JONATHAN LEMIRE | AP
NEW YORK (AP) — With the election to choose the next mayor of New York City less than a week away, leading contenders Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota met for their third and final debate Wednesday, a showdown marked by a series of contentious exchanges and somber tributes to the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
The historic storm, which killed 44 people across the five boroughs, dominated the early stages of the debate and offered a window into the vastly different management styles the candidates would implement if chosen to follow outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
De Blasio, a Democrat and the public advocate, stressed the need for more involvement at "the grassroots level," and touted the need to involve neighborhood organizations.
Lhota was steering the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the time of the storm and received kudos for his handling of the crisis, from which the vast commuter network largely escaped unscathed. Drawing upon that experience, he pushed for the need for greater top-down management during a crisis.
"The city of New York was not fully prepared for what happened a year ago; they were prepared for the evacuation, not for the aftermath," said Lhota, a Republican. "When I was running the MTA at the same time we planned for any kind of emergency."
The debate was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed a day out of respect for the anniversary of the storm's landfall. Many of the city's coastal neighborhoods, particularly on Staten Island in the Rockaways, are still struggling to rebuild.
Both candidates said they largely support Bloomberg's $20 billion resiliency plan to fortify the city against future storms. But those moments of agreement were rare in a debate that frequently turned testy.
Lhota, a former deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani, repeatedly called de Blasio a "polished politician" and questioned his opponent's signature campaign promise to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten. The plan would require the approval of the state legislature and de Blaiso has not offered an alternative to pay for the program.
De Blasio claimed that "leaders get people to buy into a vision and then achieve the vision," claiming that he would be able to persuade Albany to pass his tax hike. Lhota, however, suggested that effective "leaders not only have a Plan B, they have a Plan C."
The debate may have represented Lhota's last, best chance to put himself in position to pull off a historic upset on Election Day.
But the showdown covered a lot of familiar ground and lacked the genuine anger that punctuated the last debate, as each candidate trotted out well-worn lines. It did, however, trigger a heated exchange when Lhota again suggested that the city "will have an increase in crime" if de Blasio is elected.
De Blasio instead charged that the problems of stop-and-frisk, the police procedure that allows cops to stop anyone acting suspicious, would increase if Lhota wins.
"He wants to keep the same police commissioner and same procedures," said de Blasio, arguing that relations with minority neighborhoods would grow even more strained.
Stop-and-frisk has been one of the flashpoints of the entire campaign. The program's critics, including de Blasio, believe it unfairly targets black and Latino men, while its supporters like Lhota give it some credit for the city's historic drop in crime.
The men also clashed on everything from the future of charter schools — Lhota supports them, de Blasio has reservations — to the upcoming contract negotiations with every city union — Lhota has ruled out retroactive raises, de Blasio has not — to de Blasio's resume, which Lhota claims is full of "mid-level jobs."
But Lhota has yet to mount a serious threat to de Blasio and a new Quinnipiac University poll released hours before the debate underscored his bleak prospects. Though Lhota shaved five percentage points off de Blasio's lead in 10 days, he still trails by a whopping 39 points, 65 percent to 26 percent.
The new poll, which surveyed 728 likely voters and has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, is the first time the public advocate's lead has shrunk to less than 40 points.
Though several independent candidates will be on the general election ballot, they failed to make fundraising and polling thresholds and, therefore, were barred from the 90-minute debate, which was sponsored by WNBC, The Wall Street Journal, Telemundo and the city's campaign finance board. The first 60 minutes were shown on broadcast TV while the final half-hour was on cable and streamed online.