By JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — The Republican candidates for New York mayor clashed frequently Wednesday in a spirited debate punctuated by testy exchanges over the best methods for maintaining the city's record-low crime rates.
Joe Lhota, the race's front-runner, deemed the funding for rival John Catsimaditis' plan to station police officers in high-crime public-housing buildings as unrealistic.
"I was budget director of the City of New York," said Lhota, a deputy mayor in former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration. "Don't make up numbers."
When Catsimatidis, who's bidding to become the city's second consecutive billionaire mayor, sharply denied that claim, Lhota exclaimed, "Why are you so angry?"
"I'm not," Catsimatidis yelled.
The debate, the first of two in the final 13 days before the primary, included longshot candidate George McDonald, who founded a nonprofit organization to help homeless people find jobs.
All the Republican candidates defended the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk practice, a defining issue in the campaign.
The tactic's supporters, who include independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, believe it has driven down crime. Its critics, including all the Democratic candidates for mayor, say it discriminates against blacks and Latinos. A judge has ordered a federal monitor to oversee it.
The GOP candidates, all white, were asked what they would do if their child were stopped by police.
McDonald said his son "wouldn't be stopped" because he lives in an affluent neighborhood. Catsimatidis said he believed the tactic would soon be replaced thanks to improvements in technology.
And Lhota said his first move would be to read his daughter the court decision that justifies stop-and-frisk.
Lhota was credited with steering the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city's transit system, through Hurricane Sandy last fall. He immediately became the favorite — and a fundraising juggernaut — when he entered the race this year.
But Catsimatidis remains within striking distance.
In a recent Marist College survey, Catsimatidis trailed Lhota 33 percent to 22 percent, though the small sample size of 132 likely Republican primary voters produced a margin of error of 8.5 percentage points. Additionally, 30 percent were undecided.
Catsimatidis, who is worth $3 billion and owns an oil refinery and the Gristedes supermarket chain, has spent $4 million of his own money in the race and promises more. His latest ad attacks Lhota for calling Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police officers "mall cops."
Catsimatidis and McDonald also had several verbal dust-ups, one of which prompted McDonald to quote Lloyd Bentsen from his 1988 vice presidential debate with Dan Quayle.
"I know Mike Bloomberg," McDonald said. "Mike Bloomberg is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Mike Bloomberg."
Catsimatidis laughed, saying, "He's certainly worth a lot more money than I am."
There were a few other light moments, including when the candidates were asked if they would follow Bloomberg's lead and serve for $1.
Lhota and McDonald quickly said no. Catsimatidis said he'd serve for 99 cents "because I'm a grocer."
The primary is Sept 10. The general election, which will also include independent Adolfo Carrion Jr., is Nov. 5.
Among Democrats, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has opened up a significant lead, according to a new poll. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and ex-comptroller Bill Thompson are fighting for second place. Former congressman Anthony Weiner, whose support collapsed amid a sexting scandal, and Comptroller John Liu are trailing.
In the Republican debate, Lhota also disparaged an Associated Press report saying the NYPD designated mosques as terrorist organizations to justify increased surveillance.
He claimed the AP reporters were "being ginned up" by people who "don't know the law." The report cited classified police documents.