▶ Watch Video: New York City mayoral candidates face off in first debate

Public safety. Policing. COVID recovery. The top eight candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in New York City’s mayoral race faced off in the first debate on Thursday night. Frontrunners Andrew Yang and Eric Adams found themselves taking the most heat, although Adams, for one, got his own digs in. 

The winner of the June 22 primary will almost certainly go on to be the heavily Democratic city’s next mayor. The candidate will be tasked with helping the city of eight million people recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing major challenges such as rising crime, homelessness, economic inequality and disparities in the public education system.

Policing and crime were the first issues addressed in the debate. Murders in the city were up nearly 17% through May 2 compared to 2020. A recent string of high-profile shootings, including in Times Square last weekend, has put the issue at the center of the campaign. 

Adams, currently the Brooklyn Borough president, is a former police officer who has made addressing crime a signature issue for his candidacy. He called for “prevention and intervention,” including a plain clothes police unit to go after gang violence and guns. He noted that 95% of gun violence victims and shooters are Black and Brown.

The candidates appear for the first debate.

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“We’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we need to deal with police misconduct, but we have to deal with this real pervasive handgun problem we have in this city,” Adams said. 

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has led so far in most polls, said “defund the police is the wrong approach for New York City” and police officers are “vital to the city’s recovery.” Like Adams, he has called for a plain clothes unit to address gun violence. 

The progressive candidates in the race stressed that the New York Police Department needs to evolve. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said the city cannot “go back to the Giuliani-style of policing that impacted Black and Brown children.” Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales said “we actually need to recognize that police respond to crime, they don’t prevent crime” and called for providing more resources to communities. Civil rights attorney Maya Wiley pledged to take “a billion dollars from the New York City Police Department” and “shift that money to create trauma-informed care in our schools.”

Other candidates also talked about the need for more mental health professionals and social workers responding to some calls that police currently take and shifting some resources away from the police department over time. All candidates agreed that they would require future officers to live in New York City. Morales, Stringer and Wiley said they would not have more police officers in the subway, but would instead provide people trained in de-escalation and mental health. The other candidates said more officers are needed, along with mental health professionals. 

Adams had some of the most negative exchanges throughout the debate, with he and Wiley especially going after each other on policing. In one of the most contentious exchanges, Wiley went after Adams for his past support for the controversial “Stop and Frisk” policies. Adams said her characterization showed a “failure of understanding law enforcement” and said that while he criticized its problems, it is a “tool.” 

Adams then went on to criticize Wiley’s time at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the oversight agency of the NYPD. Adams called her time at the agency a “failure,” before saying “when candidates start getting desperate, it’s going to get very nasty.” 

In a section on leading New York City out of the pandemic, the candidates touted plans for bringing jobs back to the city, cutting some bureaucratic red tape for small businesses and ensuring an equitable recovery. Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who was recently endorsed by The New York Times, said business permits need to be streamlined “so you don’t have to go to eight agencies before you sell a bowl of soup.” Former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire touted a vision for big spending on infrastructure and highlighted his plan to pay for half the wages of 50,000 small business employees for one year. Yang talked about imposing a moratorium on fines for restaurants and small businesses and creating a people’s bank for low-income residents. 

Shaun Donovan, who served as Housing Secretary for part of the Obama administration and was Housing commissioner under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said “no one in this campaign has had the experience I have rebuilding after 9/11, from the Great Recession.” He suggested McGuire “helped create” the Great Recession during his time on Wall Street. McGuire responded that Donovan was “completely uninformed by the facts” and that he had “zero to do with anything that happened with the mortgage crisis.”

Housing, a central issue in New York especially as eviction moratorium comes to an end, did not come up until the very end of the debate. When asked about homelessness, most of the candidates focused on finding affordable housing, with Stringer touting a 27-point agenda to end homelessness. Morales said she supported a deputy for housing, although the city has a deputy mayor for housing and economic development. 

Donovan has touted his time as Housing Secretary in the Obama administration, but was the source of internet ridicule on Wednesday over his comment that the median home price in Brooklyn was $100,000 (it is $900,000) during his New York Times endorsement interview. Garcia got a dig in about it, but otherwise it stayed off the radar.

Stringer again denied allegations of sexual misconduct from two decades ago. Jean Kim, who was an unpaid worker on his 2001 campaign for public advocate, said Stringer groped her and recently told The New York Times, “there was no doubt in my mind that he was powerful and he could make or break me.” Stringer has said they had a consensual relationship. 

“This is an allegation that’s not true,” Stringer said. “Like the Biden-Tara Reade situation, we have to allow women, and should allow women, to step up and say what they have to say and have the space to do it. But I do think we have to look at facts, we have to investigate and acknowledge and I hope the voters will listen to me in the coming weeks.”

The mayoral primary will feature ranked choice voting for the first time and candidates were asked who their second choice would be. Donovan said Wiley, McGuire and Yang said Garcia and Wiley said Morales. The other four candidates said they had not settled on a second choice yet. 

Eight of the 13 candidates who will be on the ballot in June participated in Thursday’s debate. It was the first formal debate of the campaign, but the candidates have participated in dozens of Zoom forums for smaller groups during the election cycle. Candidates had to be on the ballot and spend a certain amount of money in order to qualify for the debate. 

In one of the lighter moments, the candidates got to list what they were most excited for when the city fully reopens. Several said Broadway, while McGuire said a “museum,” Garcia said a Brooklyn Cyclones game “where I throw out the first pitch,” Adams said a restaurant in Brooklyn and Yang said “let’s go Mets.”