Huffington Post/City Hall cover Quinn Debate Fiasco

Public, Press Barred From Debate For Quinn Seat
Unannounced ticket requirement leaves voters and reporters on the street
Andrew J. Hawkins
City Hall News/Huffington Post

How could a political event in the West Village not spur a little civil unrest?

The hotly anticipated debate between Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her opponents, Yetta Kurland and Maria Passannante-Derr, started out inauspiciously enough, with hundreds of attendees streaming into the New York University building on West Fourth Street.

But the scene soon turned chaotic after NYU security closed the doors, barring dozens of people in line from entry, including several credentialed members of the press. (more after the jump)

Amid loud cries of “bullshit” and “outrage,” NYU representatives attempted to explain that the debate’s sponsors, The Villager and Chelsea Now newspapers, had only a certain number of tickets available to the event--a condition that was news to most of the 40 people left on the street.

Nonetheless, stern-faced NYU security officers held an eager crowd back from the door.

According to someone identifying himself as a representative of the paper, only five press tickets were available, despite no previous notice of limited availability. A news ad promoting the event in The Villager made no mention of needing tickets to enter the debate.

Even the candidates were incensed by the stubbornness of the debate’s sponsors. Members of both Kurland and Quinn’s camp attempted to persuade the event sponsors to at least let credentialed reporters into the debate, but were rebuffed. Norman Siegel, civil rights attorney and candidate for public advocate, on scene to campaign outside, was also unsuccessful in making the case that the debate should be open to the public and press.

“It seems like The Villager is worse than the NYPD,” said Siegel, who has famously tussled with the police department in a number of high-profile cases.

At one point, the shut-out crowd tried to get a mute, wheelchair-bound man into the event, and were told that he could not be accommodated. With a number of anti-Quinn and anti-establishment types in attendance, many equipped with iPhones and video cameras, NYU representatives seemed to soon realize the public relations nightmare that had landed on their doorstep.

The handicapped man was eventually allowed to enter.

“We don’t want to cause ill will,” said Lisa Kail, a member of the NYU office of community services. She noted that 188 ticket-holders had been allowed in, including 45 extra in the spill-over room.

Rumors of favoritism were already swirling before the event began. At 3 p.m., Passannante-Derr’s campaign sent out a release claiming that only Quinn’s campaign was told about the debate’s ticket policy beforehand, adding a claim that John Sutter, the owner of Community Media, and Paul Schindler, the editor of Gay City News, had admitted this. (The Villager, Chelsea Now, Downtown Express and Gay City News are all owned by Community Media.)

A source close to Kurland’s campaign said representatives from Quinn’s campaign began showing up as early as 4 p.m. for the 7 p.m. debate.

But after the doors closed, those who were denied entry were left wondering why the sponsors did not anticipate needing more room.

The Villager will be sponsoring two more debates in the coming weeks: a debate for the Council seat currently held by Alan Gerson, on Aug. 17, and a public advocate debate on Aug. 19.

Scheduled to attend the public advocate debate is Siegel, who was furious that the sponsors of the Council District 3 event refused to let in several journalists, including reporters from NY1, City Hall and the Gotham Gazette. Calling it an act of “counter-democracy,” Siegel vowed to prevent this from happening again.

“If I’m debating, we’re not going to have anyone left waiting,” he said. “But if they are, then we’ll move the debate outside.”