The Democratic candidates competing for New York City public advocate argued about their qualifications for the job and several sought to explain their spotty voting records Sunday during an official debate on NBC 4 New York.
The candidates who met the criteria to participate in Sunday's 90-minute faceoff were Deputy Public Advocate and former Wall Street lawyer Reshma Saujani, State Sen. Daniel Squadron, City Councilwoman Letitia James and university professor Catherine Guerriero.
Check back here Monday to watch the entire debate online.
Board of Elections records
show Guerriero hasn't voted in the last three city elections, Squadron didn't vote in the 2001 or 2005 primaries and Saujani didn't register to vote until 2006, four years after she moved to New York City. James voted in all city elections, records show.
Guerriero said she had no excuse: "There's no good answer to that, other than it didn't happen," she said.
Squadron said the records appeared to differ from his recollection, and Saujani said she wasn't sure if the records were right, but added that when she first came to New York City, she "didn't know if I was going to stay."
Throughout the debate, James and Saujani clashed a number of times, and in one memorable moment, James attacked Saujani for running against Rep. Carolyn Maloney in a 2010 congressional primary.
Saujani called the attack, apparently based on the fact that she was a woman challenging a woman, "backward thinking."
"It doesn't matter, it's important for us to run. That is backwards feminism to say that women shouldn't run against women," Saujani said.
She then lobbed her own attack, questioning James for running for City Council against the brother of the late Councilman James Davis, who was shot and killed inside City Hall in 2003.
James appeared to be taken aback by the remark and said she had been a "reluctant candidate" in that race.
Guerriero tried to use her time in the debate to cast herself as the untested outsider running against three others who are part of the political establishment. She repeatedly followed up others' answers by suggesting that they were giving typical politician responses.
"I'm running against three politicians, three politicians who don't even know, even their best sense, how to answer a question when actually asked," she said at one point.
The debate kicked off by asking the candidates to defend the very existence of the office.
The public advocate is the city's ombudsman, and is second in line to the mayor. The position is relatively new -- there have been just three since it was created. There have been calls for it to be eliminated; many say the public advocate has very little actual power, and a tiny budget of about $2 million.
Some New Yorkers told NBC 4 New York they had no idea what the public advocate does. A video of their responses was played for the candidates.
"Well, I mean, I don't, uh, that's different from a public defender, right?" said one woman.
"I'll be honest with you, I do not know," said another man.
Guerriero acknowledged the office is "much-maligned, much-misunderstood," but is crucial to serving citizens and answering their complaints.
"It's not sexy but it's real," she said.
Saujani said it needs a makeover.
"There is an opportunity right now to reinvent the office," she said.
The candidates did find some common ground -- when asked whether city employees who have been working without contracts should get retroactive pay raises under the next administration, which would cost billions of dollars, all said the option should be on the table.
"These are not gifts, this is what they've earned," Guerriero said.
"I support them being on the table but I don't know how we can afford them," Squadron said.
Three candidates refused to say who they will support for mayor; Guerriero said she will vote for former Comptroller Bill Thompson.
A recent NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal poll found more than half of Democrats said they were undecided. James had an apparent lead with 16 percent of respondents' support, while her closest rival was Guerriero at 12 percent. Squadron had 9 percent and Saujani had 3 percent.
The Sept. 10 primary is likely to be the deciding vote for public advocate, because there is no Republican contender for the November general election.
NBC 4 New York is also sponsoring and airing the top contender Democratic mayoral debate at 7 p.m. on Sept. 3, the top contender Republican mayoral debate at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 8 and the final general election mayoral debate at 7 p.m. on Oct. 29.
Published at 9:32 AM EDT on Aug 25, 2013 | Updated at 9:09 AM EDT on Aug 26, 2013