Commentary: Campaign as "State of the City"?

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The second and final Bloomberg-Ferrer debate is tonight. But WNYC's Brian Lehrer sees this year's campaign as an opportunity lost to assess the state of the city.

The second and final Bloomberg-Ferrer debate is tonight. But WNYC’s Brian Lehrer sees this year's campaign as an opportunity lost to assess the state of the city.

On Saturday, the day before the Mayor and his challenger finally met in their first debate, the New York Times had a story about the campaign, as you might expect, on page one of the Metro Section. Its headline was… You’re Running… In Those Socks?” It included such incisive lines as “An unscientific study shows that Mr. Ferrer wears dark socks.” And “On weekends and holidays…the Mayor opts for tasseled loafers for mingling and New Balance sneakers for marching.”

So, let’s be honest. Democracy as we know it has been suspended this year in New York City. The campaign is ending where it should have begun. There are three reasons: the 17:1 spending ratio of Bloomberg to Ferrer on advertising, an absent media, and no debates until a week before Election Day. The effect has been a media narrative created almost exclusively by Bloomberg commercials. We are all guinea pigs this year in an unprecedented experiment in a campaign with only one side.

This not to say Mayor Bloomberg might not be the better candidate. But how would most New Yorkers ever know? They would have had to do their own research on the internet or follow the candidates around in person.

In Sunday’s first debate, Ferrer and the questioners raised at least six issues worthy of serious debate, including whether the public school test scores really show improvements unique to New York City or just in line with the rest of the state, whether the Nets arena and 17 high rise building proposal is the Brooklyn version of the West Side Stadium debacle, why shootings are up 10 percent while the number of police officers is down by 3,000, whether the Mayor wrongly paid a “king’s ransom”, as Ferrer called it get Goldman Sachs to re-open downtown, whether it has harmed New Yorkers that the Mayor has refused to take a position on the Iraq War, and whether Mayor Bloomberg wrongly soaked the middle class by raising property taxes rather than other taxes paid more by the rich. No wonder Ferrer’s mode of attack in debate number one repeatedly began like this:

“Here' something you won't see in a Mike Bloomberg commercial.”

Again, this is not to judge the Mayor wrong, or right, on any of these issues – just to point out that there is hardly time now for any meaningful debate on the Bloomberg record, as the campaign ends where it should have begun. Blame the Mayor for being willing to buy an unlevel playing field. Blame the Mayor for opting out of the campaign finance rules, allowing him to delay the debates until now. Blame Ferrer for a failure of imagination at getting sympathy for the underdog, and blame the media for being uninterested in the issues and more interested in socks.

But go ahead and watch tonight’s debate. Just pretend it was a month ago, and pretend our city’s democracy was alive and well.

Anchor: WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.