Seven of the 17 candidates who will appear on next week’s ballot for Public Advocate sparred Wednesday night on issues ranging from how the city should do successful economic development in the wake of the failed Amazon deal to whether Mayor Bill de Blasio should run for president. (On that there was no debate: everyone said no.)
This was the second and final televised opportunity for candidates—what the New York City Campaign Finance Board dubbed the “leading contenders debate”—ahead of next week’s citywide special election on February 26th. To qualify, each candidate had to participate in the city’s matching funds program, have raised and spent $170,813 (3.75% of the expenditure limit for Public Advocate) by the filing deadline, and received an endorsement from a local elected official or from a city-based organization with at least 250 members.
Participants included Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, Brooklyn City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr., Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, investigative journalist Nomiki Konst, former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, and Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams.
Even with the focus narrowing to seven candidates, the stage was crowded and time limited; things got feisty, especially around a few key issues. Here are the highlights:
After Amazon, How to Invest Locally
When candidates debated for the first time earlier this month, opposition to the new Amazon campus was a theme for all but one candidate. City Councilman Eric Ulrich of Queens, the only elected Republican on the ballot, unequivocally supported Amazon. But he didn’t qualify for the second debate.
This time the conversation was different—without the tech giant to kick around anymore—the question was how should the city and state be doing successful economic development.
Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens called for more investment at the local level, “in our infrastructure, our schools, and our arts communities. Those are the things that attract the talent and the people to the city of New York, which in turn attracts the companies,” said Kim, who also pushed for states to forgo competing against each other with subsidy offers to corporations.
— Brigid Bergin (@brigidbergin) February 21, 2019
Several candidates urged city and state officials to focus more on supporting small business development. “We can invest to make sure we can create 2,500 new businesses here in our city that can employ at least 10 people and that will bring us the 25,000 jobs that we need in our city,” said Espinal, adding, “but also create entrepreneurs and keep our wealth within the five boroughs.”
Nomiki Konst, who is running an activist grassroots campaign, leaned in to her opposition to the tech giant. “The politicians on the stage have been all over the place on this deal…I was the only person on the panel consistently saying that they wanted to kill the deal,” said Konst.
Homeless Shelters—No Good Place to Site Them
In an effort to address the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis, Mayor de Blasio announced plans to open additional shelters across the city with the aim of keeping people in their home neighborhoods. Candidates were asked if they ever opposed a shelter coming to their neighborhood and whether they support opening new shelters across the city.
Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake invoked the story of his own mother, who worked to escape homelessness in Jamaica and the struggle his family faced as a child making sure they had money to pay the rent. Still, Blake said shelters needed to be distributed equitably to ensure all neighborhoods were bearing their share of the burden and said he had opposed new shelters in his district because of “oversaturation.” The city needed to do more, he argued, to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.
“Maybe we should take away tax credits from landlords that are not implementing rent stabilization in the first place,” said Blake. He added, “Maybe we should help someone be able to keep their home in the first place. Maybe we should make sure someone has the support and the families have the support in the first place, instead of putting money into hotels.”
Smalls, who has made combatting homelessness for women and children a central plank in her campaign platform, said shelters should be built where there is the greatest need. She said the goal should be to keep families near their kids’ schools.
After Blake interrupted, Smalls made the same point using the Upper East Side. If someone was born and raised on the Upper East Side, “they should have a homeless shelter in the Upper East Side so that they can have continuity, can go to the same shops, go to the same schools and make sure that those services are available to them in their home communities,” she said.
Is De Blasio “Qualified” To Run For President?
Whether or not he decides to make it official, de Blasio has made it clear that he intends to rack up the miles traveling around the country spreading his progressive policy ideas. While candidates were asked whether they thought the mayor was “qualified” to run for president, each candidate invariably offered their own reason for why de Blasio should sit out the 2020 race.
“I mean ‘legally’ if he is he’s over the age of 35,” he could run said Konst, but who argued instead that he should focus on local issues like the crumbling conditions at NYCHA.
“I think he’s completely delusional,” said Kim, who blasted the mayor’s handling of schools, the subways and affordable housing.
“If you can’t handle those issues here in our own city I don’t think you can handle the big stage,” added Espinal.
“This is a clear indication of why you have to think about who you elect for public advocate,” said Blake, noting the public advocate is the first in line for succession to the mayor and also has the ability to introduce legislation to city council. “While de Blasio is taking vacations, I’m ready to do the work for the people of New York,” he said.
Even candidates who once endorsed the mayor shot down the idea of him as president.
“He was supposed to be the blue wave before it occurred,” said Williams, calling de Blasio, “a disappointment particularly around policing and housing.”
— Brigid Bergin (@brigidbergin) February 21, 2019
Mark-Viverito, whose perceived closeness with the mayor was scrutinized during her time as speaker, was no less blunt. “If it’s not his pet project, then he’s not focused on it and that’s a disservice to the city of New York,” she said. Mark-Viverito added, “There are many things that we have pushed forward, like the closing of Rikers, like making sure that we decriminalize low level offenses, etc. that need focus to create a more just and equitable New York City. He’s been absent on that and I have great concerns about that.”
Smalls said the mayor was free to run but he would not be her candidate. Instead, she was excited by the number of women and people of color who were entering the race. Pivoting to a closing argument for her own candidacy ahead of Tuesday’s special election, Smalls stressed the importance of diverse representation at all levels of government.
“Right now the city’s leadership is all white men,” said Smalls, who is black. She added, “It is important to have women’s leadership not just in the White House but here in the city as well.”
The special election for Public Advocate is Tuesday, February 26th. More details, including how to find your polling place, here.
Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.