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Startup Candidate  

Can Yang maintain his edge?


Photos: APImages

Andrew Yang made a big splash on the national scene during his 2020 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination as an engaging debater with bold ideas. He dropped out after the New Hampshire primary, but one year later, Yang is aiming high once again, running for the Democratic nomination as New York City’s mayor. An entrepreneur in the fields of education and philanthropy, Yang has never held public office, but has emerged as a clear-cut favorite in the early polls in a crowded field. With three months to go until the June 22 primary, Yang shared his top priorities and answered pointed questions on issues most vital to New York’s Orthodox Jewish community


Andrew Yang isn’t a candidate who fits snugly into any one box.

His campaign literature defines him as a businessman, lawyer, and philanthropist. He’s also an author of two books.

When he wrote in his book The War on Normal People that he’s no fan of big government, he sounded like the classic conservative. When he campaigns on a platform of providing a universal basic income of $1,000 a month to adults, he comes across as the consummate progressive.

Politico referred to Yang as an unorthodox candidate, noting his willingness to debate the universal income concept in front of steadfast conservatives such as Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro. ABC News labeled Yang a breakthrough candidate during his presidential bid for hanging in the race longer than many US senators, former governors, and seasoned politicians.

After my interview with Yang, conducted last week on Zoom, I would classify him as an earnest candidate, with a grasp of the issues he would be dealing with as mayor and more than a few original ideas. He doesn’t duck questions, even though he sometimes takes a long pause to formulate his answers. Yang was wearing his trademark navy-blue blazer, with an open-necked shirt. The wall in back of him was decorated with sketches of New York City landmarks and blue and white “Yang for Mayor” posters.

When asked why he wants a job that many consider to be thankless, Yang said he understands if he’s fortunate enough to become New York City’s next mayor, it will be his greatest career challenge — a task he is up for.

“I’m driven by a spirit of service, where if you believe you can impact the lives of more than eight million people, including your own children, you have to take on that challenge,” Yang said.

He also understands that as mayor of New York, he will not be able to make all eight million constituents happy all of the time.

“Even if there are a number of people upset at me at any given moment, which there probably will be, given the size and diversity of the city, as long as I make decisions that I can stand by that benefit the people of the city, I’ll be proud of what I’ve done,” Yang said.

Yang has been equally fortunate to make the most of the strong background his parents provided when he was growing up, first in Schenectady, New York, about 150 miles north of the Big Apple as the crow flies, and then in the small town of Somers, in Westchester County.

His parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan in the 1960s and met when they were both graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley. Both are accomplished professionals. His father is a physicist and his mother a statistician.

Yang, who turned 46 in January, once told the Washington Post’s Maureen O’Connor he thought every dad had a PhD because his dad had one.

The Yangs fast-tracked Andrew for success. They sent him to New Hampshire for high school to attend the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was a member of the US national debate team — a skill that served him well when facing stiff competition from experienced politicians during the 2020 Democratic presidential debates. Yang studied economics and political science at Brown University and earned a law degree at Columbia. That’s also where he met his wife Evelyn. Andrew and Evelyn now have two sons.

Andrew got fed up quickly with corporate law, leaving his first position after five months, quipping that the job was a “pie-eating contest, and if you won, your prize was more pie.”

After launching a variety of startups in the early 2000s, Yang eventually made his money as CEO of Manhattan Prep, a company that prepares students for college and graduate school entrance exams.

After exiting that firm, he founded two nonprofits, the most famous of which is Ventures for America (VFA), whose goal was to enlist young people to become entrepreneurs and leaders in growth companies to create new jobs and opportunities nationwide. That is where Yang likely caught the political bug. O’Connor of the Washington Post wrote that during his six years at Venture for America, Yang met “three of the last four presidents, senators, governors, tech moguls, billionaires, and people who participate in ‘think tank sessions.’ ”

A few months after leaving the VFA in March 2017, Yang told confidants at a Manhattan dinner party he was running for president, and he filed the necessary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in November 2017.

If Donald Trump could come out of nowhere to win the presidency, what was stopping Andrew Yang? Trump’s greater wealth might have given him a fundraising advantage, but Yang took the Bernie Sanders approach, raising $1 from 65,000 individual donors to earn a slot in the primary debates.

Despite the buzz he created onstage, he couldn’t garner enough votes to compete against more seasoned politicians with greater name recognition and track records like Sanders or Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, so Yang dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary.

Nary a month passed by until Politico reported that former New York City deputy mayor Howard Wolfson suggested Yang “would make a very interesting candidate for mayor.” To which Yang replied that “it’s incredibly flattering to be thought of in that role,” adding that he was “more attracted to executive roles than legislative ones because you can get more done.”

