Debate: 2 of 3 Ain't Bad

For Thursday's mayoral debate, at least, showtime was outside the Apollo, and early. Dozens of Freddy Ferrer backers chanted and waved signs near the entrance, as supporters of the Independence Party retorted with cries of "Bloomberg on C … Bloomberg on C." Despite the mayor's publicly stated rationale for skipping the event—that it came too early for voters to pay attention—his campaign sent out press releases for a "rally" an hour before the debate's start, and there were Bloomberg posters on lightposts for blocks around. Of course there were Ferrer signs, too; unfortunately, they were often placed right above ads for a new album, and the combination read "Fernando Ferrer … Slim Thug." When a Bloomberg supporter wandered too close to the Ferrer throng, luring TV cameras, some of the Democrats' backers tried to box him out. Cops had to hustle him away. "He donated money here," the guy, Harlem resident Calvin Hunt, said when asked why he liked the mayor. "The Democratic party at this time is putting all this bad press in the black community."

In a statement handed to reporters, Lenora Fulani explained that the important thing happening Thursday was "the Black community … debating its own political future and taking new steps, independent steps, to make it better." In a flyer the Independents were handing out, though, the debate seemed to be over: The mock-newspaper Harlem Outsider declared, "Black Community Says: 'We Won't Be Fooled.' "

The mood inside the Apollo wasn't quite that monolithic. Ferrer had a large and loud contingent, but Bloomberg supporters were in the seats as well; some muttered "Diallo … Diallo" during Ferrer's answers. Even Conservative Tom Ognibene, eloquent in anger and seeming to tower over Ferrer, got his share of hoots and hollers for lines like, "The mayor's a different kind of Republican: He's a hypocrite," and "It's clear that the mayor responds to political pressure when he should have done the right thing in the beginning and that's what's disgraceful," though Ognibene lost the crowd when he praised Dubya or Rudy.

Amid generalities and attacks on the absent mayor, the two men—separated by an empty podium—managed to get to some specifics. Ferrer argued that the luxury decontrol threshold of $2,000 for rent control was outdated, and that job creation depended on ending ticket blitzes and getting small business owners easier access to capital. Ferrer supported metal detectors in schools, but wants to let kids use cellphones at school. Ognibene advocated that the city identify growth sectors of the economy and tweak high schools to train kids for those jobs. He also wants to move small apartment buildings into a lower tax bracket and declare a moratorium on new development in residential areas.

But hey, specifics, schemifics. Let's get to the lighting round: Both Ferrer and Ognibene like Bloomberg personally, have never been fired, oppose the use of eminent domain at Atlantic Yards, do not own an Ipod, feel the overall quality of life for most New Yorkers has not increased in the past four years, believe Al Sharpton is a positive influence in the city, feel the death penalty is appropriate in some cases (Ferrer would later say he meant only for Osama bin Laden), feel cabs should be allowed a gas surcharge and that drinking ought to be legal at the beach, have never watched desperate housewives, and play the lottery. Ferrer admitted he smoked pot but thinks it should still be illegal to possess it for personal use; Ognibene said he never touched pot but doesn't think it ought to be illegal. Ognibene likes Donald Trump and Ed Koch; Ferrer punted on Trump and thumbs-downed Koch. They split on rent control, teacher pay versus cop pay, gay marriages, where cops should live, welfare fingerprinting, and the Iraq war.

The audience began to leave before the closing statements were over. As the telecast ended, Ognibene pleaded with the crowd to demand that he be allowed into the next one.

Oddly, the security staff at the event prevented reporters from carrying a tool of trade, their handheld tape recorders, in to the theater. This prevented me from making a bootleg copy of the evening's events. For those who were hoping to score one, I'm sorry.

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