During the 2020 presidential race and for much of the New York City mayor’s race, Andrew Yang has been known as a cheerful optimist.
But voters saw a different side of Mr. Yang at the second major Democratic debate on Wednesday night as he fiercely criticized Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and one of his main rivals.
After Mr. Adams knocked him for leaving the city during the pandemic and not voting in city elections, Mr. Yang fought back, depicting Mr. Adams as a corrupt and unprincipled politician who would maintain the status quo. It was a strategic attack that could damage his opponent’s reputation, but the approach was far from Mr. Yang’s exuberant brand.
“It was definitely noticeable,” Susan Kang, a professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said of his change in tone. “His biggest appeal has always been being the affable guy — he seemed so friendly and relaxed despite being attacked.”
The tense exchange between Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams continued to make waves on Thursday as the eight leading candidates all tried to claim victory after their first major in-person debate.
Mr. Adams continued to draw attention to Mr. Yang’s lack of experience at a virtual town hall for ethnic and community media.
“You can examine my record because I have a record,” Mr. Adams said. “We can’t examine the records of those who decided to pop in the city all of a sudden. We can’t examine the records of those who have not been on the ground with us.”
Evan Thies, a spokesman for Mr. Adams, doubled down on Mr. Adams’s demand Wednesday night for an apology from Mr. Yang over his accusations of corruption.
“Yang is lying to voters about Eric because New Yorkers know the truth about Yang: he’s a fraud,” Mr. Thies said. “Yang should apologize to New Yorkers for spreading falsehoods, abandoning the city during Covid, and not taking this crucial election seriously.”
Chris Coffey, one of Mr. Yang’s campaign managers, responded by reiterating Mr. Yang’s concerns that Mr. Adams was corrupt, and said voters were turning “towards the candidate who represents real change.”
But Mr. Adams also appeared excited over his momentum going into the Democratic primary on June 22.
“We are only 19 days away,” he said. “It almost gives me goose bumps when I think about it.”
Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, celebrated her debate performance with a specialty bagel in Brooklyn. Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, greeted voters at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn and highlighted a new endorsement from the New York State Nurses Association. Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller whose campaign was damaged by an allegation of sexual misconduct, held a “Women for Stringer” event.
Mr. Adams wasn’t the only one to attack Mr. Yang during the debate. Mr. Stringer said that Mr. Yang was worse than an “empty vessel” — a term used by one of Mr. Yang’s advisers — and that he was a Republican.
On Thursday, Mr. Yang was back to his upbeat self on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” arguing that he had momentum in the final weeks of the campaign.
“We feel very, very confident going into this homestretch,” he said.
Mr. Yang faced another confrontation on Thursday when he tried to hold a news conference outside the Prospect Park YMCA in Brooklyn and was shouted down by protesters. He chose the gym — Mr. de Blasio’s favored workout spot before the pandemic — to make the argument that he is the “best candidate to turn the page on the de Blasio administration.”
A group of progressive activists were there to meet him, holding signs that read “Yang = More Cops” and “Hedge Fund Mayor,” and shouting “Don’t rank Yang!” After trying to talk with them, Mr. Yang gave up and left.
Mr. Yang’s campaign said in a statement that he did not want to “defund the N.Y.P.D. at a time of soaring gun violence” and blamed the disruption on Mr. Stringer’s camp, calling it “a desperate attempt to distract from his failing campaign.”
The organizers of the protest, a progressive super PAC called Our City, denied that they were backing Mr. Stringer. The group has called for voters not to rank Mr. Yang or Mr. Adams and is being led by Gabe Tobias, a former senior adviser to Justice Democrats, which played a key role in helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get elected to Congress in 2018.
“Our city deserves so much better than Andrew Yang and Eric Adams,” Mr. Tobias said in a statement. “No Democratic primary voter should rank either Yang or Adams. These are corporate candidates supported by super PACs that are funded by right-wing billionaires.”
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Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his second term, was not impressed by the debate or by Mr. Yang’s stunt outside his favorite gym.
“That’s just a politician being a politician,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters. “I’d much rather people talk about what they’re going to do for New Yorkers and show they actually have some knowledge of this city and how it works.”
Many of the candidates gave Mr. de Blasio poor to failing grades during the debate, and Mr. Yang was the only one who said he would accept the mayor’s endorsement.
Mr. de Blasio said he had watched the debate and wanted more substance.
“Sadly, I don’t think it was much of a debate,” he said. “I don’t think it shed a lot of light and New Yorkers need a lot more information about these candidates. They need a lot clearer vision from these candidates.”
Ms. Wiley agreed. She went on the attack during the debate against both Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams. During the frenetic first hour of the debate, Ms. Wiley ignored calls from the moderators to stop talking and continued until she felt she had made her point.
“One of the complaints about the debate was substance,” said Ms. Wiley, who explained her strategy after greeting voters outside of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Thursday. “Well, how do you get substantive in 30 to 45 seconds? You are basically doing sound bites.”
During the debate, Ms. Wiley criticized Mr. Adams for what she believes are regressive views on policing and called out a nonprofit Mr. Yang founded for promising to create 100,000 jobs but only providing 150.
“A two-minute answer is very different from a 45-second or 30-second answer,” she explained. “When I’m able to have a two-minute conversation — that’s all I need.”
Both Mr. Adams and Mr. Yang showed a different side of themselves at the debate, said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. Mr. Adams, who is known for making unscripted remarks, was prepared to respond calmly to Mr. Yang’s attacks.
“He brushed it off very gracefully,” Mr. Moss said.
Mr. Yang decided to go negative, but he also made good points about the city’s growing deficits in the coming years, said Mr. Moss, who advised Michael R. Bloomberg during his 2001 mayoral campaign and donated to Ms. Garcia this year.
“Yang’s best message was that we are facing tough financial problems, and we should be discussing them,” Mr. Moss said.