The $13 million runoff election for Public Advocate is this Tuesday, and last night City Councilwoman Letitia James and State Senator Daniel Squadron faced off for one final debate. Though the rather similar candidates didn't do much to help distinguish themselves when it comes down to the issues, there was a lot of finger-pointing while the both tried to prove the other was the Biggest Lying Liar—or Bloomberg BFFer—of them all.
Unlike the five-candidate Public Advocate debate back in August, the Campaign Finance Board runoff debate—sponsored by Gothamist and our partners, NY1 News, NY1 Noticias, WNYC, Citizens Committee for New York City, Citizens Union, Hispanic Federation, and Transportation Alternatives—was an intimate affair, with James and Squadron sitting down with moderators Errol Louis of NY1 and Brian Lehrer of WNYC. But despite James's early declaration that the lack of "tabloid candidates" meant the debate could focus on "issues that New Yorkers really care about," things got personal fast.
With Christine Quinn's crushing defeat in the mayoral primary serving as a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting too chummy with Bloomberg, James made sure to point out that Squadron stayed silent on term limits back when Bloomberg's third term was proposed, calling him a "close ally" of the mayor's and accusing him of "carrying the mayor's water" in Albany. But Squadron didn't let her get away with it, noting his pro-term limit stance is on the record and pointing out that James had supported the mayor on more issues than he had. "The truth is that Council Member James has stood with the mayor over 98 percent of the time," he said. "And that's not right."
The candidates also traded barbs over their legislative history; as in the previous debate, James knocked Squadron for allowing luxury housing to be built in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Squadron came at her for taking questionable campaign contributions. And they wasted no time in diving into each other's finances. Squadron accused James of hiding the fact that she was a landlord, noting that she has still has not released her taxes despite having promised to do so at the last debate. "In an office that's all about transparency," he said, "Don't you think those issues should raise real doubts about New Yorkers' ability to trust you as Public Advocate?"
James, who rarely looked at Sqaudron directly during the debate, hit back. "I will release my tax returns, just as I'd hoped you'd release the fact that you have a trust fund," she snapped. Squadron was not happy. "That kind of personal attack and innuendo, aside from being simply not true, is deeply inappropriate," he said. "That is not what this campaign is about.
Lest ye fear the debate was all claws and no substance, the candidates did discuss some real issues, and both James and Squadron touched on highlights from their careers in public service. For James, proud moments included protecting tenants from unscrupulous landlords, providing immigrants with free legal services and putting focus on affordable housing. Squadron discussed his work with tenants in public housing and his successful anti-gun legislation.
They each spoke out in favor of the recent ruling of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk profiling as unconstitutional, and highlighted the importance of improving the public school system, though James noted Squadron had taken money from charter school supporters in the past. And both candidates seemed to be looking forward to a potential Bill de Blasio mayoral administration, although they insisted they were unafraid stand up to him if the situation called for it.
In the lightning round, James said that her favorite childhood band was the Jackson Five (Squadron's was the Beastie Boys), and Squadron revealed that his family called their Halloween candy "Squadrobars." They were also asked whether they'd consider a run for mayor; Squadron said he wasn't looking past the Public Advocate position at the moment, but James was adamant. "I am not interested in running for mayor, by no means," she declared.
The moment when everyone could laugh—and that was necessary because of the tension—was when they were asked if they had smoked pot. James said no, remarking about the detrimental effects of drugs on people in her district. Squadron, however, admitted to puffing the magic dragon, prompting James to actually turn and look at him, asking, "Really?!"
The runoff election, open to registered Democrats only, will be held on October 1st; take a look out our handy public advocate candidate guide to see where they stand on the issues before you head into the voting booth. Only you can help raise turnout numbers—fewere than 150,000 New Yorkers are expected to vote.