Photo: James Keivom
The night started off sweet, with Democratic mayoral contenders Tony Avella (left) and Bill Thompson (right) paying their respects to Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose passing swept the news in the morning. Then the gloves came off, and both candidates went swinging, their attacks landing not on each other, but on Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Avella, who was questioned first, threw the first punch, attacking Bloomberg for ignoring voters and overturning term limits. Thompson quickly followed, pummeling the mayor for ignoring the middle class and placing a heavy burden of new taxes on the backs of middle class New Yorkers. The audience responded to the verbal attacks of both contenders with heavy applause.
The first mayoral debate of the primary was moderated by NY1 political anchor Dominic Carter at the public library in midtown. NY1 News, NY1 Noticias, the Daily News, WNYC Radio, Citizens Union and Time Warner Cable hosted.
Thompson is the City Comptroller, an intelligent, by-the-book politician who’s often described as having a professorial demeanor. Avella is the city councilman from Queens, a politician who has fought overdevelopment in the council chamber, and is widely considered the underdog in the race. According to a Quinnipiac Poll released today, Thompson is leading Avella 45 to 10 percent among Democratic voters, with 38 percent undecided.
When asked whether his reputation as being a difficult person to work with among his colleagues in the City Council would prevent him from accomplishing anything as mayor, Avella scoffed.
“You’re damn right I don’t get along with some of them,” he responded, generating laughs and applause. “These are the same people who voted themselves a 25 percent pay raise, who overturned the term limits law. As mayor I want to set the example, set the tone.”
Thompson was asked if his reputation of being “nice” would suppress the fire and drive needed in a campaign to win.
“I don’t think I can be too decent,” he said. He explained that New Yorkers need a decent mayor who would stand and fight for them, which Bloomberg has failed to do.
“I’ve got the energy, the principle and the drive to stand up and beat him,” he declared.
When it came to the issues, both candidates generally agreed with one another. They both see room for change in an education system where students are taught how to answer questions on a test, rather than comprehension skills they can take with them post-graduation. They both felt Mayor Bloomberg failed to handle the swine flu outbreak correctly, see the mayor as catering to the needs of developers rather than creating a better quality of life for working class New Yorkers, and fell completely flat when it comes to reducing the number of homeless families in the city.
They both feel that preventive primary care needs to be improved in the city, and if the federal government doesn’t implement a national health care overhaul, they both will have plans to improve the health care system locally for New Yorkers. They both would like to make changes to the mass transit.
Of course, Avella and Thompson don’t agree on everything. While Thompson sees “stop and frisk” as a tool for police officers as long as they don’t abuse, Avella would like to see the practice stopped altogether.
When asked about the City Council slush fund scandal, Thompson said greater amounts of oversight need to be implemented to make sure every dollar is being used efficiently, while Avella said he’d like to end discretionary funds once and for all and reform the entire process.
To create affordable housing and stabilize rents, Thompson said he’d like to introduce a 21st century Mitchell-Lama program to assist families struggling to stay in the city. To prevent escalating rents, Avella said he’d like to get rid of the rent guidelines board entirely and let the mayor be in control, so when rents are raised, they can directly blame the mayor rather than a board appointed by the mayor.
There were a few surprises during the night as well. Thompson said he has smoked marijuana before, while Avella said he has never smoked so much as a cigarette. They both also agree, with some hesitation, that Bloomberg has been a better mayor than Rudolph Giuliani. Avella said he would not support Gov. David Paterson for reelection in the next primary, while Thompson said he would.
Finally, when it came to punching each other, Avella was the only one who played hardball. He criticized Thompson over his handling of the city’s pension funds and for accepting $500,000 in campaign contributions from pension managers. Thompson staunchly defended his record.
After the debate was over, members of the press asked Avella if he would support Thompson in the general election if Thompson won the nomination. Avella replied that he originally said he would, but with the information about Thompson’s management of the city’s pension funds, he said he would have to reconsider. Thompson’s campaign manager, Eduardo Castell, said Thompson showed he had a lot of passion and fire tonight.