Musical chairs the most exciting game in `Big Apple' mayoral race

Three leading New York City mayoral candidates met for their second debate yesterday, talking about perennially important campaign issues -- housing, crime, education, transportation, and how well the city is facing the future. During the round-table discussion before journalists, incumbent Mayor Edward I. Koch and challenger Carol Bellamy actually managed to agree on one point: the most important issues facing the city in the next five years will be housing, education, and transportation.

But it was a lackluster ``debate'' in a rather lackluster year of mayoral politics.

Candidate Herman D. Farrell had other worries on his mind as he joined in the discussion. He has twice been ruled ineligible for the Sept. 10 primary.

The latest ruling came Tuesday, when a New York Supreme Court judge threw five candidates off the ballot for technical errors made while gathering the signatures required for a candidate to be placed on the primary ballot.

``I'm here again, I think,'' Mr. Farrell said with a smile, referring to Tuesday's court decision. Four of the six candidates for City Council president were also ruled ineligible for the Democratic primary. All have said they will appeal the decision.

The decision appears to conflict with an earlier ruling by a federal judge. On Monday, the federal judge said errors in Farrell's petitions were ``inconsequential'' and allowed his name to be reinstated on the ballot.

Not surprising, election reform was one of the topics discussed during yesterday's debate. Farrell charged that current rules are too strict; his contested signatures were on ruled invalid because of mistakes on the cover sheets of certain petitions.

Each candidate again brought up his or her favorite issues.

Farrell said too much time is spent bickering about the number of police the street, when more attention should be paid to the troubled public schools in the city.

Ms. Bellamy challenged Mayor Koch, saying he ``has lost interest in running the city and is instead running around the city.'' She said issues that need to be addressed are lost rental housing units and a 42 percent high school dropout rate (70 percent among minorities).

Koch pointed out that the city ``has come a long way since 1977 [when the fiscal crisis meant drastic reduction in city services]. . . . In almost every area, things have turned around.'' There is more to be done, but Koch said he'd like to be the one to do it.

As in previous public encounters, Koch and Bellamy aimed most of their jibes at each other.

Bellamy said more creative thinking is needed concerning the criminal justice system in the city. After a series of troubling incidents at the police department -- including the deaths of a tenant being evicted from an apartment and of a pedestrian involved in a hit-and-run accident by police officers -- local concern about criminal justice has risen. She charged that the mayor's actions have divided the city by race, by ethnic group, and by borough.

``I've made mistakes,'' Koch said, adding that he has also returned to the city a measure of spirit. He admitted he may at times be too acerbic, but he said he would say the same things to anyone regardless of race, sex, and religion.

He called Bellamy's comments ``the rankest of hypocracies,'' considering the fact that she was the one who filed the original protest to Farrell's petition. And he maintained that Bellamy ``tears down the city everytime she opens her mouth.''

``It is not tearing down the city to talk about how to make it better,'' Bellamy retorted.

Farrell focused his comments on educational reform, saying crime will not be solved until the youth of the city have hopes, dreams, and a decent education.

``We must treat education, and the failure of the education system, as if a war had been declared. And we're going to win that war,'' Farrell said.

Judah Rubinstein, repeating his performance at last week's debate, interrupted the discussions by jumping on the stage to protest his exclusion in the election. Three more debates are scheduled. The next, to be televised, will be Aug. 25 and is sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Two debates in September will be sponsored by city newspapers.

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