Top: Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, Ray McGuire; Bottom: Eric Adams, Loree Sutton, Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer
Eight leading Democratic candidates for New York City mayor participated in what was billed as the first debate of the primary, hosted Sunday evening by the Kings County Democratic Committee and moderated by NY1 anchor Errol Louis.
The hour-long debate moved quickly and covered a lot of ground, while also featuring rare bouts of direct interaction between candidates, some of it quite pointed, as a result of the “cross examination” round where each candidate was allowed to ask another candidate a question.
Participants included former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former city veterans’ services commissioner Loree Sutton, Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
The primary will be decided in June and will be the first mayoral election to include ranked-choice voting, which is in play for primaries and special elections only starting this year and is supposed to encourage more positive, widespread campaigning.
On Sunday night, there were several moments of tension. Yang was the first to be put on the defensive by an opponent, when Wiley confronted him about reports, made public this past weekend by Business Insider, from people who had worked on his presidential campaign describing a culture where women felt harassed and dismissed.
"I was shocked to hear about, in a MeToo era, in an era where we have Access Hollywood, that in your [presidential] campaign there was a culture that was very harassing and demeaning for women and you admitted to leading that," Wiley said.
Based on Daily News reporting, Wiley also criticized Yang for news that his mayoral campaign was requiring some aides to sign non-disclosure agreements and asked if he would commit to allowing his campaign staff to complain publicly. Wiley attempted to draw a line between Yang and former President Donald Trump in referencing the infamous Access Hollywood tape and by calling the reported non-disclosure agreements "Trumpian."
Yang responded that the non-disclosure agreements were only asked for from those handling sensitive campaign data but that their use had already been discontinued by his campaign.
"I'm on the record saying everything works better when you have great women leaders, like the many of the people on this call tonight, leading in tandem," Yang said. He went on to say, "I couldn't agree more with the fact that you need to have women in positions of leadership in order to actually operate at the highest levels."
He did not directly address the allegations about his presidential campaign. In a statement to Business Insider, Yang admitted that his management team was flawed and that the campaign had failed to ensure every employee was heard and respected.
"When there were conflicts, we did not have a sufficient process to resolve them," his statement read. "Although we terminated employees involved in reported issues, we didn't have supportive systems in place to expedite and prioritize reporting. We didn't account for how much our male-dominated culture alienated female and non-binary employees. I wish we had. For that I am deeply sorry."
At the forum, Yang attempted to prove his commitment to female leadership by stating the demographics at organizations he ran. He said that when he was CEO at Manhattan Prep, there were many female leaders across offices. At the nonprofit he ran, Venture for America, he said most of the leadership team was women, including his successor as CEO. He added that one of his co-campaign managers is a woman of color.
In another intense exchange, Donovan tried to turn viewers against McGuire's long career on Wall Street, particularly his role as Citigroup vice chairman during the mortgage crisis.
Donovan called attention to the devastating impacts in Brooklyn of the crisis and asked McGuire his understanding of what caused the crisis and how he acted as a leader during that time. McGuire appeared to take exception to the question, initially calling Donovan “Shaun Obama” for Donovan’s propensity to cite his old boss, former President Barack Obama, and McGuire emphasized that his work was in investment banking rather than mortgage lending and said he believed Donovan was already aware of that. He went on to explain his efforts to personally help communities following the crisis.
"As one of the leaders on Wall Street and certainly one of the only ones who looks like me, who as long as I have been on Wall Street, I made sure that we began to address that by becoming one of the leading lenders in truly affordable housing, making investments in the communities, making investments in summer jobs, making certain that the firm committed to folks of the neighborhood and making sure that I continued to invest, with a verifiable track record, into the communities, especially those that were hardest hit," McGuire said.
Sutton set her sights on Adams, asking about a speech he gave on Martin Luther King Jr. Day last year when he said some New Yorkers from places like Iowa or Ohio should go home. She asked if he would have a different message for all New Yorkers. Adams countered that the speech was addressed to those in New York who rush to call the police on Black New Yorkers, who move into communities and want to displace and criminalize neighbors as opposed to engaging them.
