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Mayoral Hopefuls Appeared at a Candidate Forum; Then the Conversation Got Interesting

ray mcguire on zoom

Ray McGuire on a different Zoom (photo: @RayForMayor)

A mayoral race forum on Friday night started with a traditional format, questions asked by journalists and answered by eight candidates seeking to win the crowded Democratic primary set for June, but eventually turned into a late-night, open discussion that became contentious and frank, offering insights into the thinking of some of those seeking to become the next mayor and that of some of the city’s Black civic leaders.

Some candidates -- particularly among the five who stayed on the zoom for the late-night discussion that stretched well past midnight -- found that simply showing up to listen and offering platitudes won’t be enough to convince the city’s diverse Black electorate that they deserve to hold the highest office in the city. The candidates, for their part, offered candid and at times assertive responses to the questions and criticism that they faced from others on the Zoom call.

Former presidential candidate and recent entrant in the race Andrew Yang attempted to tout his record of activism even as he appeared out of touch with issues affecting Black New Yorkers. Former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire and Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who has endorsed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ mayoral campaign, clashed over McGuire’s lack of experience in city government and more. Former President Obama cabinet official Shaun Donovan defended his work on housing under Mayor Bloomberg. Council Member Carlos Menchaca spoke of “the legacy of white supremacy” in the work of leftist activists while activists on the panel railed against the Democratic Socialists of America and more.

The virtual forum was the latest episode of “The Justice Clapback” hosted by activist and Reverend Kirsten John Foy, founder of Arc of Justice, but was special in that it included a mayoral candidate forum and commemoration of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Candidates were scheduled to be present for a two-hour discussion but several ended up staying the full stretch of just over eight hours of freewheeling conversation as candidates asked and answered questions on education and the Specialized High School Admissions Test, health care infrastructure, policing reform, NYCHA, economic development in communities of color, gun violence, Black maternal mortality, ranked-choice voting and more.

The other candidates who participated were former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, and Comptroller Scott Stringer. They are among still others who are running in perhaps the most diverse mayoral candidate field the city has seen – McGuire and Adams are Black men, Wiley is a Black woman, Morales is Afro-Latina, Menchaca is openly gay and Latino, Yang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and Donovan and Stringer are white men.

Several elected officials made appearances early in the event, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, U.S. Rep. Greg Meeks, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, State Senators Leroy Comrie and Jamaal Bailey, City Council Members Robert Cornegy and Laurie Cumbo, State Assemblymembers Latrice Walker, Inez Dickens, and Alicia Hyndman, to name a few. A who’s who of activists and political operatives were also present including Gwen Carr, Erika Ford, Jacqui Williams, David Banks, Karen Jarrett, Rev. Kevin McCall, Pastor Kaji Dousa, Patrick Jenkins, Zakiyah Ansari, Khari Edwards, Ifeoma Ike, Rasheida Smith, and others.

After hours of appearances, and the mayoral candidates answering policy questions from several journalists, the evening shifted.

After four hours, Yang, Menchaca, McGuire, Morales, and Donovan remained on the Zoom. Yang left after a little later after getting significant pushback to the question he asked the group. McGuire left at the six-and-a-half hour mark after his extended exchange with Cumbo.

Yang was perhaps the first to face the heat when he spoke of his experience door-knocking in Georgia in support of Rev. Raphael Warnock during the Senate runoffs, alongside Martin Luther King III, who is co-chair of Yang’s newly-launched mayoral campaign. Since he launched his campaign, Yang has faced broad criticism for his seeming lack of touch with everyday New Yorkers and his relative ignorance of local matters.

“You know what that activism resulted in? Reverend Warnock being the deciding vote in the U.S. Senate that could activate tens, hundreds of billions of dollars for New York City, New York State, our communities,” he said. “I mean, like, that's just activism, that's activism at work, like, and I wanted to share that image with you of Martin knocking on doors for Reverend Warnock because like, that is what I believe the legacy that we're celebrating this weekend.”

