Former policeman Eric Adams took the early lead in a New York City primary Tuesday that will all but certainly select the next mayor tasked with shaping the post-pandemic future of America's largest metropolis.
Following the first results, Adams led a diverse group of 13 candidates vying for the job often called "the second-most difficult" in the United States after that of president, although the winner is unlikely to be known for several weeks.
Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a moderate who ran for president last year and who was once a frontrunner in the New York mayoral race, conceded defeat shortly after polls closed at 9:00 pm (0200 GMT Wednesday) with early returns putting him far behind.
"I am not going to be mayor of New York City based on the numbers that have come in tonight," Yang, 46, told supporters.
Voters headed to polls with Covid-19 still casting a long shadow over the Big Apple, the epicenter of America's early outbreak, and which has lost 33,000 people to the virus.
But the city is now coming back to life — virtually all coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, and 66 percent of adults have received at least one vaccine dose.
A crowded field of progressives and moderates face off in a race made all the more uncertain by a new ranked-choice system of voting that has clouded all predictions.
The new voting system asks voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference.
Unless a candidate immediately garners more than 50 percent of the votes — an unlikely scenario — the candidate who came in last is eliminated, and the ballots cast for them are redistributed to voters' second choice, and so on until a candidate finally exceeds the 50 percent threshold.
This system may not produce a clear winner until mid-July.
Since New York is a Democratic stronghold, the eventual winner is virtually guaranteed to win November's mayoral election against the Republican candidate.
"There's a lot at stake here," said Columbia University politics expert Lincoln Mitchell, citing issues ranging from the post-pandemic recovery to climate change.
Unemployment, homelessness, shootings and homicides have all surged since the novel coronavirus struck. Thousands of businesses have closed, tens of thousands of wealthier residents have fled, and most office workers are still working from home.
The pandemic, demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and attacks on Asian Americans have also highlighted the extent of racial inequalities in the city of 8.5 million.
New York's first new mayor in eight years will have to contend with projected budget gaps of several billion dollars each in the next few years.
They will succeed unpopular left-wing Democrat Bill de Blasio, who has been mayor since January 2014.
"It's time for a change," said Esther Rombaut, 48, after voting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
"It's going to be critical for the next person to figure out what to do with fiscal policy and how to get our kids back in school," she added.
For Susan Green, a 74-year-old interior designer, one issue topped the others.
"New York needs law and order, and a great deal of it," she told AFP, before voting for Yang.
Sixty-year-old-year-old Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who is Black, put public safety at the forefront of his campaign.
Shortly after 11:30 pm, he led with 30.9 percent of the vote, with 89 percent of first-choice votes counted, according to New York's election office.
Maya Wiley, a Black lawyer specializing in civil rights who was endorsed by progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kathryn Garcia, another moderate, were both around 20 percent.
Yang was in a distant fourth on 11 percent.
Wiley and Garcia are bidding to become New York's first woman mayor.
More than 191,000 people voted during the nine-day early voting period that ended Sunday. Tens of thousands of absentee ballots will also need to be counted.