At a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of New York State, four of the five candidates for governor of New York last night took turns describing how they would reform the current “status Cuomo.”
The fifth candidate not present was Governor Andrew Cuomo himself, who skipped the event to hold a telephone town hall to support a state senate candidate.
But also noticeably not present were any of New York’s broadcast media.
Unable to find a broadcast partner, the League of Women Voters courageously carried on, streaming the debate live on social media to a smaller audience. The result was quirky and lacked the slick polish of debates held on commercial television. But the debate was also noticeably short on fireworks and focused largely on policy.
An unconventional format
Rather than have the candidates debate each other, the LWV gave each candidate one minute to answer questions posed by journalists. There were no rebuttals and only occasional follow-up questions. The speaking order had been chosen at random, and remained unchanged for the entire event. The unconventional format, especially when combined with the muscular moderation of Laura Ladd Bierman, kept the debate remarkably on track for ninety minutes.
But the format also led to some staleness in responses. Dodged questions went by without challenge. The repetitive speaking order also got a bit stale. Republican Marc Molinaro was visibly frustrated at times at having to always follow Libertarian Larry Sharpe in the speaking order. Stephanie Miner of the Serve America Movement and Howie Hawkins of the Green Party hardly engaged with any other candidates.
Unexpected levels of agreement
Despite the participants including three third-party candidates and a Republican trailing badly in the polls, most of the policies on offer were conventional or (failing that) at least familiar.
All four candidates favored scrapping the Regional Economic Development Council program, which was described repeatedly as a source of patronage more than actual development. All four voiced support for protecting the trans community, and for digging deeper into Albany’s culture of sexual harassment. And all four wanted to bridge the economic gap between Upstate and Downstate New York.
Howie Hawkins: Green Party
As the only progressive left on the ballot, Hawkins was able to comfortably differentiate himself from the field. He answered all questions with a surefootedness that comes with running a for governor for a third time.
He was in favor of more public housing, clean energy statewide by 2030, restoring the distribution of tax income around the state, and raising taxes on the rich to pay for the many new programs he would like to institute.
Stephanie Miner: Serve America Movement
As the first ever candidate from the well-funded but somewhat mysterious Serve America Movement, this was one of Miner’s best opportunities to set out what her new party stands for.
A former mayor and centrist Democrat, Miner focused on pragmatic solutions, especially improving New York’s infrastructure. She came across like a safe pair of hands who was experienced in government, but more of a technocrat than an inspirational leader.
Without any policies to clearly differentiate her and her party from what is currently on offer elsewhere, it was not made clear why she is the flagship candidate of a new party and not still just a centrist Democrat.
Larry Sharpe: Libertarian Party
By far the most energetic candidate on the panel, Sharpe also set out the most radical set of policy ideas. Although he largely stuck to his one-minute speaking allotments, he consistently gave the impression he could easily keep going for another half hour if the moderators would allow him to.
Sharpe said he wants to drastically shrink government spending to allow tax cuts, reduce regulation to breath new life into local businesses, radically decentralize decision-making for local government, schools, and teachers, and scrap New York’s recent gun control legislation known as the SAFE Act.
Marc Molinaro: Republican Party
He was the only major-party candidate on stage, but Molinaro still wore the Underdog pin he wore to his two-way debate with Andrew Cuomo on CBS last week. He looked decidedly uncomfortable in the opening minutes of the unusual format, but quickly found his feet when he started talking about running government like a business. He came across as a well-meaning, experienced candidate, but was less specific about his policies than any of his opponents.
His best moment was when he explained how he would not let his daughter intern at the state legislature in Albany because of its culture of rampant sexual misconduct. He was passionate and spoke from the heart – qualities lacking from most of his other answers.
The highlight reel
The stilted format of the debate did not generate many electrifying moments, but there were still a handful in the closing statements.
Howie Hawkins calls out the media
The League of Women Voters had worked valiantly to get the debate held at all, but streaming views never exceeded 2,000 during the event itself.
Another 25,000 so far have watched the videos after the fact, but the debate still lacked the reach of even a small television audience. Hawkins made the most direct attack on the absent media and the absent incumbent.
“Shame on Andrew Cuomo for not coming here,” he said in his closing statement to an (against the rules) round of applause. “Shame on the broadcast and cable corporation networks for not broadcasting this, and for bowing down to Cuomo,” he continued, referring to the $850,000 in donations the governor has received from media conglomerates.
“They are acting like state media for the two-party state…they only give you the illusion of choice.”
Molinaro’s use of “status Cuomo”
The most awkward moment of the debate came in the first half of Marc Molinaro’s closing statement, when he used the term “status Cuomo.” The pun has been a regular feature in Shapre’s campaign speeches for weeks, and Larry Sharpe struggled to contain his annoyance at having his line stolen.
“Today, after eight years of the status Cuomo we have the highest tax state in America,” Molinaro said. Off camera, Sharpe could easily be heard saying, “he stole my line!” several times. Molinaro became distracted enough to briefly stop speaking, and the moderator had to ask Sharpe to desist.
Sharpe’s call for Molinaro to drop out
Citing the overwhelming numbers of Sharpe supporters in the audience as evidence, Sharpe insisted he can win the election on November 6th. He was also the only candidate to set out a roadmap for victory.
Perhaps referring to Molinaro’s unpopularity with some of the Republican base, Sharpe argued that the most effective way to defeat Governor Cuomo was for Molinaro to call it quits.
“If I drop out today, guess who wins? Cuomo does,” he said.
“If they drop out today,” he said, pointing to Hawkins and Miner, “guess who wins? Cuomo does.”
“If you drop out today,” he said, turning to Molinaro, “guess who wins? I do!”
Molinaro did not respond.
In an earlier version of this article we stated that Marc Molinaro did not wear his Underdog pin during the debate. Mr Molinaro has since confirmed to us that he did in fact wear it. We regret the error.
See the full League of Women Voters of New York State debate below: