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In Second Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Argue Over Amazon, Insult De Blasio & Make Closing Cases

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Candidates at debate #1 (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

While there were disagreements over the Amazon deal that fell apart and contentious exchanges over their records, the seven candidates for public advocate who debated Wednesday night agreed on a lot, including that Mayor Bill de Blasio should not run for president and instead focus on major challenges in New York City.

With less than a week until the Tuesday, February 26 special election vote, seven of the 17 candidates who will be on the ballot took the stage at Borough of Manhattan Community College for the second of two official, televised debates, broadcast by NY1. The seven candidates -- Nomiki Konst, Michael Blake, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Dawn Smalls, Rafael Espinal, Jumaane Williams, and Ron Kim -- met the financial and endorsement thresholds set by the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

The previous debate, two weeks prior, featured those seven candidates as well as Danny O’Donnell, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican and only ardent supporter of Amazon creating a massive campus in Queens among the ten candidates.

After opening statements where candidates reiterated their pitches from prior debates, interviews, and local forums, the first question from moderator Errol Louis had the participants weigh in on the collapse of the Amazon deal, which spurred a lengthy conversation, including prolonged cross-talk at one point, and some of the clearest differentiation of the night among seven mostly left-wing Democrats.

Konst, Espinal, and Kim continued to argue that a deal to bring Amazon’s “HQ2” to the city should not have been pursued, while the other candidates said it should have been done with both better process and outcomes, in some cases talking about the opportunity in more positive terms than they had before the deal fell apart.

There were several tense back-and-forths throughout the hour-and-a-half debate, especially during the “cross-examination” round where candidates each had the chance to ask one opponent a question. That portion repeatedly turned into arguing and, at times, saw the candidate asking a question give a series of attacks before posing their query and the candidate being asked a question deflect by throwing criticism back at the interrogator.

By all measures, Jumaane Williams was treated like the frontrunner that he is widely perceived to be -- several of the other candidates used their questions to target him. Like in the first debate, Mark-Viverito was also the subject of questions and criticism, especially from Konst.

Overall, the candidates largely agreed that Airbnb needs to be strongly regulated but that homeowners should be able to rent out a room here and there, and perhaps even their entire apartments; that the mayor’s housing plan needs to do more for low-income New Yorkers; and that homeless shelters need to be equitably distributed throughout the city. They also mostly agreed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed driver’s licenses and municipal voting rights. On the latter, Mark-Viverito said she almost moved a bill as Council speaker, but that given Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and anti-immigrant policies, advocates asked her not to move forward.

Asked about whether Mayor de Blasio is qualified to run for president and should do so, all seven candidates took shots at the mayor, some more harsh than others, and said he needs to focus on problems in the city. Kim said de Blasio is “delusional” if he thinks he’s going to be president. "No, he is not qualified to run for president, he should not run for president," said Blake, who worked for President Barack Obama and is a vice chair with the Democratic National Committee.

Like others, Mark-Viverito, a long-time ally of de Blasio who has separated herself from him in recent years, said the mayor needs to focus on running the city, but also said that de Blasio does not really execute unless he’s working on a “pet project” of his own.

Several of the candidates were more shy when asked if they had voted for Williams last year when he ran for lieutenant governor. Four didn’t answer: Konst, Mark-Viverito, Blake, and Smalls. Kim and Espinal said they did vote for Williams, who challenged Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary.

The debate provided candidates a near-final opportunity to pitch themselves directly to voters and to media that might amplify their message. The public advocate is one of three citywide elected positions, responsible for being a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council, and some influence over the public pension system. The public advocate is first in line of succession to the mayor if the mayor is unable to finish his or her term.

Konst, an activist and journalist, targeted the city’s wealth gap and called for higher taxes on the wealthy, and said in her opening that New Yorkers should “elect the next progressive millennial woman.” Blake, a member of the state Assembly, mentioned his “jobs and justice” platform and said it’s essential the next public advocate is “independent of the mayor.”

Mark-Viverito touted her career in activism and record as City Council speaker, including her successful pushes toward closing the Rikers Island jails and reforming how low-level offenses are policed and prosecuted in the city. Against attacks from Konst she defended her record on housing, including by citing the “right to counsel” in housing court law that was passed while she was speaker and has helped reduce evictions significantly.

Smalls, an attorney with experience at high levels of the federal government, differentiated herself as the only mother and attorney on the stage. She cited her campaign focus on helping homeless families get into housing. “I have experience breaking through bureaucracy to get results and that’s what I want to do for New York,” she said.

Espinal, a Brooklyn City Council member who previously served in the state Assembly, cited his experience at two levels of government, and ran through a variety of areas where he believes New York is not “livable” enough and he wants to address, including affordable housing and running small businesses.

Williams cited his combination of activism and legislative accomplishments. He touted his work on affordable housing and said the mayor and other elected officials had not fought hard enough to make housing affordable enough for the people who really need it. He attempted to defend himself against attacks from other candidates, particularly as Mark-Viverito again went after him for having staff members and endorsements from several men who have mistreated women.

Kim reiterated that he is against “corporate giveaways” and said that while the Amazon deal may have been stopped by strong activism, there is more work to do to address the larger pattern. He called for passage of his new legislation that would stop New York from engaging in interstate bidding for companies, and said the answer is to build economic development capacity in communities.

In taking a different approach, Williams said he had been in favor of “engaging” Amazon and wanted “to use the power of the city to see if we can change the worst of their behavior” while attaining jobs for New Yorkers. He, Blake, Smalls, and Mark-Viverito all argued there should have been better leadership by the mayor and the governor.

“My criticism of the Amazon deal was always on the process,” said Smalls.

Mark-Viverito said the Amazon deal was deeply flawed because it did not address the city’s two major crises: affordable housing and transit.

“This is not just about process,” Konst argued. “It’s about an exploitative company with a history and track record for decades of increasing homelessness, not being honest in their deals. They should’ve never been welcomed here.”

“Amazon is a super monopoly,” Kim said, “they are an abusive company and the more we engage them, they’re gonna be emboldened. We need to hold them accountable from the beginning and not court them.”

The election is Tuesday and open to all voters across the city. Also on the ballot beyond the ten candidates mentioned earlier are David Eisenbach, Benjamin Yee, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Manny Alicandro, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, though she has dropped from the race.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

4 Things to Watch at the Second Public Advocate Debate

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Williams, left, and Blake at the first debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

Seven candidates for New York City Public Advocate will be on stage Wednesday night for the second of two official televised debates ahead of the February 26 special election. While there will be 17 names on the ballot next week and 10 candidates qualified for the first debate, held February 6, the second debate will feature a slightly more manageable group.

With the clock ticking down to the vote, which is open to all registered voters across the five boroughs, the debate promises to be an interesting exchange of ideas, stances, critiques, and promises. Candidates will be determined to set themselves apart. The winner of the election will, after all, be one of just three citywide elected officials, with major responsibilities despite a relatively small budget.

The seven candidates who again made the cut -- former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, activist Nomiki Konst, Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Ron Kim, and City Council Member Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal -- met the New York Campaign Finance Board thresholds of having a qualifying endorsement from an elected official or large group and raising and spending at least $170,813 by February 15.

The three who participated in the first debate but failed to qualify for the second are Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell and City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Eric Ulrich, who is the only Republican elected official in the race.

As the day of the vote quickly approaches, the race is intensifying, and the second televised debate, like the first, will likely feature some sharp elbows. Candidates know that it will be a low turnout affair and while there may be a clear perceived frontrunner in Williams, it could be almost anybody’s election if the right pieces fall into place.

Wednesday’s debate will take place at Borough of Manhattan Community College and be moderated by NY1’s Errol Louis, with questions also coming from NY1’s Bobby Cuza and Politico New York’s Laura Nahmias. It will air 7-8:30 p.m. on NY1, NY1’s website and Facebook page, and on NYC Life channels.

Here are four things to watch:

1. New Lines
The candidates are likely to have some new talking points, in terms of what they have to say about issues facing the city, policies they promise to pursue if elected, and critiques of one or more of their opposition. There could be new private polling that has come in for some campaigns that candidates are taking into account as they craft their messages or go on the attack.

It will also be important to see how closely candidates discuss their plans and priorities within the context of the actual role, powers, and responsibilities of the public advocate, which is meant to be a watchdog and ombudsperson, with the ability to introduce legislation to the City Council, that holds the rest of city government accountable.

While voters should know where candidates stand politically and on a variety of policy issues, they should also have a sense of how those who want to be public advocate would actually run the office and perform its mandated duties.

Most of the candidates have honed at least fairly clear messages at this point, and they may rely on their go-to talking points, but questions from the moderators or comments by their competitors may push them out of their comfort zones or into topics that were not explored in the first debate. Watch as candidates asked to provide their solutions to pressing problems are either able or unable to provide strong forward-looking answers.

Candidates may also come in focused on trying to drive home one or two key points about themselves or their candidacy. For example, Kim may wear defeat of the Amazon deal as a badge of honor -- he was a very early and strident opponent; Konst may try to make sure everyone knows she’s calling for a $30 per hour minimum wage for many employees in the city; Mark-Viverito may return time and again to her leadership in the plan to close the Rikers Island jails and calls for more female representation in city government. Smalls may continue to focus on the issue of homelessness and her legal background, while Espinal talks a lot about environmental policy and affordable housing. Housing is also a central issue in the campaigns of Williams and Blake.

Catch up on much of what was said at the first debate before watching the second; and read our preview of the first debate to see how candidates had been pitching themselves in the race leading up to that point, much of which held true at the first debate.

2. Knives and Frontrunners
In the first debate, most of the attacks leveled by candidates targeted Mark-Viverito or Williams, two of the perceived front-runners in the race. The second debate will likely see more of the same, though Blake may see more criticism than he did in the first contest.

Along with the attacks themselves, the responses by those being attacked are telling. Do they reply with substance or attack back or dismiss criticism as invalid?

Blake may take the debate as an important opportunity to make voters question Williams, something he tried to do during the first debate, using the “cross-examination” round to ask Williams about his changing statements on women’s reproductive rights, something Mark-Viverito also asked Williams about.

While there is plenty for all the Democrats on stage to disagree about, Ulrich's presence will be missed in terms of more ideological balance -- he calls himself a "moderate" or "Rockefeller" or "Bloomberg" Republican.

Konst is almost always on the attack, trying to separate herself from all the politicians in the race and make the argument that what the office needs is a true outsider watchdog. Who will she go after individually? Will other candidates have specific criticisms of her they have prepared to be able to fire back?

Will Williams act like the perceived frontrunner? Will he show any cards in terms of who he sees as his biggest threat?

How might the more mild-mannered Smalls, Espinal, and Kim assert themselves?

3. Amazon Fallout
Amazon’s decision to abandon a deal to open a sprawling new Queens campus with roughly 25,000 jobs amid significant pushback from some local officials and activists -- including several running for public advocate -- will surely be a topic of discussion. Kim and Konst will celebrate the outcome. Espinal may too.

Others are likely to take a more careful tact, perhaps adjusting past sentiments. After Amazon pulled out of the deal, Blake was quick to say that he had never said he didn’t want Amazon to come to the city, but that he thought the deal needed to be improved, though he was very critical of it. He’s likely to take the most Amazon-friendly line. Several candidates may say it’s unfortunate that the jobs and revenue aren’t coming to the city, but point the finger at Amazon (and maybe Mayor de Blasio and/or Governor Cuomo) for not engaging enough with the community and labor unions, and not providing the right local investments to quiet criticism.

The only truly pro-Amazon candidate in the first debate was Ulrich, who did not meet the fundraising threshold for the second debate. He’s now trying to galvanize support for his candidacy from those who wanted Amazon to come to the city. Ulrich may still get a few mentions during the Amazon discussion, and keep an eye on his Twitter account during the debate, especially this portion.

Candidates who are at the debate would be smart to have thoughts on what the city should do moving forward to attract major companies and use the site planned for the Amazon campus. They should definitely have a cogent answer for how the city is better off without Amazon than with the promised jobs and revenue.

4. The Mayoral Test
This is less about candidates’ answers about possibly running for mayor and more about who appears to actually be up for the task of being the city’s chief executive. The public advocate is next in line to the mayor -- if something happens where the mayor can’t fill out his or her term, the public advocate takes over, at least temporarily, until a special election is called.

