It's hard to believe but David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani never debated each other in the historic mayor's races of 1989 and 1993. In response to that lack of political discourse in two incredibly important elections, the city's Campaign Finance Board – then in its infancy – responded by requiring that any citywide candidates who take public matching funds must debate.
Since 1997, the candidates have squared off in a variety of settings from antiseptic TV studios to the Apollo Theater to El Museo Del Barrio. (You can geek out by watching them on the Finance Board's comprehensive YouTube channel.) Some have been memorable (Gifford Miller calling out to his wife to help him answer a question in 2005) while others have had their embarrassing moments (Eric Ruano-Melendez singing the national anthem in 1997). But they've all been important.
With the plethora of mayoral forums and debates already under our belts, many of us in the political class forget that the average New Yorker doesn't know that Mayor Bloomberg isn't up for re-election – let alone that there are at least ten candidates on the ballot to succeed him next year. While I don't think any of these past debates have changed the outcome of the election, they've done a terrific job of educating voters and also making them aware that they've got to make some important decisions in September and November.
Along with several other media outlets and civic groups, NY1 and NY1 Noticias yesterday were awarded sponsorship of some of this fall's debates. (So if this also serves as a shameless plug, so be it.) But you have to commend a program that forces the candidates to debate – and also prevent the kind of circus-like forum that Andrew Cuomo took part in during the governor's race in 2010 in which five minor-party candidates were also on stage.
Perhaps one of the few mistakes that Mayor Bloomberg made in his re-election campaign in 2005 was deciding to opt out of the board's debate at the Apollo Theater. (Because he was a self-funded candidate, Bloomberg wasn't required to participate.) The negative stories about his absence at that forum in Harlem I think were a major factor in Bloomberg's decision to take part in the board's debate at El Museo del Barrio in 2009. Regardless, almost all of the candidates are enrolled in the program this year so it seems unlikely that there will be an empty podium on stage like there was in 2005.
Finally, if you have a hankering for a debate before August (another plug here) NY1, NY1 Noticias and the Latino Leadership Institute are sponsoring a Democratic debate in the mayor's race next week at Hunter College on Latino issues. We'll be broadcasting it live at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. So turn on, tune in, and wonk out.