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NYC Mayoral Frontrunner de Blasio Didn't Win the Final Debate

There were two major restrictions the five Democratic New York City mayoral candidates labored under in their third and final televised debate Tuesday night, held in advance of next Tuesday’s primary. Narrowly and specific to those 90 minutes, they were hemmed in by deadweight questions, many mandated 30- and even 15-second responses (“15 seconds for stop-and-frisk,” sneered former Rep. Anthony Weiner, the evening’s Jewish Jiminy Cricket), and even dumber “lightning round” yes-or-no questions, which like lightning were done in an instant and unlike lightning had no electricity.

The broader restriction, though, is different. It encompasses their entire candidacies and will impose itself on whoever succeeds Mayor Michael Bloomberg, just as it bedeviled Bloomberg himself. This was the first time we saw the candidates speak frankly about the great big boulder placed in the path of any chief executive of the United States’ largest and most vital city: Albany. So much of what the mayor wants to do can easily be stymied by a handful of legislators from anywhere across the large state in which the city happens to reside, who themselves congregate in a much smaller city 150 miles up the Hudson River. It is completely, unutterably insane.

The candidates were speaking frankly about Albany because the best knock against Public Advocate Bill de Blasio—made most articulately by the New York Times editorial that endorsed City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—is that several of his proposals (most notably a tax increase on the wealthy that would pay for universal pre-K and more after-school programs) require Albany’s consent, and Albany has a history of not approving city tax increases and other types of policies that are divisive in places that do not have roughly seven Democrats for every Republican, particularly in election years such as 2014. “We can’t have pie-in-the-sky promises to New York parents,” Quinn said. And the other candidates were speaking frankly about de Blasio because, particularly after a Quinnipiac poll that dropped Tuesday showing him with 43 percent of likely voters, he is the clear favorite. (The poll also showed him easily defeating both Quinn and former Comptroller Bill Thompson, the two candidates nearest him, in a subsequent run-off; but if de Blasio breaks 40 percent on September 10, there won’t be a run-off.)

Weiner and Comptroller John Liu, neither of whom has more than a snowball’s chance of making the run-off, appointed themselves referees for the evening, humorously taking jabs at all the other candidates, pretending to transcend self-aggrandizement and adopt enlightened stewardship of the conversation. But attacking de Blasio was the overall theme of the night. (Team de Blasio dubbed the strategy “Kill Bill,”  according to the Times.)

The other knock on de Blasio should be familiar to observers of national politics who recall the 2004 presidential election: That he’s a flip-flopper. Playing off de Blasio’s inequality-themed “Tale of Two Cities” stump speech, Quinn has put out a “Tale of Two Blasios” TV ad. For instance, a central attack on Quinn is that in 2008 she enabled Bloomberg to run for his third term by overturning the term-limits law. But de Blasio, a city councilman for most of the '00s, himself advocated overturning term limits in 2005. De Blasio reminded voters, accurately, that in 2008 he “led the charge” against Bloomberg/Quinn’s term limits gambit, but he didn’t really rebut the flip-flop charge. Nor did he do a great job of responding to attacks accusing him of apparently conceding to the taxi lobby to oppose an outer-borough taxi plan and of reaping donations from landlords he had previously, as public advocate, stuck on bad-landlord lists (de Blasio said that the landlords in question first earned their way off those lists). Although at least one voter, anyway, was not convinced by this last charge: “That’s not the issue you should hit him on,” suggested Weiner. “Term limits, yes, he’s flip-flopped on that. But accusing him of being a defender of slumlords is pretty ridiculous.”

Still, as far as de Blasio is concerned, he did his job: He stayed above the fray, he got his message out yet again, and did nothing to jeopardize his status as clear front-runner.

Quinn had one very bad stretch, which was when the other candidates brought up the “slush fund” scandal; there was a City Council slush fund, which Quinn said she reformed and for which Quinn has not been formally accused of wrongdoing. More solidly, Quinn has been accused of using her prerogative as speaker to award funds to supporters, including council members who backed her for the speakership, and punish those who didn’t. “It’s abundantly clear the Speaker has used member-item money as a tool for political control,” accused de Blasio (who was the person who lost to her for Speaker). “Someone is asking for a promotion who has ‘slush fund’ in their resume,” Weiner chimed in.

Still, I would award the debate to Quinn. She was personable and persuasive. Where de Blasio mentioned that his central issue is inequality, Quinn mentioned that hers was housing, a more easily concrete message. (The problem is, de Blasio’s “inequality” message can sell because he has relentlessly sold it and made it un-abstract over the past several months.) Her message of managerial competence resonated. It is interesting that Quinn and Thompson were not nearly so relentless or vicious against de Blasio as they were in the prior debate, when their internals were clearly screaming “DANGER!” There is in fact good reason to be skeptical about Tuesday’s Quinnipiac poll. Maybe Quinn’s and Thompson’s numbers say de Blasio is unlikely to hit the 40 percent threshold, and their goal in this debate was to beat the other? They had better hope so: If that 43 percent figure is real, this debate will not have altered it.

Other highlights:

• Seriously, Weiner, clad in an uncharacteristically preppy green-and-blue tie, was a treat, schticking the place up. For 90 minutes, you almost forgot about, you know, everything.

• If de Blasio becomes mayor, it will be weird in the way it was weird that Barack Obama became president—and not in the way that it was weird that a black guy became president, but in the way that it was weird that a cerebral, aloof law professor became president. De Blasio is visibly wonkish. When Quinn muddled her way through de Blasio’s direct question about why she waited three years to allow a vote on paid sick leave to pass the City Council by saying, in effect, that she had to get all her ducks in a row, he was flabbergasted: “There was a supermajority in the City Council,” he stammered. He didn’t look like he was trying to score points. Rather, he looked, in an unpracticed manner, as though the rational part of his brain was simply offended by Quinn’s non sequitur. In a national election, this sequence might come across as unforgivable arrogance. In New York City, it comes across as normal. Against likely Republican nominee Joe Lhota, it will probably come across as relatively tolerant. Anyway, for me it was the night’s most revealing moment.

• All the candidates wished New York City’s approximately one million Jews a happy new year. Whatta town.

• Thompson? As those one million Jews would say, feh. Accused of holding some blame for the City Council slush fund because he was comptroller, and therefore the city’s chief internal financial watchdog, at the time, his response was to point out that of course he didn’t catch it because it was designed to be hidden. Um, that’s why you’re supposed to un-hide it! There are many reasons to believe he could sneak into a run-off, but fewer to believe he would win that, and fewer still to wish he would. 

• The even bigger goat were the debate sponsors, NBC 4 New York, Telemundo Nueva York, and The Wall Street Journal. Plenty of the questions were dumb, such as trying to get future mayors to publicly lay out their preferred terms for union contracts before negotiations (which, as de Blasio and Quinn patiently explained, is something no responsible negotiator would do). A hackneyed, grandstanding produced segment distracted from the debate. And the most informative, deep-digging portion of the debate—by the moderators’ own admission!—came in the final half-hour, when it was online-only: Because, of course, you want the best part of the debate to take place only when all but the already-highest-interest voters are still watching.

• John Liu wins for best accent, a lovely mix of Chinese and Queens. He and de Blasio are the two most progressive mainstream candidates. On the other hand, his claims that he has been “set up” regarding an FBI investigation into an alleged fundraising scandal (which has netted two indictments) were unconvincing. The latest Quinnipiac poll put him at four percent, and while I expect him to net more than that—because polls tend to undercount recent immigrants, who make up a substantial portion of his base—he and Weiner are running for fourth place.

After the election is over, there needs to be another debate. The candidates who attacked de Blasio for not necessarily considering his chances of passing various proposals through Albany had a point. But the larger point should be that this is insane. Were New York City a state, it would be the 12th largest by population, edging out Virginia. And, as Weiner, once again the straight-talker, noted, “Is there anyone on the stage who hasn’t proposed stuff that Albany’s gonna have to help with?” That New York’s voters are limited by a distant state capital whose political machinations could politely be called byzantine is an anti-democratic outrage. It probably merits change. In the meantime, though, you go to the ballot box with the city you have.