He announced his candidacy in mid-January, and since then, Yang has sustained double-digit leads in the mayoral polls over his closest challenger, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams. The political blog FiveThirtyEight cites Yang’s high name recognition, a die-hard fan base who call themselves the “Yang Gang,” and fundraising prowess as reasons for his frontrunner status. The incumbent mayor, Bill de Blasio, has served the maximum of two terms and cannot run again.

With almost 70 percent of city voters registered as Democrats, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the winner of the Democratic primary on June 22 will get the keys to Gracie Mansion after the November general election.

In our wide-ranging interview, we covered general issues affecting all New Yorkers, with an emphasis on the major topics impacting New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, including state interference in yeshivah curricula, personal safety and security, the coronavirus pandemic, and what it will take to keep Jewish families in New York at a time when many are fleeing to greener, and less expensive pastures.

What did you learn from your presidential campaign that you’ve been able to transfer to your campaign for mayor?

“I learned that many people are frustrated by business as usual where government is concerned. Many people around the country, and in New York City, have grown used to disappointment. Bureaucracies have not been performing as well as we’d like, and then when you go to them with a complaint or issue, you often run into a wall of red tape, and there’s very little personal accountability, or responsibility, or even responsiveness. That’s definitely true here in New York City. One of my main goals is to get our bureaucracy to seem more human and responsive to our needs and concerns. But that’s true around the country as well.”

When voters hear the name Andrew Yang, they mostly associate it with your proposal to provide a universal basic income. Everyone asks you how you’re going to pay for it. I want to ask a different question. You’ve started many nonprofits, including Venture for America and Humanity Forward. Would you consider letting nonprofits raise the money from donors and from other private charities instead of trying to collect the money from taxpayers?

“I did get that question an awful lot on the presidential trail, how I would pay for universal basic income. But that was before the government passed a $2.2 trillion Cares Act and a $1.9 billion American Rescue Act, which demonstrated that we actually as a country have the resources to do dramatic things for our people if we choose to do so. I actually started a number of nonprofits and I love when communities come together and channel their resources and goodwill to benefit other people. And I hope that continues. I certainly think that the Orthodox Jewish community embodies that spirit. You can see it in the way that people take care of each other and the philanthropy within the community.

“I do think that at this point, the needs may be even greater than nonprofits are able to muster. Certainly, when I ran my nonprofits, one of the things that was a constant source of need was just more resources. Anyone reading this who runs a nonprofit is proud of the work they do, but then you just say to yourself, wow, but we need to be doing more. Whether that’s feeding the poor in your community, or educating children, or whatever the cause is, you think there’s so much more to be done, and we don’t have the level of resources that we’d like. So I applaud all private philanthropic efforts and I want them to grow. But I do think that there is a role in the public sector to, in some cases, amplify and augment the work that people are doing in their communities.”

If you have to raise taxes to provide this universal basic income, aren’t you concerned that higher taxes will drive more businesses to leave New York City?

“Well, I generally think that’s an overly simplistic analysis. If you look at the budget of New York City, we’re spending more than $2 billion a year right now housing homeless people. So if you invest in keeping people in more stable situations, that may end up saving money on the back end. Similarly, we’re spending more than $200,000 a year for each person who’s being held on Rikers [Island prison] right now. So it’s not a simple case of, ‘Oh, if you want to do this, you’d have to raise taxes.’

“There are significant inefficiencies in New York City that often are very costly, both on a human level and on an economic level. And one of the things that motivates me, and I think that you all see this in your community, is that if you take care of people, there are many benefits in terms of keeping people in better health, mental health, giving a roof over people’s heads, and on and on, and that in New York City, when we fail people, we end up paying on multiple levels.”

You’ve spoken about our community being very philanthropic. We’re also very entrepreneurial. You also have an entrepreneurial background. What programs do you have in mind to not only stem the flight of businesses, but also attract new ones, and most importantly for our community, to make it easier to start new businesses, especially small ones?

“I came up as small business owner and operator here in New York City, and I believe that these businesses are often the lifeblood of a community in terms of creating jobs and providing economic wellbeing to families. And my business partner at my education company [Manhattan Prep] was a Jewish gentleman named Zeke Vanderhoek. He started this education company in the early 2000s. I was the first teacher at this company. And then I eventually became his partner and then the CEO in 2006.

“I learned so much from Zeke. He actually gave me a book about the Sabbath. So I have been a direct beneficiary of the spirit of entrepreneurship in the Jewish community, in that my business partner was someone who observed the Sabbath. Zeke had such a firm sense of his own judgment and principle, that whenever there was some kind of [need for] an expert opinion of bureaucracy we encountered, he always brought his own point of view to the table, and I learned a lot of from him.

“So I completely agree that there is a massive spirit of entrepreneurship in the Orthodox Jewish community and that we have to do everything we can to both clear some of the obstacles for folks who are starting and running small business and also connect people to different kinds of training. There are real needs out there, and I think that if we were to connect Orthodox Jewish students to, for example, Amazon web service training, or some of these technical skills, I think there would be massive opportunities for people who take advantage not only of the training itself, but also the additional opportunities for those around them. But it starts with trying to get [government] out of your way with some of the regulations on small businesses.”

