With less than three weeks to go until the June 22nd primary, the leading Democratic candidates for mayor aggressively jockeyed one another to make their case before New York City voters in what was expected to be one of the more widely viewed debates in the race. Broadcast on WABC-TV as well as several streaming platforms, the debate was the first time the eight contenders were liberated from their Zoom boxes and able to face off in the same room.
Reflecting the stakes, the night featured plenty of the sharp attacks and a few made-for-TV moments.
Over two hours, the candidates addressed a litany of pressing issues facing the city as it tries to recover from the pandemic. Like the first debate, tackling crime while ensuring fair policing practices was one of the focal points. Other topics included getting public school children back in classrooms, ensuring safety in the subways, and addressing the rash of racist attacks often perpetrated by mentally ill New Yorkers.
The debate was co-hosted by WABC-TV, Univision 41 Nueva York, the League of Women Voters of NYC, the Hispanic Federation, and the NAACP New York State Conference.
WABC anchor Bill Ritter served as the moderator of the debate. He was joined by WABC’s political reporter Dave Evans and Yisel Tejeda, an anchor for Univision.
Here are some of the key moments of the evening.
The Party Gets Started Early As Supporters Hold Pre-Debate Rallies
With the first in-person debate between the Democratic contenders for mayor, droves of supporters of several candidates converged on the street outside of the network's studios on the Upper West Side. In a boisterous display of political fealty, the competing factions shouted their slogans and waved their posters. But it was a relatively short burst of energy. People eventually started peeling off to watch the much-anticipated debate. A group of Andrew Yang supporters headed for Dim Sum Palace in Midtown, while those for Eric Adams said they were headed to his campaign office in Harlem.
Candidates Spar Over Stop-and-Frisk and Police Reform
At the start of the debate, the candidates were asked how they would handle the sharp rise in shootings, a phenomenon occurring in nearly every major U.S. city in the wake of the pandemic. Their respective stances on public safety and policing has been one of the starkest contrasts between the candidates, with moderates calling for tougher or increased policing and progressives seeking to reallocate money from police budgets to social service programs that they argue will address the root problems of violence.
Both Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer, and Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, have said they would make restoring public safety one of their top priorities and pledged to get guns off the street.
Yang said he would increase the police force, invest in gun suppression programs, and bring back a unit of plainclothes officers that was dissolved under the current police commissioner.
Similarly, Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner, said the city needs to “use every tool in the toolbox,” including expanding a gun buyback program and looking at data to pinpoint where the shootings were occurring.
Ray McGuire, the ex-Citigroup executive who delivered an assertive performance Wednesday night, agreed with the frontrunners.
“Defund doesn't work," he said. “We need to get guns off the street by whatever means necessary."
Read More: "Defund" The NYPD: What It Means And Where Democratic Mayoral Candidates Stand On It
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Maya Wiley, the former civil rights attorney who served as counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the city needed to focus on smarter policing, such as focusing on homicides and crimes like rape, which she said was up over last year.
Wiley, Shaun Donovan, the former housing secretary under President Obama, and Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, said they intended to reduce the police budget by removing NYPD from situations involving those with mental health issues.
Dianne Morales, the most left-leaning candidate, argued that the increase in crime was a direct result of economic insecurities. “If we provide jobs to these young people and economic stability to these communities, the violence we are witnessing will be dramatically decreased.”
Rivals Focus Their Criticism on Two Front-Runners: Yang and Adams
As expected, Yang and Adams bore the brunt of the attacks throughout the night.
Early on, Stringer took a page from Wiley, who delivered a strong performance in the first debate, in part by attacking Adams on his positions on stop-and-frisk, a controversial policing tactic that critics say disproportionately impacts Black and Latino men.
In a jab aimed at Adams, Stringer said he sought to avoid the “Guiliani days of stop-and-frisk and a Republican agenda that put a lot of kids in the criminal justice system."
Unlike the first debate where he looked visibly irritated by Wiley's attacks, Adams on Wednesday appeared intent on maintaining his composure, often keeping a tight smile.
After pointing to his record of criticizing stop-and-frisk, he said, “Scott, don’t rewrite history.”
Wiley, who tried to control the first half of the debate by interrupting her opponents, also got into the fray.
She questioned Adams on his statement that as mayor he would carry a gun in certain situations.
“Eric, isn’t this the wrong message to send our kids we’re telling not to pick up the guns?”
Adams told her that off-duty officers had the right to carry weapons.
“The state law states that a police officer can carry off-duty because he has to respond 24 hours a day to any crime that is taking place in this city,” he said.
He then cited an instance where he was able to come to the rescue of man who was the subject of an anti-Asian attack.
To which Wiley retorted: “We also had an off-duty officer shoot his friend and murder him carrying his gun.”
Yang, meanwhile, came under scrutiny twice for his proposed cash assistance program, which would give $2,000 a year to half a million of the city’s poorest New Yorkers. Yang has estimated that such a plan would cost the city $1 billion.
“Does that $1 billion translate into $5 a day?” McGuire interjected at one point.
In a separate moment, Donovan asked Yang how he would solve the wealth gap by providing less than $200 a month and diverting money from other programs.
“It certainly isn’t universal. Maybe I would describe it as basic,” Donovan said, referring to Yang’s so-called universal basic income proposal. (Donovan has an "equity bonds" plan, which seeks to establish savings accounts for nearly all children in New York City.)
Yang defended his plan by saying that it was an important first step toward providing cash relief for the lowest-income residents, a conversation that he credited himself with starting at the national level with his presidential campaign.
“It’s just a start, it’s just a downpayment,” he argued.
Morales Fends Off Questions About the State of Her Campaign
With some of her campaign staff having called a work stoppage last Thursday, Morales had to explain to a televised audience how they could expect her to run a city with turmoil within her own ranks.
