It's apparently worse in New York City to read from a Republican playbook than from a Marxist playbook. That's the conclusion that viewers could draw after watching the first general election debate in New York City's mayoral contest.
Democrat Bill de Blasio went after Republican Joe Lhota with gusto, variously attacking him for his ties to House Republicans, the Tea Party, Rudy Giuliani, Ray Kelly, and MTA toll and fare hikes. And, for good measure, Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, where Lhota worked between stints as Giuliani's deputy mayor and chairing the nation's largest transit agency.
By contrast, Lhota attacked de Blasio for speaking out of both sides of his mouth, and for his relative lack of experience. But Lhota didn't reprise some of his sharper jabs from earlier in the campaign, including that de Blasio read from a "Marxist playbook" because he'd supported the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980's and honeymooned in Castro's Cuba. Judging by the amount of time Lhota spent defending himself and his positions, you'd be forgiven for thinking he, not de Blasio, was forty points ahead in the polls.
Lhota did win points for candor -- for saying, directly "the workers of the city of New York need a raise...They need to be treated with dignity," while de Blasio only repeated his position that he won't negotiate city contracts "in public." And, characteristically, Lhota aimed for the heart, as when he said "I have no idea what Mike Bloomberg was talking about but I think his words were quite insensitive when he started talking about bringing more billionaires to New York," while de Blasio softened a previous position by announcing "if billionaires want to come here God bless 'em."
Lhota articulated over and over his theme that he "can be Mayor on Day One without training and a learning curve." And he said - using a turn of phrase that was a Giuliani favorite -- "The reality is what's going on in Washington is despicable. They were sent there to govern. They're doing anything but govern and it is absolutely wrong."
But with the backdrop of debt default discussions in Washington, Lhota labored under the enormous burden of being a Republican at a time when the party is about as unpopular as it's ever been in deeply indigo New York City. And he defended himself using a well-known debate quip of former President Ronald Reagan: "There you go again." Neither man noted the reference.
The debate was sponsored by WABC, Univision, the New York Daily News, and the League of Women Voters
Neither man painted a broad new vision when asked about "big dreams" -- like the 2012 Olympics, which Mayor Bloomberg unsuccessfully courted, or a new tech university on Roosevelt Island. Lhota endorsed Bloomberg's plan for a "Seaport City" in the East River, and de Blasio reiterated his proposals for 200,000 units of affordable housing and universal pre-K. (For the record, Bloomberg didn't spell out those visions in his 2001 campaign, coming to both of them after he was elected Mayor.)
On policy, Lhota agreed with the theme -- if not the method -- of House Republicans that Obamacare deserves a one-year delay. He criticized de Blasio for saying before the debate that he'd charge rent for charter schools - and then not clarifying his position during the debate. He went after de Blasio for saying he wouldn't have subsidized the grocer Fresh Direct's move to the Bronx, but gave de Blasio an opening to charge Lhota "never met a corporate subsidy he didn't like." And Lhota said, unabashedly, that he'd keep Ray Kelly as police commissioner and "will not bash the man who lowered crime." At a debate watching party in Bay Ridge, heads nodded up and down when Lhota charged the city might be less safe because of de Blasio's inexperience.
Lhota's campaign had seemed to be gearing up for a set of spirited attacks. Early on in the debate, his campaign tweeted a WNYC article about de Blasio's handling of affordable housing in the Atlantic Yards development and how it raised questions about whether he has been able to push developers to keep their promises. And debate moderator Bill Ritter pressed de Blasio, saying "as Public Advocate, you did not publicly pressure the developer, Bruce Ratner, to provide affordable housing on time and at rents that are indeed affordable. Mr. Ratner happens to be a campaign contributor of yours. Why didn't you advocate for more affordable housing?"
"I did push hard," de Blasio insisted.
"Look, the situation with Bruce Ratner and what's gone on in downtown Brooklyn needs to be rectified," Lhota piled on. "We need to be sure that whenever we do these deals that there is an ability to make sure we get something back."
But then reporter Dave Evans jumped in. "Mr. Lhota, do you think it should be a requirement, though, that in future developments that it's a requirement to have affordable housing, yes or no?"
To which Lhota replied, "I don't believe in mandatory inclusionary zoning. I don't believe that that will work."
And that gave de Blasio the opportunity to rehabilitate himself. "It's simply the government of New York City saying to developers, if you want the right to make a very tidy profit on land that we're going to open up for development that you didn't have access to before, or you couldn't build as high on, we are demanding affordable housing back in the name of the people."
At which point Lhota totally muddied his answer and talked himself back to de Blasio's position.
"The distinction that I made is that if New York City gives a developer the property then you have the ability to create the affordable housing as you want. But if a developer owns that property today, and they fully own it then the ability to do mandatory exclusionary housing has been held not constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. If they were given the property the way Ratner was given the property by the MTA, then and only then should we make sure we get as much affordable housing as we possibly can."
Click on the audio player to hear WNYC's Anna Sale's report on the debate.