Seth Barron joins Brian Anderson to discuss the 2021 New York City mayoral election, the implications of down-ballot races, and the city’s recent history—as told in Seth’s just-released book, The Last Days of New York.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is an old friend, Seth Barron. Not so long ago, Seth was an associate editor of City Journal. He was a frequent guest host of this podcast. These days, he's the managing editor of the American Mind, which is a publication of the Claremont Institute and he's the author of a brand new book called, The Last Days of New York: A Reporter's True Tale released just this week. So Seth, good to talk with you. Thanks very much for coming on the 10 Blocks Podcast.

Seth Barron: Oh, thank you so much, Brian. It's a pleasure to be here on the other side of the microphone.

Brian Anderson: Let's start with the situation in New York, 2021. Right now, before we move on to your book, which provides an explanation of how we reached this point. So the mayor's race is now really entering its final weeks with the democratic primary weeks away. And the winner of the democratic primary will almost inevitably be the next mayor. So what has happened over the past month, I would say, is that a clear top three candidates have emerged and in one order or another, you have Andrew Yang, the outsider here. Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia, they're generally the top three in the polls. We had done a poll at the Manhattan Institute that had Adams winning very narrowly over Yang after respondents were asked to simulate the rank choice voting system, which will be in use in the primary this year.

Then you had Garcia who is the former sanitation commissioner received the endorsement of the New York Times. And one poll, I believe that has appeared since that suggests that she might be ahead, but it is a very close race among those top three. You could look at those top three and I said this to you the other day. These are probably three of the sanest candidates in the race. They're not promising to defund the police. They're somewhat friendly to school choice. And they do seem to understand that business is necessary for a city to flourish.

On the other hand, a pessimist would reply that these candidates seem moderate only because the terrain has shifted so far to the left in the city that compared with Bloomberg or Giuliani, any of these three potential mayors would represent a continuation of the leftward shift that began with Bill de Blasio that you chronicle in your book. So I was struck, while watching a recent debate that every time one candidate attacked another who was for taking an insufficiently left-wing stance on a given issue. So what's your take on this, the optimistic view, the pessimistic view, something in between?

Seth Barron: Well, when the glasses is half full, one has to at least credit the appearance of plenitude. I think that there are reasons to take hope in that the more radical candidates don't seem to be making much headway like Maya Wiley or Diane Morales. Nobody's very impressed with their pleas to destroy policing. It's salutary that someone like Andrew Yang who is not yet owned by the public sector unions has made noises about bucking the teachers. So that's good. Eric Adams is a former police officer, despite what he says, he is a little bit erratic in his comments and some of his actions. One has to imagine that 22 years on the force, that experience can't just vanish overnight. And Kathryn Garcia, kind of embodies the technocratic can-do sort of pragmatism that ...

Look, she ran the sanitation department and while it was under de Blasio, at the same time sanitation is a pretty much a nuts and bolts type of operation. There's not a lot of room for woke philosophizing and so forth. She apparently ran it credibly. I think that if any of these three becomes the mayor, it's not going to be an absolute disaster, but at the same time, as you said, they are captive to various, major interests in the democratic base, which are extremely allied with these sort of social justice BLM, woke tendencies. And I don't see them working against that.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Seth Barron: And to a large degree, so much of the city, like the council, the non-profit organizations, the public sector unions are so captured by the far left that in a weird way it doesn't really matter that much what the mayor does.

Brian Anderson: How do you handicap the race? Do you have any insights into who's going to win this or?

Seth Barron: I have no insights. The rank choice voting apparently is going to be ... In a large race, it could really throw things off. I don't have the five dimensional chess abilities to figure out what the second and third choice rankings, how all that plays out. I can imagine any of those three or maybe somebody else coming in.

Brian Anderson: Yeah.

Seth Barron: My guess is as good as anybody else's.

