Ray McGuire’s campaign for New York mayor has been turbocharged by donations from the city’s close-knit corporate dealmaking community, which is backing a long-shot bet to put an old friend in office at a time when progressive voices are ascendant in America’s largest city.

A mergers and acquisitions banker for nearly 40 years, most recently at Citigroup, McGuire has amassed $7.4m in private funds for his campaign, $3.8m higher than the next candidate, allowing him to eschew New York’s generous public campaign financing scheme.

McGuire has won public backing from such celebrities as Jay-Z and Spike Lee. His campaign has also received contributions from dozens of top professionals in law and finance at firms such as Skadden, Paul Weiss, Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Lazard, often at the individual donor limit of $5,100 each.

“Ray has one of the broadest and deepest networks,” said Steven Lipin, a longtime financial communications executive who has known McGuire for more than two decades. “He is known and beloved by many people in this town. I can’t tell you how many fundraiser invites I got from lawyers and bankers.”

The Democratic primary scheduled for June 22 is a de facto general election in the heavily Democratic city, with the winner highly likely to replace outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio next year. The primary, with 13* candidates, also sees the debut of a “ranked choice” voting system where residents can select as many as five choices for each citywide office.

Stacked bar chart showing the top six mayoral candidates in terms of total campaign receipts up to March 11. Ray McGuire has raised the most money in terms of private funds, but when public matching funds (which McGuire is not participating in) are taken into account (the city matches small-dollar donations from NYC residents at a 8:1 or 6:1 ratio for participants), Eric Adams and Scott Stringer are ahead. McGuire and Donovan also have well-funded dedicated super Pacs (which cannot co-ordinate with campaigns).

McGuire, 64, has attempted to straddle the line as a non-partisan financial technocrat who, as a black man brought up in a single-parent household in Dayton, Ohio, also appreciates the struggles of ordinary New Yorkers.

He has noted that the $700bn of mergers he put together in his career were larger than the annual city budget, and has presented “public/private partnerships” as key to the city’s comeback from the ravages of the pandemic.

At the same time, “I’m as regular as it gets . . . nobody out there realer than me”, McGuire told radio station WQHT Hot 97 in an interview, describing a life journey “from the streets to the suites”.

He has acknowledged being subject to racial profiling and said he understands the experiences of the majority of New York’s 8m people who identify as non-white. He was endorsed by the mother of Eric Garner, a black man killed by a New York police officer in 2014.

He has unparalleled connections among New York’s financial elite. McGuire’s cash pile is more than twice the sum raised by the next most effective fundraiser, city comptroller Scott Stringer, according to campaign finance data updated to March 11.

This fundraising juggernaut has enabled McGuire to decline the city’s matching funds programme, which encourages candidates to pursue small-dollar contributions from residents. Last week the city’s Campaign Finance Board raised the spending limit to $10.9m from $7.3m for other candidates who are tapping matching funds because McGuire’s spending had exceeded a cap set by its rules.

Stacked bar chart showing campaign contributions to candidates in the NYC mayoral election, by donation amount (data through March 11). The vast majority (around 90%) of Ray McGuire

The average donation to the McGuire campaign was $1,222. By contrast, Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate who now leads the polls, has raised $2m, with an average donation of just $143. While half of Yang’s money flowed from outside the city, roughly two-thirds of McGuire’s has come from inside its five boroughs, particularly from affluent Manhattan neighbourhoods such as the Upper East Side.

His candidacy has also drawn support from a dedicated super Pac, a type of independent political action committee that can raise unlimited donations but cannot co-ordinate with a campaign. The “New York for Ray” committee has raised more than $4m from donors including former American Express chief executive Ken Chenault, former Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld and billionaire Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who had backed Donald Trump for US president.

“I think he’s an exceptional candidate,” said Joseph Perella, the veteran investment banker. “And the fact that someone has no political background can be a positive when it comes to solving New York’s problems. He’s not ideological.”

In the mid-1980s, Perella hired McGuire from Harvard, where he had earned undergraduate, law and MBA degrees.

Maps showing where the major NYC mayoral candidates are getting their money from in NYC. Ray McGuire

Other Wall Street executives were equally enthusiastic. Faiza Saeed, presiding partner at the legal powerhouse Cravath, Swaine & Moore, called McGuire’s Dayton-to-Harvard story “very inspiring,” and said he had the ideas and background to revive the city at a time of “strains and division”.

“I have known Ray for many years and the combination of his financial acumen and lived experiences make him one of the best leaders in my view to help guide NYC back as a powerhouse,’‘ said Aryeh Bourkoff, chief executive of LionTree, a boutique media investment bank.

McGuire led the investment banking business for more than a decade at Citigroup, one of the Wall Street banks bailed out during the 2008 financial crisis. The affiliation casts a shadow over his candidacy in a city trending to the left.

In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist, shocked the establishment by defeating a 10-term moderate Democrat for a House seat representing parts of the boroughs of the Bronx and Queens. Several leftwing candidates in the New York area won seats in her wake.

The mayoral race is seen as the latest clash between moderate pro-business candidates and foes seeking to diminish the influence of corporate interests.

This year a group of large New York employers gently encouraged employees to register to vote as Democrats, with the implication that they would vote for one of the less commercially hostile candidates for City Hall. Stephen Ross, the Trump-supporting billionaire developer behind Manhattan’s Hudson Yards office and residential district, also funded a group to push pro-business candidates.

As for concerns that he would be too corporate-focused, McGuire has said that his personal wealth means that “I don’t owe anybody anything”.

For now, at least, McGuire’s formidable war chest has not translated into a commanding ballot position. He polled in the single digits in a recent Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos survey, which also found that more than a quarter of likely voters were still undecided.

His campaign manager, Basil Smikle, drew the obvious comparison to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul-turned-New York mayor, as an unconventional candidate with a record of achievement.

McGuire declined an interview but provided a written statement.

“Most of the rooms I’ve been in, I’m the first person who looks like me to make it there,” he said. “I’ve made sure that I wasn’t the last. I extended the ladder. We’ve gotten support from about 7,000 people over the last few months, and if some of them are people I’ve worked with or helped up the ladder, that’s great.”

*This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the number of candidates has declined to 13.