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Who’s the Front-Runner? 5 Takeaways From the First Mayoral Debate

Most mayoral debates in New York City — or anywhere, for that matter — do not get disrupted by cellphone calls. Twice.

But everything about this year’s mayoral race is different, and that applied to the first advertised debate of the campaign on Sunday evening.

The one-hour debate, sponsored by the Kings County Democratic County Committee, was a virtual affair, with eight candidates on Zoom parrying questions from one another, but mostly from Errol Louis, the NY1 anchor and a seasoned debate moderator.

The virtual layout allowed viewers to see candidates’ facial reactions to rivals’ responses, with some more visibly impressed than others. Viewers also saw the array of Zoom backgrounds: Four candidates sat in front of ample bookcases, two had campaign signs visible and one had a child’s artwork hanging.

It was more of an enhanced forum than a traditional debate, but there were still a few moments of friction.

Some highlights:

Debates for higher office often follow a prescribed format: The challengers lunge at the presumptive front-runner in an effort to take the favorite down a notch.

Sunday evening’s debate, however, relegated such candidate-on-candidate lunging to a rather polite and orderly 20-minute session, where the eight candidates each asked one question of the rival candidate of their choosing.

One might expect that the two candidates with the most campaign money — Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president — or the candidate attracting the most social media buzz, Andrew Yang, would have been the prime targets for their rivals.

Instead, the questions were spread widely, suggesting that there was not yet a defined favorite in the field.

Mr. Yang, Mr. Adams and Raymond J. McGuire, a former Citibank executive, took the sharpest questions, but they were allowed to answer without interruption or follow-up.

Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, usually adopts a sympathetic demeanor when participating in mayoral events. But on Sunday she confronted Mr. Yang about a Business Insider report detailing his presidential campaign’s treatment of female staffers and volunteers.

She said that she was appalled that in the #MeToo era, and years after Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tapes, Mr. Yang had run a campaign whose culture was characterized as “very harassing and demeaning for women.”

“As a civil rights lawyer, I was shocked to hear that you have a nondisclosure agreement that sounds very Trumpian,” she said, referring to a New York Daily News article about his campaign’s use of confidentiality agreements. “Will you commit to allowing your campaign staff to complain publicly about workplace misconduct?”

Mr. Yang did not directly address the culture of his presidential campaign, saying only that he had employed many women in leadership positions at his nonprofit group and the private company that he oversaw, as well as on his mayoral campaign. He added that he has discontinued the practice of requiring nondisclosure agreements.

“We have absolutely nothing to hide,” Mr. Yang said. “And I’m on the record as saying that everything works better when you have great women leaders.”

In 2009, when the United States was dealing with the repercussions of a subprime mortgage crisis, Shaun Donovan was running President Barack Obama’s housing department. Mr. McGuire was at Citigroup, helping manage its global investment banking arm.

Now both are running for mayor, and on Sunday, Mr. Donovan had a question for Mr. McGuire.

Noting that the mortgage crisis disproportionately affected Black families, Mr. Donovan asked Mr. McGuire to talk about the cause of the mortgage crisis and what he did at Citi at the time, given that the bank “played such a central role in the foreclosure crisis.”

Mr. McGuire responded with apparent pique, referring to Mr. Donovan as “Shaun Obama” and distancing himself from the arm of his bank that packaged mortgage-backed securities.

“I think you know something about finance,” Mr. McGuire said. “You know that I worked in investment banking for 40-some-odd years, which is different to where the crisis occurred.”

One year ago, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams urged some New Yorkers to “go back to Iowa,” a message that stoked controversy at the time — which Loree Sutton, Mayor de Blasio’s former veterans’ affairs commissioner, sought to revive on Sunday.

In his original speech, at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on Martin Luther King Day last year, Mr. Adams lamented that crises were only identified as such when they afflicted privileged groups. He extolled New Yorkers who had stood by New York City when crime was high and Starbucks cafes were scarce.

He said newcomers “are not only hijacking your apartments, and displacing your living arrangements, they displace your conversations and say that things that are important to you are no longer important.”

“Go back to Iowa,” he said. “You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that was here and made New York City what it is.”

On Sunday, Ms. Sutton asked Mr. Adams if he stood by those remarks: “If you were to become mayor, would your message to all New Yorkers be different?”

Mr. Adams, a former police officer who is running as a business-friendly candidate who understands working-class New Yorkers, stood by his original statement.

His message, he said, was intended for “those who overwhelmingly call 911 on Black men just for walking down the block.”

The debate was mired in controversy even before it began — leading to an on-again, off-again boycott that evaporated for all but one candidate.

Lori Maslow, a district leader from the Marine Park neighborhood of Brooklyn and a party vice chairwoman, made anti-Chinese and anti-Palestinian comments on social media. Calls for her dismissal erupted.

The controversy was part of a broader civil war pitting longtime stalwarts against newer reformers in a party closely allied with Mr. Adams. To many, Ms. Maslow, whose husband, Aaron, is now secretary of the party committee, represented the old guard. Newer members saw the party’s reluctance to force her out as emblematic of the organization’s entrenched ways.

Petitions mounted, and candidates — including Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, Mr. Stringer and Mr. Yang — bowed out. But on Thursday, Ms. Maslow, who had earlier resigned from the vice chairmanship,resigned from the district leader position, too.

The candidates who had joined the boycott said they would in fact participate — all but one.

On Sunday, just hours before the debate was to begin, Ms. Morales, who is running to the far left in the Democratic primary, announced she was still dissatisfied with the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s actions surrounding Ms. Maslow.

The “Brooklyn Democratic Party participated in bad faith politics instead of listening to the wishes of the people,” Ms. Morales said. “Racism and hate cannot be tolerated, and recognizing that true accountability hasn’t taken place, I do not wish to reward inaction.”

Ms. Maslow did not respond to requests for comment. In her resignation letter, she cited threats to her safety. Sabrina Rezzy, the spokeswoman for Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, the Kings County Democratic chair, declined to comment on Ms. Morales’s statement.

But reform-minded members of the Kings County Democrats hailed Ms. Morales’s move.

“The core toxicity and real issues with the Brooklyn Democratic Party still exist, even with Lori Maslow’s resignation,” Jesse Pierce, a Democratic district leader, said.

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