A collage of New York City mayor candidates.
NEW YORK — It was their first chance to go at it in person, and the leading contenders in the New York City mayor’s race launched into full attack mode Wednesday night, questioning each other’s policies, ethics and competence.
The eight major Democratic candidates, facing off during the second of three televised debates, sparred over crime on the streets and in subways, the city budget and education. But it was a cutting exchange between Andrew Yang and Eric Adams that stood out.
With three weeks left until primary day, the race remains wide open, with many voters undecided and no clear frontrunner. The advent of ranked-choice voting has thrown the race into further confusion, as candidates compete for a much wider cross section of voters than in elections past.
Adams — the Brooklyn borough president and former NYPD captain — and Yang, a former presidential candidate, have traded first and second place in recent polls, along with former city commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
Adams went after Yang for never voting in a city election, leaving the city at the height of the pandemic and showing a lack of policy chops on key issues facing New York.
“You started discovering violence when you were running for mayor. You started discovering the homeless crisis when you were running for mayor,” Adams said at the height of the debate, co-hosted by WABC. “You can’t run from the city, Andrew, if you want to run the city.”
Yang fired back: “The problems have been getting worse around you while you’ve been running for mayor and raising money from your friends in real estate,” he said, before tearing into Adams over a failed casino deal during his time as a state senator and his fundraising practices as Brooklyn borough president. The episodes have drawn scrutiny — but no charges — from city, state and federal investigators.
“We all know that you’ve been investigated for corruption everywhere you’ve gone,” Yang said. “You’ve achieved a rare trifecta of corruption investigations … You don’t pay attention to the rules of the road. You’re unprincipled.”
Adams, who is Black, emphasized that he was never found to have committed wrongdoing and demanded Yang apologize for raising a false accusation against a person of color. Yang has also painted criticism of his own campaign as racially motivated.
The intense back and forth prompted Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, to chime in: “You’re both right. You both shouldn’t be mayor.”
Voters tuning in for the first time saw a glimpse of tensions that have been bubbling up on the campaign trail for weeks. Crime and economic recovery have topped the list of concerns for voters heading into the June 22 primary. And despite their attacks, Yang and Adams are largely aligned on policing strategy. If the election becomes about crime, Adams may have a built-in advantage as a former cop. If it’s economic recovery, Yang’s message of revitalizing the city’s tourism economy could carry the day.
But polls show voters also want a competent administrator after eight years of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a term-limited Democrat who has faced repeated accusations of mismanagement. With a recent boost from the New York Times editorial board, Garcia — the former sanitation commissioner and a go-to crisis manager for de Blasio — has recently jumped into the top tier, though she had few breakout moments Wednesday night.
Stringer has remained viable despite sexual misconduct allegations that he denies, and attorney Maya Wiley has tried to position herself as the leading progressive in the race after stumbles by other left-leaning candidates.
Yang raised alarms about the city budget, saying de Blasio has spent too much of New York’s federal stimulus money and set the city up for deep deficits down the road.
“Everyone on this stage should be livid about it, unless you don’t expect to be mayor,” he said. “We’re going to be left holding the bag.” (He was also the only candidate to say he’d accept de Blasio’s endorsement, as well as that of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.)
Stringer rejected the call for spending cuts.
“You don’t have any idea about the budget,” he told Yang and referred to a comment made by Yang’s top consultant, Bradley Tusk, who called his client an “empty vessel” in an interview.
“I don’t think you’re an empty vessel,” Stringer said. “I think you’re a Republican.”
The city comptroller also brought up the billionaire-funded PACs that have supported both Yang and Adams.
“They are people who want to privatize public education, and they’re among the largest Republican donors,” he said.
Adams responded that he is legally prohibited from coordinating with independent spenders, but he accused Stringer of violating his pledge not to take real estate money. “Give it back, Scott,” he said.
In another pointed exchange, Wiley targeted statements by Adams, a former NYPD cop, that he would carry a gun to church and as mayor. “Isn’t this the wrong message to send our kids?” she said. “Children who see their role models carrying guns may think it’s OK.”
Adams touted his work on anti-gun legislation and suggested voters check his record. “I’m just so happy that we have something called Google now,” he said.
Yang, meanwhile, was grilled on his plan for cash payments to low-income New Yorkers, which candidate Shaun Donovan called a “false promise.” And former non-profit executive Dianne Morales pressed Adams on his past comments raising concerns about a housing development for LGBTQ seniors.
Public safety topics again dominated the debate, as it did at the first face-off amid a spike in shootings.
Adams in particular has zeroed in on combating violence and pivoted back to crime when asked about his economic recovery plans.
“No one is coming to New York in our multi-billion dollar tourism industry if you have three-year-old children being shot in Times Square,” he said.
Stringer, who has proposed some cuts to the NYPD, presented a different vision.
“Everybody keeps running toward flooding the zone with cops, and that’s not going to solve the problem,” he said.
The third and final debate will be hosted by WNBC and POLITICO on June 16.
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