Kathryn Garcia Doesn’t Want to Be Anyone’s No. 2

Ms. Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, was regarded as New York City’s problem solver. Now she faces her own challenge: persuading voters to elect a newcomer to politics.

The New York City mayoral race is one of the most consequential political contests in a generation, with immense challenges awaiting the winner. This is the seventh in a series of profiles of the major candidates.

By Dana Rubinstein

Even for a New York City mayoral candidate who seemed like a long shot, the event early last month had a desperate quality to it.

Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, had agreed to a “pie-off” charity appearance with Paperboy Love Prince, an artist also running for mayor. Before they threw pies in each other’s faces, they had a dance-off, and she joked on Twitter that she would soon be “having a word with my staff.”

A couple of days later, Ms. Garcia began airing her first television campaign ad. It, too, might have been described as being somewhat out of the box — but she actually stands inside the box, a giant red cube labeled “in case of emergency break glass.” She dons a pair of safety glasses and a leather jacket, and we see the glass shatter.

The messages seemed clear: Sometimes you have to throw some pies and break some glass to draw attention and — to paraphrase a profane campaign slogan of hers — to get stuff done.

For most of the mayoral race, Ms. Garcia, 51, had seemed hampered by a lack of resources and name recognition. Her fellow Democrats praised her experience in city government, where she held leadership positions at the city’s sanitation, environmental and public housing agencies.

Yet at the time of the pie-off, Ms. Garcia was regarded so benignly that Andrew Yang parried critiques of his own government inexperience with promises to hire Ms. Garcia if elected. According to Ms. Garcia, Eric Adams, a former state senator now serving as Brooklyn borough president, had privately said he would seek to hire her, too. A spokesman for Mr. Adams declined to comment.

Their gambit, Ms. Garcia said, was sexist. It may also have proven counterproductive: Voters began to focus on her qualifications. Editorial board endorsements came from The New York Times and The Daily News. Donations rolled in. Supporters started a super PAC to bolster her campaign.

With two weeks left before the primary, which is all but certain to determine the next mayor in this heavily Democratic city, some of the race’s limited polling puts Ms. Garcia in the top three, alongside Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams. A fourth candidate, Maya Wiley, could be buoyed by recent endorsements from left-leaning Democrats, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman.

If Ms. Garcia becomes mayor, she says she will mandate curbside composting, a now-voluntary program started in the Bloomberg administration that she expanded. She wants to fill a jail-free Rikers Island with renewable energy capacity, including solar panels, battery storage and electric vehicle charging stations.

She says she would spend $630 million a year to provide free child care for young children in families making less than $70,000 a year — to be funded largely by finding cost savings elsewhere in government — and guarantee housing for every foster care child until they are 26 years old.

She would be New York City’s first female mayor. But there are hurdles that she must surmount first.

She is by many accounts an even-keeled colleague who is cool under pressure. But she lacks the performative, charismatic qualities that so often animate politicians, to the frustration of some of her supporters. And though her more than six years in the de Blasio administration were well regarded, they have still given opponents ammunition to tie her to a mayor who is unpopular with some portions of the primary electorate.

“Why is ability not wholly the conversation?” she asked recently. “Shouldn’t that be what we’re looking for in our next mayor? That you can actually do the job, that you know how to do the job, that there’s some track record that says you would be effective at this?”

Adventures after babysitting

When Bruce and Ann McIver picked up their first child, Kathryn, from the adoption agency, she was just days old, the biological child of two graduate students.

They promptly moved into a four-story house on First Street in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from Prospect Park. With its roots planted in Park Slope, the family grew to include five children — Black and white, biological and adopted, including one longtime ward of the foster system.

Ms. Garcia was what her father calls an easy child. She saved her money. She attended the elite Stuyvesant High School. Her younger brother, Matt, described her as a “planner” and “very rigid.” She kept her bedroom neat, adorning its walls with the lyrics to Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and an advertisement for Soloflex, a workout device whose marketing campaign featured a man’s chiseled abs.

The family recalled that her most extreme act of youthful rebellion occurred when she was a teenager and desperate to see Prince during his Purple Rain tour at Nassau Coliseum. She and a friend lined up overnight in Manhattan to buy tickets, only for their fathers to show up and drive them home. (They ended up seeing the show anyway.)

Mr. McIver, a Montana native, served as Mayor Edward I. Koch’s chief labor negotiator. His wife, Ann McIver, was an English professor at Medgar Evers College who became executive director of the Morningside Area Alliance, a Manhattan nonprofit.

Growing up, Ms. Garcia babysat for the children of Robert W. Linn, who would become Mr. de Blasio’s chief labor negotiator, and Emily Lloyd, who would go on to run the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

That connection would eventually pay off. Ms. Lloyd recruited Ms. Garcia to work as an unpaid intern at the Department of Sanitation after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Years later, Ms. Lloyd would appoint Ms. Garcia as her chief of staff at the Department of Environmental Protection. And it was Ms. Lloyd who later suggested to Anthony Shorris — Mr. de Blasio’s first deputy mayor — that he hire Ms. Garcia as sanitation commissioner.

