Kathryn Garcia at City Hall (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]
Kathryn Garcia has spent well over a decade serving New York City at the top ranks of municipal government and has built a reputation as a crisis manager. Resigning last year from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, where she headed the Department of Sanitation among several other roles, she is now running to replace him in a crowded Democratic primary field competing in the June election. Though she has a great deal of administrative and management experience, knows city government inside and out, and has a detailed vision for the future of the city, Garcia’s candidacy hasn’t yet broken through to primary voters.
Lacking crucial name recognition -- she’s never run for elected office before -- and with relatively limited campaign resources, Garcia has registered in the low single digits in the available polling, though those surveys also show that a large portion of the electorate is undecided and it appears many voters have yet to really tune into the race.
The challenge Garcia faces in the final weeks of the campaign before the June vote is introducing herself to the majority of the electorate, spending the not-insignificant funding she does have most efficiently, making the most of high-profile opportunities like the televised debates, and convincing enough New Yorkers who may not have previously heard of her that her resume and vision, her substance-over-style approach and track record make her the best candidate to be the next mayor of New York City.
Many of Garcia’s strengths and weaknesses in the race are the result of her resume: she’s had her head down helping to run city government, not developing a donor network. She’s offering voters a promise to make city government work better and provide crucial services more effectively, all in the service of making the city more livable. But to govern she has to do politics.
To win the primary, which is all but certain to determine the ultimate winner given the city’s enormous Democratic enrollment imbalance, and become the first woman elected Mayor of New York City, Garcia will have to overcome a bevvy of challenges and roadblocks, including her lack of name recognition and prior donor network, as well as sexism and the fact that there can be a great chasm between what matters in running government well and what wins elections.
As she has taken her lunch-pail approach to the mayoral campaign, Garcia is essentially trying to convince voters that, given her experience, knowledge, and vision, this unknown quantity is actually the most sure thing imaginable. As Garcia is fond of saying to voters on the campaign trail: "You may not know my name, but you know my work."
Garcia served as de Blasio’s sanitation commissioner from March 2014 till September last year, when she quit her position citing the mayor’s cuts to her department and his threat of laying off thousands of workers amid the pandemic, and with at least one eye on running to replace him. “If, as is often said, budgets are a statement of values, my values require me to resign in the face of these cuts, which will harm New Yorkers,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
She later explained that the pandemic also spurred her decision to run for mayor. “I am not sure that I would have gotten in if I didn't think the city needed a crisis manager at this point who would be really focused on core services for city residents,” she said in a September 16 interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits.
As sanitation chief, Garcia oversaw the world’s largest sanitation department, with a budget of more than $2 billion and more than 10,000 workers who are tasked with collecting the city’s refuse, clearing its streets of snow and litter, and keeping its public spaces clean. The mayor also gave Garcia several other important roles while she was in charge of sanitation, including interim chair of the public housing authority and covid emergency food czar, among still others.
Prior, from 2007 till 2014, Garcia worked at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, eventually rising to chief operating officer and supervising 4,000 workers at the Bureaus of Water Supply, Water and Sewer Operations, and Wastewater, with a combined operating budget of $540 million. She had spent the previous ten years as vice president of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit consulting and advocacy firm.
In the primary, which will utilize ranked-choice voting for the first time citywide, Garcia is solidly in the top tier of eight candidates, but, in terms of money, name recognition, and polling, clearly in the second half of that pack. In a recent poll from NY1/Ipsos, entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang continued front-running with 22%, while Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley occupied the next three spots, respectively. After that came former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, all ahead of Garcia, who was last of the eight with just 4%. Still, 26% of those polled were undecided and there is little indication of how strong the loyalties are among those who did choose someone. Most experts watching the race recognize Yang and Adams as especially formidable but that it is wide open, fluid, and hard to predict.
Key questions for the home stretch include how closely voters will look at the candidates and what exactly will move them when they do pay closer mind to a deeply consequential election.
“We need a mayor who knows where the light switches are at City Hall on day one. Kathryn brings the most experience in this race in solving city-wide crises and delivering core services to New Yorkers,” said Lindsey Green, a spokesperson for Garcia’s campaign. “Kathryn's vision for the City is innovative and actionable and will make New York City more liveable, more equitable, and more affordable. As we face the urgent priority of recovery, New Yorkers need a mayor who can lead people, cut through red tape, and get things done. This is what Kathryn Garcia does.”
