Eight Democratic candidates vying to become the next mayor of New York City will face off live and in person on Wednesday night for the second of three official primary debates.
The first much anticipated in-person debate comes with roughly three weeks to go until the June 22nd primary, in an election that will determine the city’s path to recovery as well as how it tackles other profound issues such as public safety, police reform, and racial and economic justice.
With sparse and questionable polling and a large portion of voters saying they are still undecided, experts say that the race is still fluid. But recent polls have suggested that three moderates are leading the field: Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president; Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate and tech entrepreneur; and Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner.
HOW TO WATCH
Wednesday’s two-hour debate airs from 7 to 9 p.m., and is organized by the city’s Campaign Finance Board. It will be hosted by WABC-TV, and there are multiple ways to tune in:
- The first hour will be broadcast live on WABC Channel 7
- You can stream the entire event on Abc7NY.com and Univision41.com
- The CFB notes that you can also watch on the following channels: Optimum – 110, FiOs – 467, Spectrum – 1240, Comcast – 790, RCN – 618, NYC Life TV (Channel 25.1), and more
- To tune in on the radio: Bloomberg Radio New York 1130 AM and WQBU-FM (92.7 FM – Spanish)
- More livestreams, including on YouTube, may become available—if that happens, we will embed one here
With one more debate scheduled on June 16th only for “leading contenders,” Wednesday night will be the last opportunity that some of the lower polling candidates have to make their case before a large audience. So expect a debate with more fireworks than the first.
“The stakes are high for everybody but particular high for those polling lowest,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs.
That includes Shaun Donovan, the former housing secretary under President Obama, and Ray McGuire, the ex-Citigroup executive, two candidates who have spent heavily on their campaigns but have struggled to gain traction.
Here are some other things to watch for as the candidates take the stage and make their televised argument to voters.
Will Yang Shed His Mr. Nice Guy Persona?
For the better part of the race, Yang has refrained from making direct attacks against his opponents, often leaving that work to his campaign managers and supporters. But in recent weeks, he’s shown more teeth: he has denounced Adams, accusing the latter of unethical fundraising practices and being part of the entrenched political establishment. Following a Daily News editorial cartoon, he also criticized some of his opponents for leaning into anti-Asian rhetoric by repeatedly questioning his authenticity as a New Yorker. (In response, Adams, who was named by Yang’s campaign as among his rivals perpetuating the stereotype of Asians as always foreign, accused Yang of “spinning.”)
And last week, during an interview on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Yang took aim at Garcia, who he had previously said he admired and would offer a job in his administration.
“Right now, New Yorkers complain to me just about every day about the piles of trash that we’re seeing around us that get higher and higher,” he said. (Garcia left her job as sanitation commissioner in September.)
Yang also tied Garcia to the de Blasio administration, saying, “We need someone very different than Mayor de Blasio, and Kathryn, despite her service to the city, is part of an administration that a lot of New Yorkers know has not worked.”
On Tuesday, Yang held a press conference in Brooklyn in which he delivered a “closing message speech.”
Taking several jabs at Adams, he said, “Your moment has passed.”
Adams, in a possible preview of Wednesday’s debate, returned the fire at his own press event in the Bronx, where he said Yang needed to end his campaign.
Eric Adams mutters that Andrew Yang needs to end his campaign. When asked what he meant, he says, “it’s a joke, it’s not funny anymore. New York doesn’t need a cheerleader, it needs a leader.”
— Elizabeth Kim (@lizkimtweets) June 1, 2021
Birdsell noted that going negative poses special risks for Yang, who has up until now promoted himself as an optimistic cheerleader for the city.
“Mr. Grumpy cannot lead Fun City,” he said.
Maya Wiley Seeks To Consolidate Progressive Support
Wiley, the former civil rights attorney and counsel for Mayor Bill de Blasio, was considered the strongest performer in the first debate, frequently interjecting and unsettling Adams as she scored “gotcha moments” over his stop-and-frisk statements over the years.
That first debate came shortly after Scott Stringer, the city comptroller who like Wiley is running under a progressive mantle, was accused of sexual assault and unwanted advances by a now lobbyist who volunteered for him two decades ago. Although he denied the allegations, he lost key supporters. Wiley was among those who called on Stringer to withdraw from the race.