We’ve also heard a lot of talk in the Orthodox Jewish community, especially in the last year, when even some Orthodox Jewish leaders suggested it’s time to leave New York. And the fact is that a lot of people are leaving for Lakewood, New Jersey, for example, or to Florida, because they cannot afford the high cost of living in New York. As mayor of New York, what can you do to keep these families in New York?

“We have to make it affordable for people to raise families here. I’m a parent myself. I’ve got two kids, one of whom is in public school and one who is in a special-needs school because he is on the autism spectrum. And I’m very passionate about the city doing more to support families with special-needs children. I say all the time that special needs are the new normal. Most Orthodox Jewish families have more children than my wife and I have, and we have to make it possible for them to raise their families in a way that is happy and affordable and sustainable. And certainly the central cost facing many families here in New York is housing.

“A lot of families feel that they are priced out of New York. They feel that they can get more space and more land in other environments. So we have to do everything to lower the cost of living, to make more affordable housing available, and to make development of new housing more achievable for the people who want to build housing for the everyday New Yorker, and not just the affluent yuppie who is trying to move into the city.”

Another reason Orthodox Jews are considering leaving is because they are worried about crime and personal safety. Some of this is related to anti-Semitism, and I know that you’ve also spoken out on that, as well as on the recent attacks on Asian-Americans. Of course, all of this is very unfortunate. So a two-part question: What can be done to make New York a safer place, and as mayor, what can you do to make New York a more tolerant place?

“I was inspired by the story of a Jewish leader who brought a Holocaust survivor to FDR High School in Manhattan. It’s a very diverse school, it’s primarily black and Latino. It was supposed to be an audience of just a few dozen students, and it ended up being hundreds at a school assembly that ended up occupying much of the day. The teachers recognized the profound educational value. Unfortunately, Holocaust survivors are not going to be with us forever, so we should definitely take advantage of their ability to convey their experiences to the next generation.

“As you suggest, I am acutely aware of the surge in anti-Semitic and anti-Asian violence, and I do think that it is very much tied to the economic disintegration that we are seeing here in New York City. If you lose 600,000 jobs and 60 million tourists, many people look around and feel that they don’t have a future, and then it’s easier for them to lash out at people that don’t look like them and mistakenly blame them for things that are happening around them.”

At the same time there are calls for defunding the police, which scares people.

“I’ve been consistent in saying that the calls to defund the police are trying to solve a problem with the wrong set of solutions. I do think there are opportunities for us to use some of the money that we are spending on police more effectively — in a way that improves public safety to a higher degree. There are big gaps in mental health resources and substance abuse resources that can be employed to respond to certain calls instead of calling a police officer.

“At the same time, if you are in a community where violent crime is rising, you are going to need the police to be able to perform their duties. That’s something that most New Yorkers sense and agree with. I’m also committed to reducing street homelessness by more than 50 percent in my first term, which is primarily a human issue and an economic issue, but also at the margins does sometimes become a public safety issue.”

In the latest stimulus plan coming out of Washington, the city will receive $4.3 billion in direct federal aid, but it’s a one-shot deal. Let’s say you were already mayor. What would you do with that money? Would you use it to pay down debt? To promote economic recovery? To lower taxes? All of the above? None of the above?

“I believe that we have one to two years of federal aid that will provide us a bridge to balance our budget, and we need to use that time as effectively as possible. And we shouldn’t have any illusions. We’re in a very rough condition financially. We’re looking at a multibillion-dollar deficit. So having a grace period, or a lull, is something we need to take full advantage of. We need to rationalize our costs as quickly as possible and examine attrition, and see if there’s a way that we can use our people more efficiently.

“The way the money should not be spent, frankly, is just perpetuating the government’s current operations as if we know that change is not necessary or around the corner. But one thing I will suggest is that the scenario you need to avoid in New York City is a scenario where you think you can cut your way to success. The danger is that you spend less on things that are really important to people’s quality of life, and then they look around and say the subway is not working very well, or trash isn’t being picked up the way I want it to be. And they end up making moves that decrease our resources further, and we wind up in a negative spiral. That’s what we need to avoid. So we need to invest very actively and intelligently to try and restart the engine of New York’s economy, and that’s where my focus would be.”

Suggest one practical example.

“I’ll suggest something that I think would give people a sense of how I want to operate. I called for a subway fare holiday for the week of Memorial Day. That has a modest cost of, let’s call it $30 million or so, to forgo subway fares for a week. But think about all the people who would get back on the subway that week, or frequent restaurants or neighborhoods that they might not have been to, and they could go all over the city from Coney Island to the Bronx. And you’ll have people come back into the city, and re-experiencing the city, because they’ll see that it’s the beginning of summer and that there’s a fare holiday and they can explore the city at their own convenience and leisure and it’s cost-free.

