The candidates vying to become the next governor of New York gave the Empire State plenty of entertainment Monday night.
The five minor party candidates participating in the debate stole the spotlight, and inserted smatterings of comic relief, audacious zingers and alternative viewpoints in an honestly riveting 90-minute discussion at Hofstra University.
Joining Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Carl Paladino on a crowded stage Monday night at Hofstra University on Long Island were NYC councilman Charles Barron of the Freedom Party; Kristin Davis, the former "Manhattan madam," of the Anti-Prohibition Party and former truck driver Howie Hawkins of the Green Party.
Davis at one point called all Albany politicians "whores," and said she was the only one with the experience to deal with them.
Also participating were Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is 2 Damn High Party; and Warren Redlich of the Libertarian Party.
McMillan stuck to the theme for which he is running, repeatedly stating the name of his party/platform.
At another hysterical moment near the end of the debate, Cuomo agreed with McMillan, saying, "The rent IS too damn high!"
The debate seemed to be a good move for Cuomo, who, despite being repeatedly attacked by the fringe candidates, never really had to defend himself seriously -- and seemed to actually enjoy the circus atmosphere.
But the event could be chalked up to a loss or a draw for Paladino, who seemed uncomfortable, inattentive and really had no opportunity to shine.
Cuomo repeatedly criticized the government now run by his party, and harkened to a time past when he said New York state government was considered a model for other states. He praised past leadership, although he didn't specifically note his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Cuomo spoke in detail with confidence on every subject, appearing more composed than Paladino and playing to the crowd more than the others at the Hofstra University debate, which included five minor party candidates.
"I know this state like nobody else on this stage," Cuomo said. "I understand the disgust with Albany, and I share it."
But the former federal housing secretary then added: "No state has anything on New York, and we're going to make this the Empire State again, don't make any mistake about that."
Paladino, a Buffalo developer, said state government doesn't need tweaking, but rather a major overhaul that scares career politicians like Cuomo.
"My critics," Paladino said, "want to say I'm crazy."
"No, I'm passionate," he said. He then ticked off his platform: cutting spending by 20 percent, cutting taxes by 10 percent, term limits of eight years for state officials, disclosure of all outside income to identify conflicts of interest and the appointment a special prosecutor to investigate the Legislature.
"My plan scares them to death," Paladino said. "You tell me if I'm crazy."
In the first and only scheduled debate of the nasty campaign, neither Cuomo nor Paladino targeted the other, although some of the minor party candidates took shots at both major party candidates.
Paladino, in his first public debate, stumbled early in his answers. At one point he referred to the state Board of Regents as the state school board, which doesn't exist. He struggled with some statistics while Cuomo rattled off others.
But Paladino became more confident halfway through the 90-minute debate, striking his fist to his heart at times and leaning into the camera.
"Jobs are the No. 1 concern of our young people today," Paladino said, citing how taxes and over-regulation of businesses are forcing an exodus of young New Yorkers.
"They don't have that grounded feeling anymore," he said. "They want a government of the people, by the people and for the people and that's what we will give them."
Cuomo elicited the first laughs of the night while providing statistics that defined New York's problems and his solutions.
"I think the question in this race is who can actually do it? Who can get it done?" Cuomo asked, a stab at Paladino, a novice politician whose temperament for office has been questioned. "I have gotten a lot of legislation passed."
Yet Paladino wasn't the only novice, nor was he the only candidate whom might be labled "crazy" by detractors.
McMillan, while short on specifics on how he would implement his policies, nevertheless stuck to his platform, repeatedly calling for lower rents in public and private housing. Although the audience of more than 1,000 in Hofstra's basketball arena were repeatedly asked to remain silent during the discussion, they occasionally joined in McMillan's mantra that "rent is too damn high."
Others who seem unlikely to be in the winner's circle on Election Night nevertheless stuck to their niche issues.
Barron, the outspoken New York City councilman and a former member of the Black Panther Party, called for a progressive tax system that would target the wealthy. "How about taking it out on the rich?" he asked. "They have more money, they should pay more."
Redlich railed about the size of state government and groused that 110,000 state employees earn more than $100,000 a year. "We have to stop wasting money," he said. "If you stop wasting money, you will have more money in your pockets."
Hawkins called for public financing of elections as a solution to corruption in state government. He also urged a progressive tax system.
Davis, who supports legalizing marijuana and casino gambling, drew the biggest gasp from the audience when she was asked about addressing waste and fraud at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York City agency that operates the subway system and commuter railroads.
"The only difference between my former business and the MTA is I operated one set of books," she said. "And my agency delivered on-time and reliable service."