“The kind of thing we’re talking about is actually something that is not uncommon for managers that are seasoned,” Morales said.
She added: “As soon as I became aware of the situation, I intervened. I acted swiftly.”
In the span of a few days last week several key staff members were fired by the campaign, while others left in protest. The conflict arose over an allegation of sexual harassment, concerns about a toxic workplace environment and unequal pay that unionizing workers say wasn’t adequately handled. Striking workers have demanded that four people fired who were leading unionization efforts should be reinstated, which they say Morales has not yet agreed to.
At the debate Wednesday night, Morales chalked up the infighting as growing pains.
“Our team grew from 13 staff to 90 in the span by about 6 weeks. That kind of growth is explosive and unusual but we responded we addressed it and we’re moving on,” she said.
One of Morales’ head staffers, however, who’d announced her resignation last week because she said the campaign no longer aligned with her values, tweeted she’d just been hired by Wiley’s campaign. A spokesperson for the union representing Morales’ workers didn’t return a request for comment right away.
For The Most Part, Yang Tries To Stay Mr. Nice Guy
Going into the debate, some wondered whether Yang, who began his campaign with a positive tone, would turn more negative as he has in recent weeks. Would debate watchers see the amiable candidate who likes to make jokes or a sharper tongued one who has gone after not only Adams but Garcia, his self-proclaimed number two choice.
The answer was mostly the former.
Yang began his opening remarks by noting the height of one of his opponents standing at the nearest podium.
“My friend Ray McGuire is 6-foot-4," said Yang, a wry reference to how height is often considered a political advantage. (Yang appears to be under 6 feet tall.)
Later, as the debate winded down, Yang injected some levity by saying, “I hope the Knicks are winning.” (In an end to their quixotic playoff run, the team lost to the Atlanta Hawks in an elimination game 5.)
But Yang also bared his teeth during one of the debate’s feistiest exchanges in which Adams pressed him on his relative inexperience, his decision to leave the city for his second home during the height of the pandemic, and his failure to vote in several local elections.
“How the hell do we have you become our mayor?” Adams said. “How do you govern a diverse city like this? I just don’t get it.”
Yang hit back by citing state and federal investigations of Adams, none of which found wrongdoing but which have nevertheless cast a shadow on his campaign.
“Everywhere you’ve gone people see you don’t pay attention to the rules of the road,” he told Adams. “You’re unprincipled.”
Adams accused Yang of unfairly targeting a person of color and demanded an apology.
As the two sniped back and forth, McGuire, who broke the fighting up, said, “This has nothing to do with how we are going to make this city run better.
So How Many Times Did Garcia Mention That New York Times Endorsement?
Garcia, a first-time candidate who began her campaign with little name recognition, has been riding a wave of momentum in the wake of an endorsement from the New York Times editorial board. Many took Garcia to task for mentioning the endorsement only once during the first debate. Although the Times endorsement typically does not matter a great deal for mayoral candidates, some experts have said it will be more influential during a year in which there are eight candidates and a new ranked-choice voting system in which voters get to rank up to five candidates.
Garcia appeared to heed the criticism. During Wednesday’s debate, she mentioned the Times (and the Daily News) endorsement FOUR times.
At one point, she wielded that endorsement against Stringer, who attempted to tie her to the de Blasio administration’s policy on addressing homelessness, which has only resulted in greater numbers of homeless New Yorkers.
“As you know well, I had absolutely nothing to do with homelessness,” Garcia curtly responded.
She then cited her plan and parroted one of Stringer’s signature slogans. “I have a strong plan to make sure we are addressing this on day 1,” she said, before adding the zinger, “Which is why I got endorsed by the New York Times and Daily News.”
The exchange was a memorable one for Garcia, who struggled at times to make her voice heard in a crowded debate.
Candidates Grade Mayor de Blasio on Homelessness, Policing and Pre-K
Here’s what they really think of you, Bill.
Candidates were asked to give the mayor letter grades on his performance. The results were mixed but maybe not as terrible as some would have thought given how critical the candidates have been of the current administration.
Morales gave de Blasio an A on vision but said she ranked him at C when it came to execution of his plans.
Eric Adams gave an A/B on Pre-K for all, and a B on having decreased stop and frisk.
Donovan gave de Blasio a D for his handling of homelessness, while Stringer, citing his many audits of de Blasio’s administration gave him an F grade. Wiley, who served in the de Blasio administration, cited several policies she agreed with before, but landed on an F for his handling of protests against police brutality last summer.
McGuire gave de Blasio a B- on Pre-K and a F for leadership and management of the budget.
Yang graded de Blasio incomplete, while Garcia declined to grade her former boss.
Meanwhile, Yang was the only candidate who said he would accept de Blasio’s endorsement if offered to him, though the current mayor has reportedly been calling around to drum up more support for his rival Adams. Yang was also the only candidate to say he would accept Gov. Andrew Cuomo's endorsement.
In what could be seen as a tacit dig at mayoral contenders, de Blasio tweeted about the Knicks game which also broadcast Wednesday night, signaling perhaps he wasn’t even paying attention to his prospective successors.
Paperboy Prince Steals the Show
Last but not least, Paperboy “Love” Prince, a rapper and artist who is on the ballot but didn’t meet fundraising requirements set forth by the city’s Campaign Finance Board to qualify for the debate, rolled up to the television studio in a painted bus dubbed the “love tank.” Dressed in an indescribable outfit, as is his custom, Prince set up shop outside, giving a speech about wealth inequality and housing for all, while performing for passersby. He greeted candidates on their way out of the studio, a handful of whom were legitimately glad to find him there.