For the better part of an hour on Wednesday, Eric Adams was accused of spending too much time with “elites,” losing touch with working-class New Yorkers and being a carbon copy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose popularity has steadily waned during his tenure.
Yet when he was given openings to respond during the first general election debate of the New York City mayoral contest, Mr. Adams — the typically voluble Democratic nominee for mayor — often flashed a placid smile instead.
Mr. Adams, the overwhelming favorite in the race, seemed to approach the matchup against his Republican foe, Curtis Sliwa, as if it were an infomercial for a mayoralty he had already secured.
“I’m speaking to New Yorkers,” Mr. Adams said. “Not speaking to buffoonery.”
Mr. Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels and an animated orator, worked to knock the front-runner off balance and strained to sow the kind of doubts about his opponent that could alter the trajectory of the race. There was little evidence he succeeded.
Mr. Adams cast himself as a steady former police captain who is preparing to move past Mr. de Blasio and his divisive eight years in power and sought to chart a vision for a city still reeling from the pandemic and its consequences. He relied heavily on his biography as a blue-collar New Yorker with firsthand experience grappling with some of the most significant challenges facing the city.
The debate, hosted by WNBC-TV and unfolding three days before early voting is to begin, marked the most direct engagement to date between the candidates as they vie to lead the nation’s largest city.
For an hour, Mr. Adams and Mr. Sliwa — both longtime New York public figures with colorful pasts — clashed over wide-ranging issues that the city confronts, from a new vaccine mandate for city workers (Mr. Adams backs the mandate, Mr. Sliwa does not) to a congestion pricing plan (again largely backed by Mr. Adams, with Mr. Sliwa expressing strong concerns) to whether outdoor dining structures should stay. (Mr. Adams said yes, Mr. Sliwa said they should be reduced in size.)
At every turn, Mr. Sliwa sought to undercut Mr. Adams’s working-class credentials, criticizing his opponent’s support from real estate developers and the endorsement he has earned from former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, even as he also tried to link Mr. Adams to Mr. de Blasio, casting them both as career politicians.
“How about we do something novel and stop trusting these politicians, like Eric Adams and de Blasio?” Mr. Sliwa said, as he expressed his objections to congestion pricing.
Mr. Adams, for his part, noted his differences with Mr. de Blasio in his first answer to a question, suggesting that while he supported the mayor’s new vaccination mandate for municipal workers, he would have taken a more collaborative approach to implementing it.
Mr. Adams, who has a meditation routine, appeared keenly focused on rising above many of Mr. Sliwa’s attacks. But he also sought to define his Republican opponent early in the evening as an untrustworthy public figure who does not have a significant record of accomplishments. He repeatedly referenced Mr. Sliwa’s own admission that he had fabricated crimes for publicity.
“New Yorkers are going to make a determination of a person that wore a bulletproof vest, protected the children and families of the city and fought crime, against a person who made up crimes so that he can be popular,” Mr. Adams said. “He made up crime, New Yorkers. That in itself is a crime.”
Given New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic tilt and Mr. Sliwa’s reputation as something of a celebrity gadfly, Mr. Adams is seen as far more likely to prevail in the Nov. 2 election, and he is poised to be New York’s second Black mayor. He has spent much of his time since winning the Democratic nomination in July focused on fund-raising and transition-planning and has only begun to accelerate his public events schedule in the last week, reflecting his front-runner status.
Mr. Sliwa worked at every turn of the debate to goad Mr. Adams into a confrontation. At best, he managed to coax an occasional complaint from Mr. Adams that Mr. Sliwa was breaking the rules of the debate by speaking for too long.
But while Mr. Adams tried to avoid engaging extensively with Mr. Sliwa, he found himself on the defensive at other times, especially when pressed on questions of his residency. He has said that his primary residence is an apartment in a multiunit townhouse he owns in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn — but he has had to refile his tax returns in part because of irregularities concerning his residency, among other issues, the news outlet The City reported.
Mr. Adams said, as he has in the past, that he takes responsibility for omissions on his tax returns, even as he faulted his accountant, who he said was homeless.
“He went through some real trauma,” Mr. Adams said of his accountant. “And I’m not a hypocrite, I wanted to still give him the support that he needed.”
He pledged that the mistake would not be repeated.
Mr. Adams also co-owns a co-op in Fort Lee, N.J., with his partner, and he has said that he moved into Brooklyn Borough Hall for a time after the pandemic arrived. Mr. Sliwa recently led a journey from Manhattan to Fort Lee “to find out where Eric Adams really lives.”
Mr. Adams declined to specify how many nights he has spent at the Brooklyn apartment in the last six months, but did say again that it was his primary residence.
Mr. Sliwa was also pressed on issues of transparency and trustworthiness.
“I made mistakes,” he said, when asked about faking crimes — a practice he cast as a youthful folly. “I’ll continue to apologize for it, but I’ve earned the trust of New Yorkers. Just follow me in the streets and subways, I’m there, I’m the people’s choice. Eric Adams is with the elites in the suites.”
For all of the stark differences between their candidacies, Mr. Sliwa and Mr. Adams have some political commonalities, reflecting Mr. Adams’s position as a relatively center-left Democrat and Mr. Sliwa’s more populist instincts. Indeed, the debate was far more civil than the matchup Mr. Sliwa had during the Republican primary. It was also less of a brawl than some of the multicandidate debate stage clashes that defined the crowded Democratic primary earlier this year, where Mr. Adams often found himself under fire on several fronts.
Mr. Sliwa and Mr. Adams are both keenly focused on issues of public safety and support expanding access to the gifted and talented program in New York City schools, though they did not offer clear prescriptions for the fate of the controversial admissions test that governs the initiative.
But they did not appear eager to dwell on any common ground. Mr. Sliwa even turned a prompt designed to elicit a positive response — to pitch those New Yorkers who left during the pandemic to return — into an attack on Mr. Adams, questioning whether he really intended to fly to Florida and collect wayward New Yorkers as he has pledged.
Mr. Adams, in contrast, promised a safe, exciting and diverse city.
“You will be bored in Florida,” he warned. “You will never be bored in New York.”