Five takeaways from the NYC Democratic mayoral debate

Eight Democrats vying to be New York City’s next mayor sparred over the most pressing issues facing the nation’s largest city on Wednesday in the final debate of the Democratic primary.

The two-hour showdown presented the candidates with one last chance to make an impression on New Yorkers before voters head to the polls next week.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is widely regarded as the front-runner. But the nomination is still considered up for grabs, especially given the city’s newly implemented ranked-choice voting system.

Here are five takeaways from the debate:

Yang comes out swinging 

Former 2020 presidential contender Andrew Yang didn’t hesitate to go on the attack against Adams, chiding the Brooklyn Borough president early on in the debate over police union endorsements and claiming that Adams had been passed up for their support over his call last summer for people to confront their neighbors directly over the use of fireworks.

Once the front-runner in the race, Yang is in need of a boost ahead of next week’s primary. Recent polls have shown Adams at or near the front of the pack, and Yang is hoping to supplant him in that position.

Adams tried to rebut Yang’s claims, saying that he never sought the endorsement of the New York Police Department’s captains union, which represented him during his days as a police captain, and that union leaders knew that he had criticized police tactics.

That set off a stern response from Yang, who accused Adams of being dishonest about not seeking the union’s backing.

“You can ask the head of the captains union, Eric,” Yang said. “He’ll say yes, you did call him.”

Later in the debate, when a moderator asked the candidates to name their opponents’ worst ideas, Yang again went after Adams, recalling how in 2018 Adams had said he would bring a gun to church following a deadly mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. 

The progressive-moderate divide was on full display

Despite New York City’s national reputation as liberal hub, the city isn’t uniformly progressive. And on Wednesday, the divide between progressives and moderates was hard to miss.

The divide became clear early on as the candidates debated crime and policing in the nation’s most populous city. When moderators asked the candidates at one point to raise their hands if they believe that more police officers should be put on the city’s subways, only three  former civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, city Comptroller Scott Stringer and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales  kept their hands down. 

In a particularly heated moment, former Wall Street executive Raymond McGuire said that calls to defund the police “will end up in disaster for New Yorkers,” prompting an impassioned response from Morales.

“How dare you assume to speak for Black and Brown communities as a monolith,” Morales said. “You cannot do that.” 

“Yes, I can. I just did,” McGuire, who is Black, responded. “You know what else I’m going to do? I’m going to do it again.” 

Candidates don’t hold their fire 

The eight-person debate was punctuated by attack lines flung all over the debate stage, with virtually no candidate emerging unscathed from digs from their Democratic competitors.

Much of the criticism was leveled at Adams, Wiley and Yang, three contenders who have been polling well, though lower-polling candidates also drew barbs.

Adams was rebuked over his plans to combat a rise in crime, including instituting a plainclothes unit to combat gun violence.

Yang specifically went after Adams over past remarks calling on off-duty cops to bring guns to church, saying it was a reason he won an endorsement from the union that represents police captains despite Adams belonging to that union when he was a cop. 

“They think I’m a better pick than Eric to keep us and our families safe,” Yang said. 

Other remarks over law enforcement also produced sparks, with centrist Ray McGuire blasting plans to divert funds from law enforcement as efforts to “defund the police” and former New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia adding that candidates advocating such policies “need to sit down and think.”

Progressives returned fire, with Morales berating McGuire for saying he was speaking on behalf of communities of color. 

“Let’s exclude you,” McGuire responded.

“Let’s not exclude me,” Morales shot back.

Crime, racial justice emerge as flashpoints

A rise in violent crime continued to be a driving force in the race, with much of the debate centered around the candidates’ law enforcement plans.

Adams, Garcia and Yang cast themselves as allies of police, with the trio of centrists saying law enforcement would be critical in combating the rise in crime while also facing reforms.

Garcia said her plan would involve implementing a community policing model, while Adams tied reducing crime to the city’s recovery from the pandemic.

“The proliferation of guns in our city is destroying us,” said Adams. “If we don’t get gun violence under control, it’s going to stop our economic recovery.”

Meanwhile, Wiley and Morales touted their plans to divert funds away from law enforcement and toward alternative community programs. 

Both progressives said their plans would be effective at both reducing crime and ameliorating sour relations between cops and communities of color.

“What we have the opportunity to do right now is to be smart about growing public safety,” said Wiley. “We are hiring police officers to do the job of social workers. We are hiring police officers to do the job of psychologists.”

“We have the largest budget for our police force in the country, if not in the world,” Morales later added. “We have got to move away from these systems that oppress our communities.”

No game-changing moment

Wednesday’s debate marked one of the last chances for the candidates to have a game-changing moment before Tuesday’s primary. 

That didn’t happen.

While candidates threw punches throughout the two-hour debate, no contender landed a knockout blow and nobody suffered a serious gaffe.

That means that barring an unforeseen development in the final few days before voting ends, the top tier of the field will continue to consist of Adams, Wiley, Garcia and Yang. 

Polls have shown Adams consistently in the lead, followed in some order by the remaining three candidates. However, surveys have shown Wiley’s stock rise as progressives coalesce around her campaign, and Garcia continues to enjoy increased support following endorsements from The New York Times and the New York Daily News. 

Meanwhile, Yang, who started the race as a front-runner, has ceded ground to Adams in the polls after the former police captain began to gain traction in recent months.

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