Why Progressive Activists Are Terrified of Andrew Yang

The left has won a string of impressive victories in New York. That streak could soon come to an end.

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang holds press conference outside of Tweed Courthouse on May 11 in New York. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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In December, the month before he launched his mayoral bid, Andrew Yang hosted tech billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya on his podcast, where they bantered about the 2020 race. “There is something that is happening which is hard to appreciate, which is that progressivism, I think, is a doomed experiment,” Palihapitiya, an early Facebook executive who is now CEO of the venture firm Social Capital, opined.

“But I think what it gets replaced with is pragmatism,” Palihapitiya added. “You showed product market fit for pragmatism. And I think Joe Biden took advantage of pragmatism and he monetized it.”

The interview distilled perfectly what left-of-center activists fear about Yang: that he will imperil their movement in one of the nation’s most progressive places. Today, Yang is running near the top of a crowded Democratic field in the New York City mayor’s race, turning a burst of popularity from his 2020 run into a credible bid to lead the nation’s largest metropolis. When he announced his campaign a month after hosting Palihapitiya on his show, the tech billionaire agreed to co-host one of his first fundraisers.

Yang isn’t running as an anti-progressive. Or really anti-anything. Perhaps it’s the key to his likability, but Yang is rarely eager to take sides. Yang didn’t contradict Palihapitiya when he predicted the demise of the progressive movement, just as he didn’t confront a supporter who asked him an offensive question about women—choosing instead to end the encounter with a laugh. When Yang saw a man attack a photographer documenting his campaign, he rushed to the photographer’s aid but never denounced the assailant. Instead, he and the attacker ended up taking a picture together. It is the ultimate charm offensive, with no hard edges.

This is the Yang that the city’s left-leaning activist groups fear—one who is appealing and fun and seems to be siphoning off the votes of New Yorkers who believe in progressive change without grasping what Yang really stands for. Despite Yang’s populist rhetoric and nods to progressive values, advocates who lead efforts for criminal justice reform, affordable housing, environmental sustainability, and other liberal policy goals see him as a thoroughly corporate—even libertarian—politician who poses a threat to their string of high-profile victories.

Yang’s presidential run, built on the promise of a universal basic income of $1,000 per month for every American, gave the previously obscure entrepreneur celebrity status. Guaranteed minimum income proposals do have a history on the left; as Yang liked to remind people, Martin Luther King Jr. supported one. But the idea has also attracted libertarian and conservative thinkers, who view it as a replacement for existing welfare programs—not an addition to them. Though Yang’s plan sounded populist, in its details, it aligned with the libertarian camp. Many already receiving aid from the government would have had to choose between keeping their current benefits or taking Yang’s $1,000. In other words, wealthier people stood to benefit more than poorer people.

Still, Yang left the 2020 race with progressive bona fides. Despite a signature proposal that would not have reduced economic inequality, his public acknowledgment that the status quo was unacceptable—and his plan to address it by simply giving people money—won him plenty of fans on the left. Since exiting the 2020 race, Yang continued to supported his fellow Democrats, including campaigning in Georgia for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, embracing a party that is largely moving to the left on economic issues. When he launched his mayoral run, the kind of candidate he would be did not seem pre-ordained. Yang announced his campaign on January 14, with a speech emphasizing anti-poverty measures. He promised cash relief, a public bank to serve unbanked New Yorkers and bring cash to underserved communities, and a COVID recovery program to help working people, “not the stock market.” So the city’s progressive’s activists were disappointed when Yang embraced a number of centrist policies and hired personnel from a corporate wing of the party.

“There was a version of an Andrew Yang candidacy coming out of the presidential primary where he actually said and did progressive things,” says Gabe Tobias, who is running Our City PAC, which plans to oppose Yang while boosting other more progressive mayoral candidates. “Instead, it’s just a facade.”

“The shunning of the progressive movement feels very real by the Yang camp,” adds Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, which endorsed the mayoral bid of Scott Stringer, then rescinded it following an allegation of sexual assault against Stringer. (Stringer has denied the allegation.) Yang did not seek the group’s endorsement. 

Yang has said that he doesn’t fit into any political mold, and his mayoral campaign converted his Simpsons-esque 2020 campaign slogan of “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” into “Forward New York.” Political consultant and venture capitalist Bradley Tusk, whose consulting and lobbying firm is largely running Yang’s campaign, assured viewers in an April Fox Business appearance that Yang is a business-friendly Democrat. “He is fully a private-sector person,” Tusk said. He “really believes that the way we save this city is by working with every industry to see, ‘What do you need to create jobs here? How can we make it easier to start a business? To reopen?'” A few days later, Yang’s communications director, Alyssa Cass, told Politico that Yang is indeed a man of the left. “On the issues, Andrew Yang is aligned with where progressives, including progressive activists, are,” Cass said. “I believe the biggest gulf is sometimes rhetorical—he doesn’t always use ideological buzz phrases. But when it comes to the substance, he’s aligned.”

