Not long after the second Democratic Mayoral Debate in New York City last night, candidates were asked how they would deal with the reopening after more than a year of coronavirus lockdown.
Some of the relatively centrist hopefuls, like Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, said they would prioritize fighting crime, which has increased in New York over the course of the pandemic. The more progressive candidates, including Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer, advocated less emphasis on policing and a greater focus on affordable housing and youth work.
But apart from specific political differences, there was a more immediate question for the candidates: how can they make up for lost time on the campaign trail now that the city is finally heading for a full reopening?
The predominant strategy has been to attack, often on a personal level. But with the contestants trapped in combat, none seemed to break completely away from the pack.
“Much of the content was repetitive: everyone said we need to help small businesses, everyone said we need to get the guns off the streets,” said Michael Krasner, a professor of political science at Queens College and co-director of the Taft Institute for Government in an interview.
“I didn’t feel like anyone had such a compelling idea or policy proposal that it would make a big impression on undecided voters,” he added. “That made it harder for people to see differences.”
The June 22 primaries are less than three weeks away and the early voting starts in just nine days, but the race remains suspended in midair. In a poll by Fontas / Core Decision Analytics published last week, no candidate was the first choice of even one of five likely voters. More than that – 26 percent – said they were completely undecided. (And even that didn’t happen until after respondents were forced to make a choice: at first glance, 50 percent of likely voters said they didn’t pick a top candidate.)
The relatively large field, populated by a mix of senior officials and relative newcomers, is further complicated by a ranking voting system introduced this year that makes it difficult to determine who really has the upper hand. And the pandemic put a damper on the traditional election campaign: only in the last few weeks have candidate sightings on the streets of New York become commonplace as the race hits the home straight.
Yang and Adams face each other
Though long considered a front runner, Yang has recently been battered by assaults from other candidates and persistent questions about his qualifications, while two fellow centrists – Adams, Brooklyn District president and Kathryn Garcia, former city sanitation commissioner – have risen in recent polls.
On the stage last night, Adams painted Yang as if he had no relation to the city. “You started discovering violence when you ran for mayor,” he said. “You discovered the homelessness crisis when you ran for mayor’s office.”
Yang shot back, accusing Adams of dubious fundraising methods. “We all know that you have been investigated for corruption everywhere,” said Yang. (No charges were brought against Adams, although some of his political dealings have attracted public attention.)
Scott Stringer, the city’s auditor, was even more pointed – he cursed Yang and Adams in the same breath. “You are both right: you two shouldn’t be mayor,” he said. On the subject of public schools, Stringer accused Yang and Adams of “taking millions of dollars from Republican billionaires who want to privatize the school system.”
In a night of violent attacks, Stringer showed a strong performance, said Krasner. But he arguably had the most to prove of all the candidates after his campaign – which got off to a good start thanks to his relatively high profile and the support of large progressive groups and unions – nearly exhausted when a former campaign officer accused him of sexual misconduct.
Krasner said the ranked selection system could help Stringer – especially with voters who are reluctant to put a scandal-ridden candidate at the top of their list. “A lot of people will see him as an attractive number 2,” said Krasner. “He comes across as a competent progressive.”
Wiley is the only progressive wing candidate not embroiled in a scandal after the campaign by Dianne Morales, a former non-profit executive, was hit by allegations of preventing her former campaign workers from unionizing, which happened last month resulted in a number of exits.
Morales tried to clear a path in the left lane last night and went further than Wiley or Stringer when she asked for the police reallocation of funding. It reiterated its promise to divert $ 3 billion from the police department budget towards crime prevention and community investment. Wiley and Stringer each set a goal of reducing police budgets by $ 1 billion.
Centrists want to define themselves
The more centrist candidates took a different approach. Yang stated in no uncertain terms, “Defunding the police is not the right approach for New York City.”
Understand the NYC Mayoral Race
- Who is running for mayor? There are more than a dozen people left in the running for the next New York City mayor, and the primary is on June 22nd. Here is an overview of the candidates.
- Get to know the candidates: We asked leading mayor candidates questions about everything from police reform and climate change to their favorite bagel ordering and training routine.
- What is ranked voting? New York City started using ranked voting in primary elections this year, and voters can list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.
And Adams, a former police officer, emphasized the need to tackle crime with effective policing. “We have to be safe and then we can properly build our economy on this platform,” he said as he tried to repel his opponents’ attacks on his previous support for stop-and-frisk tactics.
Garcia has climbed into double digits in recent polls, thanks in part to editorial support from The Times and The New York Daily News, who have focused on a relatively low profile campaign. Last night she described herself as an accomplished technocrat and called herself “the only candidate up here who can keep every promise she makes”.
But she was the rare candidate on stage who was rarely attacked, and she struggled to explain why she left the de Blasio government in the middle of the pandemic when challenged by her opponents.
“She definitely looked confident,” said Krasner, but added: “I don’t think she’s gaining ground.”
Also on stage were Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, and Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Everyone positioned themselves as an agent of change.
In his opening speech, Donovan promised “a change in the political status quo of the past eight years” and said he would “lead New York in a new and better direction”.
McGuire offered a poetic variation on the same theme, pointing out that most of his opponents had spent years in public office. “This is a bad movie that is in town hall with the same characters,” he said. “We just can’t afford a disastrous sequel. Make the change, hope for the change. “
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