Sparring like old, familiar foes, Republican Joseph Lhota and Democrat Bill de Blasio clashed Wednesday in their final debate before next week's mayoral election, rehashing many of the same attacks from prior encounters but without the same level of hostility.
The debate centered on taxes and crime, with Lhota warning that both would increase under de Blasio.
"Bill's proposals are quite naive and actually will turn us back to a time we don’t want to go to," said Lhota, a former deputy mayor and chairman of the MTA.
De Blasio, the city's public advocate and a former city councilman, argued that the income inequalities that widened under Mayor Bloomberg would continue to fester with Lhota.
"It would look very much the same as today," de Blasio said.
When Lhota repeated his warning that crime would rise under de Blasio, the Democrat accused Lhota of lacking faith in the NYPD.
Lhota said that wasn't true, but added: "Crime will go up."
Even with those confrontations, the debate lacked the fire of their second debate, held last week. Gone were the accusations from de Blasio that Lhota was "fear mongering." Also absent were Lhota's earlier complaints that de Blasio was only interested in attacking him. And the candidates largely avoided talking over each other.
In the end, Lhota did not appear to deliver the knockout blow that many believe he needed to change the momentum of the race, which polls show de Blasio is leading by more than 40 percentage points.
Time and again, Lhota sought to portray himself as the more competent leader, who helped lead the city through its biggest disasters — 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. He complained that he didn't get enough credit for that. He also insisted that de Blasio's characterization of him as a typical Republican, and as insensitive to the troubles of struggling New Yorkers, was inaccurate.
"I actually believe I have the experience to keep this city safe and secure and solvent," Lhota said.
De Blasio, who is hoping to become the first Democrat elected mayor since 1989, largely stuck to his expected script: keep pressure on Lhota, but don't come across as mean, and don't commit any quotable gaffes.
His fallback line of attack, as in prior debates and in his television ads, was to link Lhota to the national GOP, which is largely unpopular in New York, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1.
De Blasio accused Lhota — who said he would push for a reduction in the property tax, and would consider a reform of corporate taxes — of espousing Republican-style "trickle-down" tax plans.
Lhota said that wasn't true.
He argued that de Blasio's signature campaign promise, to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten, was unrealistic because it depended on support from state lawmakers during an election year.
Lhota warned that the proposal would lead to tax hikes on the middle class.
"If he can't get a tax in Albany, he'll tax something else," Lhota said.
De Blasio said he was only focused on the one tax proposal. And he cited a New York Times endorsement that expressed support of his plan.
But when pressed about what he'd do if the tax proposal was defeated in Albany, de Blasio dodged.
"Anyone who's a leader doesn't start talking about plan Bs, plan Cs. You talk about how you're going to get it done," de Blasio said.
Lhota pounced, saying the response illustrated de Blasio's managerial inexperience.
"Real leaders not only have a plan B but also a plan C," Lhota said.
The men still managed to agree several times, most memorably on extending mayoral control of the board of education.
"That’s our 'Kumbaya' moment," de Blasio said.
"Can we sing?" Lhota quipped.
"I think it would reduce viewership immediately if we were to sing," de Blasio replied.
The debate wasn't all well-tread ground. The candidates outlined their differences on charter schools, with Lhota calling for an aggressive expansion of them, and de Blasio pledging not to add any new ones. De Blasio said he disagreed with city subsidies that allowed Fresh Direct to develop a distribution center in the South Bronx. Lhota, who supports the subsidies, said it helped avoid the loss of many jobs.
When the candidates were asked to pose a question directly to their opponent, de Blasio brought up Lhota's remarks on television last week that income inequality wasn't a problem. Lhota said the quote was taken out of context, and he insisted he believed that income inequality was a problem.
When Lhota got his turn, he raised a recent New York Post report that de Blasio oversaw a unit of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at a time when the agency lost $23 million to fraud. De Blasio said none of the scams occurred during his watch.
Toward the end of the debate, when de Blasio described the administration of Rudy Giuliani as divisive, Lhota defended his former boss' record. De Blasio countered that the response showed Lhota didn't understand "what life in the city was like."
"Don't tell me I don't know what it means to be a New Yorker," Lhota said.
Then, alluding to the fact that de Blasio was raised for a time in Massachusetts, said, "How are things in Cambridge lately?"
At another point, Lhota acknowledged the challenge of coming from behind to beat de Blasio in the final days of the campaign.
He compared the race to the movie "Rocky IV" in which the title character takes on a highly favored Russian named Drago.
"I'm the underdog here, no question about it," Lhota said.