Clashing over public safety, education and crises of mental health and street homelessness in New York City, the leading Democratic candidates for mayor on Wednesday promoted radically different post-pandemic visions for the city as they made their closing arguments before the June 22 primary.
The debate was the Democrats’ fourth and final major debate of the primary, and all of them have been, to varying degrees, contentious affairs focused heavily on issues of policing and public safety, as well as on questions of the candidates’ personal and professional preparedness to lead the nation’s largest city.
Much of the fire at the previous matchups was trained at Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, and to some extent at Andrew Yang, a 2020 presidential candidate.
Similar dynamics played out again on Wednesday, though the two-hour debate was one of the most substantive of the primary season, spanning issues from how the city can combat climate change to the best ways to manage affordable housing and homelessness.
Indeed, the eight candidates constantly jostled for advantages, trying to position themselves as the most qualified to lead the city as it begins to recover from the ravages of the coronavirus and its effects on the economy, education, crime rates and inequality.
Mr. Adams is plainly perceived by his rivals as the front-runner, and a number of the candidates seemed set on trying to halt his momentum. Mr. Yang and Maya D. Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, sought to put him on the defensive over matters of both judgment and policy, in particular around public safety.
Mr. Yang, who led the early public polls, has been among Mr. Adams’s sharpest critics, and he is airing television ads attacking Mr. Adams. He began the race as a celebrity candidate whose sunny optimism and pledges to be New York’s cheerleader appeared to resonate with a city on the cusp of reopening.
But as issues of public safety moved to the forefront of voters’ minds, and Mr. Yang faced scrutiny over his grasp of municipal government, he has stumbled in the sparse public polling available.
At the debate, which was co-sponsored by WNBC-TV, he took aim at Mr. Adams’s public safety credentials, where polling suggests the borough president has a strong advantage. Mr. Yang was endorsed by the Captains Endowment Association, the union that represents police captains, as well as a major firefighters’ union, and on Wednesday he sought to undermine Mr. Adams on that subject.
“They think I’m a better choice than Eric to keep us and our families safe,” Mr. Yang said. “They want someone honest as a partner who will actually follow through.”
Mr. Adams, a former police captain, declared that some of the captains recalled his efforts to change police conduct from within the system while he was serving, and suggested they held it against him.
When the candidates were asked to name the worst idea promoted by a rival, Mr. Yang cited Mr. Adams’s past remarks about carrying a gun in church, while Mr. Adams ripped Mr. Yang’s cash relief proposal for the poorest 500,000 New Yorkers, likening it to “Monopoly money” and suggesting it was less serious than his own proposals.
Ms. Wiley has also frequently clashed with Mr. Adams on the debate stage, but unlike Mr. Yang, she has often challenged him from the left over issues of policing, and she did so again on Wednesday.
“The worst idea I’ve ever heard is bringing back stop and frisk and the anti-crime unit from Eric Adams,” Ms. Wiley said. “Which, one, is racist, two, is unconstitutional, and three, didn’t stop any crime, and four, it will not happen in a Maya Wiley administration.”
Mr. Adams vowed that the abuse of stop and frisk would not return in an Adams administration and questioned Ms. Wiley’s authority on the subject, noting reports of private security in her neighborhood.
Mr. Adams has come under growing scrutiny in recent weeks, stoking controversy over matters from his fund-raising practices to questions about his residency, and his opponents have sought to cast doubt on his commitments to transparency and ethical leadership. On Wednesday, the nonprofit news outlet The City reported on issues of disclosure around Mr. Adams’s real estate holdings.
But those issues were not a central focus of the debate on Wednesday, and with early voting already underway, it was not clear how much the barbs aimed at Mr. Adams would affect his standing.
As in previous debates, questions of public safety were among the most divisive of the night. Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, and Raymond J. McGuire, a former Citi executive, blasted the “defund the police” movement, while Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, challenged Mr. McGuire over how that slogan is received among voters of color.
“For Black and brown communities, neither defund the police nor stop-and-frisk,” Mr. McGuire said.
“How dare you assume to speak for Black and Brown communities as a monolith,” Ms. Morales said. “You cannot do that.”
“I just did,” Mr. McGuire shot back. “I’m going to do it again.”
Issues of housing and mental illness also illuminated key contrasts among the candidates.
Mr. Yang struck a note of outrage as he declared that “mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighborhoods.”
After some of his rivals sketched out affordable housing plans, Mr. Yang said he was “frustrated by the political nature of these responses.”
“We’re not talking about housing affordability, we’re talking about the hundreds of mentally ill people we all see around us every day on the streets, in the subways,” he said. “We need to get them off of our streets andour subways, into a better environment.”
“That is the greatest non-answer I’ve ever heard,” said Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, who had spoken of the need to build tens of thousands of units of “truly affordable housing,” as he pressed Mr. Yang on the costs of such a proposal. “This is a teaching moment.”
The final debate arrived at a moment of significant uncertainty in the mayoral campaign.
Ranked-choice voting, in which voters can rank up to five candidates in order of preference, has injected an extraordinary degree of unpredictability into the race. One recent poll found Mr. Adams garnering the most first-place votes, but ultimately finishing second to Ms. Garcia; others have shown him ahead, but surveys have been sparse.
It is also unclear what a post-pandemic electorate in a June primary will look like, and some candidates could still cross-endorse each other in the final stretch, which could further scramble the contest.
Throughout the debate, battle lines emerged between candidates who are casting themselves as proud political outsiders — a message Mr. McGuire hit repeatedly — and those, like Mr. Stringer, who emphasize government experience at every turn.
Some of the more substantive moments of the evening also unfolded around the best ways to account for educational losses during the pandemic, and many of the candidates argued that school quality and better integration go hand-in-hand.
Ms. Garcia described plans for creating new high schools, promised to “stop screening 4-year-olds with a test — that’s insane,” and said she would ensure schools have robust art, music, theater and sports programs.
Ms. Wiley promised to hire 2,500 teachers to reduce overcrowding in classrooms, while Mr. Stringer promoted the idea of placing two teachers in every classroom. Others reached for their own experiences — Mr. Yang as a public school parent, for example, or Ms. Morales as a former educator — to take on the issue.
“This is a false choice,” Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary, said, when asked whether he would prioritize desegregation or improving school quality. “After a year that’s hurt every one of our students and widened the inequalities that we see in our schools, we need to get our schools open safely and quickly, but we also have to make sure that everyone is recovering, particularly those who are furthest behind.”
Kristen Bayrakdarian contributed reporting.