By Nathaniel Herz
New York City mayoral candidates Michael Bloomberg and Bill Thompson each had about twenty minutes during last night's debate to use as many words as they wanted to. But the most revealing portion of the evening was actually the five-minute "lightning round," in which the candidates were limited to responding with a simple "yes" or "no."
In responding to questions ranging from the personal (Have you ever had a manicure or a pedicure?), to the political (Do you think more troops should be sent to Afghanistan?), the candidates conveyed far more about their own views and beliefs than they did in the rest of the one hour session.
For the record, Bloomberg has definitely never had his nails done. Thompson thinks that President Barack Obama has done enough for gay rights. ("He's been there nine months," he said, breaking the rules in a technically-illegal aside. The question put Thompson between a rock and a hard place, though--his opponent has been courting the gay vote, and Thompson just received a lukewarm endorsement from Obama last week.) And in just about the only areas that the candidates could agree, both said that more troops should be sent to Afghanistan, that Roman Polanski should be in prison, and that a Big Mac does not have more than 600 calories. (It's 540--without ketchup.)
The rest of the debate generated little in the way of substantive argument or discussion. The combative mood was present from the very beginning, when Bloomberg was interrupted by a screaming protester in the middle of his opening statement. (The man was later identified as Reverend Billy Talen, a third party candidate for mayor who is also a political performance artist.) "Mike, what are you doing here? We voted for term limits!" Talen shouted before being escorted out of the venue.
With Talen's outburst, the tone was set for the rest of the evening, as Thompson, in his opening statement, chose to immediately go after Bloomberg. Throughout the rest of the debate, the politicians spent most of their time either defending their own records or leveling criticisms at their opponent, rather than outline their own visions for the city's future. The debate's panelists didn't help things, either--most of them chose to ask pointed questions that put the candidates on the defensive, rather than giving them opportunities to lay out their agendas if they were elected. NY1's Juan Manuel Benitez, for example, asked Thompson why he didn't have more Latinos on his staff, rather than asking how he might work as mayor to bring more Latinos into New York City government.
But then again, expecting the city's political establishment to focus on the future rather than the here-and-now might be asking a lot. As Bloomberg said after the moderator apologized for Talen's outburst, "it is New York."