Yang then proceeded to take his turn, promoted by Foy, to ask the assembled audience about “the one thing” that they would like to see their next mayor really focus on. Though some participants quickly offered up issues like education, police reform, and gun violence, others saw it as a narrow gaze that assumes the Black community is a monolith. “I would say the question is a flawed question,” said David Banks, who is President & CEO of The Eagle Academy Foundation. “There is no such thing as the one issue. New York City is the biggest, baddest city in the country. The whole country needs New York to come back. It is a very complex question. It cannot be reduced to such a simple question. All of these things are connected...There's no one soundbite answer that any of us are looking for. We have no time to play around with this stuff. I'm actually kind of, I'm actually sick of hearing just a lot of talk about a lot of stuff.”

Jacqui Williams, a real estate lobbyist who leads the firm 99 Solutions, said, “I think it's disrespectful to put it in one format as this one question.”

Citing her own experience of running for office and being elected, Council Member Cumbo said any candidate has “to learn how to very quickly chew gum, and to address all of the complex issues in your district right now.”

Yang took the criticism in stride after listening as his prompt got battered a bit. “I agree with you all that the next mayor...needs to be like a Swiss Army knife to the nth degree because at this point we have crises facing us on so many fronts,” he said, before saying goodnight to the group.

McGuire, in response to Cumbo’s remarks, made a comment that set off one of the most contentious exchanges of the night. “I am like the great Shirley Chisholm...unbought and unbossed,” he said, referring to the slogan of the famous Democratic congresswoman from Brooklyn who went on to become the first African-American candidate for a major political party and the first woman seeking the Democratic nomination for president. McGuire was attempting to make the point that he rose from rags to riches and then turned around to help his community.

“[W]e obviously should applaud the people who are in this room, we've been on the front lines forever,” he said, in what could have been a veiled jab at Yang. “This is not new. Clapback is not new. The issues that we're talking about are not new. COVID and George Floyd just uncovered things that we have known for generations. 4,000 years of systemic inequity, so we need to be about it today....We can’t continue to talk about it. We need to be about it.”

McGuire’s analogy prompted a sharp response. “I just want to be clear about something as an African-American woman, and no disrespect, I wouldn't want you to compare yourself to the great Shirley Chisholm, our congress member who spoke very passionately about being unbought and unbossed,” Cumbo said, while also pointing out that McGuire’s campaign fundraising has been largely from wealthy donors, unlike Chisholm’s. “And I'm not knocking the strategy that you've taken but I do take affront to you comparing yourself to Shirley Chisholm,” she said.

“And I would say that I am old school, and I support the candidate who's been in the trenches, who's been doing the work, and who has the longest track record of rolling up their sleeves and getting the work done in our community,” she added of Adams.

Ifeoma Ike, activist and founder of Pink Cornrows, a consulting firm, told McGuire it was a “very far-fetched comparison” and “almost ahistorical,” even as he offered an explanation for his thinking in offering the analogy, in terms of his ascent in the largely white-dominated world of Wall Street, then an apology.

He detailed in firm terms his modest upbringing and working his way to the top on Wall Street, where he has used his position and wealth to boost Black entrepreneurs and businesses, support and sponsor Black artists and curators, create jobs in Black communities, support the education of Black youth, and invest in healthcare and public libraries.

“If I have offended any of the women here, I apologize for that. It certainly wasn’t intentional...It’s on her shoulders I stand,” he said. “It was only out of respect for that.”

Cumbo went on to critique both McGuire and Yang for trying to become mayor when they have failed to be involved in grassroots activism and direct work in communities. She took particular issue with the fact that neither of them voted in recent mayoral elections. “[T]hat's really problematic for me because I feel that voting in elections is at baseline where you begin…When I look at the long lines, particularly in Black communities in this last election cycle, of people that waited on line for ten, twelve hours in the rain, in the snow, in the sleet, in the light, in the dark, with their kids, with walkers. It’s very concerning to me and disappointing frankly that you didn’t see in your time of service that voting is fundamental,” she said.

She also added, “I just feel that people that run for office should be people that have been in the field toiling, doing the work. It’s difficult when you’re an elected official and you go to like maybe ten press conferences a week on issues from lead paint to gun violence to schools not having appropriate computers. And to never have seen many of the mayoral candidates in those years is disturbing because it means that a lot of the issues that have been impacting our community from the killing of Eric Garner to so many other issues that we face, we just haven’t seen you.”

Other panelists did come to McGuire’s defense, however. “Some people occupy the streets, some people occupy the boardroom. We are not a monolithic people...I don’t think it’s fair to hold him to that standard,” said Karen Jarrett, former downstate political director of the New York State Nurses Association, praising McGuire for his success on Wall Street.

