NEW YORK (AP) — New York City mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota debated for a final time, offering starkly different leadership styles for the very different versions of the future they see for the nation's largest city.
De Blasio, a Democrat who has a commanding lead in the polls, argued Wednesday night that Lhota, a Republican was unresponsive to a city he believes is desperate for a change in philosophy and tone after 12 years with Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the helm. An unabashed liberal, de Blasio contended that a Lhota administration would do little to combat the rising tension between the NYPD and minority communities or the city's widening income inequality gap.
"It would look very much the same as today," he said. "A lot of the problems that we're experiencing right now that have gone unaddressed by Mayor Bloomberg would go unaddressed by Mr. Lhota."
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," adding 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."
Their vast differences in management style also were on display in the debate's opening minutes, which were dominated by the one-year anniversary of the devastating landfall of Superstorm Sandy. The storm killed 44 people across the five boroughs.
De Blasio, the city's public advocate, stressed the need for more involvement at "the grassroots level," and touted the need to include neighborhood organizations in efforts to help those still left struggling from the storm's effects.
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. "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 Superstorm Sandy. Many of the city's coastal neighborhoods, particularly on Staten Island in the Rockaways, are still trying 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.
They fought again over stop-and-frisk, the NYPD tactic that allows police to question anyone deemed suspicious. 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 candidates also clashed on everything from the future of charter schools to the upcoming contract negotiations with city unions. But the showdown covered a lot of familiar ground as each candidate trotted out well-worn lines.
Voters go to the polls on Tuesday.
Reach Jonathan Lemire on Twitter: @JonLemire