mayoral candidates debate 2021

THEY CAME, THEY SAW, THEY BICKERED: The eight leading Democratic candidates for Mayor faced off in their first in-person debate June 2 on WABC-TV, clashing over issues ranging from whether police funding should be further cut to how to deal with the mentally ill homeless on city streets and in the subways. One interesting commentary on Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo: Andrew Yang was the only candidate who said he would welcome their endorsements.

The first in-person debate among the Democratic candidates for Mayor June 2 on WABC-TV was less mannerly and more-intense than the May 13 Zoom showdown televised by NY1, as several of them went after opponents in trying to make an impression just 10 days before early voting begins for the June 22 primary, but a common thread in both was that their differing positions on the Police Department took center stage.  

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, perceived as being the front-runner in a race in which relatively little polling has been done because of the added complication created by ranked-choice voting, was the primary target of several contenders, both because of that status and the degree to which he has staked out policing as his primary issue, aided by his 22 years as a cop who was often critical of the NYPD while rising to become a Captain before retiring to enter politics.

Fight Crime and Cut Cops?

That may have been why, when the three broadcast journalists began questioning the eight candidates, WABC-TV's Dave Evans chose Mr. Adams to be the first to respond to his question, "How do you fight crime and cut police at the same time?"

Unlike half the candidates in the studio, the Borough President has not made that dual task part of his platform, instead vowing to maintain the current level of officers while increasing the force's effectiveness through better deployment, including taking some cops out of desk jobs and moving them to patrol duties.

"Fighting crime is both intervention and prevention," Mr. Adams said, explaining he would be looking to reach out more to youngsters in troubled neighborhoods to cut into the sway that gangs often hold there.

"We're losing too many of our children to the crime on the streets today," he said.

Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who in her opening remarks told the TV audience that for the past 14 years in various high-level city jobs, "I have been your crisis manager...I have the track record to deliver on impossible problems," said she would invest more in the NYPD's gun-suppression unit.

"The Iron Pipeline is real," she said of the path of illegal guns up Interstate 95 starting in Florida and ending in New York, adding that she would also invest more money in assisting young people in foster care and to provide summer jobs for youths.

Change of Assignments

Shaun Donovan, a former Bloomberg administration Deputy Mayor who held two top jobs under President Obama and has pledged to cut a total of $3 billion from the police and correction budgets over several years, said he would deploy cops differently, ending their assignment of putting up barriers at parades and protests and cease asking them to be "mental-health experts" in dealing with emotionally disturbed people.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, "I want to focus police on solving violent crime...but over-policing of communities of color is real." He said it was important to avoid "going back to the Giuliani days" in which stop-and-frisk's overuse first surfaced as an issue, although it actually grew much worse during the Bloomberg administration, which in 2013 was cited by a Federal Judge for the NYPD's frequently permitting the tactic to be used unconstitutionally.

Maya Wiley argued that cops weren't the main answer to the crime problem, contending that there were "thousands of officers in patrol cars all over the city" who weren't getting it under control. She claimed that it was her advocacy as the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board that ensured that CCRB lawyers were responsible for questioning Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo during his 2018 disciplinary trial that ended in his firing from the NYPD a year later for using a department-banned chokehold that was a factor in the 2014 death of Eric Garner.

She had heatedly clashed with Mr. Adams—who defended stop-and-frisk as an effective crime-fighting tool when used legallyduring the NY1 debate, but in this instance, the Borough President took issue with Mr. Stringer portraying himself as a leading opponent of the tactic, saying, "Where has Scott been? I worked against stop-and-frisk for 22 years when I wore the uniform." 

'It Does Not Work'

Businessman Ray McGuire, who despite being a pioneer on Wall Street said during the earlier debate that he had to be wary of encounters with police because he was 6-foot-4 and black, stated, "Going back to the Giuliani era, stop-and-frisk does not work."

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, whose broadsides against Mr. Adams over the course of the two-hour debate seemed a sign that he knew he had lost ground to him recently, called for "a massive recruitment drive" for new cops, as if unaware that the NYPD had just completed that kind of effort. He also faulted Detectives in Brooklyn for not making more arrests in gun cases, saying, "You have three out of four shooters still out there" in that borough. "It starts with getting the 'solve rate' up."

Even when the debate shifted to the economy, with Noticias Univision 41 reporter Yisel Tejeda asking the candidates how they would revive business activity in New York as the pandemic subsided, Mr. Adams said the strategy pivoted on improving public safety.

"No one is coming to New York, in our multibillion-dollar tourism industry, if you have 3-year-old children shot in Times Square," he said. "No one is coming here if you have people being pushed on the subway because of mental-health illnesses. If we're going to turn around our economy, we have to make this city a safe city."

Ms. Wiley renewed her attack on the Borough President, interjecting, "We can't do safety at the expense of justice. We cannot, and that means we can't have stop-and-frisk back, or the anti-crime unit."

Mr. Adams has argued throughout the campaign that he was the candidate best-equipped to produce the right combination of public safety and justice.

'Want Me on That Wall'

Mr. McGuire, citing his experience managing financial crises over his business career, borrowed a line from the military drama "A Few Good Men," saying, "At this moment in time, you want me on that wall. I've managed budgets larger than most state budgets."

Mr. Stringer skewered Mr. Yang's claims of successful business experience, and alluded to his campaign manager's stunningly derisive characterization earlier this year of his client. "I actually don't think you are an empty vessel," he said to Mr. Yang. "I think you are a Republican who continues to focus on the issues that will not bring back the economy."

