Campaigns & Elections

Ruben Diaz Jr’s departure reshapes 2021 NYC mayoral field

It could help Eric Adams, but it could also entice more candidates to run.

Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr.

Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. Office of the Bronx Borough President

After Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s surprising early exit from the 2021 mayoral race, New York City political observers are gaming out how this could reshape the Democratic primary. 

One possible beneficiary is Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is black and has been pitching himself to New Yorkers feeling threatened by gentrification

“People of color in the city will lean toward the person of color. That’s just natural,” political strategist Patrick Jenkins told City & State. Jenkins, who’s black and is friends with Diaz, who is Puerto Rican, said that there’s always been a black and Latino electoral coalition in the city, even if the degree of political alignment varies year to year. “With someone of color dropping out,” he said, “that would help the remaining candidate of color in the race.”

The other two leading candidates in the race are white men from Manhattan, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Other candidates with less political power and name recognition include Loree Sutton, former New York City veterans’ affairs commissioner, and Dianne Morales, the former CEO of a social service nonprofit who, like Diaz, is of Puerto Rican descent. 

Diaz’s exit could help spur further growth in the mayoral field. “I’ve got to believe more people are going to jump in,” said Rebecca Katz, a political consultant with New Deal Strategies. Diaz’s exit, she said, “shows that the race for mayor is wide open.”

Eric Koch, a consultant with Precision Strategies agreed. “The field is not even close to set,” he said. “We’ll definitely see other serious people jump in for sure.” 

It doesn’t seem like Christine Quinn, the former New York City Council speaker and a 2013 mayoral candidate will be among them. “I am really busy being the president and CEO of WIN,” a homeless services nonprofit, she told City & State Monday, after praising Diaz as “a terrific elected official and public servant.” Other rumored Democratic candidates include Shaun Donovan, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama and a former HPD commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Maya Wiley, a New School professor and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Citigroup Vice Chairman Ray McGuire, also a Democrat, is publicly a weighing a campaign, as is Republican real estate developer John Catsimatidis.

Koch said that the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program levels the playing field for whoever may run. By matching certain contributions 8-to-1 and capping the amount of money candidates can raise and spend overall, it means that all the top candidates are going to end up in the same ballpark financially. 

Diaz’s fundraising had slowed down significantly in the past six months, but that may be a symptom, more than a cause, of Diaz’s lack of enthusiasm for the mayoral campaign. “He just doesn’t want to do this anymore,” Diaz’s communications director John DeSio told City & State. “It would be unfair to try to be mayor of the city of New York when your heart’s not in it.”

Diaz plans to return all of his contributions – more than $1 million – to donors, and he doesn’t have any job offers. “He expects to finish his term,” DeSio said. 

But come 2021, Diaz will be in high demand for a certain job: endorser and campaign surrogate. “Diaz immediately becomes someone who other candidates are looking to, both for his endorsement, and also for the operation and the ability to have volunteers in the Bronx,” Koch said.

That’s because a Diaz endorsement is likely to be paired with the backing of the Bronx Democratic machine, which was previously all in on the candidacy of their local champion. The Bronx Dems certainly don’t guarantee a win – Diaz and the party backed Bill Thompson in 2013, and he lost both the borough and the city to de Blasio – but it’s still a sought-after endorsement.
Out of the current field, Adams seems like the most likely to get the Bronx’s backing. While it’s early in their campaigns, he and Diaz had both been staking out more moderate, pro-growth positions, unlike Stringer and Johnson who have shared some skepticism of capitalism and are cutting a more progressive path. 

At this point in the 2021 race, however, the dynamics could change dramatically before Election Day. After the 2017 election, then-Public Advocate Letitia James and then-Queens Borough President Melinda Katz were considered to be among the top contenders, alongside Diaz. Now James is state attorney general, Katz is Queens district attorney and Diaz plans to leave public life. 

There are other unknowns for the mayoral race as well, like who will win the presidential election in 2020. Candidates’ pitches to voters could be completely different, depending on whether President Donald Trump or a newly elected Democrat is in the White House. And at least one candidate seems to be hoping for a coat-tail effect – Stringer has endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president.

Another complicating factor is that the 2021 primary will be the first election where New York City uses ranked-choice voting. Democrats will be able to rank candidates in order of preference, and in what’s likely to be a crowded field, it has the potential to throw all previous political strategy out the window

“The team that unlocks just what ranked-choice voting means is going to be the team that wins,” Koch said. “It’s such a wild card, and it’s never been done on a scale like New York City before.”

Some experts think ranked-choice voting will result in less vicious campaigns, since candidates have less of an incentive to alienate others’ supporters. If so, Adams’ reaction to Diaz dropping out may just be a preview of the coming 2021 lovefest.

“Diaz has been a tremendous voice for the Bronx and a great leader for this city,” Adams said in a statement emailed to City & State. “Not only do I like him as a colleague, I love him as a friend.”