NYC Mayoral Debate 2013: Lhota & de Blasio Clash Over Future of New York City
In a debate in which one candidate takes the stage with a seemingly insurmountable lead, it is reasonable to expect fireworks to ensue as the presumed loser attempts to change the momentum of the race by forcing a gaffe or delivering a spectacular performance.
By this standard, Lhota was the clear loser of the debate. He did not accomplish what he needed to do: fundamentally alter the dynamic of the race. And, perhaps, it would have been impossible to do so. New York City is clearly eager to move beyond the politics of the Bloomberg era, in which the once-popular mayor’s blend of social liberalism and economic conservatism lost its luster amidst accusations of putting the interests of Wall Street and the 1% ahead of the middle and working class.
Lhota’s attack on de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” talking point rang hollow in an era when New Yorkers are all too aware of the widening chasm between rich and poor. Lhota’s message of class unity seemed anachronistic in the face of the long-dormant populism that has swept the city. Similarly, his bemoaning of de Blasio’s rhetoric as “class warfare” for condemning the reality of income inequality in New York seemed similarly out of touch.
Setting aside the historical winds at de Blasio’s back, today’s debate presented two highly competent and eloquent politicians with a strong command of policy and clear visions. The opponents clashed on charter schools, with Lhota defending them on the grounds of positive educational outcomes and de Blasio countering that they siphoned off funding and talent from public schools desperately in need of said commodities. Both candidates spoke to the need for affordable housing, although they differed on whether zoning laws should require private real estate interests to allocate space.
At times, both candidates leveled unfair attacks at their opponents. De Blasio’s attempt to link Lhota, a moderate Republican in the vein of Bloomberg and Giuliani, to the reviled Tea Party was more than a little dishonest. Meanwhile, Lhota’s insinuations that de Blasio, a former public advocate with ample experience in politics, was too inexperienced to hold the office of mayor, recalled Hillary Clinton’s cynical and unfounded attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
For the most part, however, de Blasio and Lhota confined their exchanges to matters of policy. The former leveled his familiar criticisms of the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which Lhota defended as a necessary policing tactic. In his closing speech, Lhota implied that de Blasio’s unwillingness to embrace “tough” law enforcement would bring crime to the streets and put families at risk (though he did not say that in so many words).
Ultimately, the participants in tonight’s debate stood out less as individuals and more as clashing symbols of the times. De Blasio clearly “won” because he struck all the right chords, but his performance was not intrinsically better than his opponent’s. Indeed, it is easy to envision Lhota coming out on top in a different era. As things stand, de Blasio is on the right side of history and tonight’s debate, combined with recent polls that place him overwhelmingly ahead, leaves little doubt that he will be the next mayor of New York City.