There was talk of schmoozing with murderous gang members, and accusations of hiding money to evade paying child support. Pagliacci, the tortured clown of the 19th-century opera, was name-checked. So was Miley Cyrus.
All of this came up Tuesday night in an explosive second and final New York City mayoral debate between Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee, and Curtis Sliwa, the Republican.
Mr. Adams is considered a prohibitive favorite in the race, and Mr. Sliwa has been trying to rattle him for weeks. Those efforts, including at the first debate, last week, had been unsuccessful.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Sliwa’s repeated attacks seemed to crack Mr. Adams’s resolve to ignore a rival he has previously characterized as a clown.
Mr. Sliwa began the one-hour debate by quizzing Mr. Adams relentlessly for saying he had met with gang leaders who “had bodies” — an apparent reference to murder victims. He continued to shout out questions until Mr. Adams grew visibly irritated and returned fire. The two were soon exchanging personal insults.
“You are acting like my son when he was 4 years old,” Mr. Adams said. “Show some discipline so we can get to all of these issues. You’re interrupting and being disrespectful.”
Mr. Sliwa expressed outrage when Mr. Adams criticized him for failing to pay child support.
“That is scurrilous that you would say that,” he said, adding: “How dare you bring my family into this!”
Mr. Sliwa’s fiery performance a week before Election Day was unlikely to change the dynamics of the race. Democrats have an overwhelming voting edge in New York City, and most of the real drama occurred four months earlier in the party’s bruising primary. Mr. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, emerged as the Democratic nominee by a margin of fewer than 8,000 votes.
Since the primary, Mr. Adams, 61, has acted like the mayor-elect, raising funds and planning his transition. He has mostly ignored Mr. Sliwa while providing glimpses of what his mayoralty could look like: attending glitzy events like the opening of a new Manhattan skyscraper as well as others focused on vulnerable New Yorkers, including one with homeless advocates in Brooklyn.
Mr. Adams has been methodically plotting his path to City Hall for more than a decade, and the debate on Tuesday was one of his final hurdles. He tried to use the setting to return to his campaign message: His life story of rising from poverty is the “American dream.”
“When I think about overcoming poverty, overcoming injustices, becoming a police officer, a state senator and now I’m Brooklyn borough president, I know and you know that far too many people leave the nightmarish realities of somewhere else to come here to experience that American dream,” he said in his closing remarks.
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For Mr. Sliwa, the debate, hosted by WABC-TV, offered a last opportunity to try to damage Mr. Adams. Mr. Sliwa, 67, has sought to depict his opponent as being too focused on the city’s elite and out of touch with regular New Yorkers.
He has also tried to tie Mr. Adams to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat in his second term whose approval rating sagged after a failed presidential bid.
Mr. Sliwa, asked to grade Mr. de Blasio as mayor, gave him an F and called him a “miserable failure” who has taken a “Miley Cyrus wrecking ball to a city we love.” Mr. Adams gave Mr. de Blasio a B-plus and said he could have done more to address the city’s homelessness crisis and to make city agencies leaner.
“We are hemorrhaging too much money and I want to turn that around,” Mr. Adams said.
The candidates also disagreed over allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections — an issue that the City Council is considering. Mr. Adams supports the idea; Mr. Sliwa opposes it and said that voting is a “privilege for American citizens.”
During their exchange on the issue, Mr. Sliwa falsely claimed that Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, a Democrat from Washington Heights who is originally from the Dominican Republic and a key ally of Mr. Adams’s, was not a U.S. citizen.
Mr. Adams appeared calm and above the fray at the first debate and he tried to adopt that stance again on Tuesday. In a radio interview earlier in the day, he had said he would resist Mr. Sliwa’s efforts to “pull me into a slugfest” and repeated a memorable line from the first debate: that his opponent was engaged in “buffoonery.”
But Mr. Sliwa set the tone for the second debate from the start, interrupting the moderators and asking Mr. Adams his own questions. He used a similar approach in a Republican primary debate with Fernando Mateo, a restaurateur, leading Mr. Mateo to threaten him: “I have enough dirt to cover your body 18 feet over.”
Mr. Adams tried to maintain a smile during the debate Tuesday but he appeared frustrated at times. He talked about how Mr. Sliwa had confessed to making up crimes for publicity in the 1980s — an attack line from the first debate.
“New Yorkers, understand this, it is a crime to fake a crime,” Mr. Adams said. “He faked a kidnap, he faked a robbery.”
Then he went a step further and mentioned Mr. Sliwa’s child support issues. Mr. Sliwa pays child support for his three sons and had a messy divorce from his third wife that played out in the tabloids.
When Mr. Sliwa raised his rival’s meetings with gang members, Mr. Adams said they had been part of his effort to improve public safety through intervention and prevention.
“I’m speaking to those who have committed crimes to get them out of gangs,” Mr. Adams said.
Given the opportunity to ask Mr. Sliwa a question late in the debate, Mr. Adams declined: “My goal today is to speak to the voters, and there is not one question I have for Curtis.”
The tense debate ended on a positive note. Asked to say something nice about each other, Mr. Adams complimented Mr. Sliwa’s dedication to his 16 cats.
“I take my hat off to Curtis — what he is doing with cats,” Mr. Adams said. “I think we need to be humane to all living beings and that includes animals.”
Mr. Sliwa praised Mr. Adams’s vegan diet.
“As someone who has been in the hospital many, many times, I hope one day to be a vegan,” he said. “I’m working on it.”