by Jonathan Lemire for The New York Daily News
January, 24, 2013
Six major mayoral candidates squared off for the first time Thursday night, and all went on the attack — not against each other, but against Mayor Bloomberg.
At a forum on housing, co-sponsored by the Daily News, the four Democrats and two Republicans ripped the three-term mayor on his approach to building affordable housing, his handling of the embattled Housing Authority, and especially his response to communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
“The city wanted to run a marathon while bodies were still being found,” railed Democrat William Thompson, the former city controller who ran against Bloomberg four years ago. He said the mayor failed the city “from day one” of the storm.
Another Democrat, Controller John Liu, said the incumbent was incapable of understanding the plight of devastated homeowners, declaring, “It’s quite possible that Mayor Bloomberg does not know what mold is.”
Even ex-MTA chairman Joe Lhota, who rocked the Republican side of the race when he entered the fray earlier this month, showed a willingness to buck the Republican-turned-independent mayor.
A deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota drew a clear line between himself and the frequently headstrong tactics of both his former boss and Bloomberg.
“Leadership can also be about saying, ‘I’ve changed my mind about what we’re going to do now,’” said Lhota, who was praised for steering the transit agency through Hurricane Sandy.
Lhota ripped the city for its one-size-fits-all approach to helping those who lost their homes to the storm, and said not enough has been done to combat mold creeping into water-logged buildings.
“There is no question we are embarking on a public health crisis,” said Lhota.
The first-time candidate frequently agreed with the Democrats on the stage — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Liu and Thompson — and at times appeared tentative.
He was the last candidate to speak and did not jump in to answer several questions, as his rivals raced to grab their microphones during the free-wheeling 90-minute discussion.
The race to be the one who will follow the 12 years of Bloomberg’s reign began in earnest at the forum, which was hosted by the community group Metro IAF, along with The News, and held at the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, Brooklyn, before a packed house of 1,000 people.
After 45 minutes of largely genteel answers, the forum, which also included media mogul Tom Allon, crackled with attacks against Bloomberg for his management of the historic storm’s aftermath.
De Blasio, making the same point as Lhota, that a public health crisis was afoot, compared Bloomberg’s handling of Sandy’s devastation to President George W. Bush prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” during the Iraq War.
The harsh rhetoric drew a quick rebuttal from one of Bloomberg’s top aides, Howard Wolfson. He took to Twitter to cite poll numbers favorable to the mayor: “Reality check: Bloomberg 65-23 on Hurricane Sandy performance.”
Although Quinn, a Democrat who enjoys good relations with Bloomberg, mostly avoided opportunities to criticize the mayor, she argued that his appointee to run the Housing Authority, John Rhea, should be replaced.
But Allon went further, calling on the candidates on stage to immediately demand that Rhea step down. He compared the housing head to the most controversial big-name hiring of Bloomberg’s administration.
“John Rhea is the Cathie Black of NYCHA,” Allon declared to thunderous applause.
Black, an accomplished magazine publisher who lacked experience in education, was briefly Bloomberg’s schools chancellor before she resigned under withering criticism.
Last year, the Daily News exposed pervasive managerial incompetence at NYCHA, a consistently broke agency run by full-time board members making $186,000 a year.
The News discovered NYCHA spent $10 million on a consultant report that they weren’t going to release to the public, and sat on nearly $1 billion in aid to fix apartments, while racking up a staggering backlog of 340,000 repair requests. The News also found that as the crime rate has spiked in NYCHA developments, the agency had failed to spend $45 million allotted for security cameras, some of which had been set aside eight years ago.
“NYCHA can’t work if the mayor doesn’t care about the people who live there,” de Blasio said.
Much of the evening was spent in agreement: all of the candidates believe the city’s housing situation is a “crisis,” and all pledged to build at least 60,000 new units of affordable housing over the next four years.
They also all vowed to improve both the quantity and quality of senior housing instead of prioritizing glitzy new developments — the latter being a hallmark of Bloomberg’s New York.
“It’s great that we have a new basketball arena ... but I haven’t seen one new unit of affordable housing,” Allon said, referring to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “We can’t say the basketball court comes first. Housing has to come first.”
“We’ve got popcorn vendors and no apartments,” Liu added, to wild applause.
The event was moderated by NY1’s Errol Louis, but the questions were asked by members of Metro IAF, a network of 150 religious institutions and tenant groups. Most audience members approved of the candidates’ promises to help on housing.
“I liked what I heard from everyone,” said Shirley Colclough, 56. “If they put all their ideas into action, that would be great. But candidates always say they are going to do this and that.”
The forum was the first of three the Daily News will hold this winter. Future panels will be held next month on education and in March on public safety.