FLATBUSH – The District 40 City Council debate ended in chaos Sunday night, as incumbent Democrat Councilman Mathieu Eugene stormed off the stage, refusing to shake his opponent’s hand.
While Reform Party challenger Brian Cunningham remained onstage, hand outstretched, Eugene’s supporters, led by his brother, enveloped him, chanting, cheering and ignoring the event organizer who was attempting to thank the hosts, before bearing Eugene out the door.
After a relatively smooth debate, many attendees called the abrupt ending “shocking” and “disappointing.”
“It’s debate 101 to shake your opponent’s hand. And it’s just common courtesy. [Eugene] and his supporters’ behavior was really unprofessional,” said Aquila Lodai, a Prospect Lefferts Gardens resident.
Ben Max, Executive Editor of Gotham Gazette and the evening’s debate moderator, had a similar take. “I thought it was an informative debate overall. The end was disappointing, especially because there were kids there.”
Here’s what happened:
The Debate was to feature all three candidates running in the 40th District, and start at 4:00pm on what turned out to be a rainy Sunday afternoon.
However, by 4:15 pm, Cunningham was the only candidate present. Moderator Ben Max announced they’d wait another five minutes for Councilman Eugene, and then begin. Brian Kelly, the Conservative Party candidate, never showed. As he did for the primary debate, Eugene arrived late.
The debate itself was structured and lively. Candidates had one minute each to answer questions about affordable housing, housing development, quality of life, youth and senior services, criminal justice reform and women’s rights. This was followed by a lightning round of questions that had to be answered with either “yes” or “no”, or one word. Questions ranged from “favorite restaurant in the neighborhood” (Eugene said Vinnie’s; Cunningham said Farm on Adderley) to “for or against congestion pricing?” (Eugene is against congestion pricing, Cunningham is for).
When Max asked, “If you could grade his performance as Mayor thus far, what grade would you give Bill De Blasio?” Councilman Eugene hesitated for about ten seconds, then began a longer answer. He was halfway through his second sentence when the audience shouted him down. “Yes or no!” they called. Eugene stopped, then gave the Mayor a “B.” Cunningham responded with a “C.” De Blasio has endorsed Eugene for re-election and has been seen stumping for him in the lead up to the elections.
The evening showed a marked difference between the candidates. Councilman Eugene spoke slowly, largely in platitudes, and offered no specifics or data to support his statements. Eugene said he was ranked first in constituent services. “Actually, Councilman,” said Cunningham, holding up his phone, “you’re ranked 20th.”
Eugene often told general stories of working with his colleagues on city council to make his constituent’s lives better. “Ask any senior citizen in this community, they’ll say I made things better for seniors,” he said at one point. He largely ignored his opponent, except when directly challenged. He often referred to his record as a councilman as the reason to vote for him. “I have the experience, I’ve been doing this. He [Cunningham] has never done anything in office.”
In contrast, Cunningham offered statistics, details and comprehensive plans for each issue presented by the moderator. He spoke quickly and calmly, and didn’t shy away from attacking his opponent. He went after Eugene on his voting record, mentioning twice that Eugene had authored only seven bills in his ten years on the council. Cunningham became really impassioned twice: while speaking about criminal justice reform to protect the neighborhood youth, and during his closing statement, when he spoke of taking the neighborhood to new heights under new, effective leadership.
The crowd’s behavior throughout the debate forshadowed the chaos to come. A concentrated section at the back of the room burst into applause after Eugene’s every response, despite Max’s entreaties to wait until the end. As the night wore on, others in the audience began shushing the group loudly, eventually shouting for them to be quiet. In the end silent spectators were few; almost the entire audience were very engaged, one way or the other.
The noise level in the audience reached new heights after Max introduced a question about women’s rights. Max asked Eugene to explain his stance on abortion, after he abstained to vote for a bill aimed at closing anti-abortion clinics.
“As a doctor, I’ve delivered many babies,” Eugene responded. “When the mother’s health comes into question, and I ask them what they want to do, they always opt to have the baby out of love. I believe we should leave it up to the woman,” he said. The crowd had mixed reactions to this statement: some cheered, and several got to their feet, looking around in seeming disbelief.
Cunningham’s response was succinct. “A woman has the right to autonomy over her own body.”
When asked how many women were on their respective staffs, Eugene responded that his was “about 50-50 split of men and women.” He went on: “I believe women and men have all the same opportunities. I work to help women whenever I can.”
Cunningham said on his staff, women are the majority. “I am deeply committed to women’s issues, to helping put women in positions of power. If I am elected, I’ll be working to move women’s leadership forward, particularly with my community board nominations.”
Another heated moment came when Eugene cited his work as head of Youth Services in doubling the number of summer jobs for New York. Cunningham replied that his understanding was that Councilmembers Julissa Ferreras and Jumaane Williams had done most of the work and Eugene had come along for the ride. Cunningham thanked Ferreras and Williams for “leading that fight and you [Eugene] for “joining” that fight.” Rather than contest the specifics, Eugene shook his head and explained he was given an award for his Youth Services work.
Closing statements from both candidates brought furious applause, this time louder for Cunningham. Community Board 14 member Duane Joseph, who helped organize and run the debate, began thanking The League of Women Voters NYC and St. Paul’s Church—the event sponsors and host, respectively.
Abruptly, Councilman Eugene got on his mic to protest Joseph running the event. Eugene said that because Joseph was a Cunningham supporter, it was inappropriate for him to make any announcements. At this, pandemonium broke out.
Eugene’s supporters began chanting so loudly, Joseph could not be heard on the microphone. Many others in the audience began shouting back, telling them to be quiet. Joseph, undeterred, continued trying to call for order so he could thank the event sponsors. After several minutes of this, Cunningham got on his mic.
“If you want to be that excited, go vote on Tuesday. But respect the moderators,” he said. “Let’s act like adults, let’s act professionally, let’s be respectful of Father Hamblin who let us use the church.”
Cunningham’s words were met with cheers from his supporters, and renewed chanting and shouting from from Eugene’s. Several attendees approached Eugene’s supporters, who had gathered near the stage, and began arguing. The large room was filled with noise, with about half the audience on their feet. Councilman Eugene left his seat, declining to shake his opponent’s hand, and joined his group of supporters. They marched him out of the church, one woman stopping to make an explicit hand gesture as they left. No one from the Councilman’s supporters or staff remained to speak to journalists.
Prospect Lefferts Garden resident Cal DeJesus was floored. “That was crazy,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a mob. You’re not someone who’s fit to be a leader if you’re encouraging people to mob a public debate.”
Aquila Lodai said that after the debate, she was decided on her vote. “This is the first time we’ve had a viable option in years. I voted for Eugene the last two times, because there wasn’t anyone else. But tonight, I felt his comments about women were out of touch and misogynistic, and I thought his comments on criminal justice reform were bizarre.” She added, “I couldn’t believe he said not everyone should go to college. As a mother of four, that’s not what I want for my children.”
The New York City Council election will take place Tuesday, November 7. City Council District 40 is made up of parts of Flatbush, Ditmas Park, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Kensington, Midwood and Prospect Park South. Find your polling location here.