Ray McGuire (photo: McGuire compaign)
[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]
Ray McGuire has a good story to pitch to New Yorkers. His rags-to-riches journey of growing up poor in Ohio, working hard and getting a few breaks to eventually become one the few top Black executives on Wall Street made for a compelling narrative for a candidate for mayor. He could lend his business acumen and global banking experience to the task of governing New York City, particularly at a time of fiscal and economic crisis. He could blend his lived and work experience -- both “what I’ve done” and “who I am,” as he says -- to speak to New Yorkers of all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and aspirations.
But McGuire’s campaign has failed to make a mark even as he and his donors pour millions of dollars into what is looking like a doomed effort to go from virtual unknown to mayor in one campaign.
McGuire, the former vice chairman of Citigroup, may serve as little more than a cautionary tale as he has sought to run as a business-friendly candidate focused on economic revitalization and growth, racial justice, and education, with moderate positions and heavy emphasis on his private-sector resume. His own success in persevering despite structural racism in his upbringing and then the financial industry may endear him to some number of moderate voters, especially Black homeowners in Southeast Queens, for example, but his four-decade career with Citigroup and work with clients such as Koch Industries is unlikely to earn him any plaudits among the city’s more liberal and progressive quarters. A campaign funded by wealthy corporate donors and his own personal wealth, and profiles that highlight his expensive art and literature collection in his residence on Central Park West set him well apart from a city where the median household income is barely $64,000 a year. As much as McGuire has sought to bridge that distance by telling his personal story and offering policies he believes are in the best interest of those struggling to get by and striving for social mobility, he has not been able to break through and has floundered in the public polling in low single digits.
With more moderate and centrist positions on crime and public safety, education, taxes, development, and more, McGuire has been running in the same vein as several other primary candidates like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia -- all of whom had major built-in advantages or got key endorsements that McGuire could not match. The progressive lane, meanwhile, has been occupied by the likes of former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales. Former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, the eighth candidate in the ‘top tier’ of the primary, has been somewhere in the middle of the ideological pack, and he and McGuire have often clashed at forums and debates.
McGuire’s executive experience doesn't compensate for a lack of a political constituency, and though he has had ties in communities of color and in business, the arts, and philanthropy, he had virtually no name recognition among voters to speak of when he started the campaign, putting him well behind candidates like Adams and Yang.
With just a few days to go before primary day, June 22, and with early voting in full swing and the final televised debate over, Adams, Garcia, Wiley, adn Yang appear to be the top four candidates in the race. McGuire, in poll after poll, has been at or near the bottom and hasn’t broken past single digits. Though he often breaks through with clarity during interviews, forums, and debates to talk about problems and some of his proposed solutions, McGuire has often shown a lack of depth on many issues and repeated broad talking points without supporting details. Though he appeared among other candidates at many of an endless stream of zoom forums in front of interest groups, clubs, and others, he often failed to speak knowledgeably about the topics at hand, indicative of his lack of experience with or in local government.
When McGuire announced his candidacy in December, he made clear his belief that his extensive background in business was the key to his campaign and his prospects for success if elected.
In many public appearances since then, he has explained that he would run the city in something of a business-like manner, emphasizing his economic plans first and foremost, pitching his management of major transactions and large budgets, and offering principles from the corporate world. In trying to get voters to take a chance on an unknown political quantity with extensive private sector and philanthropic experience, McGuire has attempted to blend his professional and personal stories, stressing his poor upbringing and the racism he has faced as a Black man, in the corporate world and beyond, including with the police. He is fond of talking about “what I have done” in regards to his work and “who I am” about his fuller life story, of which his business experience is a key piece but not the full puzzle.
McGuire worked at Citigroup for nearly four decades, starting in 1984. His expertise is in investment banking, for which he recruited and worked with clients worldwide, including governments and corporations. Before leaving the position to run for mayor, he had been Citigroup’s global head of investment banking and vice chairman for 15 years, which he says is the longest tenure anyone has had in the position. While at Citigroup, McGuire says he helped manage major deals and client budgets, and advised clients on how to grow their businesses, make tough decisions, and invest with a keen eye on the future.
During interviews and appearances, he has often referred to his management of roughly 50 client budgets, many “larger than some state budgets,” as his preparation to take the reins on New York City’s economic crisis, lead the sprawling and complicated government with its own nearly $100 billion annual operating budget, and kickstart his own initiatives.
“As someone who has been at the center of high stakes deals with enormous consequences, I can tell you this: to make this vision a reality, you need someone who can bring together people from all walks of life, who can unify the often warring factions and inspire them to focus on the bigger picture,” McGuire said in a February interview with Gotham Gazette. “That’s been the hallmark of my career and it will be the very centerpiece of my term serving you as your mayor.”
He has, for instance, repeatedly said it was a mistake to lose out on Amazon’s 'HQ2' satellite campus, which was projected to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the city, and has said he would have gotten the deal done right.