Many progressive activists would say the opposite is true: Yang can speak in progressive phrases but the policy follow-through isn’t there. “He espouses certain values that, on the surface level, one might hear as progressive,” says Monica Klein, a progressive strategist in New York. “But his policies would have the opposite effect.”

The biggest example is Yang’s discomfort with raising taxes on the wealthy to fill the budget hole caused by the pandemic. A campaign to do so won approval in Albany last month. Days earlier, Yang expressed hesitancy about the idea while speaking to a corporate-backed civic group. The tax debate “was the singular defining issue that all progressive organizations rallied around across the state this year,” says Klein. “And [Yang]’s been sitting down with the business community, saying, I don’t think we should raise taxes on the wealthy.”

Yang’s cash benefit proposal for New York is much smaller than the version he ran on in 2020, a necessity because of the more limited resources and powers of New York’s mayor. The plan would provide the poorest New Yorkers with an average of $2,000 per year, amounting to $1 billion of the city’s annual budget. But Yang hasn’t really explained where that $1 billion would come from, a mystery that leaves activists wary, especially since he has more ideas for shrinking the city’s till—a week of free bus and subway rides; tax cuts for businesses that resist remote work; pausing fines and fees for small businesses; and a tax holiday for hotels—than he does for raising revenues. “What are we cutting in order to achieve what he says he wants to do?” asks Westin of New York Communities for Change. “On a lot of his policies, we’re all still looking for the substance.”

Yang has suggested finding the money by whittling away at other expenditures. One example is removing “‘inefficiencies’ in the current social safety net that Yang says could be made redundant if the city’s poorest were given monthly stipends,” Bloomberg reported. “By keeping people out of homelessness, the city could spend less on homelessness services, he suggested.” But it’s unclear how much a cash benefit of about $167 per month would help New Yorkers facing some of the highest rents in the country. Yang has also proposed property taxes on institutions currently enjoying tax exemptions, including Madison Square Garden and Columbia University. Though he’s shied away from raising taxes on wealthy residents, that’s ultimately up to state lawmakers and the governor in Albany. 

Yang has embraced some progressive policies. In February, for example, he endorsed a Green New Deal for Public Housing, a policy championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yang’s version of the plan is detailed on his website and is largely drawn from a white paper produced by the group Data for Progress, which also informed Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders’ national legislation.

But his commitment to these ideas still remains an open question to the policy’s advocates. Multiple housing rights groups say Yang’s campaign didn’t reach out to them when crafting the proposal. According to an email documenting the exchange, a campaign consultant contacted Data for Progress one day before Yang announced the policy, seeking assurance his plan was “accurate and we are not missing anything crucial.” The campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“I am gratified that Andrew Yang is willing to support the Green New Deal for Public Housing,” says Daniel Aldana Cohen, the lead author of the report Yang drew from. “A real plan to transform [the New York City Housing Authority] to serve its residents needs to be developed in dialogue with its residents. And if Yang wants to be a champion for NYCHA, he’s gonna have to do a lot more than just adopt the provisions put forward by AOC and Bernie and others.” 

Affordable housing advocates cite other reasons they are skeptical of Yang. His campaign has declined to support a bill pending in Albany that would restrict no-cause evictions and reduce rent hikes. Meanwhile, he proposes subsidizing rent for artists and recruiting “content creator collectives, such as TikTok Hype Houses”—typically mansions where stars of the social media platform pile in together to create viral content.

The left’s distrust of Yang is compounded by who he’s tapped to run his campaign. At the center of the effort is Tusk Strategies, a consulting and lobbying shop founded by a top aide in Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral administration. Yang’s two campaign managers, his policy director, and two senior advisers all work for Tusk, according to City & State. While it’s not uncommon for such firms to help run mayoral campaigns, Tusk is known for working with a slew of progressive foes, including Uber and the country’s largest municipal police union. Last year, it led the effort in Albany to stop the tax hikes on the rich. 

If Yang wins, the firm is well positioned to exercise enormous influence over his administration—especially given Yang’s lack of experience in government. Bradley Tusk started out in politics, eventually working for Bloomberg. In 2011, after leaving the Bloomberg administration, he accepted equity in Uber in exchange for helping convince city officials to allow the company to enter the New York City market without a cap on the number of drivers. By 2017, that equity was worth $100 million. Tusk became a venture capitalist. He’s replicated that model at Tusk Ventures, his venture capital firm, which invests or takes equity in tech companies while promising to use its “political expertise to help startups break through regulatory barriers.” Tusk teaches a class at Columbia Business School on how startups can navigate the halls of power, bust through regulation, and box out competitors. “How much power would they have under a Yang administration?” asks Tobias. “Where do their private equity interests differ from their political involvement here?”

