The eight Democratic candidates running for mayor of New York scrapped Thursday evening over numerous issues, but their focus was largely on policing and economic recovery.
It was the first debate before the June 22 primary in which the candidates could explain their visions to voters. Whoever wins that contest is likely to win in the Nov. 2 general election, given the city's large Democratic voter base.
However, turnout tends to be low in New York City primaries. About 700,000 New Yorkers voted in the 2013 primaries, which is about 20 percent of registered voters.
For the first time, the city will use ranked-choice voting in a primary, giving voters the option to select as many as five candidates in order of preference.
A recent poll by Change Research placed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams slightly ahead of 2020 presidential contender Andrew Yang, a businessman, at 19 percent to 16 percent. Former City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has faced and denied sexual assault allegations, is at 9 percent.
The remaining candidates — civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Obama administration Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and businessman Raymond McGuire are tied at 7 percent. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales is at 5 percent. The poll found that 22 percent of voters remain undecided.
Another poll put Yang ahead, with 21 percent and Adams at 17 percent. Stringer and Wiley got 10 percent. Garcia got 8 percent, while Donovan and McGuire each won support from 6 percent. Morales received 4 percent.
Adams, a former New York police captain, took most of the jabs over policing in the city, particularly from Wiley and Morales, who criticized his deep ties to the police department and the size of the force. Morales also slammed Adams for dismissing young, Black political organizers who are working on police reform.
"Safety is not synonymous with policing," Morales said, adding that the city has one of the largest police departments in the country. "Our communities are overpoliced and underresourced."
Wiley, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio and former head of the city's police misconduct board, excoriated Adams for suggesting bringing back the city's controversial anti-crime unit and for his support for using "stop-and-frisk," a program that was halted by a federal judge after data revealed racial inequities, as a policing tool.
"As a civil rights lawyer, all I can say is that there was nothing OK" about stop-and-frisk, Wiley said.
Adams responded that her questions show "your failure of understanding of police enforcement."
Wiley said she "certainly" understands misconduct, citing her experience heading the police misconduct board. Adams shot back: "I certainly know how much of a failure it was under you."
"I told you all at the beginning of this race, when candidates start getting desperate, it's going to get very nasty," he added.
Yang, who has consistently been seen as the front-runner, also took jabs in the two-hour debate.
McGuire pressed Yang about reports that he had said Black applicants may not be "the best fit" for his business venture. Yang refused to apologize and said he did not remember making the remark.
"My administration would reflect the incredible diversity of our city," Yang said.
Moderators also leaned on Yang about his long absence from city politics. But he demurred, saying he built a life with his wife in the city.
Stringer was queried about a sexual misconduct allegation made by a former aide. He denied the assertion and said women should have their claims heard.
"This is an allegation that is not true," he said. "I hope the voters will listen to me."
The candidates also discussed affordable housing, homelessness and public education.
In February, the number of single adults sleeping each night in city shelters reached a record of 20,822, according to a report last month from the Coalition of the Homeless, a local nonprofit. The single adult shelter population also reached records in 10 of the 12 months last year, the organization found.
Nearly every candidate agreed that decreasing homelessness was a priority, with slight distinctions about how to solve the issue, including the need for increased mental health services. Yang, for example, called for expanding supportive housing and building or preserving 250,000 affordable units. Morales called for converting office space to create space for the homeless, and Garcia called for increasing the number of housing vouchers to get people out of shelters.
Wiley said she would shift $1 billion from the police department's budget and invest in trauma-informed care in schools to help communities that grapple with violence. In addition, Adams and Stringer were the only candidates to raise their hands when the candidates were asked whether they would keep all-virtual school as an option in the fall for the city's more than 1 million students.
The candidates themselves were asked to pick their second choices; only four answered. Garcia, who was endorsed by the New York Times editorial board, appeared to be the favorite. Donovan picked Wiley, Yang and McGuire picked Garcia, and Wiley picked Morales.