To this point, he released his economic recovery and jobs -- “The McGuire Comeback Plan” -- early on in his campaign, and it is the main focus of his pitch to voters as he promised “the biggest, most inclusive comeback this city has ever seen.” He is the candidate, he argues, who can truly accelerate the speed at which the city’s jobs and economy bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic, but with important improvements to help all New Yorkers, including workers and small business owners.
“It goes without saying that we find ourselves in unprecedented times,” McGuire said at a virtual campaign event about his economic plan in late January. “In New York, we have a pandemic that’s gripped our city more deeply than anywhere else in the world, an unparalleled economic crisis and a demand for racial justice that will not go unanswered. I am proud to share with New Yorkers my bold vision to stage the most inclusive economic recovery in New York City history, and that starts with this plan.”
The Comeback Plan — which McGuire said on the Max & Murphy podcast will be New York City’s largest-ever jobs creation program — is meant to bring back and otherwise create 500,000 jobs that were lost over the course of the pandemic. Half of these would be in small businesses, he says.
In order to pull this off, McGuire separates the plan into three categories: Go Big, Go Small and Go Forward, a mantra he has repeated in front of many audiences over the course of the last six months.
Go Small includes a city-financed wage subsidy to help small businesses by paying 50% of each of their employees’ salaries for a year, along with cutting red tape for business owners and creating a deputy mayor for small businesses.
The subsidy plan, which he calls the Comeback Job Excelerator, would be aimed at businesses that lost over 40% of their “total revenue compared to 2019 levels,” the Comeback Plan’s website explains.
Also included in Go Small are plans to allow small businesses to keep the city’s portion of their sales tax receipts for a year, with the expectation that the additional money gets put back into the business, potentially for the purpose of hiring more staff.
Go Small would also allow city permits and licenses to renew for a year without any fees, provide rent relief or forgiveness to small businesses, get small business owners relief on their utility bills, and set up a Red Tape Commission “to identify additional ways to reduce burdensome regulation and unnecessary costs and delays.”
For the Go Big portion of the plan, there is an infrastructure program that will create or bring back jobs relating to construction and maintenance. This includes conducting renovations on bridges, subway stations and elevators, tunnels, and roads, as he explained in an interview on NY1’s You Decide with Errol Louis podcast, in addition to building more and fixing up existing affordable housing buildings.
The infrastructure program also incorporates sustainability, with plans to accelerate the installation of resilient infrastructure, solar panels, green roofs, and charging stations for electric cars. The idea is that these new initiatives would create a need for more workers, and thus more jobs.
Another large part of the plan is to start up the “NYC Comeback Festival,” which would kick off in spring 2022. This is meant to be a yearlong effort to revitalize the arts and culture and hospitality sectors of the economy, including tourism, by bringing in and promoting venues, galleries, performance stages, parks, bars, and restaurants.
When it comes to Go Forward, the plan discusses ensuring minority- and woman-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) get treated equitably by the city, building “the most inclusive and innovative workforce training system in the world,” fixing the property tax system, and making affordable child care more accessible.
“My plan gives a lifeline to everyone who is working, who is looking for a job and can’t find one, regardless of the type of work,” McGuire said.
“He has a lot of diversity in his appeal,” said Tyquana Henderson-Rivers, the campaign’s political director, in a phone interview, “given his policy chops, particularly around the economy, knowing how to create jobs, and understanding what it's like to manage big staffs and big budgets. People get that. One thing that people don't question is his ability to do the job.”
While many see McGuire’s successful Wall Street background as a strength and like his economic comeback plans, others view his resume with great skepticism, doubt his approach to the city’s revitalization, and question his campaign donors.
“He was never a serious candidate for the race, because he comes from Citibank. It seems highly unlikely that New Yorkers are gonna elect a Wall Street banker to become mayor,” said Charles Khan from Our City PAC, a political action committee formed to promote progressive candidates in this year’s election.
CNBC reported earlier this year that McGuire’s campaign has been in large part financed by wealthy business leaders, including well-known Republicans, presumably thanks to his close ties to Wall Street and large corporations. McGuire was the only candidate in the top tier who declined to participate in the city’s public campaign financing program. He said it was because he didn’t need to take any public money, especially at a time of fiscal hardship. His campaign was thus able to accept larger individual donations than those being accepted by all other top-tier Democrats but Donovan, and McGuire has taken in $5.9 million in max contributions of $5,100 and raised nearly $12 million (including $2 million loaned from McGuire’s own money and a $1 million personal gift to his campaign) and has blown past $10.5 million in spending. More than $4.3 million of the money he raised came from people who aren’t residents of New York City.
While other candidates have put more attention on small-dollar contributions from constituents, McGuire has received the maximum allowed from both of his campaign co-chairs of finance, Kirkland & Ellis partner and corporate restructuring attorney Jon Henes and New York Giants co-owner Laurie Tisch, and many others. Thanks to his high rate of fundraising, the Campaign Finance Board raised the spending cap for the primary election from $7.3 million to $10.9 million.