From her first job in city government as a policy analyst at the Department of Finance to her latest stint, Garcia has served the city and learned what does and doesn’t work in its government. Those jobs, undergirding the functions of the city and the quality of life of its people, aren’t public facing like, say, being the city’s comptroller or a borough president, running for president or appearing regularly on a major cable news network. That work doesn’t build a voter base or set up a fundraising apparatus. But it’s a record to run on.
“I'm not as razzle-dazzle perhaps as some folks in the race but I actually also think that what resonates with New Yorkers right now is really about competence and is really like, ‘Tell me, like, what your vision is, but make sure that I understand that you can do the job,’” Garcia said in a February 3 appearance on the FAQ NYC podcast.
“I feel like New Yorkers right now are really looking for clear vision and a clear articulation and confidence that you know how to get work done, that you understand that they don't want a lot of fluff,” she added. “‘Tell me how my kids are going to go to school. Tell me how my garbage is going to get picked up. Tell me how I'm going to be safe in my neighborhood. Don't add a lot of extra words. Just get that done for me, and then I will be happy. I'm scared.’ And that's the thing that I get from the public: ‘I'm scared about the future. Tell me why I shouldn't be scared.’”
Whether Garcia is right about the electorate is to be seen, of course, but she has been traversing the city, meeting with civic groups and community leaders, and appearing at an endless stream of online forums to answer questions from every club and organization that wants to hear from the candidates. At those forums, she displays a depth of knowledge about city government, services, and issues beyond the other candidates, and offers, in sum, the most specific and definitive set of answers, whether they are what the host groups want to hear or not. That is also part of the Garcia appeal, at least to the many who have been watching the race closely and impressed by her: that she doesn’t pander or kowtow, she’s a straight shooter with confidence in her convictions — and data — but also more than willing to listen, learn, and compromise.
“We have an embarrassment of riches in this field in a lot of ways and we have a lot of really good, experienced, seasoned candidates who have either direct significant leadership experience in government, in officeholding, in the private sector, or in the nonprofit sector,” said Neal Kwatra of Metropolitan Public Strategies. “And I think people like Kathryn and Dianne in particular are the best of what the city has to offer in a lot of ways in terms of their careers and what they've done for the city of New York.”
Since her exit from the de Blasio administration, Garcia has distanced herself from the mayor and turned sharp critic of his management, noting how she was so often called on to fix his messes. She was the mayor’s go-to when faced with several crises. When young children were being exposed to lead paint across the city, he made her the “lead czar” to mitigate the problem. When the New York City Housing Authority’s compounding fiscal and management scandals were causing him headaches, he named her the interim chair and CEO. When New Yorkers were in danger of going hungry during the pandemic, he designated her as the emergency “food czar” to organize and oversee the distribution of more than a million meals each day.
On the Max & Murphy podcast, Garcia outlined how her approach differs from the mayor and why he turned to her in times of emergency. “I am incredibly good at creating very effective teams that really maximize a lot of people's talents,” she said. “There is not infighting on things that I work on. And the second thing is, I'm extremely clear about my expectations and I'm extremely clear about the fact that I expect accountability. You need to produce.”
While de Blasio earned a reputation for micromanaging his underlings and undercutting or ignoring their advice, Garcia said she keeps an open mind. “I'm open to hearing you know, other ideas. I'm not dictatorial,” she said. “I do want to hear from people. I don't assume I'm necessarily the smartest person in the room on every topic. But after we have the airing of what you think might be a good way to go, we make a decision, we move on and we execute.”
Those who have worked with her and seen her command those various roles believe that she has the strongest case to make for taking charge at City Hall as mayor. But she faces an uphill climb as a first-time candidate for elected office.
“There's nobody who benefits more from more people starting to pay attention to this race than Commissioner Garcia,” said Joshua Goodman, who is assistant commissioner for public affairs at the Department of Sanitation but was speaking in his personal capacity. “All the things that you've heard about her, all the cliches of ‘She just gets it done’ and ‘She knows the city better than anybody,’ I mean, they're just all true,” he said.
Calling Garcia “the best boss” he has had in his 15 years of working in politics around the country, Goodman recounted flanking Garcia at the height of the pandemic, as she ensured the success of the city’s food distribution program. “When things got harder than we've ever seen them in the city and certainly in my lifetime and in many lifetimes, I knew where she was,” he added.
