NYC Progressives Fight the Culture War As Andrew Yang Wins the Class War

While Andrew Yang’s NYC mayoral campaign gains corporate backing, city progressives are bungling their chance to center the real issues.

People walk by signs for mayoral candidate Andrew Yang in the streets of Chinatown on March 23, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Matthew Thomas

Fall from Grace

“You know what I hear over and over again - that NYC is not enforcing rules against unlicensed street vendors,” tweeted Andrew Yang one Sunday, apparently exorcised of the spirit of entrepreneurialism that previously animated his campaign. “I’m for increasing licenses, but we should do more for the retailers who are paying rent and trying to survive.”

The evangelist of innovation had lost his faith. No more hosannas to the creative destruction of the marketplace. Only mute submission to the magisterium of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Back in the 1980s, the City Council capped the number of licenses available to street vendors at just 5,100 - a fraction of what demand could support. For this reason, as many as 20,000 vendors across the city are forced to operate without the proper paperwork, risking confiscation of their inventory, heavy fines, and even jail time for the crime of selling things that other people want to buy. That number increased considerably last year as coronavirus-related shutdowns swelled the ranks of the unemployed. Being New Yorkers, many did what they had to do: adapt to survive.

After years of delay, the City Council was finally forced to confront the need to regularize the city’s sprawling informal sector. It passed legislation authorizing an annual increase in the licensing cap so that existing vendors could be gradually integrated into the formal market. Responsibility for enforcement was transferred from the NYPD to the Department of Consumer Affairs. It was all an elegant solution to one of the happier problems associated with New York’s famously industrious population. Andrew Yang for President would have been proud. 

But Andrew Yang for Mayor was singing from a different hymnal. The former prophet of disruption now bowed before false idols of brick and mortar. Why?

In the ensuing controversy, that wasn’t the question that most preoccupied Yang’s critics. They were more concerned with what his comment revealed about his character - lack of empathy for the downtrodden, or perhaps even latent racism against Black and brown street vendors. But that is a serious mistake. Not only is it alienating to voters who may identify with Yang, it's a missed opportunity to explain why, no matter how much they might like him, he will never identify with them.

Flushing 2/25

On February 25th, Yang toured the Flushing neighborhood in Queens accompanied by Timothy Chuang, co-chair of the Flushing Business Improvement District. BIDs are nonprofit entities that lobby for investment, subsidies, and favorable tax and regulatory treatment on behalf of local businesses and property owners in urban commercial districts. For many years, BIDs were a major opponent of raising the cap on vendor licenses, fearing competition from more nimble competitors with lower overhead costs and cheaper prices. The extent to which street vendors and traditional retailers actually compete for the same customer base is disputed, but the perception that they do is strong among New York’s petite bourgeoisie. As unlicensed vendors multiplied during the pandemic, the Flushing BID expressed its displeasure over what it considered to be lax enforcement.

Chuang made sure Yang heard that displeasure too. On their tour, they met with Flushing tea shop owner Samuel Lin, who leaned on Yang hard over the vendor issue:

“Lin said that Flushing rents are expensive, and his two milk tea shops have to pay rent even if their business is damaged. But the unlicensed vendors on the street don’t have to worry about rent, sell cheaper goods, and sometimes even hinder traffic. It has a negative impact on the recovery of small businesses.” [Translation from Chinese.]

Yang seemed to take the hint. Unlicensed vending was the first thing mentioned when he tweeted about his visit later in the day. But perhaps because he didn’t describe “enforcement” as the solution to this problem he’d been hearing so much about, his remark drew virtually no attention at the time.

Campaign finance disclosures show that Chuang gave $500 to Yang’s campaign two days before their tour. But given what he can command through online fundraising, Yang probably didn’t need Chuang’s money. What he really needs are outerboro Virgils to guide him through the inferno of neighborhood power brokers and validate him in the eyes of voters. The price is lip service to their various pet issues while on the campaign trial, and presumably, compliance with their demands while in office.