And where Mr. Adams during the NY1 debate had questioned why Ms. Wiley while a member of the de Blasio administration had not been nearly as vocal as he was over the years regarding stop-and-frisk, Mr. Stringer went a step further, claiming that during her time at the CCRB she had been "a rubber stamp" for the Police Benevolent Association, which defends the great majority of the accused officers whose cases come before the Review Board.

Ms. Wiley also lit into Mr. Yang, saying that for his Venture for America project a decade ago, "You promised 100,000 jobs; you created 150."

Mr. Yang cited an award the project had gotten from the Obama Administration, prompting Mr. Donovan to respond that the award had been for the launching of the initiative, not the success it failed to deliver.

Mr. Yang accused Mayor de Blasio of spending all the Federal stimulus money the city has received rather than saving some of it so his successor can deal with budget deficits that are expected to exceed $5 billion over the next couple of years, pointing out, "We're up to 329,000 employees" in city government.

Stringer's Dilemma

Mr. Stringer was asked why, after previously stating that "women should be heard" when they make accusations of sexual harassment or assault, he has strenuously denied accusations by Jean Kim, a volunteer in his unsuccessful 2001 campaign for Public Advocate, that he molested and harassed her back then.

He replied, "Women should be heard...and then the facts kick in. The allegations are false and there are inconsistencies" in Ms. Kim's story.

Ms. Garcia, asked why she decided to step down as Sanitation Commissioner in the midst of the pandemic last summer to run for Mayor, said she knew that the $100-million cut in her department's budget would severely harm services and said so when she resigned. 

"I invite anyone on the stage to talk about track records, because I actually have one," she said, dating back to her days as a top Department of Environmental Protection official who in 2012 got the water supply back on line after the severe damage done by Hurricane Sandy.

Ms. Wiley, asked how she planned to cut $1 billion from the NYPD's budget, said she would cancel two scheduled police classes, notwithstanding the fact that the 847 officers who were graduated in recent months from the Police Academy didn't come close to making up for the several thousand officers who have left the department since early last year.

Mr. Stringer contended that any cuts should be made at the top of the NYPD, claiming that there had been a 76-percent increase in costs at Police Headquarters that amounted to "bureaucratic bloat."

Education Dancing

When the focus shifted to education issues, Mr. Adams spoke of "scaling up excellence," noting that when he was bused to Bayside High School as a teenager, he quickly became conscious of the features it offered that weren't in the two high schools in South Jamaica near his home.

Ms. Garcia broached a subject the other candidates shied from, saying, "I would increase the cap on charters because I put the children first."

Later in the debate, Mr. Stringer, who has been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, asked Mr. Adams about two hedge-fund billionaires involved in charter schools having contributed $1 million to both his Super Pac and to one operated on behalf of Mr. Yang, implying they were expecting a return on their money via charter expansion if either candidate won.

Dianne Morales, who previously had been a champion of charter schools, said she had been disillusioned by "the disproportionate way that black and brown kids are disciplined" in some of those schools, and now thought any additional education money should be devoted to upgrading the public schools.

Mr. McGuire said no distinction should be made, stating, "We need the best district schools, we need the best charter schools, we need the best parochial schools." He had devoted part of his opening statement to lamenting that "7 of 10 of our children do not read at grade level."

Mr. Donovan criticized Mr. de Blasio as someone "who's put ideology and politics ahead of our kids" when it's come to education.

Ms. Wiley said she would hire 2,500 additional Teachers "to bring class size down."

'Trifecta of Corruption'

Late in the debate, Mr. Yang accused Mr. Adams of having been the subject of "a rare trifecta of corruption investigations," dating back to his days as a State Senator. The most-notable of those involved the awarding of a contract to run a casino at Aqueduct Racetrack to the Aqueduct Entertainment Group, whose chief lobbyist, Carl Andrews, had served with Mr. Adams as a State Senator from Brooklyn and also had close ties to the two leaders of the Democratic majority at the time of the transaction, John Sampson and Malcolm Smith. The deal with the firm was eventually nullified because of irregularities, but no criminal charges were ever brought, although Mr. Sampson and Mr. Smith were later convicted of unrelated crimes.

Soon after he made that point, with Mr. Adams replying that accusations were not proof of any wrongdoing, Mr. Yang stole an idea from the Brooklyn Borough President. During the NY1 debate three weeks earlier, after Mr. Yang called for putting two cops on every subway platform to deal with crime, Mr. Adams responded that they would be more effective riding the trains; this time he called for having them deployed in both areas.

Mr. Adams then emphasized, "We should not have the police officers congregating around the token booth," as they sometimes do, rather than on the platforms.

The discussion turned to the mentally ill homeless who account for so much of the crime in the subways. Mr. Stringer said the solution was "not flooding the zone with cops."

Ms. Garcia implied that her former boss had been delinquent in not addressing the problem to a greater degree, stating, "We cannot have people with serious mental-health issues on our streets without addressing them."

Illness Infects Rikers

After Ms. Wiley said that "the largest psychiatric facility we have in the city is Rikers Island," Mr. Adams called for screening for dyslexia among inmates to determine whether learning disabilities were at the root of why they weren't living more productively.

Asked how they would grade the current Mayor, several of the candidates said they would give him high marks for the city's pre-kindergarten program but low ones on most key issues.

Mr. Stringer was a particularly tough marker, saying, "This gets an F mayoralty, because the potential and possibilities were so great."

Ms. Wiley, returning to her centerpiece issue, said the man she once served as his chief legal adviser deserved an F for his defending police conduct in dealing with the protesters last summer.         

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