Brian Anderson: Now, some of the other races haven't been getting a lot of attention, but they're important. You did a recent article for us called Seeing No Evil, which looked at the district attorney's race, in which every candidate with the exception of Liz Crotty, basically denied the reality of rising crime in the city and they were going out of their way to find excuses for criminality. This isn't a phenomenon unique to New York. Prosecutors, as we've seen in any number of cities now are moving in this kind of decarceral direction. That's extremely troubling from anybody who, from my perspective is concerned with law and order in cities.

What is going on there and does a sober-minded candidate stand a chance for DA in the city? There does seem to have been a kind of shift in the rhetoric of the mayoral campaign about crime, especially after the shooting in Times Square. People seem to start taking the rising crime numbers more seriously at that point, even though those numbers have been evident for awhile now. What's your view of the DA's race and this general phenomenon of woke DAs?

Seth Barron: I mean the general phenomenon nationwide, you have to hand it to the hard left. I mean, it was brilliant of them that for decades, it was just assumed that, "Okay. Well, the prosecutor's office will always be held by a law and order type, and that's just the way it is. And they were like, "Well, why shouldn't we contest that?" So you've seen members of the defense bar, hard left lawyers and activists, essentially take over prosecutor's offices. Like, the fox capturing the henhouse all over the country, as we've seen, there's been a massive rise in crime and a sharp decline in prosecutions and expansion of diversion programs and non-carceral alternatives and restorative justice initiatives. Places like Philadelphia and San Francisco is particularly egregious. And now it seems like New York may go that way too.

Fortunately, there's eight candidates, most of whom are completely unknown. Some of whom are extraordinarily radical, like real abolitionists. Liz Crotty is the only one who's really just taking a traditional law and order approach, but there is another woman Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who's in the lead, is likely to win. Basically has a more moderate sort of traditional prosecutor's mindset. Though, she makes noises about alternatives and so forth, but it seems like there's some ... She has enough dog whistling going on, on both sides. It's a little hard to tell where she really stands, but she appears to be fairly moderate. So hopefully cooler heads will prevail, but again, this is just in the context of a very radical left shift in how the city deals with crime and punishment, at a time when there's really rising crime, everyone seems to think that the best attitude is to just keep pumping the brakes on policing. Unfortunately, the people of New York are the ones who have to suffer it.

Brian Anderson: Right. What should we be paying attention to with the city council races?

Seth Barron: The city council races, honestly, this where I first ... This used to be my bread and butter, following the city council, but two thirds of the city council is up for, more than two thirds, I think 38 or 40 out of 51 seats are open. There's going to be a hard left shift. That's someplace where you're not going to see moderate voices prevail. There's going to be a very left-wing city council, pushing them all kinds of nutty initiatives. I think we're going to have some problems with the city council and whoever comes in as mayor is going to really have to throw his or her weight around because there's a lot of DSA candidates that are probably going to win. Just regarding like Israel. I mean, why should Israel be a major issue? But you have a number of candidates who are like really hardcore, pro BDS types. They don't see this as irrelevant to municipal politics because they think all politics have to be enacted at all levels. So we're going to see some wacky stuff coming from the city council, for sure.

Brian Anderson: Let's shift to your new book. The Last Days of New York: A Reporter's True Tale, which I mentioned at the outset. It is just out and it looks great. I got a copy. It's a compelling read. It's a history basically of New York from the financial crisis of 2007, 2008 to the disastrous 2020 year of the pandemic and the riots. You lay a lot of the blame for New York's current situation at the feet of Mayor de Blasio, Bill de Blasio who you note in the book was mismanaging the city long before mishandling the pandemic, and then permitting the riots that were so disturbing during the course of 2020. I wonder if you can, just for listeners benefit, expand on the book's broadest argument for starters.

Seth Barron: Sure. I mean, essentially my argument, it doesn't lay all the blame at de Blasio's feet because that would ascribe to him a certain degree of malice and cunning and executive excellence that I don't think he possesses. Really, he is an instrument of a number of major influential factors or forces that came together to really gut the city's underlying prosperity and its strengths. These include the power of the public sector unions of which he was a capable and willing servant. The city's consultant class. This is something that a lot of people don't necessarily know that much about, but it came up a lot in de Blasio's first term. Consultants who work both for major corporations, various interests, such as the unions and non-profits, and also run campaigns and essentially run the city.

