Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement Thursday that there was a specific threat to the city's mass transit system came just two hours before the first mayoral debate was set to take place. When the candidates for his office took the stage at Harlem's Apollo Theater, Bloomberg's podium was vacant.
It wasn't, however, the threat of terror that kept the mayor away from the debate. Bloomberg whose absence elicited angry catcalls from the audience never planned on participating. A week ago the mayor said he would only take part in two debates – both roughly one week before the Nov. 8 election — against his Democratic opponent, Fernando Ferrer. That has been riling his opponents and critics ever since.
"I can't imagine anyone would turn down the opportunity to headline at the Apollo," Ferrer said in Thursday. Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, expressed participation in the debate as a "moral obligation" for candidates.
The lesser-known conservative Republican Tom Ognibene went further, saying it took "arrogance" for a mayor to choose "not to be accountable to the city," and debate.
Since 9/11, the Republican leadership of New York City has been seen as a model of successful political leadership in the face of a crisis. Now in the wake a political debacle named Katrina, both parties are looking for leadership lessons — and no election in the country is as closely watched as the race for mayor in New York.
A dramatic reminder of that came just before the afternoon rush hour commute Thursday, when Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly put the city on high alert over what they called specific bomb threats to the city. At least one officer manned each of New York's more than 450 subway stations.
Shortly after, at the Apollo, the audience murmured news of the terror tip. It was on the moderators' minds as well: Bloomberg's announcement was the subject of the first panelists' question to the candidates.
Although eager to tear into the mayor on a variety of subjects, none of the candidates dared suggest the alert may have had political overtones – a complaint that has been made against the Bush administration's recurring "Orange alerts".
Ferrer said before raising such a terror alert "we have to wait for all the facts to come in," but he didn't chide Bloomberg for putting the city on guard. "We have an obligation to keep all the people who ride the subway safe."
Ognibene suggested he might have held off: "I might not have made the announcement unless I felt there was a verified credible threat."
As the debate rolled on between Ferrer and Ognibene, candidates whose politics differ more than either of theirs do Bloomberg's, it became clear that neither was out to talk too much about policy — or criticize each other. Bloomberg and his policies were the clear target of a barrage of bashes.
From safety and standards in public schools to affordable housing, the candidates ripped into Bloomberg. But many of their comments — especially those that elicited an audience response — had to do with the issue at hand: Bloomberg's absence.
Bloomberg, over the past week, has offered a cascade of reasons for his unwillingness to debate in Harlem, including dislike of the "lightning round," and that "other things go on in this city."
"He wants to throw the conservative Republican Party out the window in front of the bus," Ognibene said.
Bloomberg not only missed a chance to defend himself against the constant pummeling, but to show off some personality, as Ferrer and Ognibene did in a round of quick-fire questions to which only a "yes" or "no" answer were permitted.
Voters learned that "yes," Ferrer has smoked marijuana, but "no," neither candidate on stage owns an iPod or has ever watched "Desperate Housewives." "Yes," both candidates like Bloomberg as a person, but both took issue with his anti-coffee policy for subway riders.
Ferrer even admitted to breaking the coffee law. The light questions make one wonder: Does Bloomberg drink the joe or wear white ear buds? How's a voter to know?
Ferrer earlier advocated five debates, just as Bloomberg had when he was a newly minted moderate running for mayor against Mark Green four years ago. This year, with favorable poll numbers on his side, Bloomberg whittled down the number of times he'd face Ferrer.
Because the mayor is financing his own campaign without the help of public matching funds, he is under no technical obligation to participate in Campaign Finance Board debates such as Thursday's. And as an incumbent with a lead in the polls, analysts say Bloomberg is playing a safe card by minimizing his opponent's visibility.
"I'm not worried about debating anybody," Bloomberg said. "I'm looking forward to debating my opponent."
Bloomberg and his allies have maintained that two debates are enough, and that no more than two debates were held in the past two mayoral elections. No standard officially exists. In 1977, when Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo squared off in the Democratic primary runoff, they debated 14 times in 11 days.
Despite boos and jeers from the Harlem audience when Ognibene sang President Bush or Rudy Giuliani's praises, his conservative platform didn't get bashed Thursday by Ferrer. Rather, Bloomberg's void sucked in all the heat in the room. Even when the candidates were allowed to ask each other one question, each took the opportunity to suggestively rip the mayor rather than put each other on the spot.
Ferrer asked what Ognibene thought of the mayor's perceived gay marriage flip-flop. And Ognibene asked Ferrer: "what kind of arrogance does it take for a mayor on New York … to not take part in this debate?"
Ferrer looked to the empty podium at his left and said: "In a word, although I have more words than that, 'breathtaking.'"
By Christine Lagorio