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5 Key Takeaways from the First Official 2021 Mayoral Debate

5 takeaways debate

The first Democratic mayoral debate

Eight Democratic mayoral candidates took the virtual stage on Thursday for the first of three official televised debates leading up to the June primary. Over the course of two hours, the candidates offered thoughts and plans on public safety, reviving the city’s economy, school desegregation, housing, homelessness, and more. The debate was mostly civil, likely in part because of the virtual format, but candidates did occasionally lob pointed critiques at each other, previewing the direction the race may take over the next six weeks.

The debate, mandated by the Campaign Finance Board, was sponsored by Spectrum News NY1 and co-hosts WNYC/Gothamist, The CITY, Citizens Union, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Social Work Votes at the Columbia School of Social Work & Latino Leadership Institute. NY1 anchor Errol Louis moderated along with WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer and The CITY reporter Josefa Velázquez.

The eight candidates, running to replace term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, are former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, and former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan.

While the candidates covered a lot of ground and many interesting differences emerged, here are five key takeaways from the debate:

Sharp Differences in Policing Strategy
Policing and public safety took center stage for much of the debate and candidates expressed contrasting approaches, even as they all seemed to decry elements of the NYPD’s history of aggressive and racially-biased policing.

With homicides up 17% and shootings up by about 83% this year so far compared to last year, which itself saw big spikes in both categories, gun violence has become a major focal point of the campaign, but candidates have different plans for addressing it, with some more focused on policing and others on root causes like poverty, unemployment, and lack of education.

The more progressive candidates in the race such as Wiley, Donovan, Stringer, and Morales, have advocated for redirecting between $1 and $3 billion from the police department or the broader criminal justice system into underserved communities, responding to calls to “defund the NYPD” that crescendoed last year after the police killing of George Floyd. The more moderate contenders like Adams, McGuire, Garcia, and Yang mostly argue against cutting the police budget by any significant amount and want to beef up certain police roles and strategies, particularly in terms of units that go after guns.

Stringer spoke of expanding the violence interrupter program from 17 to all 77 precincts and investing in mental health professionals to respond to mental health-related 911 calls. “[W]e cannot, in this moment, simply go back to the Giuliani style of policing that impacted Black and brown children, that scarred them,” he said, while also saying he did not want to go back to the bad old days of high crime.

“[T]he reality of it is that safety is not synonymous with policing,” said Morales, pointing out that crime has been rising despite New York having the largest and most well-funded police department in the country. “The reality of it is that our communities are over-policed and under-resourced, so the violence that we're addressing or that we're witnessing is actually happening on the watch of the NYPD.”

Adams said he would reinstate a plain-clothes unit to get guns off the street and to tackle gang-related violence. “[T]he prerequisite to prosperity is public safety,” he said in using one of his campaign tag lines.

Yang was unequivocal in his support for the police. “The first thing I do as mayor is go to our police force and say that your city needs you, your city needs you to do your jobs professionally, responsibly and justly...And let me be clear, defund the police is the wrong approach for New York City,” he said.

When asked if they would send more police officers to patrol the subways, as the MTA has repeatedly called for in response to recent instances of violent crimes below ground, Stringer, Morales, and Wiley said they would not, while the others indicated they would. Several candidates, including Wiley and Garcia, noted that they would send more mental health professionals and homeless outreach workers to help New Yorkers in the subways who need services.

Education Differences
The candidates offered varying approaches to addressing inequities in New York City schools, with some focused on hiring more teachers and retaining teachers of color while others emphasized the need to address factors outside of school such as childcare and housing. Few directly answered the part of the question about desegregating the city’s highly segregated schools.

Donovan pointed to the disparity in teacher representation, noting that the city has fewer than 45% teachers of color in a system that's more than 85% students of color, as he spoke of his plan to hire and retain more teachers. But he also emphasized that the disparities exist because of the inequitable housing market. “We can't end segregation in our schools without ending segregation in our housing,” he said.

Yang said he would create an Education Opportunity Fund to provide $1,000 grants for tutoring and speech therapy to families living below the poverty line or with a child who is an English language learner or has an Individualized Education Program.

Garcia wants to expand the number of specialized high schools and admit the top 10% of students from middle schools, which she said is “not only about racial integration but also economic integration.”

Wiley said she would immediately hire 2,500 new teachers to reduce overcrowding in classrooms and provide trauma-informed care in schools.

Morales said she would issue an executive order immediately aimed at desegregating schools by removing all admissions screenings, redrawing school districts, eliminating the Specialized High School Admissions Test from the schools the mayor has control over, removing police from schools, and more.

Stringer spoke of expanded child care and after-school programs. Adams insisted on universal testing for dyslexia and to ensure fair student funding also affects “conditions around the schools,” without offering specifics. McGuire pitched his “cradle to career” plan that would begin with ensuring that no student leaves third grade without learning to read.

The lightning round of brief answers to questions on education drew other distinctions.

