Maybe you indulged in some of the funny stuff before the Democratic mayoral primary debate Wednesday night, and therefore saw a funny thing: Mayor Bill de Blasio using all the powers vested in him to share the joint of civic engagement, as it were, by inviting onto the stage even those challengers who didn’t meet the requirements to be there.
“I disagree with your premise,” he said to the poor staffer who tried to change his mind. “This is your city, too,” he added to each stunned candidate as they arrived. He also bought every assembled reporter a cupcake. (If you believe that, you’ll be shocked by the ending of this column).
The debate that could have been
A little surprised, but quite excited, the challengers joined the mayor and former City Council member Sal Albanese, who had earned his place at the CUNY Graduate Center stage on his own. De Blasio spoke first, and highlighted the stuff he always highlights: creating universal pre-k, freezing rents for many New Yorkers, building affordable housing units, keeping crime down while also slashing the use of NYPD’s stop-and-frisk.
Then Albanese got a turn and reintroduced himself to the public as an immigrant who came from Italy at age 8. He pointed to some concrete new ideas: like a “pied a terre” tax on foreign investment in luxury housing, funneling the funding toward affordable-housing construction. And a “democracy voucher” program that would be a new, donor-less way to fund political campaigns: giving small sums to voters to award the candidate of their choice. Right there on the stage de Blasio committed to a commission to study the idea, and he even doubly committed to reading the commission’s inevitable report. Everyone stood up and cheered.
Bob Gangi, the longtime criminal justice reformer, made some elegant points about the unfairness of broken-windows and quality-of-life policing, which he said disproportionately affects minority New Yorkers. His views on policing fundamentally differ from de Blasio’s and Albanese’s, but this was the first time he got his voice heard on the debate stage. Richard Bashner, a lawyer and longtime community board member, gave his ideas on senior housing. Entrepreneur Mike Tolkin started running through a slideshow about flying buses and billion-dollar public-private partnerships for various aspects of government.
“Whoah dude,” whispered de Blasio. “That’s pretty out there.” But, confident in his incumbency, a little good bud, better union support, and a solid record of achievement, he said he’d go a step further than he already had. “Let’s invite everyone on the stage!”
Everyone ran up the steps and hugged and tossed on a movie and quietly sang.
Just kidding. That’s not what happened.
You must have been high. It was just de Blasio and Albanese on stage. With just the two of them, there was time to show a couple of real differences: Albanese’s support for congestion pricing, a proposal to put tolls on East River bridges to ease traffic and raise money for the MTA. De Blasio does not. De Blasio highlighted a big decline in stop-question-frisk. Albanese said the tactic had been overused, but added that it is a “valuable tool” when done constitutionally.
They sparred about gentrification and whether the statue of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Circle should go, and both were able to pitch the voters somewhat effectively.
But hanging over the contest was the reality that de Blasio has a wealth of support, an enormous campaign war chest, and a record of incumbency with achievements like universal pre-k to run on.
Oh, and smoke was also hanging over the debate. The candidates were asked whether they smoke marijuana. This is NYC, after all.
Albanese said he never had, but that he believed we should legalize it, citing the number of kids “mainly of color” who have been arrested for smoking weed.
And did de Blasio inhale? “Once or twice when I was at NYU,” he said. (He does not support legalization).
How about smoking now, during this not-so-trying race he’s running? “Currently, no,” he said. But he added: “Some days I wish I did.”