By Jill Colvin
LONG ISLAND, N.Y. — Viewers who tuned into Monday night's gubernatorial debate hoping for fireworks between candidates Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino would have been left disappointed if not for the colorful cast of supporting characters joining them on stage.
While the two front-runners chose to play it safe — outlining similar cost-cutting proposals and forgoing each other to slam familiar foes like Albany corruption and the MTA — the five other candidates were more than happy to go to bat during the 90-minute debate at Hofstra University on Long Island.
"My critics, they want to say I'm angry. No, I'm passionate about saving New York," said Paladino, the Buffalo developer, who has dominated the headlines with anti-gay comments and personal attacks.
But instead of angry, Paladino appeared reserved and, at times, uncomfortable, even leaving the stage once for a bathroom break.
"When you gotta go, you gotta go," Paladino campaign manager Michael Caputo said after the debate.
Still, Paladino railed against rising Medicaid costs and property tax levels, and pushed for local control of schools.
"We're going to dismember the New York State Education Department," he vowed.
Cuomo, meanwhile, aimed to distance himself from the corruption in Albany while touting his record as the state's attorney general.
He described state government over the past few years as "an embarrassment."
"I understand the disgust with Albany, and I share it," he said, adding that property taxes are "oppressive" and stressing the need to cut government waste and do more with less.
He also joined Paladino is calling for education reform, declaring the disparity between schools in rich and poor districts "the civil rights issue of our time."
But it was the minor party candidates who really made the night.
Jimmy McMillan, from the Rent is Too Damn High Party, donned black gloves for the occasion and sounded like a politician-version of Mr. T as he answered every question with the refrain: "The rent is too damn high!"
Asked whether he supports gay marriage, McMillan raised eyebrows with perhaps the oddest answer of the night.
"If you want to marry a shoe, I'll marry you," he assured.
Kristin Davis, the self-professed "Manhattan Madam," made a case for raising revenue by proposing to legalize marijuana and casino gambling, and also offered some of the best barbs of the night.
"The career politicians in Albany are the biggest whores in this state," said Davis, who claims to have organized the prostitution ring that led to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation. "I might be the only person sitting on this stage with the right experience to deal with them."
Davis also joked that if a tax on stock transfers is passed, "businesses will leave this state faster than Carl Paladino at a gay bar" — a reference to Paladino's recent anti-gay remarks.
Libertarian Party candidate Warren Redlich led the charge against the front-runners, accusing Cuomo of taking special interest money and Paladino of lacking the temperament and judgment to be governor.
Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and seasoned debater, also pounded on the two frontrunners, accusing Cuomo of "selective" enforcement of corruption laws.
"Asking Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino to end corruption is like asking an arsonist to put out fires," he said.
Following the debate, Paladino campaign manager Caputo said he was proud of the candidate's performance and that people had finally had the chance to see "the real Carl Paladino."
Meanwhile, Cuomo's lieutenant governor pick, Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, said the debate was a clear Cuomo win.
"He showed why he should be the be next governor," Duffy said. "He stayed above the fray. That's what we need in a leader."
Cuomo leads Paladino 59 percent to 24 in the latest New York Times poll.