Mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio skipped last night's first general election debate, but his presence loomed large as candidates Joe Lhota and Adolfo Carrion Jr. agreed on most issues and criticized their missing Democratic rival.
Independence Party candidate Carrion said de Blasio's failure to participate in the debate hosted by NY1 and WNYC, among others, was "disrespectful to the voters."
Lhota, a Republican, used his first statement to reference de Blasio as "our Democratic opponent who's not here tonight." He later took him to task for opposing charter schools, seeking to raise taxes on the wealthy and not having a solid plan to boost the economy and create jobs.
Former Bronx Borough President Carrion argued for expanding charter schools and affordable housing, increasing the $7.25 hourly minimum wage, improving infrastructure and investing in high-tech.
Both Carrion and Lhota stressed their working-class New York roots and need to keep crime down and employment rising. They did not attack each other during the hourlong debate at the CUNY Graduate School in midtown four weeks ahead of the Nov. 5 election.
Many lines of questioning, however, led back to de Blasio.
Moderator Errol Louis, of NY1, asked Carrion and Lhota to pose a question to de Blasio. Carrion went after de Blasio's signature proposal to hike taxes on the wealthy to fund universal prekindergarten and after-school programs.
"If you don't succeed, will you keep your commitment to the children of New York City and offer free universal pre-K?" Carrion asked after indicating he believed Albany would not sign off on de Blasio's tax plan, which he called "a pandering game with the public."
Lhota pressed: "Bill, if you're out there listening . . . how can you call yourself a progressive if you're so opposed to charter schools?"
De Blasio has a commanding 50 percentage point lead over Lhota and twice as much money raised, according to the campaigns' latest disclosures. Lhota had 19 percent in the latest poll and Carrion was at 2 percent.
In explaining his refusal to participate in the forum, de Blasio's campaign noted that there have not been more than two mayoral debates held since the 1980s. De Blasio plans to participate in televised debates next Tuesday, as well as on Oct. 22 and Oct. 29.
Experts said it's common for front-runners to limit participation in debates, adding that de Blasio has nothing to gain by doing so.
"Conceivably, they could get into a fight about something that brings him [de Blasio] down to their [his rivals'] level. You always run a risk in a debate," political consultant Joseph Mercurio cautioned. "Given the polling numbers for the other two guys and given the government shutdown in Washington is destroying the Republican brand, I don't think it will be noticed by the public at all."
While some New Yorkers agree that it won't hurt de Blasio, they still would have liked to see him in the mix Wednesday night. Nonpartisan John Kilbane, 24, of Cobble Hill, said he understands why "it might be a smart move," but added that "it's arrogant."
After the debate, Lhota told reporters: "It's unfortunate that he [de Blasio] wants to diss the people of the City of New York this way." De Blasio had no immediate comment on the debate.
With Ivan Pereira