"It is the belief that you can displace communities instead of engaging communities and the spirit of my whole speech, if you had listened to it, and I hope people will go back to it because it was an entire speech of how we define crises and how we are displacing the ideas and communities of long-term residents who built this city," Adams said. "Not only Brooklyn, they built this city and now that we have become a popular place we have attempted to displace everyday New Yorkers through high property rentals, through not engaging in the local stores and businesses, not being part of New York."
Yang brought up Stringer's role as city comptroller and noted that the city’s unfair and antiquated property tax system has not been reformed in decades, creating inequities. Yang asked Stringer if he has looked at property tax as a means for reducing inequality.
Stringer said he had been chair of a property tax commission in Albany when he was an Assembly member.
"I have seen the disparities in the system, it's a system of winners and losers in the four classes," Stringer said of property types. "The mayor and the City Council proposed changes to that system, they had a commission, but nobody has acted on that since the onset of covid. As mayor I'm going to look at those recommendations, continue the work of holding hearings, building consensus. I think part of the key to getting a more fair property taxation system is to get away from that winner or loser mentality, to make sure that we don't overburden the poorest people in the city, we make it fair and equitable, and it's going to take a lot of political will to have those conversations."
Stringer then took over the questioning, asking McGuire how he would help the city handle homelessness and move people out of shelters. McGuire said his approach would tailor aid to what each community needs and the centerpiece of his plan would be building truly affordable housing. McGuire emphasized the need for support services for homeless people, especially those suffering from mental illness, and said the excessive money being used to pay for shelters should be going into permanent affordable housing.
"We have a moral and legal responsibility for the homeless," McGuire responded. "We need funding and we need leadership and clear strategy and accountability." He mentioned his newly-released economic recovery plan.
McGuire turned the conversation in a more optimistic direction, asking Garcia what is working well in the city. Garcia led with her management of the Department of Sanitation.
"Tonight Sanitation will do an absolutely phenomenal job plowing snow,” Garcia said of her former colleagues. She said she had modernized operations in the department. “When I started there it was all paper," Garcia said. "You would have walked indoors, gone into a spreader, and been given a sheet of paper to follow along. Now they all have turn by turn directions. That's the type of change I made in the Department of Sanitation."
She went on to say that most other things are not working well right now, including online schools, rollout of the vaccine, and making healthcare accessible. She said people throughout the city are not receiving the services they need.
"People in New York City want essential services done well," Garcia said. "They want to be safe in their communities, they want their kids to go to school, and they definitely want Sanitation to be plowing tonight, and that is the type of experience that I have and that I bring to the table. I know how to make it work, I have made it work in extremely challenging situations."
Garcia directed her question to Wiley, asking how she would address the $40 billion NYCHA public housing needs to get to a state of good repair. Wiley returned to the idea of including communities in governance, advocating for a system that allows NYCHA residents to understand what money is available to them, see where the money is going, and weigh in on how it should be spent. As mayor, she said she would rally for the federal government to contribute more funding and use $10 billion the city spends on capital projects to create 100,000 jobs focused on communities of color and communities hardest hit by covid.
"We don't need anyone's permission for that $10 billion. We can do that right now," Wiley said. "We've committed at least 2 billion of that to actually start bringing back public safety and dignity to residents and giving them some opportunity to say what that money should be spent on."
Adams said McGuire’s “Shaun Obama” quip was funny and then asked Donovan about his views on what support the city should provide to pregnant women and young mothers. As he has before, Adams emphasized the importance of prenatal care to the brain development of unborn children and asked if education conversations are ignoring the science behind prenatal care being essential to childhood development.
Donovan said Adams has been “eloquent” on the subject and that there is much more the city should be doing to support mothers-to-be, citing his and his wife's experience working with a midwife for the birth of both their sons.