Garcia, Stringer, Donovan, Yang, and Morales supported requiring covid vaccinations for students to return to school in the fall, as some colleges have begun to mandate, but none of the candidates were in favor of mandatory vaccinations for teachers and other school personnel.

Only Stringer and Adams supported providing a full-time remote learning option when the school year begins in September.

Asked if they would support retaining the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the only criteria for admission to the city’s specialized high schools, only Garcia and Adams were in favor.

The Frontrunner Treatment
Yang and Adams have been the frontrunners in all the polling of the mayoral race and it was apparent at the debate, with the other candidates going after their records and attempting to undercut their momentum, though neither quite received the intense treatment that may come closer to primary day if the polls continue to show them toward the top (and Yang has mostly held a lead on Adams in the limited available polling).

Yang, more than Adams, was on the receiving end, but at times it was more oblique. For example, in his opening statement Stringer said the city “cannot afford a mayor on training wheels,” which could apply to Yang most prominently, but also political newcomers like McGuire and Morales.

Later, in the cross examination round where each candidate got to ask another one question, Stringer more directly took on Yang, while also taking a veiled shot at Wiley. Citing ethics issues that plagued Mayor de Blasio for much of his first term, stemming from special access to outside advisors and lobbyists, including the “agents of the city” that Wiley had designated as protected from public disclosure, Stringer pointed to Yang’s own campaign, which is being managed and staffed by lobbyists from Tusk Strategies. He asked Yang to commit to an ethical administration if elected, free of those influences, though he did not clearly outline why voters should be particularly concerned about Yang’s situation.

“[W]e need a mayor who's not beholden to special interests, who’ll just make decisions based upon what's best for the people and families of the city, and everyone watching this knows that I have my own vision, my own plans, my own agenda,” Yang responded.

McGuire called out Yang’s record at the nonprofit he founded, Venture for America, specifically pointing to reporting done by The New York Times, based off interviews with former VFA employees, that Yang “once offhandedly remarked that the nonprofit fellowship program, Venture for America, might simply not be the best fit for Black applicants.” McGuire asked Yang if he regretted saying that.

Yang offered a shaky defense of the episode. After talking about the racial inequities in the tech sector, Mcguire pressed the question again and Yang said, “It was like a hypothetical where I was posing it to my team in order to challenge our thinking. But if you look at the numbers, we were working in Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland, cities that were majority Black and our fellow representation actually ended up increasing the diversity in the firms we worked with.”

McGuire asked Yang simply, “Do you regret saying that?” 

“I actually don't even remember saying that,” Yang responded, “but I'm like if you say that, you know, it's documented somewhere I didn't want to come and say, ‘Hey I didn't say that.’ But I genuinely don't remember making that statement.”

Donovan jumped in to go at Yang. “As a member of the Obama administration, I'm offended to hear Andrew hide behind that [Champions] for Change award,” he said of recognition the administration had given Yang for VFA. “It was about promise and not results and I think so often we've seen promises from him but not results. This is not time for a rookie as mayor.”

Yang responded that he had been honored twice by the Obama administration – referring both to the “Champions for Change” award he received in 2012 and being named a “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship” in 2015.

It was Wiley who put Adams on the defensive repeatedly, questioning his praise for stop-and-frisk as an effective policing tool, asking him “how can New Yorkers trust you to protect us and to keep us safe from police misconduct?”

“Every time you raise that question, it really just shows your failure of understanding law enforcement,” Adams said.

“Having chaired the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, I certainly understand misconduct,” she retorted, to which Adams said the CCRB “was a failure under you.”

Adams touted his extensive record of criticizing abusive stop-and-frisk policing while also pressing Wiley on whether she, a civil rights lawyer with the ACLU, ever spoke out on the issue herself, but the exchange was cut off.

When the moderator asked Adams about his past affiliation with the Republican Party in the ‘90s, Wiley stepped in to critique him for being a self-proclaimed “conservative Republican” (a characterization Adams disrupted though he was a Republican and has recently acknowledge he’s always considered himself “conservative on crime”) and for praising former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who oversaw rampant police abuses. “I think we all have our own opinions, but we don't have our own facts,” Adams said, casting doubts on reported characterizations.

In response, Wiley’s campaign pointed to an article in the New York Daily News from 1999, which quoted Adams as saying, “‘Look, Giuliani deserves tremendous credit for the falling crime rate. [Mayor David] Dinkins was way too soft on crime. And what Giuliani has done, was done despite serious critics who said it couldn't be done. But he had the will to do it, so it was done.’”

In the cross-examination round, Donovan too went after Adams, pressing him to explain his past comments that he would carry a gun as mayor. “As a New Yorker, but also as a parent, I'm deeply concerned about the idea of a mayor who carries a gun at a time where gun violence is spiking, and we're losing so many people in New York,” Donovan said.

Adams repeated the defense he has offered previously, that he has the right to carry a gun as a retired NYPD officer and he would only do so if the NYPD reports credible threats against him. “I think it is hypocritical to state that the city is safe, but we're walking around with five or six members of your detail,” he said of the police protection a mayor gets. “We could cut that down to two and put those officers to protect the public.”

