Gotham Gazette

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5 Things to Watch at The First General Election Mayoral Debate

de blasio stage

(Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Get the popcorn. There’s a general election debate in the race for Mayor of New York City on Tuesday night. It promises to be a spirited affair with competing ideas, styles, and personalities among the three candidates participating.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and two of his six challengers -- Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis and independent Bo Dietl -- will debate at 7 p.m. Tuesday, the first of two such televised contests between now and Election Day, November 7. The debate will be aired on NY1 television and WNYC radio.

Recent polling shows that Malliotakis and Dietl face an especially uphill battle and need to make a splash. It’s likely that they are competing for much of the same base of support, and each seems to be keeping the other from narrowing the wide gap with de Blasio. Tuesday night will offer an opportunity for Malliotakis and Dietl to introduce themselves to more voters, critique the sitting mayor, and showcase their message for why they should replace de Blasio atop city government. As each indicated in an interview with Gotham Gazette, a goal for the debate is to give the sense that it is really a race between him- or her-self and de Blasio.

It promises to be a lively debate among three candidates who do not shy away from an argument and who have different ideas for the direction the city should go.

While Malliotakis and Dietl have both been far more active on the candidate forum circuit than de Blasio has, the mayor did have two televised primary election debates against Sal Albanese to help prepare for the general election events. In the debates against Albanese, de Blasio handled himself fairly well, on the way to winning nearly 75% of the vote, though he often sparred with his challenger, rarely allowing an attack to go by that he did not feel the need to respond to.

Albanese is among those who will be on the general election ballot but not able to debate Tuesday, having fallen short of the requirements, including a fundraising and spending threshold of $500,000 in both directions. Albanese has sued to get on the debate stage, but the outcome of the litigation is not yet clear. He actually registered better than Dietl in one of two recent polls of the mayoral race.

Another of de Blasio’s Democratic primary opponents who is also on the general election ballot, Michael Tolkin, met the financial requirements, but because he is not a participant in the Campaign Finance Board matching program, his debate participation was left up to the sponsors, and lead sponsor NY1 declined to invite him.

The other two candidates who will be on the November ballot are Green Party nominee Akeem Browder and Libertarian nominee Aaron Commey. Neither has raised much money or had a significant campaign presence.

Tuesday will mark exactly four weeks until Election Day and the first debate will give voters plenty to think about. Here are five things to watch:

1. Is Nicole Malliotakis ready for prime time?
On the biggest stage of her career, can Nicole Malliotakis deliver? Will she be able to sharply articulate both her critiques of de Blasio and her vision for leading the city? Can she describe problems with the city that resonate with the voters who matter most to her chances at building a winning coalition, especially moderate Democrats and those unaffiliated with a party? Can she spark a new media narrative and several days of positive coverage about her performance?

“A lot of people will be meeting me for the first time when they turn on that television,” Malliotakis told Gotham Gazette on Monday morning. “I’ve been all over the five boroughs, and getting a great reception, but polls show a lot of people don’t know me. It’s an opportunity for me to introduce myself to those individuals for the first time.”

“We’ve spent quite a few hours doing debate prep,” Malliotakis said, though she provided few specifics beyond saying that she has been “studying issues” and de Blasio’s primary debates versus Albanese. She’s done mock debating, she said, but wouldn’t get into details in terms of who was playing the mayor or Dietl. “We’ve been spending time discussing various topics that may come up,” she said, “and solidifying answers - basic debate prep.”

“The other goal is to make it clear this is a race between Bill de Blasio and I,” Malliotakis added, in apparent reference to Dietl, of whom, when asked, she said, “He’s just there. I don’t believe that Bo has offered anything. I don’t even know why Bo is in the debate. He’s there to promote his upcoming movie, where he plays being mayor. People are going to realize this is an election between Bill de Blasio and me as the clear alternative. We are the serious contenders in this election and there’s a stark contrast between us.”