"We miss so many opportunities to work more effectively with women before they give birth to make sure that we have all of the healthcare, all of the nutritional needs met," Donovan said.
Donovan used the example of prenatal care to convey his vision for how city agencies would work together under his administration. He explained that while working to implement a lead paint law as housing commissioner under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg he realized that apartment inspectors could be used to call mothers' attention to available programs, like nurse-family partnership.
"We needed to do much more to break down the silos across government and work much more effectively to reach people," Donovan said. "We touch people over and over again in this city and we need a mayor and a government that works to connect those services much better than we do today."
Louis asked candidates about how they would target affordable housing. Noting that one metric for defining affordable housing is area median income (AMI), he asked how candidates would decide what areas to include in calculating that average, which currently includes city suburbs.
Wiley called for a long-term planning process to enable city officials to reach all people in need of affordable housing and urged including communities in the planning process, a theme that spanned across many of her responses. She added that one of the principles of building has to be that every neighborhood has affordable housing options.
Donovan cautioned candidates against being overzealous in changing the structure of calculating area median income housing, arguing that changes could mean many New York families who rely on federal section 8 vouchers facing vast restrictions on where they could move.
"We need to attack this in the right way, not just saying AMI is wrong because if you change AMI overall, you're actually going to hurt hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers," Donovan said. "What I believe is that we need to have a plan that gets to more deeply affordable housing and the only way to do that, we know that it costs more than $500 a month to run an apartment in New York whether you're a non-profit, the city, or a for-profit owner. We need more section 8 housing."
He added that section 8 housing needs more operating assistance and infrastructure to help residents build towards home ownership. Stringer clashed with Donovan by calling out housing policies under the Bloomberg administration, in which Donovan served for some time as housing commissioner, as well as the de Blasio administration, arguing that the approach was too unit-based rather than focusing on affordability.
"When Bloomberg was mayor and Shaun was at his side it was all about creating units of so-called affordable housing," Stringer said. "De Blasio becomes mayor, Maya knows this, he wanted to double Bloomberg, so it's this whole fight about how much unaffordable affordable housing can we build."
Stringer outlined elements of his housing plan, which would include building on vacant lots and investing in community-based organizations rather than relying as much on private developers to make way for mandated affordable housing, though he is also calling for mandating affordable housing in all new housing development. Stringer said he is for repurposing the 421a tax abatement that is meant to encourage affordable housing in wealthier areas but is widely seen as having underperformed for its large cost. He is also calling for creating a land bank to help integrate neighborhoods and moving away from upzonings in communities of color. Stringer criticized de Blasio for only rezoning those neighborhoods and noted that de Blasio had not proposed such upzonings on the Upper West Side or Upper East Side, though he stopped short of saying he would upzone such neighborhoods himself if elected.
McGuire started out noting that the demand for housing in New York has far outstripped supply, citing that for every new job the city used to build 2.2 units of housing and today it builds only .5 units of housing. This imbalance means housing has become very expensive and led to many families using more than half of their income paying rent.
"We do need to restructure, with the federal government's help, AMI, and we need to make sure that we can build," McGuire said. "This is the most expensive city in which to build, it is also the most archaic when it comes to all the things you need to get in order to get a place built. It also comes down to how houses are built and sustainability, we are way off the mark."
Adams emphasized the preservation of affordable housing already in place, including NYCHA public housing, as crucial. He called for selling the air rights over NYCHA, which he projected would bring in $8 billion that could be put back into repairs in the developments, which need a sum of roughly $40 billion to bring them to a state of good repair. He echoed Stringer's earlier point about too much development in poorer communities, and that people in those communities are pushed out by gentrification and rising housing costs. He added that there needs to be a range of housing options available so that the widest swath of New Yorkers can stay in the city.
"When we talk about housing we have to stop ignoring the middle class, that teacher and accountant, we want them here in the city so we have to ensure we have low-income and middle-income," Adams said.