You've got real estate interests that people like to think ... People imagine that real estate interests are posed to heavy handed government intervention and management of things and these woke policies, but in fact they accommodate themselves to them. So they're fine with that, as long as they get their cut. The hard left radicals who staff nonprofit organizations and government. Essentially, de Blasio was captive to all of these interests and his job was to enrich all of them. So, in a sense, my thesis is that and this is sort of my ironic take on it. A little tongue in cheek is that, de Blasio is only a failure as a mayor, if you're just like a regular New Yorker. But if, you're a consultant, if you're a public sector union representative, if you work for some kind of invested nonprofit. Well, he did exactly what he was supposed to do and he was a good mayor.

It's all a question of, who, whom? Yeah, I would argue that for most new Yorkers de Blasio ... Like I said, he hollowed out the foundations of what was a thriving prosperous city, so that when the pandemic hit and when things turned bad, there was nothing to keep things propped up. And that's why New York is now, in what seems to be a pretty steep decline.

Brian Anderson: What do you think is going to be necessary to turn that decline around given your argument, which I think is correct, is that de Blasio is an outgrowth of the political culture of the city and that political culture is still entrenched?

Seth Barron: Yeah, see that's the problem. I kind of look at your colleague Ed Glaeser has called the Curley effect, whereby a political machine named after Ed Curley of Boston can make things so unpleasant for his political enemies that they leave, that they move out. I think we've seen a certain amount of that in New York. So people say, "Oh, what we need is a new Giuliani or a new Bloomberg." Bloomberg was elected 20 years ago and it's a different city. A lot of people who favored those types of pro-business policies and street safety have left. So to turn things around will require really fantastic political will on the part of the people. And given that we have a 25% participation rates in municipal elections, I'm not so sure that's going to happen anytime soon. De Blasio lucked out a lot with Biden winning the election. This was clearly what de Blasio was hoping for all year long. He refused to lay anybody off in the city. He wouldn't impose any kinds of cutbacks and he lucked out. He's always been a very lucky guy.

Brian Anderson: Right. I remember you wrote a piece for us de Blasio being the luckiest mayor, just because he was governing at a time of rising prosperity and Wall Street boom. So in a way-

Seth Barron: He's never had to budget in the sense of choosing between competing goods. He's always both and. Let's pay for everything, let's just throw money around. And now the city is washing cash again from federal bail outs. However, the next mayor, I don't know how long the rest of the country is going to be happy to just keep pouring massive sums into New York City. The next mayor is going to really have to ... It's really going to be like the day after the ... When the buzz wears off from the party and taking a sober look at the accounts and the deterioration of the city physically and morally, it's really going to be ... They're going to have a tough road to hoe.

Brian Anderson: What has been the reaction to the book so far? It's just out, have you had any hate letters, any positive responses? I'm just curious.

Seth Barron: Oh, sure. Well, I've gotten some good responses. I mean, I have some terrific blurbs but those are early. Those came from people I sent it to early.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Seth Barron: Yes, I've gotten some good response and of course, silence from the left, but that's to be expected. Nobody likes to look at an ugly picture of themselves.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. Well, it's a terrific book and it does provide a snapshot of the last two decades really, of the city's life and gives a very powerful explanation of the situation we do find ourselves in. Seth, thank you very much as always for coming on. I hope the book sells a lot of copies and gets the right kind of attention. Don't forget to check out Seth Barron's work on the City Journal website, where he's written any number of articles. We'll link to the author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @Cityjournal and on Instagram @Cityjournal_MI. If you like what you've heard on the show, as always, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Seth, thanks again for coming on. It's always great to talk with you and again, great success with the book.

Seth Barron: Thank you, Brian. Thanks so much.

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

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