l-r: Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Carlos Menchaca, Maya Wiley
The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which bills itself as the progressive LGBTQ political club, hosted the first forum for the 2021 New York City mayoral election Tuesday night, inviting seven declared or exploring Democratic candidates to participate. The Democratic and Republican primaries for mayor will take place in June of next year.
Participating candidates -- who appeared one at a time by Zoom, giving brief opening remarks, then answering a series of yes-or-no questions from the moderator, club president Allen Roskoff, followed by several other questions and answers at greater length -- were, in order of appearance, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; former top Bloomberg and Obama administrations official Shaun Donovan; City Comptroller Scott Stringer; former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales; Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca; and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who recently announced he would not be running for mayor in the 2021 election after planning to and doing initial fundraising for a campaign, gave opening remarks at the forum.
“Even though I am no longer a candidate for mayor, I am paying deep interest in this race,” said Johnson, listing off a number of key issues that the race must focus on and the next mayor will have to deal with. “Many of the issues being talked about tonight are issues that the Council has worked on and is going to work on until the end of our term.”
At one point, Roskoff noted that there were over 1,200 attendees for the forum over Zoom.
Roskoff said that not every declared Democratic candidate was invited to the forum, only those whom his club considered “most relevant to the left.” Loree Sutton, the former commissioner for the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs, was not invited, deemed too conservative by the organizers. Roskoff has cited her remarks earlier this summer suggesting that protesters should be required to obtain city permits, and that idea formed one of his questions to the participating candidates, all of whom disagreed with the concept.
That was among several points of agreement among all the candidates throughout the forum, while there were a number of areas of varying viewpoints, many of both of which were drawn out in the “lightning round” of roughly 10 yes-or-no questions asked to all of them by Roskoff.
Each candidate promised not to take donations from law enforcement unions, yet candidates were divided on the issue of real estate donations. Morales, Wiley, and Menchaca have all pledged not to take donations from individuals associated with real estate, while Stringer has said he will not return real estate donations made to him before he launched his mayoral run and also said that money from big developers is what he has since made off-limits. Garcia, Adams, and Donovan all said they would accept real estate donations, with Garcia noting that she wants everyone at the table and that real estate “has skin in the game” and Adams noting that there are many different types of people involved in real estate, including himself as a small property owner and landlord.
The candidates almost uniformly agreed on not seeking an endorsement from outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, a term-limited Democrat. All but Adams and Wiley said they wouldn’t seek or accept the mayor’s endorsement, while Wiley said she wouldn’t seek it and didn’t mention whether she’d accept it or not.
Unsurprisingly, all seven candidates said they would not keep Dermot Shea on as Police Commissioner if they were elected mayor. Five candidates, other than Garcia and Wiley, stated that they would eliminate the NYPD’s Vice Squad. Opinion was divided over whether a mayoral appointee for police commissioner should be subject to a City Council confirmation. Adams, Morales, and Menchaca said they should be, while Garcia, Donovan, Wiley, and Stringer favored the status quo where the mayor needs no approval.
Donovan, Morales, and Menchaca said that they would be in favor of removing the Columbus statue from Columbus Square and renaming the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge due to Koch’s record on LGBTQ rights and the HIV/AIDS crisis, while Adams was in favor of renaming the latter and Stringer, Wiley, and Garcia would not commit to either. All seven candidates supported requiring all New York City apartment buildings to allow cats and dogs to be kept as pets by tenants.
Garcia, Stringer, Morales, Wiley, and Menchaca are in favor of sex work decriminalization and oppose the Nordic model, while Donovan supports the Nordic model and Adams, a former NYPD officer, said he opposes decriminalization of sex work.
There were mixed comments and significant hedging on the ill-fated Amazon ‘HQ2’ Queens campus deal, with Garcia expressing the most support, given the job promises, she said. Of the governor and mayor striking the deal, Adams said that he “opposed the way they did it,” but indicated overall support for the project. Wiley said “it was clearly a bad deal because people killed it and we need to re-envision how we do development,” but did not directly state her view of the massive project that was said to be able to create tens of thousands of jobs. Donovan said he did not support the specifics of the deal but he believed “we could have gotten to the right proposal.” Stringer curiously called the deal a "failed ULURP" due to it being struck in secret, though the project was never set to go through the city's uniform land use review process, or ULURP, and was instead presented as a state general project plan. Morales and Menchaca said they opposed the deal.
Garcia was the only candidate not to directly oppose the relocation of homeless men from an Upper West Side hotel being used as a shelter, stating that “using hotels is problematic” and that she “would not have put them there in the first place.”