Garcia agreed with others on the panel that the city cannot chase a unit number goal when building affordable housing. She made the case that the city needs to focus on building fewer units of truly affordable housing, rather than many units of more expensive housing that is supposed to be affordable. She pointed attention to her plan to build 50,000 units of "deeply affordable housing." She also cited the importance of diversifying who lives in the housing being people and the importance of people of different income levels living together.
"We also have an opportunity right now with the challenges the hotel sector is facing, as well as the office building sector, to rapidly convert those into housing for people and not let those assets just sit there empty," Garcia said.
Sutton agreed with Garcia that crisis can bring opportunity and with other panelists' points that engaging with communities should be a central point of procedure. However, she stated that city government needs to think harder and more creatively about how to help low-income communities and communities of color, which have often been left out of these conversations.
"The pandemic, while it has been devastating, it has not brought every problem to our doorstep," Sutton said. "We were 48 out of 50 states being the least business-friendly, we are still that way. As far as social and upward mobility, we are at the very bottom."
Yang agreed that the cost of affordable housing needs to come down and said New Yorkers need to become more accepting of affordable housing in a practical way.
"Everyone is for affordable housing in the abstract until it's pitched to their neighborhood and then they are less for it and that's been the reality in New York for a long time," Yang said.
He went on to say that hotels, in addition to commercial spaces left vacant due to the pandemic, need to be repurposed for housing. He said Midtown Manhattan office space is 82% unoccupied and that following the pandemic businesses are going to be less dependent on office spaces. He added that Manhattan needs people in offices to fuel the economy so public safety must also be a priority.
Candidates were also asked to address public safety, particularly how candidates would balance the increasing calls for police accountability following Black Lives Matter protests over the summer with the rising rate of shootings in New York City. Louis first addressed Adams, pointing out that his proposal for community precinct councils to review precinct commander nominees had just been adopted by the mayor. One objection to the policy has been that allowing community leaders to play a heavy hand in policing personnel decisions could potentially lead to corruption.
Adams called for taking the mayor's plan further by having civic council organizations meet with precinct commanders to discuss how to police in each community. Additionally, giving these organizations the ability to background check commanders and decide if they are a good fit for the community.
"We can't let the fear of corruption get in the way of having real community input in the process of choosing the powerful position of precinct commander," said Adams, who spent two decades in the NYPD before being elected to the State Senate.
Wiley also called for putting communities at the forefront of designing policing policies, adding that there needs to be clear rules for what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior from police officers.
"We should be making sure that the rules of the road, the patrol guide, are bright and clear and not allow so much grey that police officers get off when there has been misconduct," Wiley said. There must be public engagement and clarity of priorities, she said, “but it does take a strong mayor who is willing to stand up to police unions as well as willing to engage with communities in ensuring true oversight on what police are doing; how, why and what they're not doing."
Sutton called for creating a public safety coordination council composed of the NYPD and seven other city agencies run by the mayor. She noted that the council would bring community members and advocates in quarterly to contribute.
Garcia led with her experience managing the Department of Sanitation and highlighted that she is the only candidate who has managed a uniformed force of 10,000-plus. She added that public safety is about more than just the NYPD, but also about coordinating all of New York City's agencies.
"It's also about management. It's about management of a uniformed agency and making sure that they are doing what they're supposed to do at the direction of the mayor and ensuring that the community is part of that conversation," Garcia said.
To facilitate reform, McGuire also called for creating venues where police and community leaders can meet to create or strengthen relationships. He placed reforming NYPD culture as the top priority in handling the rising calls for police accountability.
"I would make sure that the culture in the NYPD was one that reflects my values. That'll be a culture of respect, accountability, and proportionality," McGuire said. "There's no trust, there's no respect between the police and the community. We need to restore that by putting police and people who represent the greatest need in the community like mental health care professionals in."
Stringer had a somewhat different perspective.
