With Washington paralyzed by a partisan spending battle and a government shutdown, New York mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota sought to distance himself from fellow Republicans in the first debate of the general election.
“Do not lump me with the national Republicans,” Lhota, 59, told his opponent, Democrat Bill de Blasio, 52, during the hour-long televised forum last night. “It’s unbecoming, Bill.”
As Republicans slip in national polls and fight internally and with Democrats over the shutdown and raising the nation’s borrowing limit, de Blasio accused Lhota of following the “Republican playbook” of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and aligning himself with “extremist” Tea Party groups.
“He is enabling the same world view that has put us in this crisis,” de Blasio said.
In the first of three meetings between the two before the Nov. 5 election, the candidates sparred over police tactics, the role of charter schools, increasing affordable housing and plans for a trash incinerator on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
De Blasio, the front-runner, said he wants to charge some charter schools rent and called for the police department to boost community cooperation while curbing the use of aggressive crime-prevention methods such as the tactic known as stop-and-frisk. Lhota repeated his pledge to keep Raymond Kelly as police commissioner, boost the role of charter schools and fight the incinerator that de Blasio said he supported.
Three weeks before Election Day, Lhota is battling a perception that de Blasio has locked up the race as polls show the Democrat with an advantage of as much as 50 percentage points. The debates offer the Republican a chance to narrow that gap and introduce himself to voters just beginning to pay attention to the campaign.
Though registered Democrats hold a more than 6-to-1 edge over Republicans, they haven’t controlled City Hall for 20 years. The two candidates are competing to run the most-populous U.S. city, which has 8.3 million residents, a $70 billion annual budget and 300,000 employees.
Lhota said diversifying New York’s economy beyond financial services as well as providing tax breaks and less regulation for business will help reduce income inequality, which de Blasio has made a central issue in his campaign. The Republican highlighted his government experience -- he served as a top aide and budget director to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- calling himself the only candidate who’d be ready to lead the city on day one.
He warned that New York may become less safe if de Blasio is elected because his opponent is “untested,” and refuted the Democrat’s attempts to tie him to the Republican right by expressing support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
The candidates attacked one another frequently and with gusto. Lhota called his opponent a “career politician” who’ll raise taxes on middle-income earners. Talking to reporters following the debate, he said de Blasio was “your typical classic political hack who doesn’t know what to do when he’s in a debate and talk about issues.”
“I really feel sorry for New Yorkers watching tonight,” Lhota said. “They turned on channel 7 to be able to talk about our visions for the future of the city. We didn’t hear anything from Bill. We heard no specific plans.”
De Blasio came armed with critiques of his own, calling Republican Giuliani’s administration “the most divisive” in decades and that Lhota had a “ringside seat” in making it so.
The Democrat said his career in public life, including time spent as an aide to former Mayor David Dinkins, a Democrat, has given him a ground-level understanding of city government and how to get things done. He pledged to build or maintain 200,000 units of affordable housing in the next decade and said electing him would be a “clean break” from the current administration.
A former city councilman elected to the watchdog post of public advocate in 2009, de Blasio catapulted from third place in a crowded primary field to win his party’s nomination last month. He has promised to close the widening income gap between wealthy and poor New Yorkers by providing universal pre-kindergarten financed with tax increases on the highest incomes.
Lhota most recently ran the region’s public transit system, where he was widely praised for reopening the subways after Hurricane Sandy struck on Oct. 29. He has also served as an executive vice president at Madison Square Garden Co. and worked on Wall Street in municipal finance.
Since winning the Sept. 10 primary, de Blasio has raised about $820,000, almost double Lhota’s $426,000, city campaign-finance records show. De Blasio received $8.9 million in private and public matching funds through Oct. 4, while Lhota got $5.1 million. Both had spent about 79 percent of their funds.
The 12-year tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 71, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP and a political independent, concludes Dec. 31.
De Blasio and Lhota will face off again Oct. 22 and Oct. 29. Last night’s debate was sponsored by WABC television, Noticias Univision 31, the New York Daily News and the New York City League of Women Voters.