Kathryn Garcia, a longtime civil servant who served as commissioner of New York City's Sanitation Department, in Brooklyn on April 30, 2021.
Damon Winter—The New York Times/Redux
May 27, 2021 3:48 PM EDT

Kathryn Garcia knows her shit. On a blustery spring morning, she’s standing at the waterfront in Long Island City and squinting at a boat on the East River, roughly a hundred yards away. “That’s a sludge boat,” she says. “Riding high.” One of her volunteers muses aloud that the vessel must be carrying trash. “No,” she says with a smirk, “it’s transporting solids.” Then she pauses for the tiniest moment before clarifying. “From the sewage system.”

Garcia knows this because for six years she served as New York City’s Sanitation Commissioner, overseeing a department of roughly 10,000 workers—mostly men—who kept the city running through snowstorms and prevented the garbage from piling up. (“Do you know,” she told me as if she was delivering a piece of juicy gossip, “that a rat parent couple can have 19,000 offspring in a year?”) Garcia is a consummate problem-solver. She helped lead the response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, getting clean water to New Yorkers in the storm’s aftermath. She was tapped in 2019 to lead the city’s effort to curb childhood lead poisoning. As “Food Czar” during the COVID-19 pandemic, she organized the city’s program to distribute more than 1 million meals a day.

Now she’s running to be New York’s first woman mayor. But in a crowded mayoral primary that has largely been dominated by the better-known but less experienced Andrew Yang, Garcia had struggled to get traction. Despite her work in the trenches of city government, she had little name recognition and even less feel for campaigning. Her speeches are competent but wooden, and her staff had to teach her how to end fundraising calls with an actual request for money.

But in recent weeks, Garcia won the coveted endorsements of the New York Times and the New York Daily News, a boost that pushed her into the lead for the first time, according to one new poll. This year’s June 22 Democratic mayoral primary is complicated to decipher: for the first time, it’s being conducted with ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to select a total of five candidates ranked by preference. Yet in the final weeks of the race, Garcia appears to be the candidate gaining momentum.

The prospect of Garcia becoming the first woman mayor of New York City is yet another chapter in America’s ongoing struggle with how to handle female competence in a political world that rarely rewards it. Garcia could follow the trajectory of Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren, two other accomplished women full of plans and policies who were nonetheless outshone by more politically palatable men when they ran for the top job. Or she could turn out to be the right woman for the moment. It’s the Biden era, after all, and Democrats seem to be embracing the idea of electing experienced public servants to lead the nation out of the pandemic. Kathryn Garcia’s campaign could be a test of whether Democrats are ready to actually elect a woman with the experience to get the job done.

“Women have clearly faced the question of viability in a way that the men don’t seem to have,” Garcia told me on May 25, as we drove from Queens to Brooklyn in a lime-green van emblazoned with her face. “We weren’t having from the beginning a conversation about who has the most ability to run this city. It was about who’s resonating.” Yang, a businessman who ran for President in 2020 but has no experience in city government, is running a campaign that promises, in one interpretation, to make the city fun again. “I don’t think anyone has been elected as a woman who was just fun anywhere in this country,” says Garcia.

Back when polls showed Yang with a sizable lead, he repeatedly indicated he would ask Garcia to join his administration if he won, saying she would be his second choice on the ballot and would make a “phenomenal partner.” The notion that Garcia would sign on as deputy to a less-experienced rival is “very sexist,” she says. “I’m running to win this race. That’s my goal.” (Sensing her momentum, Yang has recently turned negative on Garcia, linking her to the unpopular de Blasio administration and blaming her for “the piles of trash that we’re seeing around us that get higher and higher,” although she has not worked at the Sanitation Department in more than a year.)

Her campaign is rooted in an awareness of how the Mayor’s decisions impact the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Electing an inexperienced Mayor “could end up hurting people,” she says, whether it’s by making housing less affordable or making transit decisions that result in more bike accidents.

Garcia is running as what she calls a “practical progressive.” She proposes building on New York’s universal Pre-K and 3-K programs by offering free child care up to age 3 for families earning less than $70,000 a year. She has not embraced the “defund the police” framework advocated by her more progressive rivals, but has a policing plan that includes investing in violence prevention programs, embedding mental health workers in the department and picking a commissioner who is committed to a “culture change.” Her climate platform, which won the endorsement of the New York League of Conservation Voters, includes building more than 250 miles of new bike paths, installing thousands of electric car chargers and implementing a Green New Deal for public housing. True to her roots in Sanitation, she’s proposed a plan to get piles of garbage bags off the street and into rat-proof, curbside containers.

