Shaking Up Their Place in the Race

Eight Democratic mayoral candidates tried to distinguish themselves from the pack. Some takeaways from the first official debate

| 14 May 2021 | 05:40

Eight Democratic candidates - Eric Adams, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley and Andrew Yang - tried to make their case to voters Thursday night in the first official debate of the primary election. Broadcast by NY1 and WNYC, candidates were quizzed for two hours on issues of policing, economic recovery from the pandemic, homelessness, and desegregating the city’s public schools. With just a little over a month until primary day, candidates tried to distinguish themselves from the pack and shake up their place in the race, to varying degrees of success.

Here are some of the takeaways:

Crime & public safety becoming central issues in race

Journalist and moderator Errol Louis opened the debate with a question on the rise in gun violence in the city - noting the harrowing Times Square shooting last weekend in which a four-year-old was injured - and how each candidate planned to make the city safe. The solutions offered did not deviate from candidates’ past remarks on policing and safety. Morales, Wiley, Stringer, and Donovan talked hit on the need to reform policing, bring in more mental health care workers, and invest in communities as a deterrent to crime. Yang said defunding the police is the wrong approach to reform. Garcia advocated for a gun buy-back program. Adams said he would create a unit of plainclothes officers dedicated to getting guns off the street, but said it would be different from the now-disbanded and heavily criticized anti-crime unit.

Frontrunners don’t deliver

In the scarce polling published on this race, Yang and Adams have topped the field. Neither had a blockbuster performance Thursday night. Yang’s approach was steady, positive and laid-back; but he did not deliver any answers to show viewers why he has been leading in the polls. Still, Yang might be OK with doing just enough in this first debate. Adams, on the other hand, did not disguise his contempt for candidates who criticized him. At one point, he called those attacking his record “desperate” and said the debate had gotten “nasty.”

Competitors identify their adversaries

Candidates had the chance to cross examine their opponents, and in the process revealed who they see as competition come primary day. Donovan and Wiley, with varying degrees of hostility, both targeted Adams with questions on policing and carrying a firearm, but in hopes to point out his conservative approach to the issues. It was the second time Wiley came after Adams, pushing him hard on what she said was his support for stop-and-frisk tactics formerly used by police. Morales also identified Adams with her question, but was much less confrontational. Stringer, Adams and McGuire hit Yang with their questions. Stringer called out the former presidential candidate for having a lobbying firm on his campaign payroll. Yang and Garcia stayed above the fray in their questions to Morales, with Yang using his to get Morales to validate his own Universal Basic Income policy.

Choosing your No. 2

Ranked-choice voting throws an interesting wrinkle into the dynamics of this year’s mayor’s race. The new system allows for voters to choose up to five candidates and order them by preference on their ballots. It is essentially an automatic runoff in which the candidates with the fewest first-ranked votes are eliminated and their votes go to the candidate listed second on their supporters’ ballot. This continues until a single candidate has amassed more than 50 percent of the vote. In theory, the system somewhat incentivizes candidates to play nice in order to get a top ranking from opponents’ supporters, though that wasn’t the case for most Thursday night.

Another tactic that candidates have neglected to adopt is to pick a partner in the race to consolidate support. Frequently, candidates have been asked to choose another candidate to rank as their No. 2, and frequently candidates say they are still mulling it over. Only four candidates opting to pick a second-choice for their supporters were Donovan, Wiley and Yang. Donovan, citing her career as a civil rights attorney, picked Wiley. In turn, Wiley chose Morales, a pick she’s stuck with for months now. Both Yang and McGuire said they liked Garcia as a No. 2. In recent weeks, Yang has said, much to Garcia’s chagrin, that he would like to hire the former city commissioner for his own administration. The rest of the field has about a month to decide if they’ll choose a second-choice among their opponents, but there’s a good chance they’ll still be reviewing their options by the time Early Voting begins.

Debate stilted on Zoom

If Thursday’s debate revealed anything, it’s that Zoom is not the venue for a formal debate. The nature of a virtual debate does not encourage more direct exchanges between candidates. It was also hampered at times by poor audio quality and awkward moments when candidates failed to “unmute” themselves. Several candidates treated the event more like the dozens of virtual forums that have been held up to this point, laid-back and casual. In order to have a more engaged second debate, the candidates should appear together and in person.