NYC mayoral candidates aimed to dent Andrew Yang's lead

First debate for 2021 New York City mayoral candidates.

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book "Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich and the Rise of the New Republican Party." Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)The eight Democrats running for mayor of New York City duked it out on television Thursday night in their first debate. Eager to hold a job that many Americans would be desperate to avoid, city residents had the opportunity to hear about each of their visions for the coming years.

In an awkward virtual format -- filled with accidental muted moments and awkwardly raised hands -- the candidates tried to outline their plans for the future. All of them were determined to chip away at former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang's lead, emphasizing why concrete ideas and experience matter more than enthusiasm and media savvy. They took on Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the other top candidate, who tried to remain steady as he was accused of being a Republican.
Most of the candidates are probably pleased that they clearly made a dent in Yang's standing. Adams is probably feeling relatively good about his performance. He continued to present himself as the coalitional candidate with experience who could balance these objectives, while delivering some sharp blows to his opponents. Maya Wiley demonstrated her impressive command of policy as a progressive who could achieve mainstream appeal, while former Citigroup executive Raymond McGuire was able to define his candidacy and capacity as a political leader in clearer terms. Building on her endorsement by the New York Times editorial board, Kathryn Garcia conveyed her deep experience and command of the city's problems.
    Not surprisingly, there is considerable interest outside the city in the competition. What would usually be a local event is becoming national. Besides the presence of Yang, the condition of New York in many ways reflects how we all are as a nation in the aftermath of Covid-19. The city was one of the hardest hit during the terrible months of March, April and May 2020, when hospitals were overflowing with dying patients and the economy was reeling as a result of the shutdown. The issues in the New York City area are relevant all over the country, from how to grow small businesses, to how to fix public education, to how to reform policing.
      To be sure, there were issues specific to this race. Questions emerged about sexual harassment allegations against progressive city Comptroller Scott Stringer. Stringer has denied the allegations. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was pressed on the funding that he has received through his family, via a PAC, as a test of his commitment to campaign finance. There were also debates about signage costs and small businesses that are very particular to those of us who reside here. There were predictable debates about the value of charisma and media savvy versus deep experience and concrete ideas.
      But at the heart of Thursday's debate was a question facing the entire country: how to deal with the structural challenges that were front and center before March 2020, such as economic inequality, racial injustice and affordable housing, to moving the economy into a better and stable place.
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        What all of the candidates made clear, in different ways, is that these issues will go hand in hand, and this is a lesson everyone in the nation must learn. Whether we were hearing from McGuire explain his ideas for reforming the police or Wiley emphasizing the importance of curbing gun violence, New York City -- a strongly Democratic city -- made it clear that we need to have both. Economic recovery without reform won't work. The new normal has to be better than the old normal or we simply can't thrive.
        In the end, however, the candidate who can better outline what this balance will be is very likely to be the winner of the nomination. If one of the candidates in New York can really show how to do this, the city can emerge as a model for every state in the nation.