Notably, Yang’s local guides don’t confine themselves to local politics. In September 2019, Chuang donated $1,000 to Ted Yoho, the far-right former congressman from Florida, perhaps most famous for calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” in July of last year. Less well-known is that during his time in Congress, Yoho was a vocal advocate for Taiwan and an aggressive American posture toward mainland China. Chuang is a major figure in Flushing’s Taiwanese business community.

A review of Yoho’s top 100 donors in the 2020 cycle reveals that Yoho and his longtime aid Kat Cammack, who succeeded him in Congress, together received nearly $20,000 in contributions from at least nine people in Flushing’s Taiwanese business community. All of them are major donors to Yang’s mayoral campaign. They include Jimmy Tsai and Warren Huang of Amerasia Bank, Ming Chiang of the Yu Shan Company, and Thomas Chen of Crystal Window and Door Systems Ltd - whose factory was the first stop on Yang’s tour of Flushing.

Chinatown 2/20

A few days prior, Yang toured Chinatown in Manhattan and dined at the Hwa Yuan restaurant, an iconic Chinatown institution owned and operated by its head chef, Chen Lieh Tang. Joining Yang for the meal was James Tierney Tang, Chen Lieh’s son, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Chinatown BID. Just like its counterpart in Flushing, the Chinatown BID emphasizes two issues it sees as the foundation of a successful commercial district: cleanliness and safety. Before the BID’s creation in 2012, local residents and activists came together under the banner of the Coalition Against a Chinatown BID to express concern about its potential impact on their most vulnerable neighbors:

“The 'clean and safe' programs that BIDs initiate to attract consumers can limit citizen voice and dislocate less desirable citizens through the privatization of public space. In some instances, allegations have been made that these programs involve the removal of the homeless and unauthorized vendors.”

Ultimately, the BID was established anyway under the leadership of Executive Director Wellington Chen. In his most recent public interview, Chen can be heard pushing the ‘clean and safe’ mantra used to justify the arrest and eviction of unlicensed Chinatown vendors for years, as well as bemoaning pending increases in New York’s minimum wage. Chen gave $250 to Yang’s campaign in March 2021.

But it’s Tang’s support that is particularly notable. On his Instagram, Tang captioned a photo with Yang taken on the day of his visit to Hwa Yuan with the following: “Honored to host mayoral candidate, Andrew Yang! Even as a lifelong Republican, I have got his back! He’s got New York’s.” The only other politician to have the honor of a photo op on Tang’s IG is Linsday Graham. The only NYC official to have the honor of his campaign contributions was Nicole Malliotakis, during her 2017 challenge to Bill de Blasio, whom he routinely excoriates over the problem of street homelessness on his Facebook. Tang donated $2,000 to Yang’s campaign in January 2021.

Tribulation 4/11

Yang’s idea to bring the hammer down on old ladies selling jade earrings on Canal Street without a permit provoked intense backlash from New York progressives. The common refrain was that because unlicensed street vendors are almost exclusively poor people of color, such a policy would be racist - and implicitly, that Yang himself was racist for suggesting it. While racism isn’t a huge sin for the notorious consultants running Yang’s campaign, a bad news cycle certainly is.

After a day of reflection with his confessors at Tusk Strategies, Yang received his penance: a public act of contrition before the media. “I regret that I took on such a frankly complicated and nuanced issue” online, he told reporters, and that he made it “seem like it’s a zero-sum game between unlicensed street vendors and retailers.”

That didn’t placate Scott Stringer, the city’s Comptroller and Yang’s best-funded opponent, who held a press conference in the Hispanic neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens denouncing Yang’s remark as a racist attack on Black and brown New Yorkers. He was flanked by a woman holding a sign reading: “more churros, less cops,” an allusion to the churro ladies who were arrested and hauled off from subway stations across the city in late 2019, Andrew Cuomo’s solution to a largely fictional crime wave roiling the city’s tabloids.

But an inconvenient fact for the race-reductionist narrative around this issue is that some of the strongest criticism of street vending, unlicensed or otherwise, comes from immigrant- and minority-owned small businesses. From the New York Post’s coverage of the decision to raise the licensing cap:

“More than 150 food merchants and business groups sent a letter to Speaker Corey Johnson expressing opposition to the proposed law. Many of the signatories are members of the New York State Latino Restaurant, Bar and Lounge Association.

