The first official debate of the 2021 mayoral race is now in the books, kicking off what is expected to be a five-week stretch of more intense campaigning in a race that is still considered up for grabs. Co-hosted by Gothamist/WNYC, The CITY, and NY1, the two-hour event in some ways hued closely to countless other virtual forums the eight candidates have appeared at over the last several months: It highlighted their differences on issues like policing, the recovery and jumpstarting the economy, and desegregating city schools.
But as expected, there were a few feisty exchanges and zingers, along with glimpses at where some alliances may emerge in the city’s first ranked-choice voting primary. Below are the top takeaways from the debate.
Did you miss the debate? You can listen to it here:
Public Safety Arguments Are Met By Racial Justice Concerns
On the heels of a shooting in Times Square, the first topic posed to the candidates was the city’s increasing crime rate—in particular, the more than 83% rise in shootings over last year. The candidates are ideologically divided on how to address gun violence. Moderate candidates have pressed for more or steady policing, while progressives who have allied themselves to varying degrees with the defund the police movement have warned about the dangers of over-policing and its disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities.
During the debate, Andrew Yang, who has at times portrayed himself as a progressive, made his stance clear on public safety clear from the start.
“Defund the police is the wrong approach,” he said. He later added: “There is no recovery without public safety.”
Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, stressed his professional experience on the issue, arguing that “no one has a greater depth on public safety.”
Both Yang and Adams said they would bring back a unit of plainclothes officers.
Fresh off her New York Times endorsement, Garcia said she would expand a gun buy back program.
But she prefaced her remarks by alluding to racial justice, citing her multiracial siblings and children. “This is personal to me,” she said.
Others made a more pointed appeal and challenged the notion of equating more policing with safety.
“Safety is not synonymous with policing,” said Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has said she would cut half of the NYPD’s $6 billion a year budget. “If the size of funding associated with policing correlates with safety we’d be the safest city in the country.”
Maya Wiley, a former civil rights lawyer, said the debate between electing policing versus safety was a “false choice.”
Similarly, Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, also spoke of the need to strike a balance. He said he did not want the city to return to the days of Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was criticized for using stop-and-frisk police tactics that often involved racial profiling.
Shaun Donovan, the former housing secretary under President Barack Obama, said the city could reduce crime while implementing police reforms, and added that he would remove police officers from schools and prevent them from responding to mental health issues.
Ray McGuire suggested tougher policing but with renewed accountability. “I want the police to protect me, not profile me,” he said.
Wiley Goes For The Jugular
One of the questions many political pundits wondered was which candidate would try to break through the large field. The answer was Maya Wiley, a former MSNBC commentator, who frequently interjected with her own remarks and attacks at opponents.
In one of the sharpest jabs of the night, she pressed Adams on having once called the city’s stop-and-frisk policy “a great tool” during an interview on CBS.
“As a civil rights lawyer, there was nothing okay about it,” she said. “It was nothing but lazy policing.”
Adams said that he had in fact been the leading opponent against stop-and-frisk, dryly adding, “I told candidates at the beginning of the race that as they become desperate, it’s going to get nasty.”
During another fireworks moment, when Adams was asked why he had formerly been registered as a Republican, Wiley interrupted him, saying, “You were a self-described conservative Republican when Rudy Giuliani was mayor.”
Adams, who maintained he has been a Democrat for over 35 years, curtly replied, “We all get to have our own opinions. We don’t get to have our own facts.”
Not long afterwards, Wiley’s campaign sent out several “fact check” emails to reporters with receipts, sharing this quote that Adams gave to the Daily News in 1999: “Giuliani deserves tremendous credit for the falling crime rate. [Mayor David] Dinkins was way too soft on crime.” The email also included a link to this Politico report stating that Adams was a “registered Republican, from 1995 through 2002.”
As Expected, Opponents Pile On Yang
Since the start of the race, rivals have sought to paint Yang as an out-of-touch outsider with little knowledge of city government. During the debate, the tech entrepreneur fielded several tough questions from both NY1’s Errol Louis and his opponents.