The candidates have often been asked about their plans to run for mayor, or not, if they win this election (and the subsequent one later this year to see who holds the office for 2020 and 2021). Most have said they won’t run for mayor in 2021, though we know those promises don’t mean much. Mark-Viverito has said she isn’t ruling anything out and Ulrich has said he probably would run for mayor in 2021.

Regardless of those comments, an important aspect of the second debate and the election is who seems capable of running the city, especially in a moment of crisis, which would be the context if the public advocate had to take over the mayoralty.

Also important here is the fact that the next public advocate will likely run for mayor at some point down the line, whether it’s 2021 or beyond. The last two public advocates are now New York City Mayor and New York State Attorney General.

And worth noting in this discussion is how the candidates talk about de Blasio in the debate. We may see candidates attempt to draw more clear lines of distinction from the mayor or outline criticisms they didn’t mention in the first debate.

We could also see some discussion of the first two city public advocates: Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum. It might be interesting to see which candidates know the history of the position they are seeking and how the people they hope will be their predecessors approached the job.

Other Notes
Keep in mind that along with those who made the first debate but not the second -- Ulrich, Rodriguez, and O’Donnell -- there are several other candidates who will be on the ballot: Benjamin Yee, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Manny Alicandro, David Eisenbach, Helel Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, though she has ended her campaign.

Keey an eye out for Gotham Gazette coverage of the second televised debate and the larger race. Find all our previous coverage of the race, including many interviews with candidates, here.

And don't forget to make a plan to vote on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate

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The first debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

Seven candidates running in the special election for New York City Public Advocate have qualified for the second and final official televised debate, which will take place Wednesday night, just six days ahead of the February 26 election.

There will be 17 candidates on the ballot, 10 of whom qualified for the first televised debate. Now, for the “leading contenders” debate, seven candidates met the threshold set by city law, which includes raising and spending $170,813, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Candidates made their latest filings to the Campaign Finance Board by midnight Friday.

The seven candidates who will debate Wednesday night on NY1 television are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, activist Nomiki Konst, City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal, and state Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Ron Kim.

Of the ten candidates who made the first debate, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Eric Ulrich and Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell did not meet the threshold for the second debate.

To make it into the “leading contenders” debate, the candidates then had till February 11 to raise and spend $170,813 and needed to be endorsed by an elected official representing New York City at the local, state or federal level, or by a membership organization with at least 250 members in the city (a labor union or political club, for instance).

Ulrich, the only Republican at the first debate, Rodriguez, and O’Donnell did not meet the financial threshold for the second debate.

At the first debate on February 6, the ten candidates made their pitches to city voters and weighed in on everything from funding for the MTA and NYCHA to the then-happening Amazon deal, and their disagreements with Mayor Bill de Blasio. To qualify for that debate, the candidates were required to show $56,938 in campaign fundraising and expenditure by the filing due just before the debate.

[Read: In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other]

The debate at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (February 20) will broadcast by Spectrum News NY1 and will be publicly accessible on NY1’s website and Facebook page. It will also be simulcast by NYC Life, the city’s media channel. The hour-and-a-half debate will again be moderated by Errol Louis of NY1, with questions also coming from Laura Nahmias of Politico New York and Bobby Cuza of NY1.

The public advocate special election was triggered after the former office-holder Letitia James was elected New York State Attorney General. James filled a vacancy created by the resignation of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the wake of allegations of physical abuse by several intimate partners.

The public advocate is a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council. The public advocate is also first in line to the mayor if the mayor is unable to serve out his or her full term. The position helped launch James to become attorney general, and her predeccessor, Bill de Blasio, to become mayor.

The sponsors of the debate include Politico New York, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the Latino Leadership Institute, Borough of Manhattan Community College, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

Beyond the ten candidates who made the first debate, the other candidates on the February 26 ballot will be Benjamin Yee, Manny Alicandro, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, an Assembly member who has dropped out of the race but was unable to have her name removed from the ballot.

The election, open to all registered voters across the city, is expected to be low turnout. The winner will hold the seat at least through the end of this year -- there will be a primary election this June and a general election this November to determine who holds the seat for 2020 and 2021.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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