The eight leading candidates for New York City mayor provided one last impression on what kind of leader they would be during an often frenetic two-hour debate that featured 30-second elevator pitches, hypothetical and probing policy questions, and a series of lightning round quizzes.
The fourth and final debate, hosted by WNBC, comes less than a week before the June 22nd primary. Some voters have already made their choices during early voting, which began Saturday and lasts through Sunday.
The event featured some dramatic and chaotic clashes, but it was overall relatively subdued and lackluster given the stakes. Both Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has topped several polls, and Andrew Yang, the former tech entrepreneur, fielded the most attacks. However, Adams was not under as intense fire as he had been in prior debates. His toughest attack came from Yang, who attempted to paint the former NYPD officer out as irresponsible and reckless.
Maya Wiley, the former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, made a forceful argument against relying on increased policing to ensure public safety, but she did not go after Adams as aggressively as she has in past debates.
Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner who has surged in the polls, maintained her composure and message of being the most experienced manager that has delivered tangible services to New Yorkers. Thirty minutes into the debate, she rattled off her list of endorsements, including the New York Times, Daily News and the League of Conservation Voters.
Perhaps the feistiest performance came from Ray McGuire, the ex-Citigroup executive whose candidacy has struggled despite outspending the field. Suggesting a nothing-left-to-lose strategy, McGuire several times laced into all of his opponents, calling them out for being career politicians. At one point, he invoked the James Brown song, Talkin’ Loud Sayin’ Nothing to describe their responses.
Here are some of the other significant moments from the final mayoral debate.
The Candidates Are Asked To Give Their Best Elevator Pitches
In an unusual Shark Tank-style format, the candidates were asked to speak directly into the camera and give a 30-second elevator pitch on issues relating to the city’s economic recovery.
Asked how he would convince New Yorkers who had left the city to return, Yang said he would ensure public safety, citing his recent endorsement from the NYPD police captains union. As the attention of the race has turned more toward rising crime, Yang has at times walked an awkward line between being more combative in debates and maintaining his sunny persona that attracts him to some voters.
On Wednesday night, he punctuated his first response by adding a joke.
“Florida’s weather is turning pretty nasty now,” he said.
Wiley was asked to convince a CEO of a biotech company seeking tax breaks to stay in the city. She responded by stating her plan to hire 2,500 additional teachers to reduce class sizes, something she has increasingly invoked in the late stages of campaigning.
“This is a place where you’re going to get the talent because we are going to invest in public schools,” she said.
Adams was asked about to respond to a rent-regulated tenant unable to afford a rent hike, an issue over which he has been criticized for reportedly saying that he does not support a rent freeze. The mayor appoints members to the Rent Guidelines Board, which determines increases for the roughly 1 million rent-regulated tenants.
Adams replied by saying he believed there should be a rent freeze but that small property owners needed relief, adding that their inability to hold onto their homes would represent “the greatest loss of wealth for Black and brown people in this city.” But critics have said the number of mom-and-pop landlords make up a very small fraction of rent-regulated apartment owners, which are often large corporate landlords with 61 or more buildings.
Garcia, meanwhile, was asked for how she would convince a class of new police recruits to work in New York City.
“You have an opportunity to work for the greatest city in the world,” she said. “And be part of fundamental change.” In talking about reforming the NYPD, she brought up her multi-racial family of adopted siblings. “My brother is African American. I know the challenges that he’s faced,” she said.
Yang Hits Adams On Judgement, While Stringer Goes After Yang On Lack Of Policy Knowledge
Rather than attacking Adams’s record directly, Yang argued that, through their endorsement, members of the police captains union “think I’m a better choice than Eric.”
He alluded to Adams giving irresponsible advice to constituents to confront their neighbors about illegal fireworks. In one instance, a Brooklyn woman was shot dead after doing exactly that. It’s not clear whether viewers understood the full backstory and the exchange between them quickly descended into a back and forth as to whether Adams had ever sought the backing of the police captains union.
Adams said he did not, and that the union resented his days of being an internal critic of the police force when he started a group called 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care.
The argument was ultimately broken up by Shaun Donovan, the former housing secretary under President Obama, who said New Yorkers were not interested in hearing the candidates fight with one another.
Scott Stringer, the city comptroller whose candidacy has been weakened by two sexual assault allegations, may have inflicted the most serious blows of the debate by calling out Yang several times for his policy responses.
After Yang pledged to address the city’s mental health crisis by removing the mentally ill from subways and streets and building more psych beds, Stringer said, “This is the greatest non-answer I have ever heard in this debate. How much is this going to cost?”
He later added: “This is not how the next mayor has to comport themselves. We need specifics.”
He later also criticized Yang’s plan for cash relief, which would dole out $2,000 a year to half a million of the poorest New Yorkers, saying it would amount to only $5 a day. Yang responded by saying direct cash relief had proven benefits in alleviating poverty.
Asked for the worst idea of an opponent, Stringer volunteered Yang’s early proposal of TikTok houses for artists and a widely panned idea for putting a casino on Governor’s Island.
“I lost it after that,” Stringer said.
Worst idea from another candidate:
Yang: Adams bring a firearm to church
Adams: Yang’s UBI
Garcia: Defund the police
Stringer: Yang’s TikTok houses/Casinos
McGuire: Defund the police
Wiley: Stop and frisk
Morales: More police on subways
Donovan: (Doesn’t want to attack)
— NYC Mayor’s Race 2021 (@MayorsRace2021) June 16, 2021
Surprise! No One Would Hire De Blasio
In answer to a hypothetical question with a predictable answer, all of the candidates declined to hire current mayor Bill de Blasio in their administration. Throughout much of the race, de Blasio has been a convenient punching bag for those seeking to succeed him.
