As much of New York City was consumed by the presidential election, a campaign for another critical race was already underway.
Several mayoral candidates made a pilgrimage to Richard Ravitch, seeking his support and advice on confronting the city’s economic crisis. Mr. Ravitch, who helped save the city from bankruptcy in the 1970s, has made no endorsement, but Raymond J. McGuire, a Citigroup executive, seemed to have the inside track.
Many more mayoral hopefuls are barraging labor leaders for their support, with one key union already committed: Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, landed an early endorsement from a union representing 45,000 retail workers.
Nearly a dozen Democratic candidates are set to compete in June’s mayoral primary, a free-for-all that may be the city’s most consequential in a generation.
The next mayor will confront enormous challenges in guiding the city out of the pandemic, and battling an economic crisis that has ravaged the city’s finances and left more than a half-million residents out of work.
The race has already been transformed by the coronavirus and massive Black Lives Matter protests this year. Now the city is struggling to fend off a second wave of the virus, with schools closed again and further shutdowns threatened.
For voters, the contest may boil down to a test of priorities: Do they want a mayor best suited to advance the city’s embrace of progressive policies, or someone best qualified to confront its dire economic concerns?
It will be only the fourth time in roughly a half century that the ballot will not include an incumbent mayor seeking re-election: Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is in his seventh year in office, is barred by term limits from running again.
Several candidates have worked in the de Blasio administration, yet the mayor’s residual unpopularity has given rise to an unusual trend: Most mayoral hopefuls are not necessarily running to the left or right of him, but just far, far away.
At a recent forum for mayoral candidates, almost all the candidates said they would not accept Mr. de Blasio’s endorsement.
Three candidates are women who worked in Mr. de Blasio’s administration and are critical of their former boss — Maya Wiley, who served as his lawyer; Loree K. Sutton, who ran the Department of Veterans’ Services; and Kathryn Garcia, who recently stepped down as sanitation commissioner.
“I saw firsthand a mayor who was unprepared to deal with this crisis, who responds to headlines and who made budget cuts that hurt our city,” Ms. Garcia said at the forum.
Ms. Garcia and Mr. Stringer are both pitching themselves as proven managers who can get the city back on track. For Mr. Stringer, a motto has emerged: “I’m going to manage the hell out of this city!”
Like the open elections that brought Michael R. Bloomberg into office in 2001 and Abraham Beame in 1973, the city is facing a fiscal crisis. Mr. de Blasio has said he might lay off 22,000 workers if the city cannot secure federal stimulus money or long-term borrowing capacity from state lawmakers.
“The person who emerges in this campaign will have the toughest job that I can remember,” said Sid Davidoff, a former aide to Mayor John V. Lindsay who has worked in and around city government since the 1970s.
While the general election will take place next November, the primary is likely to decide the winner in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than six to one. And with several prominent women and Black candidates in the race, voters could elect the city’s first female mayor or only the second Black mayor.
A recent birthday celebration for the Rev. Al Sharpton became a must-attend event, with at least five Democratic mayoral hopefuls visiting Harlem to pay their respects. Three were Black candidates: Ms. Wiley, Mr. McGuire and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who officially launched his mayoral campaign on Wednesday.
Six months ago, Mr. Adams, Mr. Stringer and a third candidate, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, were considered the early favorites to become mayor. Mr. Johnson has since dropped his mayoral bid after facing criticism over his handling of budget cuts for the police.
He has, however, emerged as a popular adviser: Since his exit from the race, Mr. Johnson has met with several candidates, including Ms. Wiley in Midtown Manhattan and Mr. McGuire in TriBeCa, and Shaun Donovan, a former housing secretary under President Barack Obama. Mr. Donovan and Mr. Johnson spoke about their Irish heritage, and Mr. Donovan asked Mr. Johnson, who is gay, about outreach to L.G.B.T.Q. voters.
Most of the mayoral hopefuls are currently focused on raising money, securing endorsements, establishing their progressive bona fides, and trying to convince voters that they have the ability to steer the city out of the economic crisis.
Mr. McGuire’s campaign has received $2 million since he announced his departure from Citigroup to prepare for a long-rumored run. He is thought to have support from some of the business community, and is looking to widen his base.
“I was impressed by his intelligence, his eagerness to learn and his acknowledgment about what he didn’t know,” Mr. Ravitch said in a recent interview, adding that of the crop of mayoral candidates, he believed that Mr. McGuire was the best suited to revive the city’s economy.
Mr. Ravitch connected Mr. McGuire to Vincent Alvarez, a key union leader, and Andrew Rein, a prominent budget expert, and has been sending him a barrage of budget documents.
