Eric Adams and Andrew Yang, leading the polls with Kathryn Garcia, were focus of their rivals during Wednesday event
Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, who are leading the polls along with Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, were the focus of their rivals during the debate, as eight candidates pitched themselves to be mayor of the biggest city in the US – a role once dubbed the “second toughest job in America”.
The winner of the Democratic primary later this month is expected to triumph in the mayoral election proper in November, lending an extra frisson to proceedings. But less than three weeks before New Yorkers go to the polls, the debate offered little hope for progressives seeking systemic change.
Poverty and homelessness, which have continued to blight New York City under the last eight years of a Democratic mayor, were left by the wayside as law and order became an enduring topic.
After a year where tens of thousands of New Yorkers called for the police department (NYPD) to be cut in size amid protests against police brutality and racism, it was Yang, a tech entrepreneur who ran a high-profile campaign for US president last year, who took the remarkable position of calling for the NYPD to expand.
“We need to go on a recruitment drive” to hire more police officers, Yang, the early leader in the race said, in a statement which is an anathema to the progressives in the Democratic party. The NYPD is already the largest police force in the country, with a budget of $6bn and a staff 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees.
“Defunding the police is not the right approach for NYC,” Yang said – a direct effort to distance himself from candidates who have called for money to be taken from the police budget and spent on social programs and mental health treatment.
He later called for “more cops on the subways” – and said the officers should not just be a presence on platforms, but should conduct regular “visual inspections” of carriages.
Adams, a former police officer who with Yang and Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner for New York City, has emerged as one of three frontrunners in the race, also staked out his position in support of the NYPD, linking crime to New York City’s recovery.
“No one is coming to New York and our multibillion-dollar tourism industry if you have three-year-old children shot in Times Square,” Adams said, an apparent reference to a four-year-old child who was shot in the center of Manhattan in May.
He went on to appeal to the city’s wealthiest residents.
“When you look at our high-income earners, 65,000 people pay 51% of our income tax. When you speak to them [about] leaving the city, they talk about public safety.”
Shootings in New York City have spiked in 2021. In the first three months of the year 246 people were shot, Gothamist reported – the highest rate for the first quarter since 2012. Murders in the city rose to 462 in 2020, according to the NYPD, an increase of 45% from 2019.
Yang has spent weeks as the frontrunner, but Garcia, who has been boosted by an endorsement from the New York Times, has been gaining momentum as she bids to become the city’s first female mayor. Since 1834, when the mayor of New York City began to be chosen by popular vote, it has elected 109 leaders, every one of them a man, and only one of them, David Dinkins, a person of color.
The first debate, which was held virtually in May, proved relatively civil, but with less than three weeks to go until the primary, things have begun to hot up, as candidates have spent $37m in TV advertising.
“I don’t think you’re an empty vessel,” Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller and a progressive voice, told Yang at one point, referring to a description of the candidate given by one of Yang’s high-profile supporters.
“I think you’re a Republican who continues to focus on the issues that will not bring back the economy.”
Adams later noted that Yang left New York City during the coronavirus pandemic, and had not voted in several previous New York elections.
“How the hell do we have you become our mayor with a record like this?” Adams said. “You can’t run from the city if you want to run the city.”
Adams was attacked over his support for “stop and frisk”, the widely loathed policing tactic which proliferated under Rudy Giuliani’s mayorship and disproportionately targeted people of color.
He was later challenged over his self-confessed habit of carrying a gun, which he is entitled to do as a former police officer. Adams has said he has carried a gun to church and claimed he would carry a gun as mayor to help save money on his security detail.
Dianne Morales, a progressive who would cut $3bn from the police’s budget if elected, presented the case for curtailing law enforcement.
“We can’t actually decouple the increase in crime, whether its gun violence or other crime, from the increased insecurities that New Yorkers have faced and encountered over the last 15 months,” Morales said.
“I guarantee you that if we actually provided jobs to these young people and we actually provided economic stability to our communities then the violence that we’re witnessing would be dramatically decreased.”
Lurking in the background of the debate was the near collapse of a progressive element to the mayoral race.
Morales had become a favorite of progressives, but has suffered a spectacular implosion over the past week, which culminated in some members of her staff holding an unprecedented public protest against her campaign, claiming that she had failed to recognize their demands for fair pay and benefits.
Stringer had won the endorsement of a number of high-profile leftwing Democrats, but lost much of his backing after he was accused of sexual assault by a woman who volunteered on one of his past campaigns. Stringer denies the allegations.
That has left Maya Wiley, a former counsel to the current New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, seeking to consolidate the left-leaning vote, and in an email sent to supporters after the debate she described herself as “the progressive candidate that can win this race”.
The polling, however, suggests otherwise. In the two most recent mayoral polls, however, Wiley came fifth and joint fourth, several points behind Adams, Garcia and Yang, and with much to do if she is to be elected mayor.