Goodman pointed out that some conversation around the mayoral race is about ‘making the city fun again’ and ignores that the pandemic and its resulting crises are not a thing of the past yet. “It's not right to say we're all in the same boat, it's better to say we're all in the same storm,” he said. “Some of us are in a life raft and some of us are in a yacht. And the problems are the same and I appreciate her commitment to really going at the problems that are thought of as the most intractable.”
He also doesn’t believe that Garcia will overpromise and underdeliver, and noted her un-politician-like tendency to be real and realistic with people. “It would be so much easier for her if she were the kind of person who just says, ‘I'm gonna come up with this incredible solution.’ But she's just out there telling people the truth of what she's going to do and so that's a challenge because it's not what people are used to from their leaders, but I hope it's what people will want this year,” he said.
“It's so hard to imagine that you could run this city without ever running something inside the city first or a bunch of things or like a bunch of very big things or like a bunch of very broken things,” said a City Hall aide who worked closely with Garcia but wished to remain unnamed. “And she's seen the whole breadth of it.”
The aide also noted that Garcia’s lack of a political constituency isn’t necessarily a weakness. “It's funny because nobody ever said that about Bloomberg. Where was his political constituency besides, like, rich people?” they said. “But people still were like, ‘Well it doesn't really matter because being a really good manager transcends politics.”
Of course, Bloomberg had advantages of name recognition and, more importantly, tens of millions of dollars to spend that Garcia does not have.
“Kathryn has a lot of really fantastic qualities that make her a terrific candidate for mayor. She has spent a huge amount of her career actually in the trenches, tackling the day-to-day problems and solution building and solution finding to the stuff that actually makes the city work,” said Alicia Glen, former deputy mayor for housing and economic development under de Blasio who now runs MSquared, a real estate development investment firm. “It hasn't always been like the most sexy, sexy stuff but mayors and candidates can't just talk about all of these theoretical ideas and all of these sort-of wish lists of what the world's greatest city should look like without having some understanding about what's possible.”
“Kathryn is somebody who can really bridge between just a pure-play, nitty-gritty, operations and bureaucratic person to somebody who also understands the bigger picture, but is also not going to just make empty promises and say crazy shit,” added Glen, who has donated to and fundraised for Garcia. “And a lot of people just say crazy shit because they don't actually understand how the machine works and the machine is really complicated. This is an enormous, enormous operation. And in order to attain really lofty and exciting and more sexy goals, you have to know how to move the machine and work the machine. And so I think that she is, of all of the candidates, the person who has the most experience in both the beauty and the beast of trying to make the city move.”
As Glen pointed out, Garcia’s accomplishments aren’t necessarily always headline-grabbing but they improve how the city works. She collaborated with the City Council to overhaul the private trash hauling industry and create commercial waste zones, projected to cut garbage truck traffic by half by some estimates, fostering greater environmental justice and street safety. She advanced the city’s efforts to create a curbside organics recycling pickup program, though that was temporarily paused because of the pandemic, and established a pilot “containerization” program to use sealed bins to collect trash. Both programs have seen slow rollouts under this administration, though it’s unclear who is to blame, and Garcia has promised to expand them if she becomes mayor.
The one high-profile time that Garcia seemed to fail on the job, mishandling the response to a massive snowstorm in November 2018, it does appear to have been largely due to an especially faulty weather forecast.
Garcia has fashioned her candidacy as less ideological and more about moving the city in a progressive direction while ensuring good basic services, including public safety, preparing for climate change, and making smart advancements on housing and transit. Along with her sweeping resiliency and green future plans, she's running on proposals like creating a single city permit for small businesses. Candidates like Stringer, Morales, Wiley, and Donovan are running to varying degrees in the progressive lane while Garcia hews closer to the likes of Adams, McGuire and Yang, the more moderate contenders in the field.
“I think we need somebody who, again, really understands how government works and also can bring a lot of really disparate interest groups to the table,” Glen said. “Let's face it, politics has gotten pretty toxic and very confrontational now...It's sort of ironic we're more a tale of two cities than we were before we allegedly were doing something about a tale of two cities...We sort of find ourselves maybe in a place that's even more bifurcated than it was. She is somebody who I think can cut through a lot of the political bullshit and really reach across the aisle because she's not an ideologue. She's a New Yorker first and a manager a second.”
Garcia has been endorsed by all the unions that she worked with at the Department of Sanitation including Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association Teamsters Local 831, Service Employees International Union Local 246, Teamsters Local 813, The Sanitation Officers Association SEIU Local 444 and the Uniformed Sanitation Chiefs Association. That show of support from those who worked with her most closely has been telling to many observers. Nonetheless, Garcia has struggled to attract other endorsers in the major categories of labor, elected officials, clubs, and activist groups, though she picked up an endorsement this past weekend from Upper West Side Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell. And she has been backed as the number two choice under ranked-choice voting by State Senator Diane Savino and then-City Council Member Costa Constantinides.
