Albanese, Carrion & de Blasio in 2013 (screenshot of NYTrue.com video from 2013 forum)
In 2013, when the mayoralty was up for grabs after three Michael Bloomberg terms, a large field of candidates vied for the top job running New York City. Candidates on both sides of the aisle engaged in an exhaustive schedule of debates and forums, crisscrossing the city to speak in front of a wide variety of civic, advocacy, and interest groups. They spoke in front of senior citizens, food policy wonks, animal rights activists, NYCHA residents, college students, members of block associations, political clubs, houses of worship, and many other concerned New Yorkers.
There were also the mandated, formal, televised debates run through the city’s Campaign Finance Board, open to qualifying candidates only.
On the Democratic side, a number of strong contenders emerged, including prominent citywide elected officials. It was an expectedly competitive race, with the candidates speaking about their policy platforms and priorities day after day, night after night. Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson, John Liu, Anthony Weiner, and Bill de Blasio headlined a deep field full of personalities, rivalries, and ambition.
Fast forward four years to the 2017 election, however, and there is little competition for Mayor Bill de Blasio, making for a more quiet candidate forum circuit and a Democratic debate stage that is sparsely populated, if there even are formal, CFB-sanctioned primary debates.
De Blasio is riding high on his signature accomplishments and strong support from his progressive base, having avoided any legal repercussions from dual investigations into his fundraising activities that recently closed down. Several potential Democratic opponents, who might have posed a strong challenge had the mayor or any of his aides faced corruption charges, have opted not to jump into the race, nearly clearing the field for the mayor’s reelection.
On the Democratic side, a few longshot candidates are making a go of it, but they will have to meet strict thresholds in fundraising, and to an extent name recognition, if they hope to meet de Blasio in formal, primetime primary debates. Whether the mayor participates in any forums put on by advocacy groups is to be seen, but unlikely given his comfortable status as the incumbent frontrunner.
The Campaign Finance Board sponsors two debates in each primary and the general election for mayor, and candidates who participate in the city’s public matching funds program are required to participate. That includes de Blasio, who has stressed his participation in the public matching funds system and is relying on it to fund his campaign, which has received significant small-dollar donations that get matched six-to-one by the city. Primary day itself is Tuesday, September 12. Based on the 2013 schedule, the first debate is likely to be scheduled in late August and the second one in early September.
To be included in the first primary debate, candidates must meet a minimum financial threshold in the latest filing prior to the debate, as well as additional criteria decided by the CFB and the sponsors of the debate, such as a minimum polling average. The criteria must be “nonpartisan, objective, and non-discriminatory,” according to the CFB’s 2017 debate law summary.
For this year’s race, participating candidates have to raise and spend 2.5 percent of the spending limit for the office, which makes the threshold $174,225 for mayoral candidates against the spending limit of $6,969,000 for the primary election. Candidates also cannot claim outstanding liabilities or loans against the threshold, a rule that was established after Jay Golub, a candidate for public advocate in 2005, used a loophole to qualify for the debates by personally lending his campaign the necessary funds.
In both the primary and general elections, the first debate is followed by the second “leading contender” debate, for which candidates must again meet the minimum financial threshold and other additional criteria, which could possibly include a higher financial threshold and higher polling averages, as determined by the CFB and sponsors.
In 2013, the financial threshold for the first debate was far lower -- only $50,000 raised and spent by a mayoral candidate -- and candidates also had to hit 2 percent in polls conducted by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion or by Quinnipiac University. For the second debate, “leading contenders” had to have either spent and raised $250,000 or just raised $1,285,200, while getting 7 percent of the vote in either poll.
Mayor de Blasio has not seemed particularly worried about debating his opponents and senior campaign advisor Phil Walzak has even indicated that forums held in the run-up to the election will be favorable to the mayor. The mayor’s four Democratic primary competitors are State Senator Tony Avella of Queens; former City Council Member from Brooklyn Sal Albanese; Robert Gangi, a long-time police reform activist; and Kevin Coenen, a retired FDNY lieutenant.
At a news conference in late-December, when Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if he’d be willing to participate in more than the two mandatory CFB debates, he responded, “Speculative. Obviously, we’ll do the two for sure. I’m going to be participating in the campaign finance program. We’ll see as we get closer. It’s a long way off.”
Walzak, appearing on City & State’s Slant podcast in March, said that besides the required debates, de Blasio has been doing government town halls in reaching out to voters. “On the city side, you know for the past year and a half the mayor’s actually had a pretty robust town hall outfit,” said Walzak, who was de Blasio’s communications aide during his 2013 campaign, then served multiple roles at City Hall before moving to the 2017 campaign last year. “They’ve done I think one or two a month for about a year and a half, and that’s been very successful. We will do some level of the other kinds of forums that we talked about...what that looks like I’m not sure yet.”