One of them is restaurateur Sandra Jaquez, who owns Il Sole and Sa-Tacos eateries on Dyckman Street in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. Jaquez said there was a street vendor who sold tacos a block from her Mexican restaurant.

‘I sell Mexican food and tacos. That’s what the Mexican street vendor was selling,’ she said. ‘That’s super direct competition. If I sell tacos for $4.50 and a street vendor a block away sells tacos for $2.50, the people are going to go the street vendor.’”

This didn’t stop the media from proclaiming that Yang had imperiled his chances with New York’s communities of color. “This [is] a great issue for Stringer: unites progressives behind him, allows him to make inroads into a very up-for-grabs Latino vote. Would think he’d ride this for a while,” said David Freedlander of New York Magazine. “And he’s standing here today with two state legislators, both the first Colombians elected to state office in NY. Both representing districts that are predominantly Latino and immigrant,” replied Gloria Pazmino of NY1. Another New YorkMagazine writer concluded that the whole episode marked “an unforced error for the leading candidate for mayor.” But did it?

Liberation Theology

The lesson here isn’t that this movement of the multiracial ownership class is correct about the vending issue or any other. The point is that they exist. Andrew Yang wants their vote, and he’s asking them for it.

From the beginning of his campaign, Yang’s strategy has been to identify the most high-salience, emotionally charged issue within a particular segment of the electorate and pledge to champion the most common opinion on it, whatever it may be. The result is a motley collection of policy stances and points of emphasis that would puzzle anyone trying to identify the underlying ideology. Police crackdowns on taco vendors (for Hispanic restaurateurs). Protecting the one-shot admissions exam to the city’s specialized high schools (for Asian immigrant families). Hysterical opposition to the BDS movement (for the Hassidic Jews). No requirements for secular education in yeshivas (Hasidim again).

What unites them all? Andrew Yang’s desire to be the mayor, that’s what. He’s betting he can stitch together a coalition of cross-ethnic reaction as a makeshift base, then let money and name recognition take care of the rest. And so far, it’s working. Not only has Yang led in every public survey, but in the latest and highest quality poll of the race to date with crosstabs, he led among every single racial group - Hispanics included. So much for the churro ladies’ revenge.

How should a left candidate respond to such a socially corrosive gambit? They could start by acknowledging that BID executives and chain restaurant kingpins aren’t the only constituencies that might find Yang’s rhetoric attractive. New York is filled with mom-and-pop grocers, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, standalone beauty shops and bakeries and bodegas, and licensed street vendors. They too are mostly low- and middle-income people of color. Many of them are immigrants. All of them have been crushed by the pandemic and nearly abandoned by the government. Telling them that they’re “guided by a white supremacist racist ideology” if they’ve ever felt a pang of resentment toward vendors probably isn’t a great opener.

How about this instead: when Yang says he’s the savior of small business, you could point out that one of his biggest donors is Long Deng, the former Finance Chair of the New York Republican Party and grocery mogul whose company did nearly $100 million in business in 2020. Or that Deng’s wife and sister, both executives at his company, also maxed out to Yang. Or that Yang received thousands from at least 31 other individuals employed by three different companies owned by the Deng family: iFresh, New York Mart, and Strong America Ltd. Or that Deng was a delegate for Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention and a major donor to his 2020 campaign. Whatever he’s cooking up with Yang, they probably don’t have your needs in mind.

Or you could let the Timothy Chuangs of the world tell immigrant-run small businesses that their real problem is the unlicensed dumpling cart outside their restaurant, and then call them white supremacists if they’ve ever wondered if he was right. Though realistically, that’s probably the best way to convince them he is.

Matthew Thomas is a writer and researcher in Queens, NY. An organizer with NYC-DSA, he served as communications director on Zohran Mamdani's campaign for State Assembly and as a researcher on Tiffany Cabán's campaign for Queens District Attorney.