It’s essential for Malliotakis to rise above Dietl, said William O’Reilly, a Republican strategist. “Nicole’s mission is fairly simple: make it a two-way race. That’s ultimately the goal of this debate, is to completely shut out Bo Dietl, show him as a publicity stunt and no more,” he said. O’Reilly added that while “she has to put a crack into the mayor” and “there’s gotta be some excitement coming out of the debate,” it can’t be that Dietl was the most interesting aspect of the debate.

Malliotakis’ goal, O’Reilly said, must be the “takeaway is that there’s a real race between Nicole Malliotakis and Bill de Blasio.” He suggested she even use body language in ignoring Dietl, “almost to the point of rudeness.”

“It’s gotta be interesting to the press,” O’Reilly said of the debate overall, agreeing that if there are debate moments that lead to multiple days of stories and questions for the mayor, that Malliotakis will have been successful.

While Malliotakis has been honing her attacks on de Blasio in dozens of media appearances, public events, and press conferences, the face-to-face nature of the debate offers a new and special opportunity for her. O’Reilly said she must continue to hammer de Blasio on the key points she’s been making about his work ethic, focus, budgeting, and ineffectiveness on certain issues, like homelessness, and argue convincingly that the city is heading in the wrong direction. She must also present herself as a viable alternative, and show that she has ideas and command of the issues. It's a popular opinion among those watching closely that she would do well to unveil at least one or two signature policy proposals that capture her campaign -- either at the debate or soon thereafter. Regardless, de Blasio will remain in her crosshairs, and should.

“When you’re running against an incumbent, you need to snatch the office from underneath them. You have to remain critical,” O’Reilly said.

Republican City Council Member Eric Ulrich of Queens, who has been behind Dietl for months, told this weekend that he likes Malliotakis and thinks “she does a great job as an Assemblywoman on Staten Island,” but that she wasn’t the best choice as the GOP mayoral candidate. Citing “lackluster” fundraising and minimal name recognition, Ulrich said, “I don’t think Nicole’s campaign has been able to gain any traction or catch fire...I don’t think she was ready for prime time.”

Tuesday night, in prime time, is an opportunity for Malliotakis to catch fire.

2. Which Bo Dietl shows up?
Dietl is something of a performer -- and he is actually a TV and film actor -- and it is not exactly clear which version, or versions, of the former NYPD detective will participate in Tuesday’s debate.

When Gotham Gazette spoke with Dietl on Friday afternoon, he said he was just “going over statistics...misstatements from the current mayor.” Dietl mentioned key issues of education, subways, affordable housing, and homelessness.

Asked what he’s doing to prepare for the debate, Dietl said he was “reverifying some of the lies [de Blasio’s] telling.” “I’m the only non-politician,” he added, “I’m not doing this mock sh-t -- I’m mocking him,” Dietl said, in apparent reference to the mock debates that campaigns sometimes hold in preparation.

Dietl said he had watched the de Blasio-Albanese primary debates. “I didn’t like the way he treated Sal. I’m not gonna take it,” Dietl said. “I’m not going to be nice to him because I don’t have any respect for him.”

“I want people to see a clear-cut choice,” Dietl said of his goal for the debate. “It’s a chance for people to say ‘wow, that Bo is refreshing.’”

“I don’t believe in polls, first of all, but the way they are, I want people to see, this is a guy I believe in,” Dietl added.

“I want to show people they do have another choice,” Dietl said, “certainly not the Republican candidate, her voting record stands for itself.” He mentioned Malliotakis’ opposition to marriage equality (which she has said she regrets) and to minimum wage increases. “She’s out of the equation,” Dietl said, “I’m only debating one person, and that’s de Blasio. Unless she comes after me, I’m going to act like she’s not even there, she’s not my competition.”

Dietl said de Blasio has transparency problems and that the schools aren’t being run properly. He said “there’s a fear factor back in New York,” and that, as a former NYPD detective, he’s the right person to put in charge. The city “needs a mayor it can cheer,” Dietl added.

