Forget the polls. Don’t mind the TV ads. With just one week before New York voters cast their primary ballots for the city’s next mayor, the clearest sign yet of just how firmly Bill de Blasio has ridden his liberal message from long shot to front-runner came Tuesday night at the final Democratic candidate debate. Standing in the center of the stage, the city’s public advocate spent much of the evening fending off barbs from his rivals on either side.
“This is an example of Bill de Blasio doing one thing and saying another,” Bill Thompson said after de Blasio hedged when asked if he would return campaign contributions from landlords who appeared on a list of slumlords assembled by his office. Sensing an opening, his opponents attempted to use de Blasio’s reversal on a third term for current Mayor Michael Bloomberg – he was for extending term limits in 2005 before he was against it – as further ammo. “I understand there are two sides to every story, but you can’t have two sides coming from the same person,” said City Comptroller John Liu.
Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and an early favorite now fighting for a spot in a possible runoff vote, took aim at a key plank of de Blasio’s campaign: raising taxes on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 a year to fund pre-school education and after school programs for middle school students. No stranger to political dealmaking, Quinn insisted the plan, which de Blasio proudly trumpets as a tax on the rich for the sake of the less fortunate, would never pass muster with the state legislature. “We can’t have pie in the sky promises to our schools parents,” she said.
The debate pile-on came hours after a survey from Quinnipiac University found that 43% of likely Democratic primary voters plan to vote for de Blasio. If that number holds – and that’s far from likely given the uncertain nature of municipal polling and the time left in the campaign – it would give de Blasio more than the 40% needed to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher on Oct. 1. Thompson, a former city comptroller and the 2009 Democratic nominee for mayor, was backed by 20% of survey respondents while Quinn was third with 18%. (The margin of error was four percentage points.) Nine Democrats are on the ballot, though only five – de Blasio, Liu, Quinn, Thompson and former Congressman Anthony Weiner – cleared the viability threshold for Tuesday’s debate. The winner will face a Republican candidate in the general election.
New York’s first open mayoral race in 12 years has been unpredictable, with three front-runners in as many months and a super-size helping of scandal. Quinn, an early favorite, would make history as both the first woman and the first openly gay mayor of New York. But her campaign has been hampered by her ties to Bloomberg, whose personal wealth and heavy-handed style has made him a divisive figure in the Democratic primary. Quinn continued to pay for that association Tuesday when rival candidates attacked her for brokering the city council deal that allowed Bloomberg to run for a third term.
After resigning from congress because of a series of sexting scandals, Weiner made an unlikely comeback and briefly led the mayoral race early in the summer. But then it emerged that the behavior for which he excused himself from Washington wasn’t as far in the past as he had led the public to believe and Weiner plummeted in the polls, dropping to a distant fourth place – with just 7% support – in the recent Quinnipiac survey. In a sign of how far he has fallen, Weiner was the only candidate to regularly side with de Blasio during the debate, perhaps hoping to burnish his flagging candidacy by hitching it to the leader.
All the while, de Blasio stuck to his liberal line, pledging a commitment to public education, an end to the city’s controversial and racially-charged stop-and-frisk police practice and an emphasis on poor, middle-class and outer-borough residents – in short, the anti-Bloomberg. He has used that hard-left position – along with television commercials featuring his interracial family that turned his 15-year-old son, Dante, into a local star – to ride to the front of the pack. In seven days, the unlikely front-runner will find out if it was enough.