“That’s the kind of smart investment we should be making here in New York City, where you use a bit of resources to reignite our small businesses and our tourism.”

You’ve come out in favor of taking control of the subway system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), back from the state. The governor said if that happens, you will lose the $10 billion the state gives you in funding every year. How will you make up for the shortfall?

“The simplest way to get city control of the MTA is to simply have the city recommend eleven MTA board members rather than four. Right now there is a government structure that gives us four out of 21 board members, which suggests why city concerns seem to be ignored, frankly. So if you were to change that board composition, there’s actually no reason why you need to change the funding. The funding exists as it is, and you would simply be changing the board composition. That would be the most straightforward way to make the change.”

Taking this one step further, the New York State Financial Control Board was created by the legislature in September 1975, in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy and the famous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Would you consider seeking new legislation to extricate the city from being under state financial control so that the city could have more independence?

“If New York City were a country, we’d be the 11th-biggest economy in the world. This is a very large and diverse economy. I am eager to work with our friends in Albany, and as mayor, we can only deliver if we have a strong working relationship with the governor and legislators.

“But I do say that given the magnitude of our economy, there is a need for us to have control of our own destiny. It’s one reason why I do advocate for city control of the MTA, because imagine running a city and not being able to improve the way that people get around every day. It’s like trying to operate something with one hand tied behind my back. I sense that if there are various entrepreneurs reading this, they say to themselves, yeah, that’s not what I want for my operation either.

“So we need to have a stronger voice in managing our own future, but we need to do it in a way that has the folks in Albany understanding that the city’s interest and the state’s interest are often one and the same, and they are largely aligned, particularly because New York City is the economic engine of the state, and you could argue that it is one of the main economic engines of the entire country. It is almost ten percent of the national economy, and there are incredible opportunities here if we are able to make some changes and take advantage of them.”

Speaking of city independence from the state, yeshivah families are very concerned about the “substantial equivalency education” that would hold nonpublic schools more accountable to the state for their curriculum, although it would be up to city to enforce it. Where do you stand on that? What can the city do to assert its independence on that account if the state comes down with harsh new demands?

“I am someone who started and ran various organizations. My natural attitude is to try to see who is doing the work. And in this one, folks in the Orthodox Jewish community have invested tremendous levels of not just resources, but time and energy and spirit in building these schools that serve their children and their community in the way that they want to.

“My first question when I was being made aware of this back-and-forth was, what does the data say about the educational outcomes of children coming out of yeshivos? The data suggests that children are thriving. And even yesterday, when I was in Kew Gardens, I saw a group of perhaps fifty high school students, girls, and I asked them how they liked their high school. They were so quick and so unanimous in saying that they liked it or loved it that I was frankly blown away. Because if you went to the average high school in New York State or in America and posed that question, you would not get that response.

“So my attitude is one of deference and gratitude to people doing the work to educate their children every day, and I think that any changes should be made with that in mind. I would certainly stand with the Orthodox Jewish community if I thought those changes were not grounded in the well-being of the children, as opposed to some arbitrary guidelines that someone miles and miles away thinks are a good idea but doesn’t truly address a community need. For me, it’s all about what the kids would benefit from, and not something that is a standard that someone projects onto the community.”

Speaking of projecting standards, the Democratic Socialists of America issued a questionnaire to win endorsements of city council candidates asking if the candidates would visit Israel, if elected, and if they support the BDS movement — and if not, why not. I don’t think those questions were posed to mayoral candidates, but if you got that questionnaire, how would you have answered those two questions? [There’s been some controversy about where Yang stands on BDS based on different interviews he’s given —ed.]

“It would be an honor and privilege for me to visit Israel as mayor of New York City. The fact that I would be leading a city that is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel is a profound responsibility that I would take very, very seriously from day one. And I will push back against the BDS movement, which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment. Not only is BDS rooted in anti-Semitic thought and history, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy. Strong ties with Israel are essential for a global city such as ours, which boasts the highest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. Our economy is struggling, and we should be looking for ways to bring back small businesses, not stop commerce.”

There’s a feeling in our community that Orthodox Jewish communities were first in line to be made into coronavirus red zones, but when it came to distribution of vaccinations, we’re last in line. What’s your perception, and what would you have done as mayor, or what could you do as mayor to solve that inequity?

“I have noticed that the Orthodox Jewish community is often neglected or overlooked when it comes to government services. I’ve heard that consistently from people, and my objective is fairness, and that applies to your schools, to vaccine distribution, and treatment where small businesses are concerned. That is a commitment I can make that the Orthodox Jewish community would be treated as other New Yorkers would when it comes to that kind of program or rollout.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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