Candidates Clash Over Future of New York in First Mayoral Debate

The two leading candidates in the New York City mayor’s race battled to protect their advantages in a hard-hitting Democratic debate on Thursday evening while their six rivals grasped for breakout moments, sought to redefine the stakes of the contest and put forth their own visions for the struggling city.

The contenders clashed over government experience, ideology and public safety in confrontations that sometimes devolved into acrid personal attacks.

They sketched out their plans on an array of city issues, taking divergent stances on policing, education and managing the city’s economic revival. Policing emerged as the most-talked- about problem, with proposals ranging from reimagining plainclothes units to expanding the use of mental health professionals in traditional law enforcement situations.

Andrew Yang, one of the front-runners, was the target of an onslaught of criticism, which he sought to defuse by reaching for areas of common ground rather than engaging with equal force. But the sharpest direct clashes were between the other leading candidate, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, and Maya D. Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Ms. Wiley sought to cast Mr. Adams as a conservative former Republican who embraced stop-and-frisk policing tactics, while Mr. Adams dismissed her criticisms as ill-informed.

“Every time you raise that question, it really just shows your failure of understanding law enforcement,” Mr. Adams said after she questioned how he could be trusted to “keep us safe from police misconduct.” Mr. Adams argued that he was a “leading voice against the abuse of stop-and-frisk.”

Ms. Wiley shot back that “having chaired the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, I certainly understand misconduct.”

The debate arrived less than six weeks before the June 22 Democratic primary that is virtually certain to determine the next mayor. The contest is shaping up to be the most significant city election in decades, one that will determine how and whether New York will recover from the economic devastation of the pandemic as the city also confronts staggering challenges concerning inequality, gun violence and education.

Yet the race remains volatile and muddled, complicated by sparse public polling, a distracted electorate and the first use in a New York mayoral election of ranked-choice voting, a system that will allow voters to choose up to five candidates in order of preference.

For months, Mr. Yang, the former presidential candidate, has been portrayed by his rivals as a New York political newcomer who lacks the gravitas and knowledge of city intricacies to lead at a moment of crisis. In a reflection of his standing in the race, a number of his rivals sought to put him on the defensive over the extent of his political experience; his leadership record at Venture for America, his nonprofit; and implicitly, over his close ties to a consulting firm run by Bradley Tusk, his campaign strategist.

When Mr. Yang was pressed on why he has never voted for mayor in the city that he hopes to lead, he described his deep connections to the city as a parent and noted that he is like many New Yorkers who have not always engaged at the local level.

But when he noted his political activity elsewhere — in helping Democrats win two Georgia Senate runoffs, for instance — Mr. Adams ripped his efforts to claim credit as “disrespectful and appalling to Stacey Abrams and those Black women who organized on the ground.”

Mr. Yang, who held elaborate mock debates in recent days, was bracing for a pummeling, his allies said. The candidate, who is running as a government outsider with a sunny message of optimism about the future of the city, struck a conciliatory note under pressure, emphasizing areas of agreement as his rivals pressed him.

The debate, co-hosted by Spectrum News NY1 and the first of three official Democratic debates, represented the biggest test yet of Mr. Yang’s ability to sustain scrutiny from his front-runner’s perch.

In a reflection of his perceived strength in the race, Mr. Adams, a former police officer who is well-funded and has shown strength in some limited polling, was targeted by the other candidates nearly as much as Mr. Yang. Mr. Adams has placed public safety at the center of his campaign pitch, declaring it the “prerequisite” to prosperity and progress. It is a message that he has pressed with new zeal in recent weeks, amid a spike in gun violence, including a shooting last Saturday in Times Square.

Mr. Adams identifies as a progressive, has a record of pushing for changes from within the police force and says he was a victim of police brutality. He also briefly switched parties and became a Republican in the 1990s, and his opponents publicly signaled an eagerness to lace into his record.

“Eric, you were a self-described conservative Republican when Rudy Giuliani was mayor,” Ms. Wiley said. When Mr. Adams objected to the characterization, her campaign blasted out an excerpt from a 1999 New York Daily News article.