If Garcia wins, she would also be the first Mayor who has experienced the nation’s largest city the way so many New York women do every day. Her first brush with a subway pervert was as a teen, when she was riding home from high school and “someone was, uh, pleasuring themselves,” she says, raising her eyebrows. She carries a big purse with a water bottle, earbuds, extra shoes (usually Toms) and a large black makeup bag with her signature MAC lipstick. She recently upgraded her speaking podium from a 50-lb. lectern to a lighter, more portable model that would be easier for her female staff to pack into tote bags as they race around the city.

Garcia has cultivated some municipal celebrity for her habit of wearing high heels throughout her time as Sanitation Commissioner (“I can do an 85mm—100mm is too high”) and getting a Sanitation jacket to fit her figure. The large men’s jackets, she says, were so boxy that they “made me look like SpongeBob Square Pants.” And besides: “Are we gonna pretend like I’m not a woman?”

Some fans have interpreted her heels as an expression of personal style, or a sly sartorial wink to gussy up the job of garbage pickup. (There’s a text chain of former women City Hall employees who send each other photos of her latest outfits, called #TeamGarcia.) But Garcia says her footwear was a gesture of respect to the workers in her department. “It matters to the people who work with me, how I looked, that I represented them,” she explained to me. “And it was important that I always look professional, because they felt that it reflected on them.”

Garcia spent years infiltrating what she calls “the boys club” of city government, including a period where she had to leave work or go part-time in order to raise her two young children. “I could not figure out how that was going to work with a newborn,” she says. “I couldn’t figure out how to nurse.” Women who have worked with her say she’s especially understanding of staff with young kids. “If I talked to her on the phone and a kid was in the background, she’d be like, “I know what that’s like,’” says Andrea Hagelgans, a former senior adviser to de Blasio who worked extensively with Garcia. “It just made it feel less like of a problem when you’re talking to the Commissioner on the phone.”

Across city government, Garcia has a reputation as a listener, someone who surrounds herself with competent people and then empowers them to do their best work. She won the endorsement of Teamsters Local 831, which represents the New York sanitation workers she once oversaw. “She is an incredible manager,” says Erin Burns-Maine, who worked with Garcia at the New York City Housing Authority. “She hires good people, she retains good people, she surrounds herself with the experts and listens to them.” Her roles at multiple agencies have also given her insight into which problems tend to fall through the cracks. “She’s able to see all sides and cut through the BS and the bureaucracy and the red tape,” says Jennifer Montalvo, who worked with Garcia on both housing issues and the Food Czar task force. “There are so few women in city government who are so effective. It’s inspiring.”

And yet, running the city is not the same as winning the election. Although Garcia’s record demonstrates a firm grasp of municipal process, electoral politics are new to her. The spotlight has taken some getting used to. She’s no great orator: She tends to speak in short, efficient sentences and stops talking when she’s made her point, rarely slipping into the grandstanding popular with so many other politicians, especially men. She’s begun to realize that “I should actually fill in all this space on every Zoom,” after her staff told her she left some time on the clock. “I was like, ‘But I answered the question.'” Garcia also doesn’t fit neatly into the progressive-vs.-moderate dichotomy that voters and pundits often use to categorize candidates. Many of her plans seem like they’d appeal to Warren fans, yet she worked for the Michael Bloomberg administration.

Her path to winning the June 22 primary is hard to assess, in large part because ranked-choice voting makes it difficult for pollsters to size up the race. Faced with more than a dozen contenders, even voters who prefer her rivals could rank Garcia as their second or third choice, giving her a boost if no candidate reaches 50%.

Garcia’s rivals have carved out more distinct niches. Yang is doing well with young voters, ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders, and the tech sector. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ law-and-order message seems to be resonating with more conservative Democrats in the outer boroughs. Comptroller Scott Stringer has built a strong coalition of progressive allies that has taken a hit from a recent sexual harassment allegation (which Stringer denies). Civil-rights lawyer Maya Wiley and nonprofit administrator Dianne Morales are both courting the progressive left. According to the recent Emerson poll, Yang is doing the best with voters under 30, Adams is doing best with Black voters, and Garcia is doing best with white voters. But since voters can pick multiple candidates, those breakdowns could easily shift.

Since there’s almost no historical data on how ranked choice voting will play out in New York, the Garcia campaign has decided to run a relatively conventional race: increasing name recognition, going up on TV, and trying to get the candidate out on the street, talking to as many people as possible. “Our ranked-choice strategy has always been to not overthink ranked choice strategy,” says one top Garcia aide.

For now, Garcia says, she hopes that after years of invisible behind-the scenes work, people are finally beginning to see her. “I think that I am the candidate they want,” she says as the van hurtles down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. “I think they just did not know my name for a while.”

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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