Comptroller Candidates Go at It
September 25th, 2009
With four days before Tuesday’s runoff election, the politesse that had characterized much of the campaign for city comptroller largely vanished last night as the two candidates debated at NY1 — and assailed each other’s integrity. In what figures to be their final face-off, Councilmembers John Liu and David Yassky spent far less time discussing the issues than each other.
(To see it for yourself, go here.)
Yassky was first to the attack, helped by a debate format that began by showing two television ads: one by Liu highlighting his “life of struggle” and work in a sweatshop as a child — a resume that news reports have called into question — and the other by Yassky assailing Lu’s integrity.
The opening let Yassky go right to a theme he sounded repeatedly through the debate, his own record contrasted to what he tried to portray as Liu’s shortcomings. “There are clear differences between the candidates,” Yassky said, including differences in accomplishment, “our visions for the office” and “differences in the campaign we’re running.” Addressing Liu, he continued, “You’ve run ads with claims that just aren’t true.”
In response, Liu said he was “saddened” by Yassky’s ad.” Saying Yassky broke a commitment to run a positive campaign, Lu continued, “This kind of mud-slinging is not something New Yorkers want to see.” He later asked Yassky to remove the spot.
Liu then tried to turn the tables on Yassky, saying that the Brooklyn council member had originally promised he would vote not to extend term limits and then voted in favor of the change. The issue is not term limits per se, said Liu, who said he personally opposed them, but changing a law the public supported twice in those referenda. That, he said, “is a question of basic trust.”
During the debate, Yassky repeatedly cited his endorsements from newspapers and some in the business community — mentioning the Times and the News so often, it was hard to keep account (and finally evoking a groan or two in the press room).
The two also clashed over council members’ discretionary spending. Liu said that, while Yassky wants to do away with the system in which council members dole out money to their favorite non-profits, he had distributed large amount of these member items himself. Yassky said he was playing by the rules and that, as long as member items existed, he was obligated to make sure senior centers, Little League teams and other programs in his district got their fair share.
In particular, Liu questioned $55,000 Yassky had allocated to what Liu described as “a phantom group” that gave money to Yassky’s failed congressional campaign — a question that enabled Liu to mention Yassky had tried for a seat from a predominantly black district where he did not actually live. Yassky countered that the group ran worthy programs in his district.
The two also disagreed about changing the pension system. Yassky, who has seen most labor endorsements to go Liu, was the beneficiary of a question from the Daily News’ Erin Einhorn about whether his support for reduced pensions for new city hires had cost him union endorsements.
“I’m sure there have been political consequences,” Yassky said. While not coming out and endorsing a so-called tier 5, Yassky added, “I do think I am being honest with the voters … when I say we have to take the challenge [of the budget deficit head on]. As if not satisfied, Einhorn pressed Yassky to trumpet his alleged independence further, asking Yassky whether Liu had told the unions what they wanted to hear.
Liu said that, while he favored pension reform, the specifics of the changes should be the result of negotiations between the city and its union and that, in any event, reducing pension benefits for future retirees would not reap any significant savings for eight to ten years. With both candidates agreeing that the city faces a multibillion-dollar gap, Liu said he supported raising the income tax on wealthy New Yorkers to address some of the deficit.
As for endorsements, Liu, who avoided mentioning them until the latter part of the debate, said he was proud of union backing — and that Yassky had sought labor’s approval as well. Without naming names, Liu charged that one of the newspapers that endorsed Yassky had told Liu it would endorse him — if he backed the pension change.By Gail Robinson on September 25, 2009, 8:12 am
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