“He’s a very unliked person,” Dietl said of de Blasio, citing the incumbent’s “condescending attitude, like he’s the king or something -- he doesn’t realize, he’s an elected official.”

“Bo Dietl being in the debate is a gift for de Blasio,” said Dr. Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “He’ll be a distraction, and he’ll get to talk up to a third of the time, maybe more.” Dietl may also help de Blasio by attacking Malliotakis, Greer noted. “I’m sure Dietl will supply the gaffes,” she said, “he’s going to look erratic.”

“There’s going to be a big surprise on Tuesday,” Dietl told Gotham Gazette. “I said ‘no ‘wild man Bo,’’ we don’t know about that.”

3. What’s de Blasio’s approach?
The mayor positioned himself as fact-checker-in-chief during his two primary debates with Albanese, regularly saying that Albanese was getting his facts wrong and at one point accusing him of being in a “fact-free zone.”

De Blasio will surely be attacked a great deal by Malliotakis and Dietl -- how will the mayor respond?

Odds are de Blasio insists on correcting the record, or defending himself, whatever the case may be, and that he is a willing sparring partner with his opponents. One thing de Blasio does fairly well, though, is pivot into his talking points once he has engaged in some defensiveness. The mayor is practiced in the stagecraft, regularly speaking directly to camera so that he has the appearance of talking with viewers, not addressing his opponent or even the moderator.

“He has to watch the condescending tone,” said Greer, with particular regard to how he talks to and about Malliotakis. “Watch the mansplaining, starting sentences with ‘well, actually,’” Greer added. It helped the mayor that he had to debate Albanese, Greer said, given that “otherwise he’s been in the government phase.”

“Hopefully he’s looked at the tapes” of the primary debates, Greer said, and “hopefully he’s smart enough to have polished up some things.”

“I expect him to be his usual arrogant self,” Malliotakis said when asked what she expects from de Blasio Tuesday night. “He’ll be saying how wonderful and great everything is, which is not what the average New Yorker feels or thinks. I think the mayor wants New Yorkers to believe everything is wonderful because he says it is.”

As the incumbent seeking reelection, it reasons that much of the debate will be about de Blasio’s record, including some of the areas he’s most vulnerable, like ethics and transparency, and homelessness. Questions around the speed of progress in the city’s schools and in building affordable housing may also be raised, by the journalists asking the questions, the candidates, or both.

It will be interesting to see whether de Blasio has any new lines or new policy proposals. There’s a chance he has a practiced zinger or two for one or both of his opponents; he may also have some opposition ammunition regarding Malliotakis’ record in the Assembly or Dietl’s career as a private investigator. It’s more likely the mayor goes after Malliotakis than Dietl, but he has to be careful in terms of coming across as a mud-slinger or patriarchal toward his female opponent.

“It’s clear we’ve been mismanaged for the last few years,” Malliotakis said of de Blasio’s mayoralty. The debate will be a chance to explain how and to showcase her record, she said. “The time I’ve spent in the Legislature putting forward ideas for making New York City better has prepared me to make the case.” On the other hand, the mayor may be able to use Malliotakis’ resume against her, given the conservative nature of her legislative record and limits to what one rank-and-file Assembly member can accomplish, especially when in the minority conference.

The mayor and his team have been defensive about the extent to which de Blasio has put forth a second term agenda, with a number of press stories noting that he’s mostly made either vague, far-off promises, like closing Rikers Island jails in ten years, or pledged continuations of his current policies -- pre-K for all is supposed to become 3-K for all if the mayor is given another term, for example.

Expect de Blasio to attempt to articulate more sharply his second term agenda, but an interesting question will be whether he’s ready with a new proposal or two that hasn’t been announced before. Debates aren’t necessarily a typical venue for such an announcement, but de Blasio could potentially steal a lot of the spotlight if he were to put something new and exciting on the table.