Yang and Adams also sparred during the debate. When Yang sought to take credit for helping Democrats flip the two Senate seats in Georgia this past January, Adams quickly chimed in. “That is disrespectful and appalling to Stacey Abrams and those Black women who organized on the ground,” he said.

Yang said he “would give full credit” but noted that there is a not insignificant Asian population in Georgia that he may have helped to activate and that he had helped raise money to be used in the state. “So full credit to Stacey and everyone else who has been doing the work for years but it's okay for other people to contribute to their success,” he said.

And while both Yang and Adams were on the receiving end of questions and criticism, Yang continued to take his above-the-fray approach while Adams was happy to mix it up more. Along with Yang, Morales and Garcia, who was riding high after winning the coveted endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, both mostly or fully stayed positive, as all three have, almost without exception, throughout the campaign.

Wiley and Donovan Assert Themselves, Stringer Takes a Backseat
The most assertive candidates, trying to break through in a crowded field and debate, and looking to give their midling campaigns a jolt, were Wiley and Donovan. Both repeatedly took opportunities to talk about their campaign platforms rather than falling back on vague talking points, and both jumped into the discussion uninvited several times.

Wiley was by nearly all accounts more effective, making quick retorts focused on specific policies that she has advanced and critiquing opponents in sharp bursts, while Donovan repeatedly boasted of his work for President Barack Obama and came across at times as hectoring or condescending.

Stringer, who has been in the top three with Adams and Yang in most polls, seemed poorly suited for the virtual debate and occupied less air time than most if not all of the other candidates. His staid approach didn’t seem to make much of an impact in a debate where candidates were going after each other’s records and histories, and while he did take several opportunities to clearly outline some of his extensive policy plans on issues like housing, he mostly appeared on the sidelines other than one particular moment when he made many of the candidates, and perhaps viewers, laugh by rebuking Donovan, who had referenced Stringer in trying to excuse the fact that Donovan’s father is pumping millions of dollars into a Super PAC to support his son’s mayoral bid.

Stringer may have been less willing to call out other candidates because he’s continuing to deal with a sexual harassment and assault allegation levelled against him by a volunteer on his 2001 campaign for public advocate, a topic that Louis raised when he went around to each candidate with a specific issue to challenge them on. Stringer reiterated his denials of the allegations, but it was a reminder that what had been an ascendent campaign has been wounded.

Other Shaky Statements
Along with Wiley's attacks on Adams and defenses offered by Yang and Donovan, there were a few other statements, or non-statements, from some of the candidates that strained credulity and bore further examination.  

Morales, during the cross-examination, pressed Adams to explain his criticism of the “defund the NYPD” movement. He was quoted in New York Magazine last month, saying, “Now, this is really being led by a different demographic. There are a lot of young white affluent people who are coming in and setting the conversation.” Morales noted that many organizers calling for defunding the NYPD are Black and Latino and challenged Adams on what he would say to them.

Adams claimed at the debate that he was talking about the “disband” movement that seeks to dismantle police departments entirely. Indeed, in the New York Magazine article, he did cite a New York Times op-ed from June 2020 titled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” But his criticism of the ‘defund’ movement has been consistent and he has repeatedly said that it is Black and brown New Yorkers who are calling for more policing, which makes his defense somewhat muddled, if not completely false.

When asked if any of them had ever voted for a Republican, no candidate raised a hand. But there’s reason to believe some of the candidates may not have been telling the truth.

Donovan served as housing commissioner under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a record he often touts. But Bloomberg was a Republican from 2001, when he took office, to 2007, halfway through his second term. Donovan’s campaign confirmed on Friday that he voted for Bloomberg in 2005 on the Independence Party line, but that does not change the fact that Donovan voted for someone who was a Republican.

Adams, who was a registered Republican from 1995-2002, also claims to never have voted for a Republican, making his party-switch mysterious, though it came just after he had launched an aborted campaign to challenge Rep. Major Owens in 1994 and he has previously said he changed affiliations because he believed Democrats were too soft on crime. Asked to confirm Adams’ debate answer, his campaign insisted he had never voted for any Republican.

The candidates were also asked if they supported the turnover of some public housing developments to private management, under a federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which Donovan helped design as HUD secretary. None of the candidates raised their hand when asked the question. But, Donovan, Garcia, and Adams have all expressed support for the policy in the past.

And Garcia, whose sister owns a catering hall in Brooklyn, claimed that "It really doesn't happen," when discussing people getting sick in New York City from eating at restaurants, in arguing that the Health Department should schedule visits instead of doing surprise check-ins, which she said hurt establishments' bottom lines. The New York Post looked into it and found that while there appears to be a fairly limited number of food poisoning incidents traced to New York City restaurants, at least reported ones and compared to how many meals are served throughout the city, there are pros and cons to the surprise inspections.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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