In the first official debate ahead of the September 12 Democratic mayoral primary, former Brooklyn Councilman Sal Albanese largely succeeded on Wednesday night at making the case against Mayor de Blasio. He mostly failed at making the case for a Mayor Albanese.
Equipped with a formidable arsenal of applause lines and buckets full of derision, Albanese hit the mark on many of the mayor’s weaknesses: his work style, quest for a national profile, relationships with campaign donors and, specifically, ties to the real-estate industry. De Blasio defended himself gamely, never getting rattled or making any tactical blunders, but he was forced to counterpunch all night and had little chance to talk about his vision for a second term.
Albanese said he wanted to do better than the mayor on fixing the MTA and solving the homeless crisis, building “true affordable housing,” eliminating “pay-to-play politics” and “ending the epidemic of empty storefronts.”
“I want smart urban policy rather than Wild West development which is eroding the character of our neighborhoods and encroaching on green space,” he said.
When it came time to discuss child welfare, his housing plan, or how he’d approach closing Rikers Island, however, Albanese mustered only vague responses. De Blasio showed command of those issues, often casting himself as a pragmatist: He sympathizes with critics but sees the world as a complicated place where closing Rikers in less than a decade, addressing the housing crunch without market-driven development or running a campaign without millions in private donations would be nice—but impossible—to do.
De Blasio made the case that his administration had broken with all precedent in its attention to social inequality. “By the end of this year 281,000 New Yorkers will have been lifted out of poverty,” by his policies, the mayor said. Add that to the 2 million who benefitted from the two-year rent freeze, the many who have been or will be saved from eviction by the city’s providing lawyers in housing court or the 500,000 people who will get affordable housing under his plan, de Blasio said, and you get a sense of the impact he has had. “That simply didn’t happen” under previous mayors, he insisted.
The format of the debate was shaped by the context of the race, so it favored Albanese, who left public office at the end of 1997 for a low-profile career in law and financial services, and therefore has no recent public record to defend. Hence, the questions mostly focused on de Blasio’s accomplishments and failings. Since he’s the incumbent, the race is a referendum on the mayor, and the debate reflected that.
“Bill has great macro views and that’s great. All mayors should,” Albanese said at one point. “But the fundamental role of a mayor is to make life in New York City easier,” and de Blasio, Albanese said, had failed at that. He pointed specifically to the mayor’s decision last month to attend a rally in Germany in the wake of a police officer’s murder.
De Blasio said the number of accomplishments to his credit were proof that his trips out of town and exercise habits weren’t hindering his ability to run the city. Getting crime lower while reducing stop and frisk, solidifying overdue labor contracts and implementing a huge Pre-K program—”All of that took hard work every single day.”
“The people of this city don’t care about the things you’re talking about,” he told Albanese. “They care about results.”
Afterward, as is almost always the case, both sides claimed victory. To some extent, they were both right, because each campaign did what they needed to: De Blasio avoided making mistakes and Albanese successfully articulated the case against him.
The knocks against the mayor are well known, however, and polls suggest that so far most voters don’t think the city has suffered because the mayor goes to the wrong gym, has fans in Hamburg or even pushes the ethical envelope. There have always been reasons not to like de Blasio if one was so inclined. But with crime low, the economy humming and tens of thousands of children benefitting from pre-K, no challenger has yet made a case for why voters should like them more. So Wednesday night’s tilt likely won’t change the dynamic of the race.
After the debate concluded, Robert Gangi—one of the three Democrats on the mayoral ballot who was not invited to the debate—released a statement arguing that “Mayor de Blasio continues to defend a glaring lack of transparency in his administration” but adding that “Sal Albanese failed to raise any significant racial and social justice issues,” suggesting that the lead challenger, who sits well to the right of Gangi (and slightly to the right of the mayor) on policing issues, is unlikely to pull together the disparate strands of anti-de Blasio sentiment.
What was most striking as the crowd filed out of Symphony Space after the debate was all the topics that did not come up during the 90-minute event. There was almost no discussion about public schools, where nearly a million students spend every day, or public housing, where as many as 500,000 New Yorkers live. Little was said about small businesses or immigration and nothing about public hospitals, the aging, storm resiliency, solid waste, the city’s budget or the mayor’s plan to create 100,000 quality jobs.
The next and final Democratic debate is September 6.
In the post debate “spin room,” de Blasio was represented by three elected officials and Albanese by himself.
“The mayor has a record, he showed that record. He has major accomplishments, whether it be Pre-k, affordable housing, reining in crime, stopping stop and frisk,” said Assemblyman David Weprin. “Sal had some good one liners but I think lacked the substance or the plan for how he would do things differently.”
Another de Blasio surrogate, Bronx Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda, agreed. “Mr. Albanese was rather entertaining but whenever you cornered him for specifics on his plan or platform, you could not get any responses. I was looking for something from Mr. Albanese. Even though I’m a supporter of the mayor, I like to give everybody the opportunity and I just didn’t see anything there—anything of substance.”
Albanese was happy with his night. “It’s not that hard to make a case against this mayor. Mass transit. Homelessness. Affordability. I mean his housing plan is really a disaster, is causing huge displacement all over the city. The fact is that we have pay to play corruption on steroids.”
Asked if there were a question he’d like to have another crack at, Albanese acknowledged that his response on child welfare had not been strong. But his second attempt didn’t go much farther. “To be honest, I’m not really an expert in that area, but I’ll tell you this: I will appoint the best and the brightest commissioner to handle that.”