Some of the candidates were asked whether they would return the CUNY system to being tuition-free for New York City residents. Morales and Menchaca said they would; Stringer said he would make community colleges tuition free; and Donovan voiced support for expanding apprenticeship programs and workforce development. Garcia, Adams, and Wiley were not asked about CUNY tuition.
“If my name is familiar to you, it’s because I’ve been in leadership positions in New York City government my entire career,” Garcia said in her opening remarks. “You won’t find a candidate with more crisis and management experience than me.”
From early 2014, when de Blasio named her commissioner, until just recently when she resigned to explore a mayoral run, Garcia led the Sanitation Department, which she noted is overwhelmingly male. At the same time, she was repeatedly tapped by de Blasio to deal with crises, including reducing lead paint exposure, especially in NYCHA developments, running the entirety of NYCHA, and implementing the city’s massive emergency food program amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I resigned that post because I saw firsthand a mayor who is unprepared to deal with this crisis, who responds to headlines and made budget cuts that hurt this city,” Garcia said of her departure.
Garcia told the attendees, “Together we can build the right foundation for our city for the next hundred years.” She said she would focus on job creation, noting, “Nothing is affordable if you have no income. We must support job growth.” She also said that efficient delivery of government services would also be a priority, “there shouldn’t be anything you can’t do with a smartphone” when it comes to such services.
Garcia labeled herself a “practical progressive.” When asked by Roskoff what that label was insinuating, she clarified, “I’m about getting things done. I’m about taking progressive policies and making sure we get things implemented.” She was further pressed on a previous claim that she would be an “Ed Koch-like mayor” and she said she was referring to how Koch “always wanted to hear feedback from the public and he was very instrumental in bringing us back from a fiscal crisis.” However, she said, “I don’t embrace all of his policies.”
Adams has served as Brooklyn Borough President since 2014. Before that, he was a State Senator for seven years and a police officer for over two decades before that, rising to the rank of Captain. In his opening remarks, Adams recalled his own experiences with economic hardship and housing instability as a child and said, “I’ve spent my entire life helping those people,” who are currently in similar situations, as a police officer, activist, and elected official.
“Too many things don’t work for far too many people in this city,” Adams said, continuing that “our city is dysfunctional,” which he says predates the pandemic. “We continue to operate our agencies as silos that work against each other and the city.” He also said that he believes “The lack of education is one of the biggest crimes I see in this city.”
When pressed by Roskoff on his 2018 comments following the Tree of Life massacre that there should be more guns in houses of worship, Adams said that his words were misinterpreted and taken out of context. He said he was referring to “trained law enforcement officers, active or retired, not citizens, coordinated with their pastors and imams, and rabbis.”
Roskoff also asked Adams about the recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in some parts of Brooklyn, particularly Orthodox Jewish communities, and how he would handle that as mayor. Adams said that he would start by “getting on the ground. We unfairly communicate to a diverse city as though everyone in New York speaks one language and watches the evening news.” He also said he would use a civilian team to enforce public health guidelines, instead of the police, and criticized de Blasio’s response, saying, “we have a reactive plan, not a proactive plan.”
Donovan served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and later Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration and, before that, as the Housing Preservation and Development commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
He describes himself as a “lifelong New Yorker who became a public servant because I grew up in another time of crisis,” during the 1970s and 1980s. He believes he is the best candidate suited to be mayor at this moment, saying “in more than two decades of public service, I’ve learned to lead through crises,” noting he was city housing commissioner following 9/11, HUD Secretary following the Great Recession, managed the federal recovery response after Hurricane Sandy, and was budget director during the Ebola epidemic.
Through these crises, Donovan said that he learned “the most vulnerable before the crisis are the worst hit.” He says that the pandemic presents an opportunity for New Yorkers to “reimagine this city together as a city that works for everyone.” He believes he is the “true progressive” in the mayoral race due to his track record of accomplishments.
Roskoff pressed Donovan over his work in the Bloomberg mayoral administration, asking when Donovan ever disagreed with the former mayor. Donovan called stop-and-frisk “a mistake” and said he disagreed with Bloomberg’s handling of the mortgage crisis and its causes. However, he said, “I’m proud of the work I did under Mayor Bloomberg” and that “we created a tool that could lock in affordable housing in neighborhoods permanently,” referring to Inclusionary Housing, calling it the “most aggressive affordable housing plan in the country.” This may have been true at the time, but it has since been surpassed by de Blasio’s.
