Friendly Fencing From Speaker Seekers

Dubbing the system "flawed" and "a great failure of a great idea," the seven city council members competing for speaker berated the Campaign Finance Board system at a public debate last night, citing a lack of oversight and failure to "level the playing field."

"The big loser last Tuesday wasn't Freddy Ferrer, it was campaign finance," said Brooklyn's Lewis Fidler, who, along with fellow speaker candidates Bill de Blasio, Leroy Comrie, Melinda Katz, Christine Quinn, Joel Rivera, and David Weprin, appeared before a packed room of council members, lobbyists and residents at Baruch College.

The candidates are competing to succeed present council speaker Gifford Miller, who has held the post since 2002 and will be term-limited out of office as of January. To win, they need the votes of the majority of the council's 51 members.

The issue of campaign finance sparked forceful responses from the candidates, especially in the aftermath of the council's decision this week to loosen restrictions on union campaign contributions. But controversy was far from the microphone in last night's debate. Candidates joked, complimented one another, and agreed on the majority of issues—at times nearly mimicking each others' responses.

All seven candidates said they oppose non-citizen voting rights, and "yes, but only if absolutely necessary" was the common response to questions on whether or not they agree with the use of eminent domain.

Manhattan's Quinn, who chairs the health committee, was commended by nearly all her competitors when the healthcare issue was raised—even called "a tiger" on the topic. She spoke emphatically about "the need to make it easier for the uninsured to get insured," proposing going "hand-in-hand to Albany" to demand a change in what she described as a tedious and difficult registration process for public insurance programs.

Brooklyn's de Blasio highlighted the importance of "our role as check and balance to the mayor," and, with nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers uninsured, Fidler called Mayor Bloomberg's remark that the poor receive better health care than the wealthy "nuts."

When asked how they would change the council, Quinn stressed eliminating the practice of sending out citywide speaker mail. Miller ran into trouble on that front during his race for mayor, using $1.6 million in council funds to send out fliers with his name and face on them.

Though candidates skirted around how to close the city's $4.5 billion budget gap— the majority saying they would appeal for state and federal aid, Fidler contended that "as long as George Bush and George Pataki are the people we're going to, the George Washington's we're entitled to are not what we're getting!"

All seven candidates said they oppose term-limits, favoring extending the present two-term, eight-year limit an extra four years. As Rivera, who represents part of the Bronx, described it, it's like choosing a dentist. You wouldn't want an inexperienced dentist drilling on your pearly whites, right?

"We want someone who can understand the intricacies," Rivera said.

(And someone with great teeth.)


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