nyc mayoral race

Who Won the First NYC Mayoral Debate?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock

Hours after the CDC advised that vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks in most settings, eight fully inoculated candidates in the Democratic primary for New York mayor gathered over Zoom to debate the fine print of policy on policing, homelessness, and economic revival in the nation’s largest city.

Playing it overly safe on the pandemic led to a much tamer evening than Democratic voters are accustomed to, after all the combativeness and crosstalk during the party’s 2020 presidential primaries. (The format also allowed us to learn a bit about the politicians’ apartments: According to her bookshelf, Dianne Morales likes N.K. Jemisin and Octavia E. Butler, while Shaun Donovan called in from a kitchen that looks a whole lot nicer than what you can buy for $100,000 in Brooklyn.)

Below is a (highly subjective) ranking of the candidates — and one pivotal issue — that fared the best in the first official debate for New York City’s first ranked-choice election.

Eric Adams cemented his top tier status

The former police officer and current Brooklyn borough president was probably the single biggest victor on Thursday night. Adams managed to have stage presence despite the absence of a stage, and affirmed his status as a front-runner, as reflected in recent polls.

Adams’s perch at the top (along with Andrew Yang) made him a frequent target of his fellow candidates. Adams was hit by Shaun Donovan for his sheriff-like promise that he’d wear a gun while mayor; by Dianne Morales for dismissing the role of Black activists in the police-reform movement; by Maya Wiley for being a former Republican; and for his support of stop and frisk.

Adams responded by confronting those who went after his record and asking some hard-hitting questions of his own. Addressing Andrew Yang’s presence at Times Square following a shooting last weekend, he asked if Yang felt he “should apologize to Black and brown communities” for not holding press conferences following shootings in Brooklyn and the Bronx, when there was “nothing that came from you.”

While several progressive candidates were able to effectively bring up some of the controversially conservative aspects of his platform, Adams had less to prove than most other politicians, as it’s just him and Yang in the moderate lane. By drawing so much focus on Thursday night and taking punches without falling, he may have come out on top.

Andrew Yang had a low-key night — which is just what he needed

In earned media appearances and all over social media, Yang has dominated the race, creating controversies by thinking out loud and shifting positions, while carrying over public attention from his presidential campaign. And while many voters have been attracted to his odd charisma, that presence didn’t really translate over Zoom — suggesting that the online Goliath of the contest could still be felled by a municipally involved, wonky David figure.

Like Adams, Yang was a frequent target on Thursday night. Some were tangential shots, like Kathryn Garcia’s opening statement that “I don’t need to be told where the lights are in City Hall,” or Shaun Donovan’s “This is not time for a rookie as a mayor.” Many were more direct hits, as head moderator Errol Louis questioned why he never voted in a mayoral election (or in the 2000 presidential race). Adams also dinged him for what he sees as stealing attention from Stacey Abrams in the organizing effort in Georgia, while Scott Stringer asked if the power-broking lobbyist advising his campaign will have a foot inside City Hall come January. For the most part, Yang was not as deft as his fellow front-runner in avoiding the flak.

But Yang can still call the night a success, as there was no standout moment from the debate that generated some new crisis.

Maya Wiley stood out among the rest

Less than six weeks out from the Democratic primary, the first debate was a pivotal opportunity for the candidates polling in the single digits to make their case in a crowded field.

Kathryn Garcia made her impressive record known in the opening statements. Dianne Morales made a strong case for her progressive platform — particularly her “safety is not synonymous with policing” argument in the debate over police reform. Scott Stringer is likely relieved that the sexual-assault allegation against him — which he has denied — was mentioned just once by the moderators, and was not brought up again by any of his fellow candidates.

But none of the candidates in the lower polling tier made their case more effectively than Maya Wiley, who drew from personal experience to address larger policy points. (“I’ve been Black all my life — I know what it’s like to fear crime and what it’s like to fear police violence,” she said, before addressing her plan to reroute $1 billion from the police budget into social services.) Most importantly, she led the charge on Eric Adams, particularly over his comment last year that stop and frisk is a “great tool.” She asked him how New Yorkers can trust him based on his record, to which he responded, “Every time you raise that question you show what you don’t know.” Wiley then responded discussing her time as the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and that she “certainly understands misconduct.”

As the race is currently shaping up, it looks like Yang, Adams, and a progressive will split the bulk of the ticket. On Thursday night, Wiley stood out among the candidates in the left lane, suggesting she could clinch that spot.

NYPD may have found its best-case scenario

With the primary taking place the summer after the historic protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and in the midst of a spate of shootings in the city, it was inevitable that policing would be a dominant theme in the race. Sure enough, NYPD reform was a major topic in the debate, as candidates sparred over how to correct a police department recently sued by the state attorney general for its brutal tactics during protests against police brutality.

The focus on the police and public safety may not be a win for the NYPD in and of itself, considering that the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association thinks its officers are doing a pretty good job already. But the fact that two pro-police candidates are in the lead isn’t a bad thing for the NYPD and its unions, which have yet to (and may not) endorse a candidate. In a better’s market, either Andrew Yang or Eric Adams is going to come out on top of the ranked pile in June. And while that would mean police reform is still coming, it would likely mean reform by further investment, not defunding.

Who Won the First NYC Mayoral Debate?