Rev. Kevin McCall, piggybacking on Cumbo’s comments, posed the same question to Donovan and the other candidates. “He’s not exempt from it. It’s all the candidates that are running for office,” McCall said. “If you’re running for office, you should be involved in everything, not just in economics, not just marching for justice.”

There were several more heated debates and comments during the wide-ranging discussion. For instance, when Menchaca asked how the city could encourage communities of color to agree to be given the covid vaccine, some panellists proposed solutions while others were openly sceptical of the vaccine.

The most intense debate of the evening was about Black elected power and the threat that some of the panellists see in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the introduction of ranked-choice voting in the upcoming mayoral primary.

Foy was the most ardent critic of DSA. “They have declared war on the Black political establishment,” he said. “They have sought to actively displace us in the midst of our most vulnerable time. They have sought to institute ranked-choice voting against our will. They have sought to replace leadership that has fought its way to the top with folks that have just arrived off the boat. And they actively seek to undermine, and I've seen this repeatedly, undermine the character of Black women in particular.”

“And intelligence,” added Cumbo, who has had ongoing disagreements, at times contentious, with members of the DSA, including now-State Senator Jabari Brisport, who won his seat last year with the backing of the DSA, two years after he had unsuccessfully challenged Cumbo in her 2017 reelection bid.

“[T]he DSA is a leftist threat to everything I hold dear, from the church to the school to my communities,” Foy said.

“That's some medieval shit there,” McGuire said.

Foy’s broader question was directed at Menchaca and whether he would side with Black activists over the DSA on any particular issue, considering the Council member’s far left leanings. As Menchaca began his response, Cumbo rubbed her hands with glee.

Menchaca critiqued the DSA as well, particularly for the role it played in opposing the proposed Industry City rezoning in his district, which fell apart last year after he opposed it and rallied other elected officials to call on the developer to pull the proposal.

“Me being progressive in the Council has caused me issues with even members in the Council itself,” he went on to say. “Me standing up and saying this is wrong, the fact that we're building four fuckin’ jails, four new jails in four different boroughs is wrong, and that we haven't closed Rikers and it's not going to close unless we bring a mayor that's going to actually do it. Those are moments where I have confronted power structures and the DSA is not different.”

“I think that there are elements of the DSA as white people that do not understand sometimes that they are...fulfilling the power of white supremacy,” he added.

Donovan, who was largely silent, measured his words carefully as he relayed an anecdote from his time as a top housing official under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Asked by Foy about when he disagreed with Bloomberg on housing, Donovan paused, and took some flak for it, including from McGuire. He then name-checked “Ray” and said that after the Great Recession, when Bloomberg blamed the government for causing the subprime mortgage crisis, Donovan said he pushed back and blamed Wall Street.

“Shaun, you cannot hesitate in the neighborhood. You can’t go down that alley like that,” McGuire interjected.

Donovan responded, “Ray, I don’t think you wanna pick this fight ‘cause I’ll tell you, being very blunt with you, the thing I disagreed with him most on, he thought the government caused the mortgage crisis and I thought Wall street caused the mortgage crisis.”

“That ain’t a real beef Shaun, let me tell you that,” McGuire said. Through laughter and crosstalk, McGuire took another shot at Donovan, asking Rev. McCall, “Was Shaun out there with y’all?”

“Let us put all joking aside here for one second. I am the only white man on this call right now and I want to be careful about what I'm saying,” Donovan said. “I have looked in the eyes of thousands of families that lost their homes in the mortgage crisis. Southeast Queens was Ground Zero. During the mortgage crisis, I was in Southeast Queens starting the Center for New York City Neighborhoods and trying to keep people in their goddamn homes. So when I say the idea that government caused the mortgage crisis, when I've looked in those family's eyes, and not Wall Street, is personal to me. This is not funny. This is not a joke. So the question to me is, I made a choice the last 30 years to be working in neighborhoods around New York City and working across this country to keep people in their homes, not to put them out of their homes. That's the disagreement I had with Mike Bloomberg. When he said to me, this is the government's fault, it was completely unacceptable to me. I’m not bullshitting here. This is not funny to me. This is people's lives.”

Watch the full Arc of Justice event here.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that Karen Jarrett is the former downstate political director of NYSNA. She does not currently hold the position.

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