The crowded field of Democratic New York City mayoral hopefuls met in a second major televised debate Wednesday, with Christine Quinn turning her attacks on a surging Bill de Blasio and Anthony Weiner struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly shifting campaign.
The first volley between the top contenders came during a discussion of efforts to prevent financially troubled hospitals from closing. Quinn mocked de Blasio for fighting against the shuttering of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn while aligning himself with celebrity activists like Susan Sarandon, who opposed a plan to renovate St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village before it closed in 2010.
Quinn, the city council speaker, invoked her favorite line of attack against de Blasio, a former city councilman and current public advocate. She called him a flip-flopper.
"You have to be what you're for all the time," Quinn told de Blasio.
He responded by accusing Quinn of creating a "smokescreen" to divert attention from the fact that the closure of St. Vincent's happened in her city council district.
NBC 4 New York hosts the next mayoral debate for the Democrats on Sept. 3, to be televised live at 7 p.m. The Republican candidates face off next on Aug. 28.
To a certain extent, the opening segments of Wednesday's debate were merely a prelude to inevitable questions about an issue that had preoccupied the campaign much of the day: comments by de Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, that suggested Quinn wasn't reliable on children's issues because she wasn't a mother herself.
"I don’t see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, workplace, she is not speaking to any of those issues," McCray was quoted as telling columnist Maureen Dowd.
Asked about it by debate moderator Errol Louis, Quinn -- a married lesbian and the race's only childless candidate -- said the comments were "very hurtful and upsetting because they basically raised the question of whether the fact that I have children is relevant to how hard I fight for families."
De Blasio, who has been emphasizing his interracial family in his campaign, said his wife did not intend to offend Quinn, and was trying to respectfully critique Quinn's stances on policies affecting children and families.
"It is not personal, it is substantive," de Blasio said.
Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who has struggled for traction despite having won the Democratic nomination in 2009, showed signs of trying to escape his conciliatory image. His strategy was to go after de Blasio, who has surged past him in recent polls.
First, Thompson lampooned de Blasio's proposal to raise taxes on the rich to finance universal pre-kindergarten as "a tax in search of an idea." Then, Thompson invoked a controversial de Blasio campaign advertisement, since debunked, that claimed he was "the only candidate to end a stop and frisk era that targets minorities.”
Then, Thompson took a page from Quinn's campaign book, accusing de Blasio of switching sides on term limits and the council appropriations known as “member items," which became the target of a federal investigation that resulted in criminal charges against several lawmakers and staffers.
"Will the real Bill de Blasio please stand up?" Thompson said.
Under attack from both Quinn and Thompson, de Blasio said that he felt like he was in a professional wrestling match, getting tag-teamed.
With the Sept. 10 primary drawing closer, and small margins separating the leading candidates, it seems likely that none will receive the 40 percent of votes needed to avoid an Oct. 1 runoff.
For all the sniping the candidates made against each other, much of their criticism was focused on Mayor Bloomberg, particularly his unwavering defense of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics, which a federal judge recently found to be unconstitutional.
The candidate most associated with Bloomberg is Quinn, who helped the mayor change city laws to run for a third term and has expressed support of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Quinn's rivals have accused her of siding with Bloomberg on stop and frisk.
A key moment in that argument will come Thursday, when the council will vote on whether to override Bloomberg's veto of two bills meant to rein in stop and frisk. One would create a position of inspector general to oversee the police. The other would make it easier to sue for racial profiling.
De Blasio asked Quinn how she would vote on the profiling measure. Quinn sidestepped the question at first, saying she'd done more than any of the candidates to end racial profiling. She accused de Blasio of misrepresenting her positions. But when de Blasio pressed her, she said she would not vote in support of the profiling bill.
Weiner, the disgraced former congressman, watched much of the wrangling with his arms crossed, unable to get a word in. This was the first major debate in which he was a sideline act rather than a headliner. His support has been dwindling since he admitted last month that his online sexual relationships with women continued after he resigned from Congress in 2011.
So, late in the debate, when he was given a chance to ask another candidate a question, Weiner lobbed a bomb. He challenged Quinn to release council documents related to the 2008 council appropriations scandal. Thompson had made a similar demand earlier this month, but Weiner added an inflammatory footnote: he asked Quinn to say whether de Blasio, then a councilman, had been "implicated in any way."
Quinn, looking aghast, said she didn't know what Weiner was talking about. Then, in a twist, she defended de Blasio, saying he'd never been implicated.
"Casting aspersions on the public advocate like that is just outrageous," Quinn said.
De Blasio later thanked Quinn.
The other Democratic candidates in the debate were Comptroller John Liu, whose campaign has suffered from allegations of illegal fundraising, former City Councilman Sal Albanese and Bronx pastor Erick Salgado.
Liu spent a good portion of his speaking time criticizing Thompson's work as his predecessor in the comptroller's office, which monitors city finances. One of Liu's targets was CityTime, a highly touted project to modernize municipal payrolls that ultimately cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars and ended with allegations of fraud. The scandal unfolded while Thompson was in office.
"What happened, Bill?" Liu asked.
Thompson admitted he could have done more, but added that Bloomberg and the council could have done more, too.
Albanese and Salgado, the most marginalized of the Democratic candidates, struggled to be heard. At one point, after going several minutes without being asked a question, Albanese shouted out: "Do I get to talk at all? This is ridiculous."
Salgado added: "I may have an accent, but I can talk."
After that, the panel of questioners asked for their opinions more often.
The debate concluded with a "lightning round," in which the candidates were asked a series of yes-or-no questions. The session produced the evening's lightest moments, with the most laughs coming at the expense of Weiner, although he didn't seem to mind.
The candidates were asked if they'd ever texted while driving. When his turn came, Weiner blurted, "Yes," and the audience howled.