"We are looking forward to discussing the Mayor's record of achievement, his vision for making New York City more affordable, creating 100,000 jobs and continuing to improve our schools, and how important it is for New Yorkers to turn out to vote for a Mayor who will stand up to Donald Trump,” said Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign, in a statement.

The incumbent has plenty to boast about -- he's followed through on a number of his promises and the city is doing well in many respects -- and de Blasio must be able to present his accomplishments while also recognizing that many New Yorkers are struggling on a daily basis.

Greer pointed to a slightly different balancing act de Blasio must peform, related to getting his supporters out to vote. “The mayor has to present that this campaign is important for you to turn out to vote, but without being alarmist,” she said, ‘Things are going well, the ship is steady, but I still need you to come out and vote.’”

4. The fourth politician on stage
Sal Albanese, the Reform Party nominee who came in second to de Blasio in the Democratic primary, is suing to be on the debate stage, but his case won’t be decided until after Tuesday. Mike Tolkin, running on his own Smart Cities ballot line and the third place finisher in the Democratic primary, qualified for the debate financially, through his own gifts to his campaign, but was not invited by NY1, and went on a hunger strike to demand inclusion.

But more so than Albanese or Tolkin, the fourth politician likely to be on stage Tuesday night is President Donald Trump, whom de Blasio will attempt to tie Malliotakis to, as he has done throughout the campaign. While Malliotakis voted for Trump last November, she had been a supporter of Senator Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential primary and has voiced several areas of disagreement with Trump. Dietl also has his own ties to Trump, though he too has attempted to distance himself from the president.

How much de Blasio is able to make Trump a presence at the debate may factor into how well he comes across to New York City voters overall. Malliotakis often has a hard time finding the balance of being a conservative who voted for Trump and a Republican who often disagrees with the president and is open to being a bipartisan mayor.

“She’s had some fluidity on the campaign trail,” said Greer, of Fordham University, about Malliotakis’ attempts to discuss the president. “Trump is going to come up, and I don’t think it’s unfair that he does, actually. A lot of New Yorkers want to know. We’re at a moment of needing protection from the federal government, not just needing to work with the federal government.”

Malliotakis’ “biggest vulnerability is getting stuck in-between on the Trump conversation,” said O’Reilly, the Republican strategist, who runs The November Team. She must “stay true to her convictions but appeal to Democrats at the same time,” he added, which is not an easy task. Malliotakis has been peppered with Trump questions throughout the campaign and has showed some frustration with it. She insists this isn’t a race about Trump, however much de Blasio might like it to be, and that she is “not trying to fight an ideological war.”

Asked about how she’ll approach the mayor’s attempts to tie her to Trump, Malliotakis said Monday that she’s “going to be prepared,” but didn’t want to divulge specifics.

“Throughout the whole campaign the mayor has spoken more about Trump than he has about homelessness or transit or our public schools,” she said. “He’s trying to deflect from his failures as mayor. I anticipate he’ll do it again. It’s all he’s got.”

Malliotakis needs to get beyond the Trump conversation to broaden her appeal, O’Reilly said. “She has to break through with Democrats,” he said, noting the massive Democratic advantage in New York City. Malliotakis needs a Giuliani- or Bloomberg-type coalition to win, which includes a good number of moderate Democrats and party-unaffiliated voters, as well as many of the city’s half-million registered Republicans. There are well over 3 million registered Democrats in the city.

5. Who has momentum?
Many in the city see the election as a foregone conclusion, that de Blasio, with his major fundraising, name recognition, and voter enrollment advantages, is virtually unbeatable. Are the debates a formality? Can Malliotakis or Dietl make enough headway that she or he is taken more seriously and has the city buzzing for a few days?

With the second debate on November 1, just six days before the election, the first debate is a can’t-miss opportunity for the two challengers, who both need a new influx of campaign cash, along with increased media buzz and a sense of momentum.

In a weekend interview with, Dietl said he believes “there’s going to be a lot of people coming on board after Tuesday night,” indicating he expects an influx of support and funds after his debate performance.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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