Kathryn Garcia for New York Kathryn Garcia
Less than a year ago, Kathryn Garcia was still a little known New York City official contemplating her first-ever run for office.
"I love the behind the scenes," the 51-year-old city sanitation executive-turned-mayoral contender says. "I don't crave the limelight."
In a recent interview with PEOPLE, Garcia reflected on her long career in government and the "whirlwind" 2021 campaign that unexpectedly landed her center stage for Tuesday's Democratic primary in the N.Y.C. mayor's race, in which she is one of a handful of leading candidates in a crowded field.
(The winner of the primary will almost certainly triumph in the November general election, given the city's voting history.)
Garcia, a Brooklyn native, first worked her way up as an intern at the city's Department of Sanitation, which she went on to lead starting in 2014. Then, last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio also tasked her to head the city's food distribution program during the COVID-19 pandemic, coordinating delivery for hundreds of millions of meals.
But since she made the decision in December to try and succeed de Blasio, Garcia's name has echoed far beyond the walls of City Hall.
She says she's enjoying her newfound life in the spotlight.
"It has been phenomenal out on the trail, because I really like people," Garcia tells PEOPLE. "I even did salsa yesterday in the street - it was fun!"
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Kathryn Garcia
The Democratic candidate's rise in recent months, and her enthusiastic embrace of it, could end with her becoming the first woman ever elected as New York's mayor. (Polls show Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and fellow former de Blasio staffer, is also a major contender in the race.)
"The thing that I think most about is being able to be an example for young girls and young women in the city," Garcia says. "We do deserve to be in the top chair."
And more and more supporters around N.Y.C. - including some of the city's most prominent voices - have been throwing their support behind her.
The New York Times reported last week that recent surveys show Garcia is at the front of the race alongside Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, with Wiley and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang trailing just behind.
The numbers were enough for Garcia to declare the contest a "two-person race" hours before jumping on the phone with PEOPLE to discuss her background and her success.
"It's been a whirlwind," she says, thinking back to her meteoric climb since receiving a crucial endorsement from the Times' editorial board last month.
The newspaper board echoed her central pitch to voters: She knows what she's doing.
Noam Galai/Getty Kathryn Garcia
They wrote that, among the 13 candidates appearing on the Democratic primary ticket, Garcia - who had initially struggled to set herself away from the pack, seen as a technocrat instead of a visionary - "best understands how to get New York back on its feet and has the temperament and the experience to do so."
The Times credited Garcia with digitizing the city's Sanitation Department systems in recent years, restoring the city's wastewater treatment systems after Hurricane Sandy, helping overhaul the city's Housing Authority and then helping deliver more than 200 million meals to New Yorkers during the pandemic.
With the confidence of the headline-making candidate she has now become, Garcia tells PEOPLE: "It would be fair to argue that none of my opponents have that experience."
"I'm a girl from Brooklyn," she says. "I want this city to run well. I want my kids to stay here. Eventually - not pushing anything - I want my grandchildren to stay here."
Stefan Jeremiah/Shutterstock From left: Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Kathryn Garcia
Garcia, who has two kids, says family is a key component of her identity and the campaign.
"I live with my two kids and my mother, so I knew I had four votes," she jokes, later noting the support she's received from her famous cousin, actor Clark Gregg.
The Marvel movie star has appeared at several fundraisers for Garcia's campaign and has promoted her mayoral bid on social media. "He's been really, really supportive," Garcia says.
Her family history has been central to her message as she's introduced herself to more and more voters in recent months. Adopted into a multiracial family with four siblings, two of whom are Black, Garcia says family taught her the importance of diversity firsthand.
"It's certainly not the normal path," she says, "But there's a lot of joy there."
Garcia says her father, Bruce, a labor negotiator under former Mayor Ed Koch, and her mother, Ann, a teacher at Medgar Evers College, early on instilled a "mission-driven" work ethic in her and her siblings.
"At the dinner table, there were lots of conversations about how you should do something meaningful with your life," she remembers. "That's what success looked like."
So Garcia followed that path after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin, rolling up her 22-year-old sleeves to take a less-than-glamorous internship at N.Y.C.'s Sanitation Department that she later led for six years until resigning in 2020 to run for mayor.
She says it was an enlightening and, yes, messy job.
"How the city works, I find fascinating," she says. "How do you collect 10,000 tons of refuse every day, and 2,000 tons of recycling? Let's open up the hood."
Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock Kathryn Garcia
Garcia estimates she's managed well over 20,000 city workers at a time and that she's prepared to oversee the 325,000 the city currently employs.
"[My decision] really was driven by, what does the city need now? And who's right for the job at this moment?" Garcia says. "We can't have somebody who doesn't know where the light switches are making the city run."
But, she says, becoming a politician was something she needed to adjust to after years of working largely in the background at City Hall.
"You give up a tremendous amount of privacy [when running for office], and you got to be okay with that," she says. "That was a hurdle that I needed to get over."
Garcia has since sprinted up the polls on the heels of her Times endorsement, which was followed up by endorsements from The New York Daily News and Crain's New York Business news, along with prominent organizations like the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood.
Now, Garcia tells PEOPLE she's ready to "show up for New Yorkers" if chosen as their next mayor, as the city looks to recover from COVID-19 and chart a new path on criminal justice and crime.
"We need to fix a lot of things," Garcia says, sounding determined. "And that's what I do."