Candidate Lhota debuts in East New York, as de Blasio and Liu occupy center stage

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"I actually think it was educational for everyone involved."

That was Joe Lhota's response when I asked him to assess his debut performance as a mayoral candidate.

He was standing on stage at the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, after the conclusion of a candidate forum on housing issues sponsored by the Daily News and Metro IAF.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former comptroller Bill Thompson were also on the stage, surrounded by people.

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"It was a good time. They didn't haze me. That's what they said they were going to do," Lhota joked.

During the forum, Lhota said he wanted FEMA shelters used in some areas damaged by Hurricane Sandy, but not others, that the New York City Housing Authority needed a complete overhaul, and that the many city and state agencies that work on housing needed to be streamlined.

Chris Smith of New York magazine said Lhota's performance was "a dud" and hardly memorable. I told Lhota I thought some of his answers were rather more technical-sounding than the other candidates'.

"My answers are based on reality, and how do you fix the problem, not based on a cookie-cutter approach, and that's what the city has been doing," Lhota told me. 

The most memorable moments during the forum belonged to Bill de Blasio, who trails Christine Quinn in polling among the Democratic candidates.

He pulled out his inhaler to show empathy for a mother of an asthmatic child in a mold-infested home. He took a subtle shot at John Liu and Bill Thompson, the current and former comptrollers, for not using more of the city's pension funds to spur affordable-housing development. He said that master builder Robert Moses built public housing in a cold, unfriendly manner because he didn't like poor people or minorities. (It's not necessarily controversial in contemporary New York politics to take the now widely accepted Robert Caro view of Moses, although there's been a bit of a revival of late.)

Liu distinguished himself in a number of ways, too, mentioning stop-and-frisk (this was a forum about housing; Liu is the only major candidate who opposes stop-and-frisk entirely), and ripping the city for not developing affordable housing as part of the Atlantic Yards project. The audience reacted well to Liu throughout the event, and, as usual, he was one of the last candidates to leave, spending his time talking to reporters and audience members.

Tom Allon, the local newspaper publisher making his first run for office, was quotable, tossing out one-liners that got the audience cheering.

He called NYCHA chairman John Rhea the Cathie Black of housing, for example. He also made a punchline out of Bloomberg's ban on large sugary drinks. It almost sounded for much of the time like Allon was running in the Democratic primary, which he's not. He switched parties and is running in the Republican primary.

Quinn, by contrast, declined to join in with the criticism of Bloomberg. Her nonparticipation was particularly conspicuous during discussion of the administration's response to Hurricane Sandy, which de Blasio and other candidates panned.

After the debate, I asked her how she thought the mayor did in handling the storm.

"We were hit by the worst storm in history and when something like happens, you're going to do things well and you're going to do things, when you look back, [you] would do differently," Quinn said.

She then listed things she thinks the city could have done better, like including mold removal in rapid repairs, having better inventory information for NYCHA, and providing an emergency contact list of engineers and technicians who can aid repair efforts.

After the debate, Allon slowly made his way over from his side of the stage to where reporters were huddling around the higher-profile candidates. He approached me as I was listening to de Blasio.

When I asked him whether he thought attacking Bloomberg would help him in a Republican primary, he said, "I'm not thinking that tactically. I'm too honest."

He then went on a riff about Bloomberg not having his "A-Team" around anymore for his third term, which has "gone off the rails." (The first string, according to Allon, included former aides Dan Doctoroff, Ed Skyler and Kevin Sheekey.)

"He hasn't had a natural adversary in government," Allon said. "Liu has been marginalized and Quinn is a yes person. So the mayor has had nobody saying to him on a daily basis, 'Get rid of [NYCHA chairman] John Rhea.'"

We were standing within arm's length of de Blasio when Allon said, of the public advocate, that he's "a smart guy, but I don't think he's been effective."

De Blasio didn't hear the comment.

Thompson and I commiserated about how cold it was outside. One of Thompson's aides said something about needing to get Thompson a driver, which he dismissed as unnecessary at this point. The aide, jokingly, said he needed one because he had a smaller entourage than Sal Albanese, the former Democratic councilman making his third longshot run for mayor. Thompson left a few minutes later at the wheel of his own car.

UPDATE: Bill Thompson's campaign put together its own one-minute highlight reel from the event.