Five Things To Watch For In The First Official Mayoral Debate

Eight of the leading Democratic candidates running to become New York City mayor are scheduled to take part in the first televised debate of the campaign season on Thursday, May 13th. Broadcast on NY1 and WNYC from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the debate is the first of three that have been planned by the Campaign Finance Board.

Eric Adams, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, and Andrew Yang will be participating. NY1’s Errol Louis will serve as a moderator, while WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and The CITY’s Josefa Velasquez will join Louis as panelists.

In years past, mayoral debates have taken place in front of a live audience, but due to the pandemic, Thursday’s debate will not be held in-person. Many of the candidates have already been participating in lengthy Zoom forums over the last months but for the most part candidates have not been able to trade questions or barbs with their opponents.

Regardless of the format, the stakes are high. There are now less than six weeks left until the primary, and many voters still appear to be undecided.

“There is no slow-and-steady-wins-the-race strategy left. It’s now a dash to the finish,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. That sense of urgency, he added, “can prompt grand gestures on debate stages, which sometimes work but more frequently backfire.”

With that in mind, here are five things viewers should watch for as the evening unfolds.

Will The Times Square Shooting Be A Turning Point?

Both polling and on-the-street interviews with New Yorkers suggest that public safety remains high on the list of voter concerns. Gun violence is up around 80% compared to last year, while a spate of anti-Asian attacks has many in that community on edge. Saturday’s incident in Times Square which saw three people, including a 4-year-old girl, shot in broad daylight, has thrust the issue even further to the forefront of the race.

“Times Square is not just any Main Street,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant. “Times Square is the Main Street of the world.”

Read More: How The Democratic Mayoral Hopefuls Would Tackle NYC’s Rise In Shootings

Political observers often look to outside events as potential turning points in a race. Sheinkopf said the Times Square shooting may well turn out to be one.

Following the shootings, Eric Adams and Andrew Yang, who are considered more moderate, stressed their commitment to stronger policing. Of the two, Adams, a former NYPD officer, has campaigned the most consistently on ensuring public safety.

Meanwhile, several progressive candidates who have pledged to reduce NYPD funding, including Shaun Donovan, Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley, rolled out their own plans to end police violence with an eye toward addressing its root causes.

“This is already shaping up to be a key differentiator between moderates and progressives,” Birdsell said. “On the debate stage we should get to hear both the positive vision associated with those two poles as well as how equity and fear of crime may be weaponized to attack opponents.”

Adams vs. Yang

While most experts say the race is still very fluid, Adams and Yang come into the debate as the leading two contenders, according to various polls. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, has been steady in his attacks on Yang, calling out the former tech entrepreneur for leaving New York City during the height of the coronavirus crisis and accusing him of being out of touch with the concerns of working class New Yorkers.

“Look for Adams to continue to attack Yang and make Yang look less conversant on issues that matter,” Sheinkopf said.

How Yang, who has generally refrained from making attacks, responds will be something to watch. Prior to the Times Square shooting, he has focused on pushing an upbeat message around the city’s recovery that seemed to resonate with voters. But he’s come under intensifying scrutiny in recent weeks over his business achievements and ties to a wealthy lobbyist. A pro-Israel tweet also recently made him the center of national attention and scorn from liberals, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Can Garcia Capitalize On A NYT Endorsement?

Despite lacking a political base and fundraising prowess, Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, has been a widely admired candidate by rivals and the press alike. She was most recently the subject of a New Yorker profile, where she spoke about her love of garbage.

But she won a bigger prize on Monday after the New York Times editorial board endorsed her.

“I’m generally skeptical that endorsements make a huge difference, but in this case, with campaigns getting in gear late and the Times endorsing five weeks ahead of the vote, she can capitalize on this if she has the resources to elevate the message,” Birdsell said.

Garcia has distinguished herself as a competent manager who has had a tangible impact on New Yorker’s lives. “You may not know my name, but you know my work,” she often says, citing her jobs managing garbage pickup, snow removal and food distribution during the pandemic.

Garcia and her fellow candidates—Wiley and Dianne Morales—may also use the moment to appeal to women voters, according to Sheinkopf. New York City has never had a woman mayor, but recent sexual harassment scandals around male politicians could further the argument that now is the time.

All three women candidates have called on Scott Stringer, who was recently accused of sexually assaulting a volunteer 20 years ago, to withdraw from the race. Stringer, the city comptroller, has steadfastly denied the allegations.

Stringer Looks To Stay Competitive

Following the sexual assault allegations two weeks ago, Stringer has tried to fashion himself as a “comeback” candidate. The 30-year political veteran has lost a flank of progressive support, but he has retained important union allies. On Sunday, he held a press conference outside of Fairway Market on the Upper West Side.

Along with Congressman Jerry Nadler, state Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, and former Manhattan borough president, Ruth Messinger, Stringer was joined by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers’ union.

“Accusations are always concerning and of course I’m troubled to hear them, but I’ve known Scott for decades,” Weingarten said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

The A.F.T. has donated $1 million so far to a super PAC for Stringer, according to campaign finance filings. Its local chapter, the 100,000-member United Federation of Teachers endorsed Stringer last month.

Mayoral candidate Scott Stringer held a press event on Sunday in front of Fairway Market.

Mayoral candidate Scott Stringer held a press event on Sunday in front of Fairway Market. Jen Chung / Gothamist

The debate will be a public test of whether Stringer can withstand questions and attacks about the accusations, while also rebuilding his case with progressives. Some have pointed out that while the allegations have been damaging, the focus on them could amount to more speaking time for Stringer.

Will Ranked-Choice Voting Alliances Emerge?

Political observers are still assessing the impact of ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference, on campaigning. The system is designed to encourage candidates to solicit second-place votes from a rival candidate’s supporters. On that front, Yang has made the most public overtures to another candidate. He has reportedly said Garcia is his second choice and said he would hire her as part of his administration, an offer she later criticized as sexist.

On the progressive side, there is an increasing push for a so-called “unity ticket” consisting of Wiley and Morales.

But the televised debate will offer a bigger platform for candidates to strike some strategic alliances.

“Do we see any explicit ‘if not me, him/her’ sorts of appeals?” Birdsell said.

Many voters still seem unaware about ranked-choice voting. Late last month, Mayor de Blasio New York City announced a $15 million public awareness campaign, although some experts believe it might be too late.

“Voting is repetitive, habitual and learned,” Sheinkopf explained.

A prior version of this story misidentified the candidates who have pledged to reduce the NYPD budget. It includes Dianne Morales, not Kathryn Garcia.