Anyone who was disappointed that the evening didn't feature Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is Too Damn High Party would have been pleased that there were two joke candidates in attendance: McDonald and John Catsimatidis. If McMillan were a white Republican in a gray business suit, he would be an amalgam of the two of them. McDonald -- the only candidate to receive no applause upon being introduced, only befuddled murmurs of "Who is he?" -- seemed unprepared to answer many of the questions. Asked what he would have done about the controversial bike lane on Prospect Park West, one block from the synagogue, if he were mayor, he gave the rather unmayoral answer: "Well, I'm not mayor."
McDonald was not always so laconic, though. He claimed that New York City public employees are the only employees who do not contribute at all to their health insurance, bringing shouts of "Not true!" from the audience. He cracked the audience up by noting that the Second Avenue subway line has been planned for so long that it was referenced as coming soon on a recent episode of Mad Men. He also offered some dramatic tales from his youth, saying that he remembered when New York was in a state of "anarchy," due to crime that was so bad that he wouldn't let his daughters walk to their corner on 84th Street and 2nd Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side at 9 p.m. because of the people "smoking crack on our stoop and coming in through the windows." He closed on an anecdote that 25 years ago a mafia "button man" came up to him in a "saloon" on Columbus Avenue and said, "The problem with you, McDonald, is you're too honest."
Catsimatidis looks every bit the supermarket magnate he is: heavyset and balding, with his hair in a fluffy combover. Not merely unprepared, he often appeared totally confused. When asked about Hurricane Sandy he apparently misheard and said, "Candy?" Asked what Brooklyn's greatest transportation need is, he dismissed the whole concept: "What transportation needs? You've got a great subway system."
Bernstein asked every candidate whether the nearby Barclays Center was a good project. Most offered criticism that the promised affordable housing development has not come to fruition. Catsimatidis offered only praise, saying, "I saw Barbara Streisand at the Barclays Center. She did a great job."
Catsimatidis was totally uninterested in pandering to the pro-bike crowd, taking issue with Bloomberg's alternative transportation agenda: "If people want to drive cars, God bless 'em," he declared. "That's what America is all about!" Expanding on his view that driving private cars on public roads without fear of congestion pricing is every Americans' natural right, Catsimatidis explained that he grew up "on the poor side of town, and I dreamed of owning a car. What kind of a car did I dream of owning? A [Pontiac] GTO. Why a GTO? That's what I wanted .... We should not restrict people from having dreams."
The most perplexing segment of the evening came shortly thereafter, when Catsimatidis attacked Quinn for wanting garbage depots to be more evenly spread throughout the city rather than concentrated in poor neighborhoods. Catsimatidis argued that such facilities should be located in less densely populated areas, noting, "If you smell germs, you could get sick," and musing, "What is the definition of smell?"
Catsimatidis is unlikely to have won any votes Monday night, but De Blasio may have. De Blasio seems to embody the white-collar progressive ethos of the area. Dawn Young, 27, an African-American accountant who lives in Windsor Terrace, to Park Slope's southwest, and originally hails from St. Louis, will be voting in her first New York City election this fall. She said she came mainly to hear from De Blasio because, "His politics are more in line with mine."
New York City's Democratic primaries-- all that are likely to matter this year -- are as much about race and geography as ideology. In that way, Quinn is very much cut from the same cloth as many recent mayors: Like Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg, she grew up mostly outside the city and has lived in Manhattan since her arrival. Her main competitors would break with that tradition. Thompson, who is Caribbean-American, grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, later lived in Park Slope, and served as Brooklyn deputy borough president. De Blasio lives in Park Slope, which he represented on the City Council. He even has a dose of gender equality street cred to compete with Quinn: his wife, who is African-American, was a lesbian and gay-rights activist in her youth.
De Blasio also presented the most forceful and wonky left-leaning critique of the Bloomberg/Quinn years, emphasizing his commitment to creating more affordable housing to combat growing inequality and displacement caused by gentrification, and blaming Quinn and Bloomberg for holding up the paid sick-leave bill. And he was the only candidate to invoke his opposition to stop-and-frisk, tying it to a larger disdain for community stakeholders that he says has infected Bloomberg's approach to everything from policing to bike lanes to school reform. De Blasio easily won the most frequent and enthusiastic applause.
Even so, it seemed that the four major contenders -- Quinn, De Blasio, Thompson and Liu -- all offered variations on the same platform. One might call it Bloomberg-lite. They are for bike lanes generally, but think communities should be better consulted and maybe some of the current lanes are misplaced. They are for test-based accountability in schools, but not as much as Bloomberg has introduced. They are for most of the mayor's public-health agenda, but some of them worry that the paternalism may be getting a little out of hand. They want crime to stay low, but to repair community-police relations. It is, perhaps, the natural reaction to the long reign of a strong-willed, high-handed, but largely successful mayor's tenure. It left one wondering whether Weiner, who made his name in New York politics with fiery condemnations of Bloomberg and other Republicans, might have an opening to run after all.