Candidates for New York City mayor fielded a rapid-fire series of questions at the New York City Bar’s midtown headquarters Thursday evening, staking out familiar positions on controversial issues including stop-and-frisk and charter schools.
The forum, which drew an audience of about 300, followed a 95-page set of recommendations for the next mayor issued by the city bar last month (NYLJ, May 1). In addition to the hot-button topics addressed at the forum, the report covered a broad range of issues, including recommendations for expanded programs to help unrepresented civil litigants and stronger consumer protections.
The evening was split into two halves. The first half was given over to the Republican and independent candidates. All three declared Republican candidates appeared: John Catsimatidis, owner of Gristedes supermarkets; Joseph Lhota, former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; and George McDonald, founder of the non-profit Doe Fund, which provides services and transitional work to homeless people and those with histories of drug abuse and incarceration. They were joined by independent Adolfo Carrion, who has served as Bronx borough president and as director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs.
The second half of the evening was given over to four Democratic candidates: Sal Albanese, a former city councilman; Bill de Blasio, the public advocate; John Liu, the comptroller; and Bill Thompson, a former comptroller. City Council speaker Christine Quinn and former U.S. representative Anthony Weiner, who were the front-runners in a recent Marist poll, did not take part in the forum.
All the candidates expressed some reservations about stop-and-frisk as it is currently practiced, though the Republicans were much friendlier to it than Carrion or the Democrats.
McDonald said he had "no quarrel" with the theory behind stop-and-frisk, but said it had to be studied to make sure it was being used correctly. He said he had decided on a replacement for New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, but declined to say who.
Lhota said he would keep stop-and-frisk, but said he supported more training for police on when and how to stop people. He compared that training to continuing legal education for lawyers.
Carrion said that stop-and-frisk should be curtailed significantly, noting that most stops result in no weapons, drugs or arrests. He said that the police should use other, more effective tactics.
"What we need is to get the beat cop back in the street walking the residential neighborhoods," he said.
Thompson called stop-and-frisk a potentially useful but "abused" policing tool that often amounted to racial profiling. He said that police needed more training and that their performance evaluation should have nothing to do with how many stops they make.
Liu said the technique was a "huge misdirection of resources" that actually makes people less safe by eroding trust between communities and the police, adding that it is reminiscent of a "third world dictatorship."
Albanese said there was a place for police stops, but that "no one should be stopped in violation of the Constitution." He also said that needless arrests could be avoided by reforming drug laws, in particular by legalizing marijuana.
Mayor and Judiciary
In both forums, moderator Errol Louis of NY1 segued from stop-and-frisk into a question about the proper relationship between the mayor and the judiciary. He asked whether he thought it was appropriate for the mayor to criticize judges, noting that the Bloomberg administration recently leaked an internal report that essentially accused Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is presiding over a bench trial on the stop-and-frisk policy, of being biased against police.
Carrion said his administration would have "great respect" for the "very clear line" between the executive and judicial branches, while Lhota said that there could be "healthy debate" between the executive and judges.
Liu decried the practice of using leaks to the press for political ends generally. Albanese said that the mayor can criticize judges "respectfully."
Thompson said that it was acceptable for the mayor to use his "bully pulpit" to criticize judges, but not to "undermine, vilify" or "smear" them, implying that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had done so.
De Blasio arrived to the forum too late to answer the first question on stop-and-frisk, but called the leak "extremely troubling."
Both sets of candidates also were asked how they would improve the city’s schools.
McDonald called for more charter schools, while Lhota called for more rigorous teacher evaluations.
Catsimatidis made the most radical proposal, saying that students should have a choice of opting out of traditional high school and going to vocational school.
Carrion said the city needed to improve its public school system, not just lean on charter and magnet schools.
The Democratic candidates took similar positions on school reform.
Albanese, a former teacher, said he would "change the tone of the administration toward teachers," adding that teachers feel they have been "demonized." Nonetheless, he said he was in favor of developing new ways to evaluate teachers’ performance.
Liu said he would reduce emphasis on standardized testing and charter schools. He said he would support a moratorium on closings and co-locations of failing schools, which have been key tools of the Bloomberg administration.
Thompson also said he supports a moratorium on school closings, smaller class sizes, less emphasis on testing and more arts education.
Louis also asked the candidates about how they would tackle political corruption.
All the candidates said the political culture at both the city and state level must change. Lhota offered the most specific proposals of the Republicans, saying that politicians convicted of corruption should not get pensions, and calling for term limits for state legislators.
Thompson also said he would end pensions for public servants convicted of corruption. De Blasio and Albanese both said they would ban so-called member items—funds that City Council members disburse to groups in their districts at their discretion.
Liu said he would make the city budget process more transparent. He also took the opportunity to address the federal investigation into alleged irregularities in his campaign’s fundraising, which he said had not turned up anything on him after 18 months. Two ex-employees of his campaign, however, were convicted of fraud last month.
Some of the strongest contrasts between the candidates emerged in their closing statements. Catsimatidis said that public safety would be his top priority, calling for more police on the streets. Lhota stressed education reform and encouraging business development and job creation.
McDonald used his closing to deliver his own idiosyncratic platform, which focuses on providing social services and transitional work for homeless people and people with histories of drug abuse and incarceration. He said that many of the city’s social ills stem from the fact that former prisoners have trouble finding work.
Carrion and the Democrats all emphasized the importance of helping the working and middle class in the city, which they said had been largely left behind by the current administration, through better education and housing policies.
@|Brendan Pierson can be contacted at email@example.com.