He said the forums were a “very valuable tool to talk to people directly,” while also receiving media coverage. “So that is an opportunity to talk to a lot of people in a kind of unvarnished way so we’ll do something with that,” he added. “What that looks like precisely we’re still gonna hammer that out but we’ll have some component like that.”
For de Blasio’s opponents, those forums may be a lifeline for their campaigns as getting in the debates will likely be challenging. De Blasio has raised more than $3.7 million and spent $1.4 million for his reelection already, while his Democratic challengers are far behind in the money race.
Avella, a conservative Democrat from Queens, stands a better chance of raising the necessary funds and garnering the name recognition needed for the debates, given his status as a current elected official. However, he has only raised $34,854 and spent $3,005 as of the mid-March campaign finance filing. In a Quinnipiac Poll from February 28, he received 2 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary that included de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Avella’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article. None of the potential challengers in the poll are likely to jump into the race at this point, given the results of the investigations into de Blasio and his associates.
Albanese, who ran for mayor in 2013 as well as in 1997, isn’t worried about reaching the financial threshold for the debates, although he was critical that there is such a threshold at all. “It’s a reasonable amount of money,” he said in a phone interview. Albanese raised about $56,586 and spent $2,658 of it as of mid-March. “If you’re running for mayor, you’ve gotta demonstrate financial support and donor support.”
Albanese is more worried that the required spending would put a too-early dent in his campaign coffers. “You should be husbanding money towards the end,” he said. “The [requirements], I don’t think they’re fair.” He insisted that instead of the two-tier litmus test of campaign funds and polling numbers, the only threshold should be 1,000 donors for a campaign. “If you have a thousand donors, you should be included in the debate. End of story,” he said. “It really goes to the core of campaign finance reform, showing grassroots support.” Albanese is participating in the public funds program and has made campaign finance reform a key platform issue.
Debate thresholds are also a particularly sore point for Albanese, since he wasn’t allowed to participate in the second primary debate in 2013 after falling short in raising funds. “I would like to see the process opened up,” he said, insisting that the mayor should actually welcome more competitors on the stage since it would help him. “A crowded debate stage dilutes the ability of the main challenger to make their case against the incumbent,” Albanese said.
Kevin Coenen, the retired FDNY lieutenant, said the CFB’s threshold is “good in some ways and it’s bad in others.” The threshold was necessary, he said, to weed out the less-serious candidates who enter the race. “I don’t know if $175,000 is appropriate but there’s a need to limit candidates,” he said. Coenen has only raised $2,100 so far but was confident that he would have enough to be invited to the debate. Currently, he’s more focused on getting enough signatures to be on the ballot.
The latest entrant in the Democratic race is Gangi, who officially launched his “grassroots campaign” on Wednesday, April 5, outside 1 Police Plaza. A veteran reform advocate but first-time candidate, Gangi was unaware of the financial threshold until Gotham Gazette asked if he’d be able to meet it. He laughed with incredulity when posed with the question, given the numbers involved, and took it as a challenge to his longshot candidacy. “Oh I love it,” he said.
“I didn’t know about that but hopefully that can help us raise money,” he added. On Friday, Gangi’s campaign sent out its first fundraising appeal, using the debate threshold of $175,000 as a target. “That's not much money by the standards of mainstream candidates like Bill de Blasio who has all too easy access to wealthy donors,” the email blast reads. “It is a high bar for us, but one that I'm certain we can reach with the support of regular NYers from across the city who want to help advance our campaign's vision of a more fair, safe, affordable and inclusive town for all people.”
Gangi’s nascent campaign has not posted any fundraising numbers with the Campaign Finance Board, but he said Wednesday that he had raised about $46,000 already.
In a follow up phone call, Gangi admitted that the CFB’s criteria are “daunting” for small campaigns like the one he is running, which currently has two undergraduate students from Hunter College working part-time as campaign coordinators and the candidate himself as campaign manager. “Some of these criteria are favorable to incumbents and candidates connected to well-to-do people,” he said.
But, he is inspired to hit the mark, insisting that if he doesn’t meet the threshold for the debates, he may just resort to debating a “Red Sox hat on a stick,” an apparent reference to de Blasio’s support for his hometown’s, Boston-based baseball team. “We’re not gonna be deterred by whatever characteristics of our campaign are seen conventionally as disadvantages,” Gangi said.
The CFB plans to announce the sponsors for their sanctioned debates in June. In the meantime, candidate forums have already begun taking place, though Mayor de Blasio has not participated in any, yet.