NEW YORK -- Five Democrats fighting to become the city's next mayor sparred over housing costs, police tactics and term limits at their first debate Tuesday evening, but they agreed on one thing: They don’t want to talk about
The televised debate came hours after release of a new poll that showed the roller coaster ride of the candidates since Weiner, who was forced to resign his congressional seat in June 2011 over a sexting scandal, entered the race in May. Weiner, who once led the Democratic field, now is in fourth place, with support from only 10% of likely Democratic primary voters, according to the Quinnipiac University poll.
Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker who was the clear front-runner until Weiner joined the race, has fallen to second place behind the city's public advocate, Bill de Blasio, who had the support of 30% of likely voters to Quinn's 24%. In third place was former comptroller William Thompson with 22%, and in fifth with 6% was John Liu, the current city comptroller.
In the brief opening statements at the start of the hour-long debate, the candidates all portrayed themselves as champions of the middle class — the children of teachers, social workers and immigrants who can relate to the struggles of working people trying to survive in a city where the average apartment rent is more than $3,000 a month.
“We’re living a tale of two cities,” said de Blasio, a fierce liberal who, despite his strong poll showing, did not come in for the majority of ribbing from other candidates. Instead, they focused on Quinn, for her role in extending mayoral term limits to give
"He has become the face of an abusive … policy," Thompson said of Kelly, who has credited the police department's use of the tactic of stopping, questioning and frisking people in mainly minority areas with bringing down crime. Opponents say it amounts to racial profiling. A federal judge Monday ruled that the practice was violating the constitutional rights of the mainly black and Latino young men subjected to random stops and frisks and appointed an independent monitor to help usher in reforms.
Quinn insisted that her role on the City Council gave her the expertise to oversee the issues facing New York, and she said she had saved 4,100 teachers from being laid off and proved herself a friend of labor and the middle class during her tenure.
As for Kelly, Quinn said: "I think everyone on this stage agrees … he has done a terrific job." But she said she did not support the way his department used stop-and-frisk to combat crime and vowed to reform it if elected.
Later, Quinn took one of several stabs at Weiner after he claimed the high moral ground by noting that he had apologized repeatedly for his sexting habits. Quinn, Weiner said, had not apologized for backing Bloomberg in 2008 to overturn a 1996 public vote limiting elected officials to two terms in office. That enabled Bloomberg to win his third term.
"I think it's very clear to all New Yorkers that neither me nor anybody else on this stage should be lectured by Anthony Weiner about what we need to apologize for," Quinn said.
All of the candidates vowed to do more to improve public schools, develop affordable housing and create jobs that pay more than minimum wage. Weiner proposed having police wear lapel cameras that would serve as watchdogs for communities distrustful of officers over the stop-and-frisk issue. De Blasio said he wanted to raise taxes for New Yorkers earning more than a half-million dollars a year.
Liu, expressing skepticism at some of his rivals' assertions, said at one point: "Are we at a mayoral debate or the Twilight Zone?"
Each of the candidates was asked whether Weiner should quit the race, and while they did not all demand he leave, they agreed that the attention focused on his scandalous past was diverting attention from city issues.
"Please don't ask me any more questions about him," Liu said of Weiner, who last month admitted that he had pursued sexually charged online relationships even after quitting Congress and entering therapy to save his marriage and salvage his career.
"I don't want to talk about Anthony," said Thompson. "I want to talk about the future of New York."
Only de Blasio called for Weiner to leave the race, "for the good of the city."
"We should not be talking about one individual and their personal life. We should be talking about all 8.4 million of us," he said.
Weiner brought up the scandals himself, in his opening statement, declaring at the outset that he had made mistakes but that voters, not his critics, should decide if they want to give him another chance.
The only light-hearted moment in the fast-moving, sometimes biting debate came in the final minutes, when the candidates were asked to reveal something about themselves that people might be surprised to learn.
"I'm not a natural redhead," said the flame-haired Quinn, who if elected would be the first woman and the first openly gay person to lead the nation's largest city.
Weiner disclosed that after midnight on Mondays, he plays ice hockey, "probably the only 130-pound Jewish kid in the city" to do so.
The famously low-key Thompson said that "in almost any sport I've ever played, I'm incredibly competitive," while Liu revealed that he's an avid surfer, skier and skateboarder.
De Blasio, who at 6'5" towers above the other candidates, said he had gone to high school with basketball Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.
"He made it to the NBA, but I didn't," de Blasio confessed.
The five will face off in a primary on Sept. 10. If none of them wins 40% of the vote, a runoff will be held in October.