Along the way, Ms. Garcia worked for the Department of Finance and for Appleseed, a consulting firm where she conducted economic analyses for clients like Columbia University.

She began to build a reputation as a reliable leader amid crisis. At the Department of Environmental Protection, where she eventually became chief operating officer, Ms. Garcia helped restart the city’s pumping stations after Hurricane Sandy and brought crews adept with chain saws down from the city’s upstate watershed to clear fallen trees.

As sanitation commissioner, Ms. Garcia redesigned the city’s snow plow routes to improve efficiency and to avoid the type of winter catastrophe that has given mayors headaches, and occasionally cost them their jobs.

The McIver children are still close. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the family gathered for bagels at Ms. Garcia’s sisters’ house in Brooklyn.

The sisters milled about, as did their brother, Matt, their mother, Ann, and Ms. Garcia’s nieces, Lily and Penelope. There were also two dogs and a garter snake named Checkers.

Lily, who is 6, went to the breakfast table to slice a bagel. Ms. Garcia leapt off the couch to intervene.

“I’ve done it before,” Lily protested.

Running clear of Bill de Blasio

Ms. Garcia is running as a moderate in the Democratic primary, much like Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams, who lead most polls. She rejects the defund the police movement, but would seek to require new officers to live in the five boroughs to better integrate the police force with the communities they serve, and would raise the recruitment age from 21 to 25.

She has also proposed creating 50,000 units of what she calls “deeply affordable” housing, while legalizing more basement and single-room occupancy apartments. She supports allowing more charter schools to open and creating more dedicated bus lanes.

But above all, she is running on her reputation for competence, one she honed while working for Mr. de Blasio.

After the mayor in 2019 signed on to a controversial deal ceding some authority over the New York City Housing Authority to the federal government, the interim chair, Stanley Brezenoff, quit. Mr. de Blasio asked Ms. Garcia to step in until a new chair could be found.

“They needed somebody credible, somebody with a demonstrable track record, someone who wouldn’t be immediately overwhelmed by the problems and the challenges of the task at hand,” Mr. Brezenoff said. “So she went from a palace where she reigned supreme and took this on. That’s my definition virtually of being a good soldier in the interests of the public and the city.”

Ms. Garcia spent about four months leading the housing authority. Victor Bach, the senior housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society of New York, said he was “impressed with her skills as an administrator, particularly as a pinch-hitter NYCHA chair, transiting from sanitation to a strange new NYCHA universe.”

But Daniel Barber, the head of the citywide council of tenant representatives, faulted her for not doing enough to effect change.

“Although Kathryn Garcia was the commissioner of sanitation, NYCHA was still faced with major garbage issues,” said Mr. Barber, who has endorsed Raymond J. McGuire for mayor. “You can still see them today.”

Mr. de Blasio also gave Ms. Garcia the task of coordinating city efforts to reduce childhood lead exposure. And when the coronavirus pandemic threw one million New Yorkers out of work, he asked her to create an emergency food network. At its peak, it distributed 1.5 million meals a day across the five boroughs.

Ms. Garcia’s distribution system was not without flaws, which her opponents have recently seized upon to cast doubt on her management skills.

But Joel Berg, the chief executive of Hunger Free America, who has worked to fight hunger for decades, marveled that Ms. Garcia’s team had managed to set up a program in a matter of weeks that would normally have taken the government years.

“Some of my colleagues were quibbling some of the meals weren’t perfect, some of the deliveries got botched, there wasn’t perfect sourcing of organic fruits from local farmers,” Mr. Berg said. “I get all that. But what they did in a short period of time was pretty darn amazing.”

Ms. Garcia’s central brief in the de Blasio administration was the normally unglamorous work of managing New York City’s trash and its snow. It is typically one of the more thankless jobs in government, one that draws media attention only when the commissioner fails. But Ms. Garcia managed to thrive there and earn widespread praise.

Antonio Reynoso, the city councilman whose Sanitation Committee had oversight of the Sanitation Department, described Ms. Garcia as “absolutely amazing.”

Understand the N.Y.C. Mayoral Race

    • Who’s Running for Mayor? There are more than a dozen people still in the race to become New York City’s next mayor, and the primary will be held on June 22. Here’s a rundown of the candidates.
    • Get to Know the Candidates: We asked leading candidates for mayor questions about everything from police reform and climate change to their favorite bagel order and workout routine.
    • What is Ranked-Choice Voting? New York City began using ranked-choice voting for primary elections this year, and voters will be able to list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.

    With Mr. Reynoso, Ms. Garcia helped pass a waste equity bill that aimed to more fairly distribute private waste transfer stations around the city. The two also helped spearhead the reform of the notoriously dangerous commercial carting industry.

