Next NYC Mayor Debate to Be Remote, Drawing Candidates’ Ire

New York City’s next televised mayoral debate between Democratic contenders will be held virtually, drawing ire from candidates and good governance groups that say the decision runs counter to recently-lifted pandemic restrictions.

The June 2 debate, hosted by local television station WABC-TV ahead of the city’s June 22 Democratic primary, will be held via Zoom video conference. It won’t be held in person “pursuant to health protocols in effect at the WABC-TV studios,” said Matt Sollars, a spokesman for the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which has administered debates for every citywide election since 1997. City law calls for two debates to be held per election, per citywide office. WABC-TV didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“The health and safety of everyone involved in these complex productions, from the candidates to production staff to building workers, must come first. Our co-sponsors will follow the safety requirements in their studios,” Sollars said in a statement.

Candidates protested the decision widely, calling on the board to reconsider its decision.

“New Yorkers are electing a mayor at one of the most crucial points in our history and these debates need to be in-person - period. There is too much at stake in this election for New Yorkers, who are thoroughly and completely Zoomed out, to have to watch a virtual debate that obviously does not meet the urgency of this moment,” said Maya Rupert, campaign manager for civil rights lawyer and mayoral candidate Maya Wiley.

During the first televised debate among eight top contenders for the New York City Democratic primary held last week, many candidates could be seen reading notes off a computer screen, making it hard for voters to assess the ability of the mayoral hopefuls to think on their feet. Some candidates fumbled with the “mute” button and clumsily raised their hands, while others spoke over one another, a nod to how difficult it is to host a debate among eight people virtually. Viewers on a Facebook feed commented on how hard it was to virtually assess the candidates, who are vying to lead the nation’s most populous city at one of the most consequential moments in the city’s history.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would lift the state’s mask mandate for fully-vaccinated residents, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cuomo also announced the resumption of the New York City Marathon, the Tribeca Film Festival to be held at Radio City Music Hall, and county fairs and music festivals, which are now deemed safe enough to host.

That begs the question as to why in-person debates don’t qualify as well, said Sarah Goff, New York deputy director of Common Cause, a good governance group.

“Democracy should be live,” Goff said. “Every effort should be made to stage in-person debates as per the public health guidance from federal and state authorities for fully vaccinated people.”

‘Disservice’ To Voters

The candidates are already hosting regular in-person campaign events and said they want to debate their rivals in person.

“We’re very disappointed the sponsors decided they could not find a safe way to hold an in-person debate with fully vaccinated candidates and moderators,” said Eric Soufer, a senior adviser to mayoral aspirant Andrew Yang. “We appreciate their concerns, but it’s a disservice to voters and our city, so we hope they’ll reconsider and give voters the live, in-person debates they deserve.”

Former city housing commissioner Shaun Donovan’s campaign manager, Brendan McPhillips, also called the remote debate “a disservice” to the city’s voters. “If 13,000 Knicks fans can gather safely in the Garden, we can hold a live debate with eight fully-vaccinated people,” he said.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ campaign said an in-person debate would provide voters wit a better sense of the candidates. Former Citigroup banker Ray McGuire’s campaign called it integral to voters’ “decision-making process about who is best qualified to lead New York City,” said spokeswoman Lupe Todd-Medina.

Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner and crisis troubleshooter, said the Campaign Finance Board should insist on a venue that could hold a live debate. “There are common sense steps the organizers can take to ensure added safety, including social distancing on stage and for moderators, not having a studio audience, and COVID tests prior to the debate,” she said. “New Yorkers deserve to see their candidates on stage discussing the issues in a setting fitting of a New York City mayoral race.”

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