Adams offered the most generous response, saying he would not hire him but would still seek his advice by asking him what he would have done differently.
“Will you hire the outgoing mayor of NYC to work in the next mayoral administration” will certainly go down in history as one of the more implausible and wasteful debate questions
— Ross Barkan (@RossBarkan) June 16, 2021
Public Safety Continues To Be The Most Divisive Issue
With the rise in shootings, public safety has emerged as a major issue in the race and the one in which the candidates are most ideologically divided. Asked whether they would increase the number of police in subway trains and platforms, Stringer, Wiley and Dianne Morales, the former nonprofit executive and the most left-leaning candidate, all responded no.
Two of the leading contenders, Wiley and Adams, have presented fundamentally different approaches to addressing crime and gun violence.
Wiley, who is seeking to reallocate $1 billion of the police budget to social services, argued that increasing policing was not the smart way to reduce crime. “Hiring policing officers to do the job of social workers, hiring police officers to do the job of psychologists,” she argued, doesn’t keep New Yorkers “safe from crime and police abuse.”
She said the worst idea she had heard from an opponent was Adams’s plan to bring back stop-and-frisk and a plainclothes anti-crime unit. “Which, one, is racist, two, is unconstitutional, and three, didn’t stop any crime, and four, it will not happen in a Maya Wiley administration,” she said.
Adams defended his plan to use the tactic of stop-and-frisk, saying that it could be deployed correctly. He has made a similar argument about training and proper assignments with the disbanded anti-crime unit.
He in turn called out Wiley for paying for private security to man the boundaries of her Prospect Park South neighborhood association. In interviews, Wiley has said that her partner made the decision to contribute after he had been assaulted.
Progressives like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has endorsed Wiley, have accused moderates of fear mongering in their push for increased policing.
Yang on Wednesday night painted a picture of city streets endangered by those who are mentally ill.
“We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us,” he said.
Garcia, another moderate in the race, has also called for increased policing. But she has also differentiated herself with a proposal to expand the city’s gun buyback program and raising the reimbursement rate from $200 to $2,000.
She did not, however, answer a question on how she would pay for the plan.
In perhaps the most heated clash of the night, Morales took McGuire to task for saying that Black and brown New Yorkers were not in support of the defund the police movement. Morales is seeking to strip the most money away from the NYPD budget, a total of $3 billion in annual funding.
“How dare you assume to speak for Black and brown communities as a monolith,” said Morales, who is Afro-Latina.
To which McGuire replied, “I just did.”
“You are not speaking for all Black and brown people because I am Black and brown and you are not speaking for me,” she snapped back.
Easiest Question Of The Night: Which Performer Would You Invite To Play At Your Inauguration
Some of the policy questions during the debate were either confusing to the candidates or too in the weeds, such as a question about what percentage of area median income the city should target for building affordable housing.
But the most straightforward and fun question came in the form of a lightning round question that asked the candidates what performer they would invite to perform at their inauguration.
The responses were predictable to a degree. Wiley offered up The Strokes, who played last weekend at her fundraiser at Irving Plaza. The event marked the largest indoor concert in New York City since the pandemic.
Donovan said he would choose the jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, while Morales said she would choose Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican actress who won a best supporting actress Oscar for West Side Story.
Yang volunteered the comedian Dave Chapelle, who supported him during his presidential run, but added that—since the debate was taking place inside Studio 8H—he would also invite Saturday Night Live‘s Bowen Yang “to see if his impression of me has improved.”
Adams said he would invite a homeless man who regularly plays at the West Fourth Street subway station, while Stringer responded with the “best kid performers.”
Garcia, who as a teenager was an obsessed Prince fan, said she wanted to go back to the ’80s and chose the band U2.
Lastly, McGuire listed off the hip-hop stars Mary J. Blige, Nas, Jay-Z, and Diddy—all of whom have endorsed him.
What Would A Debate Be Without A Pre-Debate Party?
The city’s reopening and in-person debates have given way to raucous pep rallies held by the candidates supporters. On Wednesday, they all converged on the street outside NBC studios near Rockefeller Center. The fanfare featured reggaeton, a drum line, a Chinese dragon, and even a dance-off between rival supporters.
Now for a dance off folks, Yang camp and Adams camp square off. pic.twitter.com/xIC6sVp4LO
— Gwynne Hogan (@GwynneFitz) June 16, 2021
Adams’s arrival triggered a mini-stampede of supporters and reporters vying to get close to him, as his campaign speakers blared “the Champ is here” on repeat in an attempt to (once again) compare him to Muhammad Ali.
“He’s against defund the police, because we need a safe city and I believe he will do better,” said Rosita Chan, 69, from Staten Island.
Meanwhile, a smaller group of Garcia’s supporters dressed in green marched her to the door of the studio chanting “Garcia gets it done, rank her number one.”
“I want a woman mayor after 109 years and I think it’s gonna be her,” said Barbara Rosenthal, 68 who lives in the West Village. “She’s really been doing it her whole life, and I think she can do it now. Why not?”
In what has now become the dramatic pièce de résistance to these rallies, Paperboy Prince arrived last, rolling up in his brightly painted Love Tank, throwing glitter into the air, and diving into the crowd.
Trust fall time. pic.twitter.com/DXyFuLLlQV
— Gwynne Hogan (@GwynneFitz) June 16, 2021
David Cruz and Gwynne Hogan contributed reporting.