After a Fiery N.Y.C. Mayoral Debate, Who’s Ahead? Who Knows?

Not long into New York City’s second Democratic mayoral debate last night, the candidates were asked how they would handle reopening after more than a year of coronavirus lockdown.

Some of the relatively centrist hopefuls, like Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, said they would prioritize confronting crime, which has risen in New York over the course of the pandemic. The more progressive candidates, including Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer, argued for less emphasis on policing and a greater focus on affordable housing and youth employment.

But beyond specific policy differences, there was a more immediate question for the candidates to confront: how to make up for lost time on the campaign trail, now that the city is finally moving toward a full reopening.

The prevailing strategy was to attack, often in personal terms. But with the candidates locked in combat, none seemed to fully break away from the pack.

“A lot of the substance was repetitious: Everybody was saying we have to help small businesses, everybody was saying that we have to get the guns off the street,” Michael Krasner, a professor of political science at Queens College and co-director of the Taft Institute for Government, said in an interview.

“I didn’t feel like anybody had such a compelling idea or policy proposal that it would make a big impression on undecided voters,” he added. “That made it harder for people to see distinctions.”

The June 22 primary is less than three weeks away, and early voting starts in just nine days, but the race remains suspended in midair. In a Fontas/Core Decision Analytics poll released last week, no candidate was the first-choice pick of even one in five likely voters. More than that — 26 percent — said they were entirely undecided. (And even that came only after respondents were pushed to name a choice: On first blush, 50 percent of likely voters said they hadn’t settled on a top candidate.)

The relatively large field, peopled by a mix of longtime public officials and relative newcomers, is complicated further by a ranked-choice voting system, new this year, which makes it difficult to determine who really has the upper hand. And the pandemic has put a damper on traditional campaigning: Only in recent weeks have candidate sightings on the streets of New York become commonplace, as the race hits the homestretch.

Yang and Adams face off

Though long considered the front-runner, Yang has recently been buffeted by attacks from other candidates and by lingering questions about his qualifications, while two fellow centrists — Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, and Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner — have risen in recent polls.

Onstage last night, Adams painted Yang as out of touch with the city. “You started discovering violence when you were running for mayor,” he said. “You started discovering the homeless crisis when you were running for mayor.”

Yang shot back, accusing Adams of shady fund-raising practices. “We all know that you’ve been investigated for corruption everywhere you’ve gone,” Yang said. (No charges have been brought against Adams, though some of his political dealings have drawn public scrutiny.)

Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, was even more pointed — dinging Yang and Adams in the same breath. “You’re both right: You both shouldn’t be mayor,” he said. On the topic of public schools, Stringer accused Yang and Adams of “taking millions of dollars from Republican billionaires who want to privatize the school system.”

Progressives spar

On a night of fierce attacks, Stringer put in a strong showing, Krasner said. But he arguably had the most to prove of any candidate, after his campaign — which had begun strongly, thanks to his relatively high name recognition and endorsements from major progressive groups and labor unions — nearly tanked when a former campaign worker accused him of sexual misconduct.

Krasner said that the ranked-choice system could help Stringer — particularly among voters who are hesitant to put a scandal-plagued candidate at the top of their ticket. “A lot of people are going to see him as an appealing No. 2,” Krasner said. “He comes across as a competent progressive.”

Wiley has emerged as the only candidate on the progressive wing not enmeshed in scandal, after the campaign of Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, was hit with allegations of blocking her former campaign staff members from unionizing, leading to a number of departures last month.

Morales tried last night to clear a path for herself in the left lane, and went further than Wiley or Stringer on calls to reallocate police funding. She reiterated her pledge to redirect $3 billion from the Police Department’s budget toward crime prevention and community investment. Wiley and Stringer have each set a target of trimming $1 billion from the police budget.

Centrists seek to define themselves

The more centrist candidates took a different approach. Yang stated unequivocally, “The defunding of police is not the right approach for New York City.”

Understand the N.Y.C. Mayoral Race

    • Who’s Running for Mayor? There are more than a dozen people still in the race to become New York City’s next mayor, and the primary will be held on June 22. Here’s a rundown of the candidates.
    • Get to Know the Candidates: We asked leading candidates for mayor questions about everything from police reform and climate change to their favorite bagel order and workout routine.
    • What is Ranked-Choice Voting? New York City began using ranked-choice voting for primary elections this year, and voters will be able to list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.

And Adams, a former police officer, emphasized the need to confront crime with effective policing. “We must be safe, and then on that platform we can build our economy the right way,” he said, even as he sought to turn back opponents’ attacks on his past support for stop-and-frisk tactics.

Garcia has risen into the double digits in recent polls, thanks in part to editorial endorsements from The Times and The New York Daily News that have focused on what had been a relatively low-profile campaign. Last night she framed herself as a savvy technocrat, calling herself “the only candidate up here who can deliver on every promise she makes.”

But she was the rare candidate onstage who rarely went on the attack, and she struggled to explain, when challenged by her opponents, why she had left the de Blasio administration in the middle of the pandemic.

“She certainly seemed confident,” Krasner said, but he added, “I didn’t think she gained any ground.”

Also onstage were Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, and Shaun Donovan, who served as secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama. Each positioned himself as an agent of change.

In his opening remarks, Donovan promised “a change from the political status quo of the last eight years,” saying he “would lead New York in a new and better direction.”

McGuire offered a poetic variation on the same theme, pointing out that most of his opponents had spent years in public office. “This is a bad movie, playing out at City Hall, with the same characters,” he said. “We simply cannot afford a disastrous sequel. Make the change, hope for the change.”

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