Debate Disappointment


Democratic mayoral candidates on stage at the 92nd St Y

The 2013 NYC mayoral race is in full swing, and I thought it was an exciting prospect to get tickets for the full-on debate of all Republican and Democratic contenders hosted by the New York Observer at the 92nd St Y on March 21st.  But honestly, I came away with less understanding of what various candidates bring to the table than I had before the debate kicked off.  And I also found it somewhat disconcerting afterward to think that the next mayor of NYC was on the stage that night–but nobody as of yet seemed fully fitting of that mantle.

Some of this was due in part to lackluster questions from New York Observer reporters.  The Observer in recent years has been run by youngster billionaire Jared Kushner–son of a real estate mogul (and felon) Charles Kushner and husband of Ivanka Trump–who stepped out on stage to introduce (and inadvertently set the tone for) the evening’s events.  Kushner, in a voice and demeanor that made him seem far younger than he even is, praised his tenure as owner and publisher of the Observer, and talked abstractly about how much he loves New York City.  He was hard to take seriously, and his Observer reporters continued in the same shaky, unserious fashion to interact to little consequence with the candidates.  It was definitely a light-weight evening.

The first event assembled the Republican candidates on stage:

  • John Catsimatidis, owner and CEO of the Red Apple Group and Gristedes grocery chain
  • George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund and self-described advocate for the homeless
  • Joe Lhota, former deputy mayor under Giuliani and recent chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority

The “debate” itself was little more than a group interview, where two timid journalists (whose names I never noted) took turns asking questions to each candidate, with no follow-ups or even a basic sanity check on their responses.  This was especially troubling when George McDonald, who seems to be a genuinely caring person, came unhinged on several occasions: one, when he was asked a question he didn’t like, so he used his response time to gush out entirely unrelated talking points (the audience laughed loudly, while the timid journalist said nothing); another time, he spoke inexplicably about “the minority community” (!?) and African Americans in general as if all were synonymous with the homeless people he employs.  McDonald is no doubt a good man and has made an invaluable contribution with the Doe Fund, but his performance here didn’t exactly instill confidence in him as a public official.

John Catsimatidis gave somewhat perplexing, laconic answers to the various questions, and didn’t seem to fully understand how the mayor’s office works.  Given a question about the MTA, neither Catsimatidis nor McDonald seemed aware that MTA is a state agency (controlled by Albany) and not under mayoral jurisdiction.

Only Joe Lhota, who led the MTA during its astonishingly fast and effective recovery from Sandy, was apparently aware of this–and no reporter challenged anyone on their responses.  Lhota seemed, in many respects, to be the only policy-driven candidate on stage.  He had a warm, professional demeanor, and offered a number of factual talking points that placed him far and beyond the others on stage as a highly competent, well experienced candidate.  He offered that the City spends $17 billion per year on education, which he said breaks down to about $19,000 per student–which is more than twice the national average.  Yet we are lacking in results for what we’re investing.  He also spoke about the costs of transportation in NYC, saying that fares on bridges and tunnels are being raised (by Albany) disproportionately with other fares, but these raises are not a sustainable way to fund NYC transit.  Instead, he pointed out that NYC ranks lowest of all urban transit systems in the country for the subsidies it receives–and that Albany needs to start making the investment.

Lhota is clearly the most knowledgeable on transit issues and, above all, the need for NYC to have direct control over its own transit system.  But Lhota showed the clearest, most urgent understanding of actual policy issues rather than just the “nice guy” talking points that his fellow candidates couldn’t seem to move past.  Neither Catsimatidis nor McDonald offered any concrete issues they were willing to stand for or change.

