The end of the New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary is near.
Early voting is underway and Election Day is less than a week away, so Wednesday night’s debate offered eight of the leading candidates one last chance to change the dynamic of this unpredictable and often off-kilter race.
But after a long campaign, this final in-person gathering was mostly tame. And substantive. There were long stretches of pointed policy discussion encouraged by probing questions from the moderators, who clearly anticipated the candidates’ talking points and challenged them for more detail.
The crowded stage meant that the perceived frontrunners had less time to face-off with one another. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who has led the race in the limited available polling, sought to stay above the fray, which meant that with the exception of one heated exchange with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, he seemed to disappear from it for stretches.
Yang came out on the front foot, but he was under attack repeatedly from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who hammered the New York political newcomer as unfit for the job. Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who has picked up traction over the past few weeks and is now considered one of the frontrunners, delivered her most assertive debate performance – perhaps not coincidentally given its deep dive into issues like the city’s homelessness and affordable housing crises.
Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, has gained steam as her fellow progressives, Stringer and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, lost it. But even as she has emerged as the liberal favorite in the closing days and weeks of the race, Wiley’s message remained the same – offering more measured plans than the city’s leftist activists would like to see, but sticking by her promise to shift some of the New York Police Department’s budget away from the agency and toward social services.
Here are five takeaways from the final 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral primary debate:
Eric Adams emerges unscathed
At the last debate, on a smaller stage, Adams was the center of attention. On this occasion, despite literally being front and center, he was more of a peripheral figure.
And he probably didn’t mind it.
Adams is widely believed to be leading, if only by the slightest of margins, and with the exception of one testy exchange with Yang, mostly stayed out of the mud. Instead, he seemed content to emphasize his law-and-order message while using a lighter touch when discussing his youth, growing up poor in Queens and connecting that experience to his economic platform.
When a moderator pressed Adams on his opposition to some of the more aggressive plans to offer relief to owners, he questioned the framing of the question, but ultimately maintained that universal freezes or rent forgiveness would endanger smaller landlords – many of them Black and Brown – and that there needed to be some way to separate out those renters from the larger companies.
His tussle with Yang, who has sought to present himself as the better option to combat a spike in violent crime, was the debate’s sharpest exchange, but hinged on a quibble over an endorsement from a police union, the Captains Endowment Association.
A retired former police captain in the NYPD, the union once represented Adams, but announced this week that it was backing Yang.
Asked why he should be trusted on public safety issues over Adams, Yang pointed to their support.
“The people you should ask about this are Eric’s former colleagues in the police captains union,” Yang said. “People who worked with him for years, people who know him best.”
Adams countered by insisting that he never sought their blessing, which Yang disputed, citing reporting to the contrary.
“I never went in front of them,” Adams replied, as the two entered into what appeared to be a semantic debate over what constituted seeking an endorsement.
Yang gets the frontrunner treatment – even as he seems to slip
For months, Yang was widely believed to be leading the race. But that perception is mostly gone with Adams overtaking him as the insiders’ favorite and Garcia and Wiley rising.
Not that you would have known it watching on Wednesday night.
Yang came under the sharpest attacks and most vigorous questioning over the two hours, most notably by Stringer, who cast Yang as dangerously unqualified to lead the city.
Stringer, whose stock has slipped after twice being accused of sexual harassment related to incidents two and three decades ago (he has denied both allegations), ripped into Yang’s answer on how he would combat homelessness among the mentally ill. Among Yang’s suggestions was a promise to “rebuild the stick of psych beds in our city,” a number that has decreased.
As Yang finished, Stringer interjected.
“That is the greatest non-answer I’ve ever heard in all of our debates,” Stringer said. “Not one specific idea, not one specific plan. You started out this campaign talking about using hotels, now you’re into psych beds.”
Adams could be heard chuckling as Stringer attacked, but otherwise kept quiet.
Yang has improved as a candidate during the course of the campaign, but his lack of experience in city politics, a narrative bolstered by the occasional gaffe, has made him an easy debate stage target – one at which Stringer, on Wednesday, took repeated aim.
Public safety plans come under interrogation
Of the candidates onstage, only Morales, the left-most in the field, has embraced the “defund” movement. Wiley has proposed moving $1 billion from the NYPD budget toward social services, but has stopped far short of activists’ demands.
Still, when the moderators asked the candidates to single out the “worst” ideas they had heard from their rivals, “defund” popped up again and again.
“These are complicated times and several of my opponents are using hashtags,” Garcia said, citing “Defund the Police,” before adding, “I just don’t think that’s the right approach. You need to sit down and really think through these things.”
Wiley’s deliberate message, though, also came under some new scrutiny when she was asked by the moderators what she would do – in the short-term – to address the rise in violent crime, a question she mostly side-stepped before returning to her core message on public safety and police.
“Here’s the reality: we are hiring police officers to do the job of social workers,” Wiley said. “We are hiring police officers to do the job of psychologists.”
As he did on a few occasions, Adams pushed back against the framing of a question about his own plans to step-up policing by – among other things – reviving a disbanded plainclothes anti-crime unit.
“I don’t want to return to anything,” Adams said, rejecting the suggestion he would ramp up controversial practices, like “stop and frisk,” the use of which has plummeted since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s departure. “I want to show how to use tools correctly.”
What’s the big idea?
When de Blasio first ran for mayor in 2013, ending “stop and frisk” abuse and – perhaps as importantly – creating free, universal pre-Kindergarten were the clear highlights of his pitch to voters.
The candidates this time out, as the term-limited de Blasio prepares to leave office, are awash in policy papers and plans, but none has emerged with anything quite so captivating. In fact, despite their criticism of the mayor, universal pre-K, which de Blasio delivered, has been roundly applauded by the field.
Perhaps ironically, this final debate, for all its substance, ultimately added to the sense of muddle. A long stretch of discussion about homelessness – both as it relates to affordable housing and, separately, as a mental health issue – offered voters a range of options and mostly thoughtful policy pitches.
Public safety questions, too, were mostly answered with nuance. Even Adams and Yang, as they vie to win over New Yorkers who want a more assertive police presence, sketched out plans for preventive measures – the kinds of policies that address the root causes of violent crime.
But the debate has been circumscribed by the specter of a difficult and protracted post-pandemic recovery and concerns over how the city will pay for itself after federal stimulus funds run out.
The New York City of 2013, with crime down and dropping and the economy growing, seems a long way away – a reality that could, in the end, benefit Garcia’s bid.
More than anyone else, she on Wednesday night – as she has throughout the campaign – leaned into her management experience and a pledge to keep the drama levels in her potential administration to a minimum.
“I am not running to get the title of mayor,” Garcia said. “I am running to do the job of mayor.”
The candidates wield their endorsements – or don’t
There wasn’t a candidate on the stage Wednesday, no matter their odds, that did not have at least a handful of noteworthy endorsements to brag about.
But the touting of support – whether from influential New York political figures or powerful labor unions – was largely (strangely?) absent from the debate.
Adams has robust support from some of the largest unions in the city, but he barely mentioned them. Wiley was endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, as she consolidates progressives, a collection of young and popular state lawmakers. She only briefly alluded to it. Yang’s mention of his endorsement by the police captains union was more of a cudgel against Adams than anything else.
Stringer talked about his support from the United Federation of Teachers – but only after he was asked how he would manage contract negotiations with them. (He said those kinds of discussions should happen in private.)
Garcia offered the most robust rundown of her slate of endorsers, citing the editorial boards of the New York Times and New York Daily News, along with Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and StreetsPAC, a political group dedicated to bike safety.