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The New York City mayoral candidates have met so many times before so many audiences that their five-borough road show resembles a local version of last year's marathon string of Republican presidential primary debates.
On Wednesday, a forum aimed at the so-called millennial generation, featuring a turnout largely of young, minority professionals, produced an unusual blend of comic banter and somber discussion.
The levity had much to do with former Gov. David A. Paterson serving as master of ceremonies.
After arriving an hour late, Paterson, who is legally blind, stated: "This reminds me of the first day I became governor. I don't know where I am."
When someone in the audience of several hundred shouted, "You're in good hands!" Paterson replied, "Exactly!" before turning to moderator Roy Paul and asking loudly, "What did he say?"
It was as if Groucho Marx seized the rostrum. After Paterson caught himself erroneously identifying Comptroller John Liu as the public advocate -- a post occupied by rival mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio -- he explained, "They look so much alike," knowing that they do not.
Getting into the act, De Blasio said he'd been mistaken for Liu so often he began signing Liu's name. "Be careful," Liu mock-warned. "I started to do it," de Blasio continued. "Then I got calls from some federal authorities." This prompted scattered "oohs" in light of the ongoing criminal trial of two people who were involved in Liu's fundraising (both convicted Thursday). De Blasio shrugged, spread his hands, and said: "It's a joke!"
At another point, former Comptroller Bill Thompson said: "It is great to be here as part of David Paterson's comedy jam."
The mood turned from giddy to serious when Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell -- who was killed in a controversial 2006 police shooting -- was introduced to ask a question about NYPD tactics.
Each candidate responded solicitously toward her. They recited critiques on stop-and-frisk policies and community-police relations. All four candidates present rebuked Mayor Michael Bloomberg's suggestion a day earlier that those who support a bill establishing a police inspector general are courting vulnerability to terrorism.
And when Faiza N. Ali of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York raised the issue of police surveillance on mosques and student organizations, all four candidates warned against surveillance of people who aren't criminal suspects.
Other moments in the forum told you how long the campaign season has already become.
Sal Albanese began to answer a question about a city-backed proposal for a soccer arena in the middle of Flushing Meadows Park with his familiar pitch that he doesn't take contributions from developers or lobbyists. Thompson, seated beside him, conspicuously rolled his eyes.
Outside the forum, the group calling itself "Anybody But Quinn" waved posters and distributed leaflets. Their target, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea), wasn't there.
For Paterson, this only meant more standup material.
At the end of the program, Paterson withdrew a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket, indicating it was a position paper from Quinn that he was about to read in her absence. Then he brought it up to his face for closer inspection.
"A subpoena!" he said. "No, that's not it!"