▶ Watch Video: NYC mayoral primary will use ranked-choice vote; early voting begins Saturday

In the final debate before primary day, eight leading Democrats running for New York City mayor frequently devolved into bickering in a rapid-fire format on Wednesday in NBC’s Studio 8H, the home of the iconic show “Saturday Night Live.” The debate was one of the last chances for candidates to make their closing arguments to voters before primary day on June 22. Tens of thousands of voters have already cast ballots during early voting or via absentee ballots.

Former Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, who has been toward the bottom of nearly every poll, tried to sum up the night when he said: “New Yorkers didn’t tune in tonight to hear us fight with each other.” But the other candidates didn’t seem to follow that advice, with punches and barbs being thrown most of the night.

Andrew Yang, who was the front-runner early in the race, but has seen his stock fall, took a shot at Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is now leading polls, when asked why Yang secured an endorsement from the NYPD Captain’s union, when Adams was a former captain in the department.

“The people you should ask about this are Eric’s former colleagues in the police captain’s union,” Yang said. “The people who worked with him for years, the people who know him best, they just endorsed me to be the next mayor of New York City.”

Supporters of NYC mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia gather outside Rockefeller Center before the third Democratic debate on June 16, 2021.

JEENAH MOON / Getty Images

Crime and policing

Adams said he never asked for the union’s endorsement and they didn’t like his record of fighting against “abuse of stop and frisk” and “heavy-handed policing.”

Crime was once again a central focus at the debate, but candidates also drilled down on mental health, affordable housing, climate change and other critical issues facing America’s largest city.

Polling has indicated that crime and policing are the top issues for the city’s likely Democratic primary voters. New York has seen a surge in gun violence in 2021, which has brought the issue to the forefront. While some major crimes are slightly down compared to last year, murders are up 13.5% and shootings are up 64%, according to NYPD statistics.

Civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, who has emerged as the progressive favorite in the field, wants to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget and shift that money into other city services that provide alternatives to policing. Wiley has also said that she would stop hiring in the next two police cadet classes, but stressed that her vision could help reduce crime in the more immediate future. 

“I have been Black all my life and I know what it’s like to fear crime and police violence,” Wiley said. “When we invest in trauma-informed care, when we stop the guns from getting fired in the first place, we are safe from both crime and police violence.”

While Wiley and other progressives have proposed reallocating some of the NYPD budget to other services, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia — who has emerged as a serious contender since she was endorsed by The New York Times — took aim at that idea during a question about the worst idea she’s heard from her opponents.

“These are complicated times and several of my opponents are using hashtags, hashtag defund the police and I just don’t think that’s the right approach,” Garcia said.

Adams again defended his plan for a plainclothes police unit to address gun violence and to use a moderated version of stop and frisk. He said he doesn’t want to “return to anything,” but rather show “how to use tools correctly.”

“We can’t wait until we have 3-year-olds shot in Times Square. If we don’t get gun violence under control it’s going to stop our economic recovery,” Adams said.

All the candidates except for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former non-profit CEO Dianne Morales and Wiley said they wanted more police officers patrolling the city’s subway system.

Undocumented immigrants, mental health and homelessness

In a section about undocumented immigrants, Wiley, Morales and Garcia spoke about ending the city’s relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yang touted his cash relief program as something that would help undocumented New Yorkers, but Stringer sniped, “Andrew’s fake [universal basic income] program would only be about five dollars a day” for a small subset of the city.

“That’s a lot of money for someone who’s right at that line between staying in their home and not being able to put food on their table,” Yang responded. 

Mental health also was a key part of the debate as public safety concerns have gripped the city as it adjusts to post-pandemic reality. Yang promised to double the amount of psychiatric beds, saying “there will be no recovery until we solve this.” Yang’s response drew fire from Stringer, who asked Yang to give a cost and called it “not serious.”

During a question later in the debate on how to fix the city’s “functioning mental health system,” Morales called for community health clinics and shared a personal story from her daughter, who Morales called a mental health “survivor.” Morales said she was sharing her daughter’s story with her permission, and said the “framing” around mental health needs to be changed.

Some of the candidates laid out specific plans to address homelessness and affordable housing in the city, while others were more vague. Adams pledged to retrofit hotels for single adults, while Donovan, who served as the Housing secretary in the Obama administration, said he wanted more supportive housing.

Stringer criticized the “incrementalism” in building affordable housing in the de Blasio administration, and called for building 10,000 “real low-income housing units” per year.

What happens next?

Early voting began June 12. As of Tuesday night, more than 64,000 people have voted early in-person. More than 50,000 absentee ballots have been returned. It’s not yet clear how many of those votes are in the Democratic race.

This election will be New York City’s first citywide primary to use ranked-choice voting. The city is expected to report unofficial results for first-choice votes from early and election day voting on June 22. More results will be released starting the following week.

It may take until mid-July to determine which candidate wins the Democratic mayoral primary because absentee ballots can arrive until June 29 and voters will have until July 9 to fix some issues with their mail ballots.