Donovan also outlined broad housing policy principles, saying, “I believe the right to legal counsel is important, I believe that the strengthening of rent stabilization and rent laws at the state level is important and the strong enforcement of that, and the right kind of community-oriented planning when we rezone.”
City Comptroller since 2014, Stringer was previously Manhattan Borough President for two terms and served seven terms in the State Assembly. At the forum, Stringer touted his long record of being an early endorser of progressive causes, including being one of the original sponsors of marriage equality in the State Legislature.
“Our work is far from over but the stakes could never be higher,” Stringer said. “We cannot open the economy the way we closed it.” He noted he was the only Democrat in the State Assembly to vote against weakening rent control laws in the 1990s, which he attributed to “starting the gentrification spiral.”
When pressed on his support for Hudson Yards and other development deals as Borough President (while he criticized the Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal as Comptroller), Stringer said that he worked with local communities and that there were “times we won, and times we lost.”
Morales has spent much of her career as a nonprofit executive, resigning from a position running a social services organization in the Bronx in order to run for mayor. She said her campaign is “reflective of New Yorkers ready to build a new social contract” and highlighted -- just after Stringer spoke -- that she is not a career politician and will not be indebted to political machines or special interests.
“My personal and professional experiences have made me acutely aware of longstanding and structural barriers,” said Morales, a Black Latina who has “called out the NYPD for profiling and assaulting my son.”
“We’re living in unprecedented times and that calls for a radical reimagining of what’s possible,” she said, calling for defunding the NYPD and reinvesting in communities that have historically been marginalized and prejudiced. Morales would be the first woman and woman of color and Latino person to be mayor of New York City.
The most recent entrant into the mayoral race, at least in exploration of a run, is Menchaca, who has served in the City Council since 2014, representing the 38th district -- largely Sunset Park and Red Hook, with a portion of Borough Park. Like Stringer and Adams, he is term-limited and cannot run for reelection to his current position next year. Prior to his Council tenure, Menchaca worked in former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office and then for former Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
A Mexican-American, Menchaca would be the first Hispanic mayor of New York City. He would also be the first openly gay mayor. (Sutton is also openly gay.)
Menchaca noted his support for Cynthia Nixon in the 2018 gubernatorial primary against Governor Andrew Cuomo, part of what he believes is a long track record of progressive bona fides. He explained his reasoning for jumping into the race, saying, “some of you have watched the mayoral race emerge and evolve, and like many of you I just wasn’t happy.”
“The covid pandemic has really given us an opportunity to think about how we restructure this city,” Menchaca said. He criticized wealthy New Yorkers for leaving the city during the worst of the pandemic, while essential workers “stayed and are rebuilding.”Asked about increasing taxes on the wealthy, Menchaca said “we gotta do that” and that “the Council has been trying to figure this out but we need a willing partner. I will be that.”
Menchaca, who was one of only nine Council members to vote against this year’s budget because they believed it did not sufficiently reduce the NYPD budget, linked the issue to the rest of the budget. When asked about CUNY tuition, he said, “this is about prioritizing our city budget” and “this is why the defund [the NYPD] movement was so important.”
Wiley served as counsel to the Mayor and chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates some forms of police misconduct, during the de Blasio administration, but since 2018, has worked as a professor at the New School and a legal analyst on MSNBC. She recently left those roles to run for mayor.
“As someone with no political background, I am an unconventional candidate,” Wiley admitted, but said she decided to run “because I saw firsthand that city government has the power to impact people’s lives directly.”
Wiley is actually in a lot of company in the current field as a candidate who has not run for office before, along with Morales, Garcia, Sutton, and Donovan.
In her introduction, Wiley said, “This must be a city where we can all live with dignity,” citing her personal experiences growing up in a Black community and segregated public schools. Though she worked for the current mayor, she has frequently criticized him in her early campaign.
“We need a transformational leader who gets us off the treadmill of incrementalism,” said Wiley, who would be the first Black woman and first woman to serve as the city’s mayor. When asked about her association with Mayor de Blasio, she said, “I’m a woman who stands on her own two feet” and cited the increase of broadband access and city contracts awarded to Minority and Women-Owned Enterprises as her top accomplishments in City Hall.
When asked by Roskoff about her originating the “agents of the city” designation, which was used to shield the mayor’s email conversations with outside advisors from Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, Wiley said, “attorneys offer advice and the client makes the decision. As mayor, it is critically important to restore trust.” She said that she would not have made journalists sue for those records.
When asked about taxing the rich, Wiley said this current crisis necessitated an “all hands on deck approach” and that “everybody in this city has something to contribute.”