McGuire’s elitist image deepened when The New York Times’ editorial board mayoral endorsement interview transcripts were released. Asked, as other candidates were, if he knew the median sales price for a home or apartment in Brooklyn, which is about $900,000, he guessed $80,000 to $90,000. He later simply called it a bad moment and said of course he has a better grasp of real estate prices than he showed.
While McGuire is running on his Wall Street success, there are specific elements to his work that may be problematic for many Democratic voters. During his time at Citigroup, McGuire had Koch Industries, which used its immense wealth to back conservative causes and candidates, as a client, The New York Daily News reported. City Limits reported that McGuire’s work at Citigroup caused thousands of layoffs from mergers he facilitated. In one particular case — when McGuire’s client, Kraft Foods, purchased Nabisco — 7,500 workers were laid off in one shot nationwide.
McGuire has been repeatedly asked if he is a Bloomberg-esque figure, with some obvious differences, trying to make a similar leap from the business world to City Hall. He largely chafes at the question.
Part of what McGuire typically points to in answering is his lived experience, growing up poor and Black “on the other-other side of the tracks” in Ohio, and often being the only Black person in many corporate settings as he ascended the ranks, other than some of the talent he made a point to hire and help.
New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay asked McGuire about the comparison.
“And in a world where the demands are greater and the divide is broader, I would make sure that we brought the city together differently than how Michael brought it together,” McGuire said in response to Gay’s question, according to the transcript of the editorial board endorsement process interview. “But I think he was very effective in leadership. I’ll be equally effective in leadership and management and bringing the city together. I’ve done that. I know how to do that. I’ve done a lifetime of that, especially in the midst of one of the greatest financial crises that we’ve had.”
He also told Louis that he plans to bring his skills of strategic logic and management, which he generated over his 36-year business career, to the role of mayor, recalling Bloomberg’s business-like style to running the city.
When asked by the hosts of the FAQ NYC podcast about being referred to as “the Black Bloomberg,” McGuire said that he resents that, being that he’s had different lived experiences from the former mayor and that it’s been one of his goals throughout his career to bring more Black people into business, and would be for city government too.
McGuire has been endorsed by several Democrats from Southeast Queens including U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, who chairs the Queens Democratic Party, state Senator Leroy Comrie, and Assemblymember Vivian Cook; as well as Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez; former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel; and police reform activist Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner. There are also a slew of celebrities backing him including director Spike Lee, actors Samuel L. Jackson and Steve Martin, rappers and producers Diddy, LL Cool J, Nas, Jay-Z, and Rev. Run, former New York Giants player Tiki Barber, and former New York Knicks players Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley.
Though that list displays a broad popularity among prominent figures for his nontraditional campaign, it also indicates McGuire’s weakness in being able to pull support from the traditional power brokers in the city. He has, for instance, no union endorsements and has been ranked third in endorsements by The Chief-Leader, The New York Daily News, and the Sephardic Community Federation.
Beyond his economic plan and business background, McGuire also has plans for education and public safety — the other two pillars of his campaign.
When it comes to these topics, it is not uncommon for him to reference his childhood. The three-time Harvard University graduate grew up in Dayton, Ohio being raised by a single mother and his grandparents with his two older brothers and six foster siblings.
He credits his education in both Dayton and New England with getting him to where he is today. If his business experience has “uniquely prepared” him for the high stakes economic aspects of being mayor, McGuire believes his life story has prepared him for the rest.
“I think once New Yorkers understand how it is that I got the opportunity — through education — and without that somebody else would be talking to you today, that’s going to be a top priority,” he said on the Max & Murphy podcast in December.
“My mission is simple,” McGuire said. “I want to be mayor for the greatest, most inclusive comeback this city has ever seen. I believe that I am a candidate who meets this moment on every level.”
Political observers, however, say the moment has left McGuire behind.
“McGuire's problem is his strategic approach was to create a coalition between outer borough Black voters and outer borough white ethnics,” said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in a phone interview. “So you would find Black voters would take pride in his achievement and feel he could do a great job. The white ethnics would say ‘We want a businessman to do this.’ That was his potential strength.”
But, Gyory noted, McGuire was aiming for the same coalition as Adams, who has a career in public service and has spent his last two terms building relationships in those very constituencies. Adams also laid a more pronounced emphasis on tackling crime and public safety, which is near or at the top of issues for primary voters according to polls, while McGuire has been hammering home his plan for job creation and economic recovery. “Functionally Adams put together around crime, the coalition that McGuire did and he's been edged out of it,” he added.
“He has to be the prototypical business type to win,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant, in a phone interview. “But the last prototypical business type was Mike Bloomberg who wasn’t prototypical at all because he had a deep involvement in the city. Ray McGuire didn’t. So McGuire's campaign will be looked at in short as one that was a good idea, but was badly executed.”
[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]