Tusk isn’t personally running Yang’s campaign—his colleagues are—but he helped recruit Yang into the race. He and Yang talk and text about policy and strategy, Tusk told New York magazine. In Yang, Tusk and his companies have found a candidate who largely aligns with their values. Yang, who bills himself as an entrepreneur, was already known as a pro-tech candidate from his 2020 campaign, and it doesn’t appear his enthusiasm for Silicon Valley has waned. He wants to make New York a hub for crypto-currency, which Tusk, an investor in the crypto marketplace Coinbase, would probably not oppose. When Yang proposed a casino on Governor’s Island to bring in revenue and make New York City “more fun,” it was widely noted that Tusk has a longstanding interest in investing in casinos. The state can issue three new casino licenses beginning in 2023, with pressure coming from developers for new gambling facilities in the New York City region.

“This is the tech finance hub of corporate America putting in someone who is packaged as a populist, but is really just a newfangled corporate type,” says Pete Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change.

Tusk, who did not respond to a request for comment, recently tried to head off concerns about his close ties to Yang. Ahead of a New York Times story about his possible conflicts of interest in a Yang administration, he pledged in a Medium post not to speak with Yang or Yang’s staff about issues that “intersect” with his business interests should Yang win. Notably, Tusk’s commitment did not extend to the rest of the people at his companies, which will continue to lobby the next administration on behalf of their clients and the firms they have invested in. Tusk did promise to “go above and beyond the existing rules” in providing transparency into his firms’ work.

Yang’s liberal supporters likewise hope to have Yang’s ear should he become mayor. Two progressive backers of his campaign, state Assembly member Ron Kim and Brooklyn City Council member Carlos Menchaca, have said that they hope their endorsements will put them in a position to pull Yang to the left. “Because I have his ear and trust, if he does become elected, I can help move him toward confronting inequality,” Kim told New York. Menchaca, who ended his own bid for mayor before backing Yang, told NY1 that he regularly speaks to the candidate in the hopes of moving him further to the left. On some issues that don’t affect business, they might prevail. But on economic questions, they could run up against Tusk’s influence and Yang’s business-friendly inclinations.

What scares New York’s professional activist community is not just Yang’s corporate and tech alignment—its that the city’s liberal voters might elect him. This year, New York will use ranked-choice voting for the first time. Among the 13-candidate Democratic field, voters will pick their favorite and then rank four alternate choices. Candidates with less backing will get eliminated from the contest, with their supporters’ votes reallocated to stronger-performing contenders. The candidate who eventually receives the most votes will win the primary—and will likely go on to be mayor of the heavily Democratic city. Yang entered the field as a well known candidate and remained atop the polls for months. In recent weeks, however, some polls have shown him sliding into second place—though the electoral system and the large number of undecided voters make the outcome unpredictable.

“The biggest problem that we saw was that there are a lot of progressive voters who shared a lot of progressive policy positions, who were maybe not first-choice Andrew Yang, but were looking at him as a second or third choice,” says Tobias, speaking of both anecdotal evidence from progressive groups and polling his group commissioned from Data for Progress. “Because they just don’t really know what he stands for. They sort of remember him from the presidential primary last year, he’s kind of a happy-go-lucky guy.”

But a Yang victory wouldn’t just be based on his ability to appeal to others. His closest competitor at the moment, Eric Adams, is likewise seen as a centrist, running on a platform that stresses public safety. Stringer, the city’s current comptroller, appears to be the best positioned progressive, despite the sexual assault allegation. Should Yang or Adams win, liberals will have to look at their own failings to put up a strong candidate and to work together in the context of ranked-choice voting.

A Yang triumph would be particularly painful for the left in light of its recent successes at the ballot box. “Reality is we have won a more progressive New York,” says Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director of Vocal-NY, which advocates on behalf of those affected by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, and homelessness. “So no candidate can be viable and run on as conservative of politics as Michael Bloomberg did. So everyone has to adopt the public perception of more progressive politics.”

Yang’s candidacy does have echoes of Bloomberg, the tough-on-crime mayor who preceded de Blasio. “Bloomberg tried to present himself as a doer and an innovator who’s going to be really effective,” says Saunders. Yang, too, presents himself this way. But to progressives, Bloomberg meant something very different. “We look back on massive gentrification and lack of affordability in housing, spiking homelessness, police abuse in the form of stop and frisk, and making our city the global capital in marijuana arrests,” Saunders laments. 

Others invoke an even less flattering analogy. “Trump was the business guy with no experience who is the outsider who can promise miraculous improvements,” says Sikora of New York Communities for Change. “He used the kind of words and phrases that appeal to the Republican base. Andrew Yang is doing that. He’s the no-experience, doesn’t-know-what-he’s-doing, winsome personality using the words and phrases that can appeal to Democrats.”

“He knows nothing in any deep way about city government,” adds Sikora, noting that Yang didn’t even vote in the last five New York mayoral elections. “Yet he has crowned himself someone who ought to be installed as mayor of New York. I mean, it was ridiculous when he ran for president, and it’s ridiculous running for mayor, as well.” 

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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