How is a No-Show at Local Debates the Front-Runner in the Special Election?

Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan
Staten Island DA Dan Donovan, via YouTube

Today’s special election, pitting Staten Island DA Dan Donovan (Republican/Conservative) against New York City Councilmember Vinnie Gentile (Democrat/Working Families), is coming down to the wire. New York’s 11th congressional district covers all of Staten Island and a small slice of Brooklyn’s southern shore including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, Bensonhurst and Gravesend.

With a large percentage of police, firefighters and other municipal workers among the voters on the Staten Island side of the district, the seat has long been a bastion of conservative power in the city, making whoever could nab the Republican nomination in the special election the presumptive favorite. The seat has only been under Democratic control for one two-year term since 1993.

Front-runners often choose to skip candidate debates when they calculate that the risk of committing an unforced error outweighs the negative publicity of ducking the voters. Donovan committed just such an error at the first debate when Gentile asked him to state the minimum wage. Donovan fumbled for an answer, appearing dumbfounded while Gentile pressed harder, until Donovan finally settled on a business-friendly platitude, stating that the wage should be “As high as it can be, as long as it can be sustained by small  businesses.”

The federal minimum wage is actually $7.25/hour. (In New York State, it’s $8.75.) Although Donovan said after the debate that he misunderstood the question, the stumble made him appear poorly prepared. Following that episode, the Donovan campaign recalculated the risk and chose to skip the final two debates. The voters will find out tonight whether the decision to stay out of the spotlight was the right one for Donovan.

Polls remain open until 9:00 PM.

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