With four months until the primaries, at least 40 candidates are running for mayor. And nearly eight times that number are vying for open City Council seats. 

So people are asking: What does it actually take to run for office?

We’ve fielded a series of questions from readers on this — including the legal requirements to run, how to get on the ballot and how money plays into it all. To get answers, we spoke with Amelia Adams and Yvette Buckner, two veterans of the New York campaign world who serve as chair and vice chair of 21 for ‘21, an organization founded in 2017 to elect more women to the City Council.

The requirements to run

First up, a reader asked about “learning what requirements are needed to run a campaign for City Council.” The first-generation college graduate from a Mexican immigrant family said she is considering a run for office someday.

Here’s the answer:

The only legal requirements for running for office in New York City are:

You need to be at least 18 years old.

You need to live in the district you want to represent — at the time of the election.

“You have to be there on June 22,” the date of New York’s primary this year, said Buckner.

How to get on the ballot

Reader John O. asked: “How do you get on the ballot? Is petitioning required even during the pandemic?”

Here’s the answer:

You’re going to need between 270 and 2,250 signatures.

A big hurdle to getting on the ballot is petitioning — in other words, collecting those signatures. The process mandated by New York State election law  requires signed support of your candidacy from voters who live in the district and are registered in the party you want to run with.

Every candidate has to collect signatures — in person — during a set window of time. This year, it’s between March 2 and March 25. To collect signatures, volunteers and campaign staff hit the streets with long, green petition forms from the state Board of Election.

“I call them ‘The Green Army,’” Adams said.

City Council candidates need 270 signatures while mayoral candidates need 2,250, according to state law. Getting the signatures is half the battle, however, because they must be accepted under a dizzying set of rules set forth by the state BOE.

And because rivals often challenge the validity of petitions, a candidate should collect many more than the minimum. 

A common challenge: Signatures need to be from voters registered with the party a candidate intends to run with. Republicans can’t sign for Democrats, for example. Voters also can’t sign petitions for multiple candidates. If they do, those petitions might get axed.

Bucker said: “If you have to collect 1,000, you should get 4,000.”

The wildcard this year is that during the pandemic, more than 100 local candidates are trying to nix the need to petition in person. They filed a lawsuit last week, citing safety concerns related to the pandemic. 

Adams said: “I assume every candidate is preparing to do in-person petitioning come March 2. It would be unwise to not do that.”

Does the M in ‘Mayor’ stand for ‘Millionaire’?

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Another reader asked “Do you have to be a millionaire to be mayor?”

Here’s the answer:

Adams and Buckner say you don’t have to be rich to win office in New York, especially in local races like City Council. But… “Money helps,” Buckner said.

Mike Bloomberg, of course, tapped into his billions, pouring about $1 million a day into his campaign to secure a third term in 2009. And though other recent mayors had modest means in comparison, none were exactly struggling financially.

Rudy Guiliani began his term in the top 2% of New Yorkers by income, and The New York Times estimated David Dinkins had $100,000 in the bank as he ran for office in 1989. Ed Koch was worth just over $100,000 when he took office in 1978, the paper reported when he died.

Still, there are many elected officials — particularly in the City Council — who’ve successfully run for office without fortunes.  

Adams said: “You have to be strategic in how you get your money, but you don’t have to be wealthy to do it.”

That’s because New York has “one of the most generous public financing systems in the country,” as Adams put it, which matches public dollars to funds candidates raise from individual donors in New York City, not from special interest groups or donors outside of the city.

That means a $10 donation from a New Yorker “could be worth as much as $90” to a campaign opting into the public-matching system, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

This makes it easier for candidates who don’t already have a huge donation pipeline — like many first-time candidates, among them immigrants and women — or connections to deep-pocketed individuals, Adams said.

“If a woman candidate hustles and gets a whole bunch of little tiny contributions, that actually does make a difference,” she said.

In her and Buckner’s experience, a typical first-time City Council candidate usually raises between $25,000 and $30,000, which turns into $200,000 to $240,000 with NYC’s 8-to-1 public matching.

It’s worth noting: Unlike all other major mayoral candidates, CitiGroup executive Ray McGuire — who is backed by many in New York’s business community — has opted not to participate in the city’s public matching system, allowing him to raise and spend without limit. This is significant for complicated reasons, but how much he raises could affect CFB caps.

So… Do you qualify? Do you want to run for office this year?

We know what you’re thinking: “Hey, maybe I should run?” So we asked Buckner and Adams if it’s too late to join the fray. 

Here’s the answer: 

Until the petitioning deadline arrives — reminder: March 25 — the door is wide open for more candidates to jump into an unprecedented pool of would-be elected officials, even after the signature-gathering process starts in March.

Adams said: “You can decide in the middle of petitioning — if you have a lot of volunteers or if you have a lot of money to pay people to get signatures — and you could actually run.”

In 2013, for example, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer joined the race for city comptroller just days before the petitioning deadline and made it onto the ballot. Spitzer, who manages his family’s $1 billion real estate portfolio, poured millions into the 2013 race.

What do you think? Should there be different or more qualifications? Let us know by replying to this email or sending a note to civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc.

Campaign events this week

People cast their ballots in the Barclays Center on the first day of early voting, Oct. 24, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Lots of different local organizations are hosting virtual candidate forums where voters can hear more from the mayoral hopefuls. THE CITY’s reporter Rachel Holliday Smith is even moderating one about tenant issues on Saturday. Here are some others:

…and don’t forget: Our first round of Civic Newsroom meetings start next week and we’d love for you to join us!

  • Citywide meeting: Wednesday, March 3 at 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Mott Haven meeting: Saturday, March 6 at 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Brownsville meeting: Wednesday March 10 at 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Flushing meeting: Saturday, March 13 at 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Sign up here.

What we’re reading

What are your election questions?

Next week, we’re delving into what endorsements are and why they matter (and if they matter, frankly), and we want to hear from you. When you’re considering who to vote for, do you think about endorsements or the groups that have stated their support for a candidate? If yes, whose endorsement means the most to you and why?

If you have any questions about the election process, the candidates or any other information when it comes to voting in New York, let us know by replying to this email or sending a note to civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc.