By the 90th minute of the Staten Island Democratic Club’s Zoom mayoral forum, Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island and the event’s moderator, was getting confused: Most of the candidates had already left, and the index cards he was using to ask them questions were now all out of order.
“The field has thinned,” he announced into his headset from his Bay Ridge home, trying to recover. “I’m told the winner will be the person who stays on until last.”
“Don’t say that, Rich!” said Shaun Donovan, a former Cabinet official in the Obama White House. “We had one the other day that went until four o’clock in the morning!”
Donovan wasn’t kidding: The Justice Clapback: Mayoral Feedback Loop forum on the weekend before Martin Luther King Day had lasted eight hours, ending just before dawn. If Donovan still had a bit of pep for this one on Staten Island, it may have been because he had ducked out earlier in the debate to grab a bite to eat, blanking his screen in the process rather than keeping his smiling face up as an unblinking Zoom background and hoping no one would notice.
“He did the classier thing,” Flanagan recalled later, who said watching the candidates get up and leave reminded him of when he was teaching a class and lost track of time only to see students wandering out mid-lecture. “I suppose he could have just started eating his sandwich right there onscreen.”
To be fair to the candidates, not only was it 9:30 at night on a Wednesday, but the Staten Island Democratic clubs forum was also the third such Zoom forum of the day. The Hospitality Alliance, a trade group for restaurants and bars had hosted one in the afternoon, and a handful of Muslim political clubs had hosted one in the early evening.
And so it has been most evenings in this pandemic-stricken mayoral campaign, as the candidates gather in tiny boxes on computer screens to give a version of their stump speech and roll out talking points related to whatever civic association or political club has summoned the group together, or, if it is a community group that is host, add in a sentence about their favorite restaurant. It’s like the worst game of Hollywood Squares ever played. There has been almost no news to come out of these exercises, mostly because no one running is so inept as to stumble at an event where the candidates don’t often question one another, the moderators don’t often challenge them, and they generally know what the questions are going to be.
The technology doesn’t help in this regard. At a recent forum hosted by the civic organization Community Voices Heard about the issues facing Black women, Andrew Yang spoke movingly and passionately about how his wife, Evelyn, had been sexually assaulted by her gynecologist; on Zoom, though, it came off as glitchy and tinny and the stream buffered and few people noticed.
Few people noticed because almost no one is watching. Hour after hour of these forums means that there is not much reason to tune in to any particular one unless you are a dues-paying member of whatever group is hosting. “Sometimes I check,” one staffer to a leading candidate told me, “and I swear there are fewer people watching than there are candidates in the race.”
One staffer from each of the campaigns is usually watching. They aren’t so much judging their candidates’ performance in order to make them sharper the next time around — again, with no one watching, what would be the point? — as they are filing away nuggets to use as oppo later on. In the city’s large press corps, there are typically only two or three reporters who feel they have a civic and professional obligation to tune in, but the forums often run to late enough in the night that it isn’t worth writing up a story on what happened anyway.
It has always been thus to a degree in New York City mayoral elections, as neighborhood captains wait their turn every four years to question candidates on their parochial concerns. And it was overwhelming then, too. Tom Allon is the publisher of City & State, a weekly magazine that exhaustively covers local politics, and in 2013, the last time there was an open-seat mayoral race, he quit his job and jumped in. He was only in the race a few months but had already gone to around 30 forums before dropping out. He recalled that in the midst of one, in which one of the rivals was saying the same thing he had said every other night, Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, turned to him and said, “How much longer do we have to keep doing this?”
Then, though, the candidates could get to know each other, could see how the audience responded, and most important, could say “no” to attending more than one a night, since it was impossible to be both at the Uptown Regular Democratic Club’s forum and the Bird-Watching Society of Greater Canarsie’s forum on the same evening. With a COVID-related collapse of distance, there are no such restraints, and unto the breach has flown every manner of organization eager to prove its worth by bringing the mayoral candidates to their virtual door.
“I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure there are civic groups that are spontaneously being created just in order to have a mayoral forum,” said Sally Goldenberg, the City Hall bureau chief for Politico and one of the city’s most indefatigable forum watchers, who says she is going to keep watching through the primary. “God forbid someone gives the wrong answer to what their favorite pizza place is in South Brooklyn and somehow I miss it.”
When this race concludes in June, it will be hard to imagine that anyone’s analysis will say that any given candidate would likely have won except for the fact that they totally bombed on a February Zoom forum. The forums are both too numerous and too poorly attended to move the political needle much. But the candidates have been loath to skip any of them out of fear that they will anger their hosts, who are by definition some of the most attuned voters in the city, and by doing so open themselves up to attacks by their rivals in their absence.
John DeSio, a Bronx-based political operative , said that he would advise any candidate running to start saying “no.”
“No one maps out their campaign plan and says it is a strategic imperative that we sit through every one of these forums,” he said, pointing out that there were three candidate forums on Super Bowl Sunday, including one just before kickoff. (It was, for those keeping score at home, hosted by Little Africa Bronx News, a ten-month old website that caters to members of the African diaspora in the Bronx.) “What about walking through a business district or talking to voters or visiting a homeless shelter or reading your briefing books? The problem is somebody has to go first and say, ‘Look, we can do a different event another time. I have to run my campaign the way I want to run it.’ And if the other candidates all want to talk about how you aren’t there, then fine, you are probably winning anyway.”
In 2008, staffers from the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton quietly reached out to the Democratic National Committee to ask if they could do anything about the relentless number of forums that were limiting the ability of the candidates to get out and meet voters. In New York, no such organization exists. “The top candidates need to come together and work on a streamlined schedule and decide how this is going to go,” said Ben Max, the editor of Gotham Gazette and another faithful forum watcher. “This is just too many.”
According to a report in The Daily News, Andrew Yang’s campaign did exactly that, suggesting that groups that have similar agendas at least hold one forum so there wouldn’t be, for example, a Times Square forum one night and a Theater District forum the next. But their rivals promptly leaked the outreach, proving once again the collective-action problem.
There is something stirring about the forums — ordinary citizens engaging with people who would be mayor, able to ask them whatever they like. And a few of them have been worth watching — in particular one hosted by homeless residents on the Upper West Side and another hosted the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which was enlivened by the fact that it had a skilled moderator, NY1’s Errol Louis, who had the candidates ask questions of each other and kept them on topic.
But it is of questionable civic democratic utility to have all the candidates line up before any interest group and explain, one after the other, why their pet issue should be paramount. Sometimes literally. In 2013, an animal-rights group hosted the candidates, and John Catsimatidis, a Republican running for mayor, explained how his family once summoned the FDNY to his home to rescue his daughter’s cockatiel and how his wife once attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on their cat, even though, as head of Gristede’s supermarket, he actually made a fortune selling dead animal meat. Others followed suit and talked about beloved Chihuahuas or rescue cats or the immorality of advertising and selling the “purity” of a dog’s breed.
None said what they were actually thinking, which was probably something along the lines of, “When I am mayor, I am going to have way more important things to worry about, and this has been a tremendous waste of time, and I wish you all a good night.” Instead, they gave their spiel, packed up, and did it again the next night, and eight years later, here we are, trapped in squares and talking through headsets, into the void.