National News

Shout, Joust, Attack, Shout Again: The Governor’s Race Debate

Posted October 23, 2018 10:02 p.m. EDT
Updated October 23, 2018 10:06 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It started with a coin toss and ended with a song request. But in the hour between, the first and only debate between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Republican opponent, Marcus Molinaro, devolved into a shouting match in which discussions about New York’s challenges were largely eclipsed by name-calling and aspersions about the other’s record.

Molinaro tried to seize his hour of prime-time television (the debate, held Tuesday afternoon at the CBS studios in Manhattan, was aired on tape delay at 7 p.m.) to highlight the corruption and tax increases that he said have been endemic to the current administration. Cuomo batted away those attacks, focusing instead on casting Molinaro, a former state assemblyman and current Dutchess County executive, as a devotee of President Donald Trump.

“Do you support Donald Trump?” Cuomo asked Molinaro at least four times, ignoring the moderators’ attempts to rein him in — a tactic repeatedly adopted by both men.

“Let’s get out of this conversation,” Molinaro replied.

“Do you support Donald Trump?” Cuomo pressed again. “You can’t answer it.”

“Excuse me, sir, you’re acting like a schoolchild,” Molinaro said later.

Molinaro undoubtedly had more to accomplish. With a 23-point deficit in the polls and disheartening name recognition among voters, he had declared his hope of using the debate to introduce himself and his policies to New Yorkers, complete with details about his childhood on food stamps and the intricacies of his tax reform plan.

But he barely got a chance. The debate almost immediately turned into a sometimes-unintelligible contest of verbal perseverance, and it was Cuomo who more often seemed to outlast Molinaro in terms of sheer refusal to stop talking.

Molinaro, 43, tried to project civility and calm, unfailingly calling Cuomo “sir” and prefacing his remarks “with all due respect,” even as he launched into caustic attacks on Cuomo’s record. Cuomo, 60, addressed his opponent as “Marc” and, sarcastically, “my friend.”

Molinaro’s disadvantage was personified on his chest: He wore a pin of the cartoon character Underdog, an accessory he has consistently sported on the campaign trail. Cuomo wore a pin of the New York state seal.

The differences in demeanor may speak to the challenges for Republicans running for statewide office in New York, especially this year. Molinaro did not explicitly disavow Trump, and he did not mention that he did not vote for him in 2016, even though he has made that point in other contexts. But he also sought to present himself as a genteel moderate who was willing to reach across the aisle.

“I’m going to lift us up,” Molinaro said, “by toning it down and working across party lines.”

Cuomo, by contrast, fully embraced the anti-Trump sentiment that is animating the Democratic base around the country, dismissing a question about whether political discourse had descended too low.

“There are no nice words to take care of this,” the governor said of the Trump administration’s policies.

That could have been a motto for the debate. The two men spent much of the debate calling the other a liar or a hypocrite: Molinaro on Cuomo’s declarations that he had enacted a 2 percent cap on annual spending increases; Cuomo on Molinaro’s stated commitment to support women’s rights.

While the governor had not played the aggressor in his debate against his primary election opponent, Cynthia Nixon, he eagerly took on that role with Molinaro. At times, Cuomo even seemed to take it upon himself to moderate, as the actual moderators — Marcia Kramer of WCBS-TV and Rich Lamb of the station’s radio affiliate — were at times reduced to spectators, despite their best efforts. (“Don’t make me punch you out,” Kramer jokingly threatened Cuomo at one point.)

Whenever Molinaro did not directly answer a question, Cuomo took it upon himself to ask it again.

When Molinaro asked the moderators for more time to respond, Cuomo interjected, “It was my question. And then you get a 30-second rebuttal, I think, is the rule.”

Cuomo dodged a fair number of questions of his own, turning a question about why he did not loosen restrictions on medical marijuana into a rebuke of Molinaro’s previous position on the drug.

“I guess I wonder why you don’t ease up,” Kramer said.

“Yeah, well, I think you should ask my opponent why he voted against it,” Cuomo replied. On each side, some answers strained credibility. Cuomo, defending himself against charges that he had allowed inefficiency in the subway system to run rampant, said, “You have never seen a governor take more responsibility for the MTA than I have.” (Cuomo has repeatedly emphasized the city’s ownership of the subway system.)

Molinaro denied that he had voted as a state legislator to allow some pregnant women to be shackled, then later said that he had done so because of safety considerations. (The bill concerned the transport of female inmates during childbirth.)

There were a few opportunities to discuss policy ideas: Cuomo said he would be open to looking at safe injection sites to manage the opioid crisis, and explained why he had restored voting rights to felons on parole. Molinaro promised to reconvene a Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption and proposed reinforcing mental health services to address homelessness.

There were also some moments of levity. The debate ended with a “lightning round” in which Kramer asked the candidates to answer briefly — “short answers, we’re good at that,” Cuomo interjected — what they would do if they won the lottery; their favorite kind of sausage; and what song best personified their campaign.

Both declined a request to sing those songs, Cuomo on “Empire State of Mind,” Molinaro on “Don’t Stop Believing.”

But if the lightning round was a deviation from the rest of the debate in tone and in allowing the other to speak, when it came to the ratio of spectacle to substance, that round, perhaps, said it all.

Or as Molinaro put it: “We’re having a sausage question?”