Next up were the Democratic candidates:

  • Bill Thompson, former Comptroller and former head of the Board of Education
  • Christine Quinn, current Speaker of the City Council
  • John Liu, current Comptroller and former City Council member
  • Bill de Blasio, current Public Advocate and former City Council member
  • Sal Albanese, former City Council member and former public school teacher

The front-runner by a large margin (thus far) is Christine Quinn, and in her years of close work with Mayor Bloomberg as a member, then Speaker of the City Council, she bears a great deal of responsibility (and due credit) for the current state of New York City.  To be honest, I went in wanting to see Quinn shine.  Along with many New Yorkers, I’m glad to see a woman (and open lesbian) at the helm of the legislative body of the country’s largest city and of an economy larger than that of many first-world countries.  There seem to be entire organizations formed against Quinn, yet I wanted to hear what she had to say.  The evening, however, devolved into a great deal of passive sniping between the Democratic candidates, and light on substance–both because of the lackluster reporters and the tone set by the candidates themselves, most of all Quinn.

Quinn was the only candidate booed during the course of the evening, and it was because she responded to a question specific to the UES audience: would she support the marine transfer station to handle Manhattan garbage on 91st St, replacing the current Asphalt Green recreation center?  A large contingent in the audience was from a local group wearing “DUMP THE DUMP” t-shirts, and they clearly cared very much about this local issue.  Not only was Quinn responsible for this highly controversial land use change, she also gave a poor defense of it, and she brushed off the valid concern of audience members, leaving a bad taste with even those of us who were eager to hear both sides of the issue.  She did say that NYC should pursue a policy for waste management in which all boroughs dealt with their own waste, and that poor neighborhoods must not continue to carry the disproportionate load of waste sites–and even that a waste site is planned for her own district.  But she was not at all prepared to say why the 91st St site, which is heavily used by children of all ages and economic backgrounds to play, swim, compete in team sports, and participate in other enrichment programs.  She didn’t even say that it was a difficult decision.  Her response was highly abrasive, and fairly mocking of an audience’s concerns.

I understand that good governance can involve tough and sometimes unpopular decisions, but not only did Quinn fail to make the case for this decision, she openly dismissed citizens’ concern for their community.  This at first seemed to me a smaller issue, but Quinn’s response made it into a much larger concern for me not just on the transfer station, but on Quinn’s concern for citizens on the whole.  Quinn is clearly highly competent, but she seemed to have  the attitude that the election was already a foregone conclusion, and that we either liked what she did or we didn’t–end of story.  This sure wasn’t the way to win over an audience, or even an audience’s respect in disagreement.  I wanted to see a smart and dynamic Quinn, but all I felt that I saw was arrogance.

Bill Thompson–who ran against Bloomberg in the last election and carried a close margin despite his campaign being dramatically outspent by Bloomberg–carried himself confidently and professionally, but he failed to inspire or make any points rising above “nice guy,” “we need change” generalities and platitudes.

John Liu appeared halfway into the debate (which had already been pushed back about 30 minutes late because they were waiting on him), ostensibly because he had been at a different event–but he also took a moment to blast the Observer for its allegations (and evidence) of corruption in his campaign (which, of course, he neither elaborated on, nor did any timid reporter make any further mention of this).

Bill de Blasio blasted Quinn at every opportunity for her backing of Bloomberg’s third term, yet never managed to articulate how Bloomberg’s third term (or first or second) has been bad for New York City.  De Blasio was the best spoken of these candidates, yet his gadfly approach only seems effective if he’s not in charge; if elected, who will he have to incessantly speak out against?  The governor?  The president?

Sal Albanese, although he seemed like a nice guy you’d like to work with or live near, seemed hopelessly lost and jumbled in his shallow understanding of what was happening on stage, let alone with the finer points of how City government works.

Given that these four individuals are campaigning on the basis that the City needs new leadership to take it in a different direction, not one of them made a remotely coherent case for why that needed to happen, or what new direction needs to be taken.

It was a tremendously disappointing evening, all the way around.  Journalists failed to scratch beneath the surface of the candidates’ glossy, vanilla talking points.  Standing City leaders failed to even validate substantive citizen concerns. No one called out blatant lies or gross failures to understand the basic workings of government.  It was maybe akin to a high school student council election, where the most compelling issue is whether or not to get more soda vending machines for the school cafeteria.  Yet the stakes are so high.  Was this “debate”–at one of the finest venues for thought leaders and accomplished American leaders to speak at–really the best we can do for New York City?  Should we simply just stop expecting more?

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