners want a city that is thriving and vibrant and people are comfortable going into the office. Workers need us to have that same degree of confidence. If you look at just the basic measurement of whether people are commuting to the office in New York City... If you have people just Zooming in, remotely, that doesn't just affect that company, that affects the cleaning staff and the security guards of that building and the food trucks outside that ordinarily would be serving a lunchtime crowd. The interests of business owners and workers are really one-and-the-same in terms of trying to get the city back open again, trying to make it so that the vaccine has been broadly distributed. We need to focus on the things that will help dig us out of this hole. Right now that's vaccinations and being able to demonstrate that you've been vaccinated, or that you've tested negative relatively recently.

One of the biggest issues of complaint for New Yorkers is public transportation, the MTA and the subway system. How would you approach working with state leaders to improve the situation?

I've advocated for city control of the subways for this reason. I think it's difficult for New Yorkers to be able to hold their leaders accountable when, like right now, you look up and say "Well, you know, this is an Albany responsibility." That would be a major step in the right direction, in my view. We need to invest the proper resources that people will feel safe and secure on the subway. We have to make it so that the subway, itself, is reliable. And then we need to get New York back to a point where folks are visiting for business or tourism because those things will end up increasing ridership on the subway.

Overall, how have you viewed the state and local leadership in New York during the COVID crisis? And do you have any thoughts on the nursing home issue that Governor Cuomo has been getting a lot of criticism for the past few weeks?

I think that it's not good for anyone when the city and the state are not on the same page. I genuinely think that the interests of New York City and New York State are aligned like ninety-five times out of one hundred. New York City is the economic engine, not just of the state, but really one of the main engines for the country. I think that the frustration that a lot of New Yorkers feel right now is around the vaccine. I think that some of the information hasn't been as clear as it could be. But the goal is to try and get things done for New York. And that works a lot better if the folks in Albany and the folks in City Hall have a good collegial relationship.

Just to follow up, the issue with Governor Cuomo and the nursing homes—is that something that you're concerned about? That there's been a lack of transparency?

Well, like, I don't have any insight on that situation, like anyone else wouldn't have, so I decline to comment.

During your presidential campaign, you said the high-stakes test to get into elite New York City public schools should be "deemphasized." Is this still your view and how do you propose addressing the concerns regarding these tests and these schools?

I think that we should keep the SHSAT [Specialized High School Admissions Test] but integrate it into a larger set of factors like grades. You know, it's a pretty obvious one in my mind—interviews, family background and have the selective high schools be more representative of our communities. I also think we should open two new selective high schools in each borough. It's not ideal for students to be traveling an hour or more each way every day to go to school. That's not a great routine for a young person. I think that these tests can be very useful. And I like data. But we shouldn't have them substitute for our ability to do what's right for our kids and our judgment as to which kids might be a good fit in which school. Completely outsourcing one's judgment to a single data point doesn't seem like the right approach to me.

You've talked before about your son being on the autism spectrum. Do you see a need for adding special education resources in the city and what would you propose?

I do believe that we should be adding special needs resources in public schools in New York City. One of the things that I say is that special needs is the new normal. The number that I saw in New York is that, I believe, there are hundreds of thousands of children and families that may fall in this category. Definitely, tens of thousands. I'd have to find the number. This is actually a domain where spending more can save the city money. Right now, a lot of resources are being spent in this direction, but not within the New York City public school system. If you can change that, I think you can actually fulfill multiple goals. You can serve families' needs and use resources more efficiently.

Homelessness continues to be a major problem in this city. During your presidential run, you put proposed the Every Vet Under a Roof initiative. Would you push for a similar initiative in New York City or would you have a different proposal for addressing the homelessness crisis?

We need to expand the number of beds available as quickly as possible. One of the big opportunities is safe-haven beds that are being provided by non-profit organizations. Some folks who are struggling prefer those environments to shelters. Some have had negative experiences in the shelters. We should be repurposing under-utilized hotel properties right now. In some cases, the city is actually paying a nightly rate, which doesn't make sense. We should be repurposing some of those properties as affordable housing as quickly as possible. This, to me, is a crisis that you have to keep from getting worse. We should be extending the eviction moratorium. We should be extending the various tenement assistance programs. We should be giving every tenant the right to counsel, which has been shown to keep people in their homes, effectively.

You've tweeted about encouraging biking in the city. What would you do to expand biking in the city? What would you say to people that are concerned about safety and about accidents from the additional bikes on the streets?

Part of trying to make it easy to get around via bicycle is that we should be protecting bike lanes to a higher level. We should be enforcing some of the bike lanes, either with barriers or with camera enforcement. Particularly, where there has actually been a record of some kind of accident or safety issue with a particular bike lane. I get around via bike a lot. And it's a very bad feeling when there is a truck in the bike lane and then you get there and you're like, "OK. Now, I'm going to have to go into traffic, out of the bike lane." It's not a great feeling, ever.

If you're going to have bike lanes, you can't have trucks obstructing them all the time. I think some of those trucks will change their habits very quickly if they got a ticket or two. And then, make it so that people feel like getting around by bicycle is feasible and safe and cost-effective for them. I'm a huge believer in it. It's good for your health. I think it's good for the environment. I think it's good for your mental health, personally. The more we encourage New Yorkers to get around via bicycle, the better. One of my great hopes and visions for the city is we have to make it so that people do not have to own a car in the city. I moved here when I was 21. I bought a car when I was 40. I lived here 19 years without a car, and it was fantastic. I want it so that when someone moves to New York City, they think, "Great! I don't need to own a car." One aspect of that is going to be making the city as bike-friendly as it possibly can be.

You have a personal relationship with President Biden. There was even talk that you might serve in his administration. Do you think that relationship with the president would benefit you as mayor? Have you had any conversations with President Biden about your plans if you were to be elected?

I've had conversations with people in his administration, who are friends. I think that having strong relationships with folks in D.C. is going to be very important for New York City and New York State, moving forward. I mean, the fact is, New York City's metro area's GDP is almost 10 percent of the entire country's. The case has to be made loud and clear that there is not going to be a national recovery without a New York City recovery, and that investing in New York City is the right thing to do. I'm friendly with dozens of people on Capitol Hill. I'm friends with a similar number of people who are working in the administration. It's not just Joe. I'm friends with Kamala. I'm friends with [Transportation Secretary] Pete [Buttigieg]. I'm friends with a lot of folks who are now going to be in a position to do something really positive for New York City. That should be something that they're excited about, and if they're not excited about it, I'm going to get them excited about it because it's the right thing to do for the country. I think that having those relationships really can't be overestimated. If you have a friend calling you from New York City, as the new mayor, saying, "Hey Pete, let's build a tunnel. It's overdue," I think that that's going to be very powerful and valuable for New Yorkers. Whereas, if you have a mayor that comes in and does not have those relationships, or frankly, cannot get on national TV at the drop of a hat, then it might be a more difficult case to make. But I can make the case very personally, as well as publicly.

And I'm going to be the evangelist and cheerleader in chief for New York City. New York City, fundamentally, is an engine of human potential and creativity. This is where people come together to build a life, a career, a family, but also businesses, innovative organizations, cultural contributions like artistic leadership. New York City is the creative and commercial hub for the country. Our fighting for that continuation of what New York City is, is vital to the nation's future. I'm going to be thrilled making that case as the mayor of the city.

Cover Christopher Lane