    The city is now establishing a zoned system, and private carting companies will have to compete to handle the private trash in those zones. The initiative is expected to reduce truck traffic in New York City by 18 million miles a year.

    Ms. Garcia won over the department’s rank and file. Four unions representing sanitation workers and supervisors in the public and private sectors, as well as one association representing sanitation chiefs, have endorsed her candidacy.

    “I honestly feel she is the person to run the city right now,” said Harry Nespoli, the president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, which represents the bulk of the department’s workers. “I’ve seen her work, I’ve worked with her, I’ve seen her turn around and take on issues that other people wouldn’t take on, and she gave it everything she had.”

    Jimmy Oddo, the Staten Island borough president and a Republican, said he had several friends running in the mayor’s race, but that a “big part” of him — the frustrated 30-year government employee, as he put it — was “probably rooting for Kathryn the hardest.”

    Mr. de Blasio thought so highly of Ms. Garcia that he asked her to be his deputy mayor for operations, she confirmed. But her accomplishments in his administration are also being used by her opponents on the campaign trail.

    Ms. Garcia seems aware of the potential de Blasio effect. She turned down the deputy mayor offer, and when she ultimately resigned from the administration in advance of her run for mayor, she criticized Mr. de Blasio for making cuts to the Sanitation Department during the pandemic, causing trash to pile up on city streets.

    She has recently broadened her criticism of Mr. de Blasio, saying that he could be too much of a micromanager, with no apparent interest in asking his commissioners what he could do to help them achieve policy goals. She has said Mr. de Blasio’s new $100 billion budget, by creating new programs even as the city is facing budget gaps, reflected “poor decision-making,” and she has promised to recast the costly signature mental health initiative, Thrive — created by the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray — to focus more on people with the most severe mental health challenges.

    At the second official Democratic debate on Wednesday, seven of the eight candidates said they did not want Mr. de Blasio’s endorsement. The one exception was Mr. Yang.

    The next morning, a reporter asked Mr. de Blasio to comment on the efforts by two of his former aides — Ms. Garcia and Ms. Wiley, who served as his counsel — to distance themselves from him while running for mayor.

    “It just proves they’re politicians now,” he said.

    A practitioner, not a practiced politico

    If Ms. Garcia does reach City Hall, she is unlikely to forget her roots and what got her there. She still talks to her father every day — she from the campaign trail; he from the Hell’s Kitchen apartment building that he said Mr. Yang lived in before moving into another building nearby.

    Her two children are grown; her son lives nearby. She travels between her Park Slope home and the Staten Island home of her boyfriend, Andy Metz, who manages residential construction projects.

    Until she got divorced in 2016, Ms. Garcia was married to Jerry Garcia, a banker of Puerto Rican descent. Her surname may help her with Latino voters, who are expected to make up about 20 percent of primary voters.

    Ms. Garcia will not have a “first gentleman” if she makes it to Gracie Mansion. And her boyfriend, she said, will not live with her.

    “We don’t live together now,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”

    Last week, Ms. Garcia sat at her kitchen table in the blue Park Slope rowhouse where she and her ex-husband raised their family, not far from where she grew up. She had just gotten back from a meeting with Jewish leaders in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and was about to do an Instagram interview with the “Broad City” star Ilana Glazer. By that evening, she would be in Rockaway Beach in Queens, meeting voters.

    She was doing all of the things that a politician should do to win office. But still, she refused to assume the mantle of “politician.”

    “The usual person who runs is a politician, and I would actually put many of the people who are running in that category,” Ms. Garcia said. “And that is clearly not me.”

    If voters do in fact swing like pendulums — with every cycle turning away from the outgoing mayor toward what seems like a foil — it is possible that New Yorkers hungry for the perception of competence at a time of crisis will propel Ms. Garcia to victory.

    It is also possible that Ms. Garcia will benefit from the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, which allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated. Voters who picked the eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their second-choice votes counted instead. The process continues until there is a winner.

    A recent poll commissioned by the conservative Manhattan Institute showed Ms. Garcia’s percentage of the vote rising as Dianne Morales, Mr. McGuire and Scott Stringer were eliminated in the mock ranked-choice tabulations.

    Ms. Garcia is circumspect about when she decided to run. But one of her earlier employers, Hugh O’Neill, the Appleseed president, said he remembered the first time he heard the idea floated.

    In 2016, Ms. Garcia did a presentation for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog organization. Several people were impressed and approached Mr. O’Neill to ask if he thought she might consider running for mayor.

    He discussed the idea with Ms. Lloyd and then a couple of times with Ms. Garcia herself.

    “She made clear that she thought that she could do it, but she didn’t think that was where her future was,” he said. “And then, she called me, probably late last summer, and said, ‘I think I’m running for mayor.’ I said, ‘I’m glad to hear it.’”

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