"There are different views of policing in different communities," Stringer said. "The leadership has to come from the police commissioner and the mayor. What we've seen right now is the mayor has lost control of the police department."
Stringer released a plan for $1 billion worth of cuts to the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion operating budget over four years, money he would reallocate to mental health services and community organizations.
Yang reiterated his pledge to name some as police commissioner who had not been part of the NYPD, arguing that it would quicken the pace of reforms.
"It's very difficult to reform a culture if you are of that culture and right now far too many New Yorkers fear that if they encounter a police officer in the wrong circumstances then they're going to end up with their rights infringed on instead of protected," Yang said.
Yang added that speeding the pace of recovery from the pandemic would help to lower the spike in gun violence seen in the city last year, and he has said he is best suited to speed the economic recovery.
Donovan took issue with the fact that police are not required to live in New York City, unlike most other city employees.
"Why is the police the only agency that doesn't have a requirement to live in those communities?" Donovan said. "If there is any agency, any issue in this city where making sure people understand the communities they are in and can build relationships, policing is it. So I would change that and make sure there is a residency requirement."
The candidates were also asked about the city's rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and how they would handle the crucial task. Donovan highlighted his history as a part of former President Barack Obama's cabinet, noting that he has worked with Dr. Anthony Fauci before on the containment of Ebola and Zika viruses. He emphasized the need for a mayor who can build vaccine site infrastructure and who understands large complex problems, skills he says he honed while working for the federal government.
Garcia pointed to the fact that she released a vaccine distribution plan in response to the city’s initial choppy rollout and said the approach to distributing vaccines needs to be able to reach the largest number of people and meet New Yorkers where they are. She said she would accommodate disabilities, language barriers, and time constraints by setting up mobile vaccination centers to be dispatched to communities.
"We need to bring vaccinations to these people via mobile trucks," Garcia said. "I've set these types of systems up and we need to lean on the nonprofit sector, who are key trusted people. They know these people. They could have been setting up appointments before the vaccine even got here and we would be making strides in its rollout."
McGuire criticized health-care deserts in the city, stating that he would prioritize these areas and communities in vaccination.
"Today we have a situation where of the people who have reported their race, 300,000 or so, 48% of people who have received the vaccine are white, 11% are Black," McGuire said. "What this has identified is systemic inequities."
Stringer called out the current administration for not being better prepared to launch a vaccination plan.
"This now is life or death. We really didn't know that this virus was here, but we knew when the virus hit that a vaccine was on its way, any medical journal would have informed City Hall that it was coming and it certainly was here by November, and the fact that we have not been able to manage a two-car funeral to get this done has to change," Stringer said.
He went on to say that his plan would feature 24/7 vaccination sites and that he would ramp up capacity so that the city is ready once the federal government sends more vaccination doses (which de Blasio says is already the case).
Sutton, who is running on her military background and experience in leadership in city government, agreed with other candidates that a strong managerial skill set would be required to effectively vaccinate New Yorkers.
"This is not a problem that should surprise us,” Wiley said, “because it really is about our failure over and over and over again to recognize that it is communities of color — Black, Latino, Asian — that are always hit first, always hit first in every single disaster and we never prepare in advance.”
She blamed the current administration for not learning lessons from the inequalities seen in access to COVID-19 tests and reaffirmed the criticism that the city should not have taken contact-tracing from the Department of Health and moved it to Health + Hospitals.
Yang said he was frustrated that even if vaccination sites were prepared with doctors and doses, they may not have patients ready to get their shot. He said that there needed to be a systemic way to distribute vaccines, even if it meant changing age restrictions in certain neighborhoods. He reiterated his call that there needs to be a way for people to record, verify, and demonstrate that they have been vaccinated so that people can begin re-entering schools and other settings.
"At this point any delay in vaccine rollout is costing us lives and any chance at getting on to recovery," Yang said. "My job as mayor will be to excel recovery as quickly as possible and do it in an equitable way."