Like other candidates, Mr. McGuire’s fund-raising efforts have been done virtually; one such event was attended by Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader, investment banker, lawyer and political power broker, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University. Donors include the former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and the philanthropist Laurie M. Tisch.
But while Mr. McGuire’s business background may win some votes, it may not play as well with progressive-minded Democrats who are looking to expand on a vision for the city that they believe Mr. de Blasio failed to deliver.
If not for the pandemic, the mayor’s race would likely have been a contest of progressive ideals, as many recent New York City elections, from House races to legislative contests, have been won by progressive-minded candidates like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman, who each defeated longtime Democratic incumbents in the primary.
That Democratic faction has also secured several major victories in New York in recent years, including killing a deal to bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens, and scuttling a proposal to rezone Industry City in Brooklyn.
Many of the candidates are still vying to be the choice of progressive voters. Mr. Stringer has announced a string of endorsements from rising stars in the party and has pledged not to take donations from the real estate industry — a group he once relied on.
Ms. Wiley is also expected to be a popular choice among left-leaning voters; her work as a political analyst on MSNBC has made her a celebrity among the network’s viewership, an important demographic in a Democratic primary in New York. She is also a civil rights lawyer whose father was a well-known civil rights leader.
External factors may yet change the race’s dynamics, including when a coronavirus vaccine might get developed and distributed, and when a sense of normalcy begins to return to the city.
So, too, may a new voting mechanism: The use of ranked-choice voting, which will, for the first time in a mayoral election in New York, allow voters to choose a first, second and third choice.
If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those who marked that candidate as their first choice get their second choice counted instead. That process continues until a candidate emerges with a majority.
“I must get three calls a week from smart people who still can’t figure out how it works,” Mr. Davidoff, who is now a prominent lobbyist, said of ranked-choice voting.
Some candidates are incorporating ranked-choice voting into their strategy. Mr. Donovan is highlighting his connection to the former president to demonstrate his viability as a potential top three candidate.
“Shaun’s broad appeal makes him a natural second and third choice for voters, even when they are already committed to another candidate,” according to an “electability” slide show making the rounds.
Mr. Adams, a former police officer, has focused on criminal justice issues and exhibits a work ethic that many find lacking in Mr. de Blasio. Mr. Adams slept on a mattress at his office for months during the pandemic and recently held a “Back to Work” subway ride to encourage New Yorkers to return to the transit system.
In his campaign launch video, Mr. Adams stood outside a police station in Queens where he said that as a teenager, he was once arrested and then beaten by an officer. He said he joined the police force to fight “systemic racism from within,” and vowed as mayor to focus on public safety and the city’s recovery.
“With the right leadership, we will rise up again,” he said.
Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive who wants to defund the police, and Carlos Menchaca, a Brooklyn councilman known for killing the Industry City rezoning, say they are also focused on regular New Yorkers.
“It is my lived experiences as a single mother, my lived experiences as a woman of color, my lived experiences as a first-generation college graduate,” Ms. Morales said in an interview. “Those are the people that I think this campaign is resonating with.”
The candidates must also navigate new fund-raising rules. Mr. de Blasio fought for changes that lowered maximum contributions from $5,100 to $2,000, but increased the power of small-dollar donations, which are now matched eight to one for the first $250 given to a campaign by a New York City resident.
Some candidates like Mr. Donovan have chosen to run under the old system. Mr. Donovan raised about $670,000 during the first half of the year, including donations from key real estate figures like Rafael Cestero and Daniel Brodsky, and Obama administration veterans like Anthony Foxx, Mr. Obama’s transportation secretary, and Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of Homeland Security. Mr. Adams and Mr. Stringer are using the new system and had more than $2 million available in July, according to campaign filings.
More candidates could still jump in. The latest entrant is Zach Iscol, a former Marine whose family has ties to the Clintons; Arthur Chang, a J.P. Morgan executive who led NYC Votes, the Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach program, has created a mayoral campaign fund.
A more familiar name may lurk: Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who now runs a homeless services organization, is also seriously considering a run, according to a friend who was not authorized to publicly discuss her plans.
Ms. Quinn was an early front-runner in 2013 and won the support of two powerful unions — Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Trades Council — while Mr. de Blasio had the backing of Local 1199.
Since the summer, the current and former leaders of the hotel union, Richard Maroko and Peter Ward, have met with Mr. Stringer, Mr. Adams and Ms. Wiley over lunch, via videoconference and at the union’s 44th Street headquarters, according to someone involved in the union’s deliberations. The union has yet to make an endorsement.
Mr. Stringer was recently endorsed by the retail workers’ union at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square. The union’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, said the race was the most important in decades.
“We have to get it right,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “Our city is hurting.”