The debate unfolded as issues of crime and gun violence have become central to the mayor’s race. Mr. Adams, Mr. Yang and Raymond J. McGuire, a former Wall Street executive who seemed at ease on the virtual debate stage, rushed to Times Square after the shooting to issue stern denunciations of rising violence. Several other contenders have highlighted plans around policing or gun violence this week, including Ms. Wiley; Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, who flexed her policy knowledge at the debate; and the former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan.

In a sign of just how vital the question of public safety has become in the race, it was the first policy topic raised in the debate. Many of the contenders emphasized their interest in both reducing violent crime and combating police misconduct and bias.

A year after the rise of the “defund the police” movement amid an outcry over racial injustice, several of the candidates, including Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams, are plainly betting that the electorate is in a more moderate mood when it comes to public safety, even as they also call for changes to ensure police accountability. Mr. Yang proactively declared that “defund the police is the wrong approach,” while Mr. Adams said that “there’s no one on this Zoom that has a greater depth of knowledge around public safety than I do.”

Understand the N.Y.C. Mayoral Race

    • Who’s Running for Mayor? There are more than a dozen people still in the race to become New York City’s next mayor, and the primary will be held on June 22. Here’s a rundown of the candidates.
    • What is Ranked-Choice Voting? New York City began using ranked-choice voting for primary elections this year, and voters will be able to list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.

    A number of candidates of color discussed the issue in part through the lens of their personal experiences, whether it was Mr. McGuire describing himself as a “6-4, 200-pound Black man” who wants to have “the police protect me and not profile me,” or Ms. Wiley, who spoke of her racial identity as she called for reallocating $1 billion in New York Police Department funding “to create trauma-informed care in our schools.”

    “I have been Black all my life,” Ms. Wiley said. “And that means I know two things: I know what it is like to fear crime, and I know what it’s like to fear police violence, and we have to stop having this conversation, making it a false choice.”

    The first clear contrast of the debate emerged over the question of support for adding more police to the subways. Ms. Wiley, Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, and Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, did not raise their hands when asked for a show of support, emphasizing that their focus would instead be on empowering more mental health professionals.

    The debate, like many earlier mayoral forums, was held virtually — the candidates appeared by video from their homes and other locations around the city — which made it harder to smoothly land clear standout moments and more challenging to jump in given the cacophony of several people talking over each other on camera.

    Throughout months of virtual forums, the candidates became familiar with each other — their policy platforms and their well-traveled lines — and developed a measure of collegiality over Zoom, with few moments of obvious tension. On Thursday, the format was similar but the stakes far higher, the audience larger and the contrasts notably sharper.

    In addition to the criticisms aimed at Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams, Mr. McGuire and Mr. Donovan clashed over Mr. McGuire’s tenure on Wall Street, and Mr. Stringer took an implicit shot at Mr. Donovan, who has been bolstered by a super PAC funded in part by his father.

    “Don’t get me involved in your daddy problems,” Mr. Stringer said, after Mr. Donovan noted outside groups had supported Mr. Stringer in the past.

    For Mr. Stringer, the debate was his most high-profile appearance following an accusation of unwanted sexual advances that has upended his campaign. Mr. Stringer has strongly denied the allegations from Jean Kim, an unpaid campaign worker on his 2001 race for public advocate, but the claims cost him the support of some of his most prominent progressive supporters, though he retains backing from key labor endorsers. He emphasized again during the debate that he rejected the allegations.

    Mr. Donovan, a veteran of the Obama administration, went after both of the leading candidates. He ripped into Mr. Adams for remarks he has made about carrying a gun, and used his extensive government and political experience to draw a sharp contrast with Mr. Yang.

    “This is the most consequential election of our lifetimes,” Mr. Donovan said. “This is not time for a rookie.”

    Mr. Yang was the only one of the eight who did not favor requiring citywide composting, saying his reservations were tied to implementation citywide. He sought to explain his objection with his trademark enthusiasm.

    “I love composting,” he said.

    “Just not enough,” Mr. Donovan replied.

    Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.

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