Now, Wiley has an opportunity to capitalize on the struggles of another progressive rival: the most left-wing candidate, Dianne Morales, is currently battling internal campaign turmoil amid a unionizing effort by staffers.
On Tuesday, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a prominent progressive and LGBTQ advocacy group, rescinded their endorsement for Morales. The club said it will instead back Wiley.
Asked whether she sees Morales implosion as an opportunity, Wiley says, “I am the progressive who can win this race.” She notes she is backed by @1199SEIU and the entire Brooklyn U.S. House delegation.
— Daniel Marans (@danielmarans) June 1, 2021
Experts say the next debate will be a test of whether Wiley can unite progressive voters.
“Her strategic imperative is to get the left, control it—take what Stringer and Morales have—and consolidate a base she thinks is there,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant.
He said debate watchers can expect Wiley to push her plan for police reform, an issue which she has made central to her campaign. Her new TV ad released on Tuesday features footage of NYPD cars driving into Black Lives Matter protesters last summer and Wiley criticizing the police response.
“They ran into peaceful protesters, beat others to the ground, and New York’s leaders defended it,” she said.
Can Garcia Spell Out A Vision (While Taking Some Hits)?
Coming off a new poll last week that put her as the frontrunner, Garcia comes into the debate with arguably the most momentum of the candidates. Money and name recognition have been two major hurdles for the first-time candidate, but on Monday, the New York Times reported that Garcia will be getting her first super PAC. Jon Jones and Ronnie Cho, two former members of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, told the Times they were seeking to raise more than $1 million and had already received six-figure commitments from donors.
On Tuesday, she appeared on CNN.
We need to make equity a centerpiece of the next administration––I have a plan to bring back business but also to make sure we’re bringing back art and culture and restaurants. Because nothing is more progressive than actually making government work for everyone. @NewDay pic.twitter.com/jsirylwBMV
— Kathryn Garcia (@KGforNYC) June 1, 2021
Experts say that Garcia’s next test is whether she can move beyond her argument of managerial competence.
“It’s not sufficient for people to keep saying they’re a good manager,” Sheinkopf said. “It may be true but it’s not going to carry the day. When you get this close to the end of the campaign, specificity matters.”
According to Birdsell, Garcia will need to deliver a compelling vision of what her mayoralty would mean for New Yorkers.
“She’s made it very clear that she wants to run the city well, but it’s not necessarily what gets people’s juices flowing,” he said.
Voters, he added, “want to see where you are going to take the city.”
At the same time, as evidenced by Yang’s recent comments, Garcia will likely have to fend off some attacks, something she has yet to experience on a sustained level.
“Now, that she is either number one or number two, the knives are going to be out,” Birdsell said.
An In-Person, On-Camera Debate Will Change The Vibe
While the candidates and most voters said good riddance to Zoom debates, the virtual format brought unexpected equalizing effects: by being contained within square boxes, the candidates faced none of the usual scrutiny over height and appearance.
Instead, as the last debate demonstrated, viewers were more focused on dissecting the candidates backgrounds, as evidenced by the social media chatter/envy over Shaun Donovan’s very expensive-looking kitchen.
But Wednesday’s debate will return voters to the old-school format of people standing behind podiums and cameras that can zoom in and out, honing in on reaction shots that didn’t always register under the static direction of Zoom.
“You’ll have a whole body to compare with another whole body and that’s just a different dynamic,” Birdsell said.
Height is often considered an advantage in politics. At 6-foot-5, de Blasio towered over this primary opponents in 2013 and ultimately became the tallest mayor in New York City history.
Over the decades, scrutiny over physical appearance has been especially unfair to female candidates, the best example being the multitude of criticisms directed at Hillary Clinton during her presidential run.
Still, some have argued that fashion is a political tool that deserves to be examined and taken seriously. In her first TV ad, Garcia grabbed attention by wearing bright red lipstick and donning a black leather jacket—signifiers for femininity, edginess and strength.
Along that vein, debate watchers will likely see Yang go tieless as he has during the mayoral campaign trail (and his presidential run), a symbol of his “breezy colloquialness,” according to Birdsell.
As with so many political messages, its impact is diffuse and dependent on the audience.
“Does that ultimately help him? That’s going to be a different answer for different constituencies,” he said.