In NYC Mayoral Election, the Race For Millennial Votes Begins Now

At the CUNY Graduate Center on Wednesday night, about a hundred young people gathered for the Millennial Mayoral Forum, where they listened to four candidates for mayor spell out their visions for the city.

The ultimate goal for New York City Democrats this year is to put a Democrat back in City Hall after a 20-year absence, but with primaries on September 10, several months of inter-party debates must come first. And after eight years of Rudy Giuliani and 12 of Michael Bloomberg, New York Democrats are betting that the city is ready to turn left again.

The evening’s host, Mutale Nkonde of Young, Professional, and Politically Engaged (YPPE), pointed out that a slightly larger millennial turnout in the 2009 mayor’s race might have kept Bloomberg from a third term. Ben Yee, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, opened the forum by noting that this was the first mayoral debate for millennials he’d ever seen. And all four candidates in attendance — City Controller John Liu, former Councilman Sal Albanese, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, and former Controller Bill Thompson — provided direct, accessible answers to a wide range of questions.

Conspicuously absent from the debate was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, who is looking to be both the city’s first female and its first LGBT mayor. The candidates mostly avoided taking shots at Quinn in absentia, but the debate’s moderator Roy Paul garnered a huge round of applause when he said, “I want you to take a note of the candidates who decided to show up. These are the candidates who are speaking to your issues.”

Instead of Quinn, Bloomberg and Bloombergism became the candidates’ primary punching bag, with offhand comments that attempted to paint Quinn as the current mayor’s ideological heir. Bloombergism has three major components: social liberalism on issues like gay rights and gun control; a friendly, laissez-faire attitude towards corporations and the city’s wealthy; and a heavy-handed, paternalistic attitude toward the city’s poor (stop and frisk, the 16-ounce soda ban, and so on). The city’s class divide was a recurring theme throughout the evening.

The first question came from Valerie Bell, whose son Sean was shot by plainclothes NYPD officers on the morning of his wedding in November 2006. Bell asked the candidates how they planned to promote racial tolerance within the city’s police force. Liu was the only one who called for the outright abolition of Stop and Frisk, the Bloomberg administration’s controversial street-patrol program — a stance which earned him a great deal of applause from the audience. Thompson promised he would appoint a commissioner who better understood the needs of everyday New Yorkers. DeBlasio tore into the mayor for a recent press conference at which he compared stop-and-frisk opponents to NRA members. And Albanese called for an overhaul of the city’s drug laws and a focus on better police-community relations.

Other questions during the evening tended to focus on more strictly economic issues. A man who owned one of the city’s many food carts asked the candidates how they would seek to reform the notoriously opaque system of regulations, fees, and red tape for street vendors. All the candidates promised to crack down on a black market that allows permit-holders to loan their permits to others at exorbitant prices, with Liu stating that Bloomberg’s policies had made things hard on small businesses while giving lavish subsidies to large corporations.

Perhaps the biggest issue for millennials was saved until the end of the night, when an audience member from Brooklyn asked how the candidates would promote affordable housing. Liu called the city’s housing prices a “crisis situation” and proposed a spectrum of levels at which New Yorkers could qualify for affordable-housing subsidies. Albanese repeated his call for a greater number of living-wage jobs throughout the city, and noted that he was the only candidate who was refusing to take donations from real-estate developers. Thompson claimed that building more housing stock would go a long way towards solving the city’s housing woes. DeBlasio provided the most specific answers, calling for 200,000 new units, laws requiring developers to include affordable housing in new projects, and an overhaul of the city’s tax code in a way that encouraged landowners to build.

Despite the weighty issues that came up, the entire evening had an air of levity to it. The absence of the race’s front-runner probably helped with this, as did the guest moderating of former Governor David Paterson. In the best one-liner of the night, the host introduced Paterson as “someone who did a really good job after Eliot Spitzer did a really bad job … in his pants,” and Paterson, who did not actually do a good job as governor but still has a wickedly funny sense of humor, handled the evening like a veteran stand-up comedian. It was a valuable opportunity to see a more unguarded side of this year’s mayoral candidates — an opportunity that made the front-runner’s absence seem all the more glaring in contrast.