Garcia has surprised some with the strength of her fundraising, albeit still lagging several of the top tier candidates. But she recently received an infusion of public funds that will help her compete in the coming weeks. As of April 15, she had about $2.7 million in campaign cash, about the same amount as Wiley and Morales and ahead of Donovan. But the leading candidates far surpass those numbers. Adams had more than $7.8 million, Stringer had $7.4 million, Yang had just above $5 million and McGuire had $3.6 million.
“She obviously got into the race late and faces the problems that all face [during Covid] who are not well known to the public,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, and a Garcia donor. “In-person campaigning has been almost impossible and as a result, it's pretty hard to introduce yourself to the public through Zoom activities and the media, as opposed to in-person events. So I think that's a disadvantage for anybody who...hasn’t been in elective office before or run for elective office before.”
But, at the same time, Wylde said that the pandemic has made New Yorkers more eager to see the city helmed by a competent executive. “Kathryn is a very effective manager and I think New Yorkers are anxious to see good management of the city and its agencies,” she said. “I think there's a renewed appreciation for professionalism as opposed to politics in city government as a result of some of the particularly quality-of-life issues that have emerged during the pandemic. And Kathryn makes a convincing case that she's particularly qualified to provide the kind of management that the city needs.”
Though New York has never elected a woman to the top post, some observers believe that gender will not be a major factor in this election, or could even be an advantage — and one that may increase as Stringer loses a large number of his many endorsements based on sexual misconduct allegations. The Democratic field is the most diverse it has ever been and besides Garcia, who is white, there are two other women running – Wiley, who is Black, and Morales, who is Afro-Latina.
“New York is tough on women in leadership positions but at this point, I don't think gender is a disadvantage. At this point, people are ready for change,” Wylde said (in the interview, conducted before the Stringer allegations surfaced).
“Gender is a strength right now in this particular election cycle,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant, who said (also before the Stinger allegations) that political dynamics have shifted nationally, not just in the city. He credited women of color across the country and particularly Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist and former member of the Georgia House of Representatives who unsuccessfully ran for governor in her state, with lending strength and significance to women candidates everywhere and diminishing bias even within the Democratic Party.
Sheinkopf praised Garcia’s record of administrative experience, echoing what others have said. “If the question gets down to who can run the city, she has a reasonable argument to make, because she's run line departments and she understands how they function and she understands supervising people who work for the city,” he said.
Garcia has, for example, pitched herself as ready and able to reform the police department culture because she ran the sanitation department, another uniformed agency but one even more male-dominated, and knows how to establish systems of accountability.
But Sheinkopf noted that commissioners who have run for elected office in the past have tended to fail and that Garcia isn’t the only candidate who can make the pitch of having been a manager. For instance, McGuire has managed billions of dollars on Wall Street as one of the top executives at Citibank; Donovan has managed the federal housing department and budget office; Adams has been an NYPD captain and run the Brooklyn Borough President’s office for two terms; and Stringer has supervised 800 employees at the comptroller’s office for two terms and overseen the nearly $251 billion city pension system.
“She has no political context...The presumption is that people will elect someone who has had no political experience of any kind, whether as an elected official or a candidate,” Sheinkopf said. “She starts with absolutely no significant self-directed or self-created...or earned name identification of any kind. She does not appear to have a geographic base and thus raising money becomes difficult.”
One key question for Garcia, among others, is how many times the larger narrative of the race — long-focused on Yang’s apparent strength (and, now, Stringer’s troubles) — will shift in its final weeks. Among the set of political insiders who have been closely following the mayoral race for months, there is often high praise for Garcia, and a push for more media attention, which may be coming, in part because Yang has repeatedly said he’d like to hire Garcia in his administration, a pattern that helped lead to a weekend Garcia profile in The New Yorker, in which she called it “totally sexist” and told him to stop saying it.
The day after that profile landed, Garcia was appearing with Paperboy Love Prince, a music artist and fellow mayoral candidate, to take shaving cream pies to the face at a fundraiser to combat food insecurity, an opportunity for Garcia to highlight her anti-hunger work as well as her lighter side, and, perhaps, build more buzz around her candidacy.
[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]
Ben Max contributed to this article.