Louis asked Yang, a former presidential candidate, why he failed to vote in several local and one national election.
Yang responded by saying that he has been civically engaged in other ways, including as a public school parent. He maintained that he had in fact voted in the 2000 presidential race. Politico has reported that “Yang did not vote in the 2000 and 2012 presidential elections, and skipped every mayoral election between 2001 and 2017, according to a copy of his voter card.”
As he has in the past, he also brought up his campaigning efforts in Georgia to help Democrats unseat Republicans for two crucial U.S. Senate seats. At which point, it became Adams’s turn to interject.
The Brooklyn borough president called Yang’s effort to take credit for the victory “disrespectful and appalling” to Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia state House who spent years developing a get-out-the-vote strategy in that state.
Yang, who has not elected to criticize his opponents during the race, maintained his composure.
He said he gave “full credit to Abrams,” adding, “It’s okay for other people to contribute to their success.” He noted that Asian Americans are 4.7% of the electorate in Georgia, and “these races were swung by one percent. I helped raise millions of dollars for those races.”
Louis cut in to say, “Mr. Adams, Given how close the race was, let’s agree that anybody who sent a dollar or spent time making even one phone call helped contribute to the outcome there.”
Stringer Gets Asked Once About Sexual Assault Allegations
Another question was how big a role the recent sexual assault allegations against Scott Stringer would have in the debate. But while Louis asked him about the accusations, which involve his relationship with a campaign volunteer 20 years ago, the issue was not raised by his opponents, several of whom have called on him to withdraw from the race.
Stringer strenuously denied the allegations although he said that he supported the right for women to speak up “even if it’s inconvenient to me.”
Asked if he welcomed an investigation, he replied, “You have no idea how much I want an investigation resolution.”
Still, it is not clear how one would proceed. Jean Kim, the accuser, has filed a civil rights complaint with the state Attorney General. The office has not said whether it would accept the case.
Since the accusations, Stringer has lost some of his most prominent progressive supporters. However, some important union endorsers, namely the teachers’ union, continue to back him.
A Variety Of Answers For Tackling School Segregation
The next mayor will inherit one of the most segregated public school systems in the country. While issues like homelessness and the economic recovery tend to solicit uniform answers, the candidates offered some very distinct solutions on addressing school segregation.
Donovan said he would increase the number of teachers of color, which he said currently stands at less than 45% of the total faculty.
Yang said he would provide $1,000 to families living below poverty, including those with students with disabilities.
Garcia proposed expanding the number of high schools and using a screening method that accepts the top 10% of middle school students based on their grade point average.
On the controversial issue of elite high schools, both Garcia and Adams were the only two candidates who said they would not remove the specialized high school school test as the sole criteria for admission.
Wiley cited her plan to hire 2,500 additional teachers to reduce class sizes and overcrowding, a perennial problem in many city schools that experts says worsens learning opportunities.
Stringer cited his own plan to expand teachers as well as after-school programs, while Adams said he would incorporate universal testing for dyslexia.
In what some say is the most aggressive policy, Morales said she would eliminate all screens at elementary schools as well as higher levels of education.
McGuire said he would increase summer jobs for students. The former Citigroup exec, who grew up in poverty, said, “Education is what got me here.”
Not Every Candidate Was Ready To Name Their Number Two—Yet
Many experts have argued that most campaigns have yet to incorporate ranked-choice voting, in which voters will be able to rank up to five candidates, into their political strategies.
That was clear at the end of Thursday night’s debate. While there were some expressions of agreement with other candidates as well as nods of approvals, the strategic alliances are yet to come into sharp focus, with a few exceptions.
Asked for their second choice, Donovan selected Wiley, while Wiley picked Morales. Both McGuire and Yang chose Garcia.
But Adams, Garcia, Morales, and Stringer all said they had not settled on a number two.
Thursday’s debate was organized in partnership with the Campaign Finance Board, Spectrum News NY1, The CITY, WNYC/Gothamist, Citizens Union, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Social Work Votes (Columbia School of Social Work & Latino Leadership Institute). There are more debates coming up ahead of the June primary — stay informed here.