Kathy Hochul (left) By Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York from United States of America – Governor Hochul Announces MTA to Expand Next Wave Deployment of Zero-Emission Buses to Six Depots, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119388822 | Lee Zeldin (right) By Eric Connolly – https://zeldin.house.gov/about/full-biography, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59323142
Current Democratic Governor of New York Kathy Hochul and Republican challenger Representative Lee Zeldin squared off in their first and only debate in the gubernatorial race. The hour-long event occurred two weeks before election day on November 8, 2022.
The debate was policy-dense with topics ranging from crime to abortion to the economy. Both candidates sparred over political allies and positions, with Mr. Zeldin focusing, as he has on the campaign trail, on crime and Ms. Hochul emphasizing her support for reproductive rights and Mr. Zeldin’s support of and from former President Donald J. Trump.
The amount of time spent on topics like bail reform and gun rights was predictable as Mr. Zeldin seeks to paint the state as at a dangerous crossroads, just as it was at the 1994 election of the last Republican governor of New York, George E. Pataki. Ms. Hochul sought to present herself as the stable hand necessary to guide the state through murky political waters created by Mr. Trump’s enduring threat to democracy and the landmark Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
The four major topics of the debate were crime, abortion access, the state of democracy, and the economy. In a race that has become uncomfortably close for Democrats, both candidates worked to speak directly to voters to drive the turnout needed to secure their position in Albany.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Zeldin opened the debate stating that he needed to “save our state” from the crime, cost, and corruption under incumbent Ms. Hochul. Immediately upon becoming governor, Mr. Zeldin would declare a state of emergency for crime. He is advocating for the repeal of new cashless bail laws that he argues is partially responsible for the uptick in crime in the state. Mr. Zeldin has relied on a “tough on crime” message to appeal to voters who believe that Ms. Hochul has not done enough to protect the state, mentioning a recent unrelated shooting outside of his home to underscore what he argues is the ubiquity of crime in Kathy Hochul’s New York.
Mr. Hochul countered Mr. Zeldin’s message by pointing out his rejection of gun safety laws, which she argues are critical in any effort to fight crime. Her track record as governor includes banning assault weapons for teenagers and a growing partnership with New York City Mayor Eric Adams to strengthen security in subways with a greater camera and police presence. Both she and Mr. Zeldin emphasized their cooperation with Mr. Adams, who has declared himself the “face of the new Democratic Party.”
Mentioned later in the debate was the Supreme Court case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which was struck down by the Court in June. Mr. Zeldin applauded the 6–3 ruling, saying it unconstitutionally infringed on New Yorkers’ right to bear arms. Ms. Hochul said the law was struck down not because of its constitutionality but because of the conservative supermajority in the Court with three Trump-appointed Justices. She said should would continue to fight to enact safer gun laws, citing the recent school shooting in St. Louis and May supermarket shooting in Buffalo.
Ms. Hochul spoke directly to women several times as she argued that their rights to bodily autonomy are under threat even if they live in a traditionally blue state. In campaign ads, she has argued that Mr. Zeldin would implement cruel bans on women’s bodies should he become governor. She vowed to codify the protections guaranteed by Roe, which are under threat nationally because of bills like H.R.1011, or “Life at Conception Act,” to which Mr. Zeldin is a cosponsor.
Mr. Zeldin, following the lead of other national Republicans, tried to skirt the topic of abortion, saying that he would have no real power as governor to get rid of abortion access in New York. He stated that he believed the state government should not fund Planned Parenthood, arguing instead that the voices of New Yorkers should be heard. (A clear majority of New Yorkers supports access to abortion in most or all cases.)
Abortion has become one of the foremost topics in the 2022 midterm season, and New York is no exception. Ms. Hochul and fellow Democrats hope to mobilize enough voters who want to ensure that their right to access a legal abortion is protected.
Mr. Zeldin’s connections to former President Trump are no secret, but in a state that generally does not hold a favorable view of the former president, Mr. Zeldin has sought to minimize this relationship while at the same time refusing to accept the legitimacy of President Joseph R. Biden’s election in 2020. Mr. Zeldin was one of 147 congressional Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election results; Mr. Zeldin specifically objected in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Despite dozens of failed lawsuits brought by Mr. Trump and his allies, Mr. Zeldin still publicly holds that the issue of the 2020 election results “still remains today.” He advocated for stricter voter identification laws, which disproportionately prevent the participation of traditionally Democratic voters in elections for no legitimate legal reason.
Ms. Hochul highlighted Mr. Zeldin’s relationship with Mr. Trump as yet another example of Mr. Trump’s lasting impact on the health of American democracy. Ms. Hochul, however, was also questioned on her stance on campaign finance reform. Contingent upon further research, Ms. Hochul indicated that she supports increasing the oversight abilities of comptrollers, addressing Mr. Zeldin’s accusations that she orchestrated “pay-to-play” schemes.
The state of the economy played a very minor role in this debate compared to other topics, despite economic concerns being at the top of voters’ minds. Mr. Zeldin, taking a generally laissez-faire approach and toeing the traditional conservative line, supported ending what he called federal and state bailouts, bringing down taxes, and expanding pipeline and natural gas extraction rights.
Ms. Hochul criticized these plans, saying Mr. Zeldin was more concerned about “sound bites not sound policy.” She focused on her economic accomplishments while in office, including introducing middle-class tax cuts and suspending the state gasoline tax. She also defended her support for building a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, which would use $600 million of state money. She compared Western New York’s connection to the Bills to New York City’s connection to Broadway, arguing that the community connection is necessary to fund. Some of that money will come from debts owed to the state by the Seneca Nation from three casinos, which Ms. Hochul characterized as the best compromise for all parties involved.
Mr. Hochul also stressed her deal with Micron, which is expected to bring $100 billion into the economy and provide new jobs, supporting her assertion that she has helped bring unemployment numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.
The Hochul-Zeldin debate did not offer any revelations likely to affect the outcome of this race. Regardless, both candidates had the chance to elaborate on their stances on a variety of issues. In a race that has become much more competitive than expected, every opportunity counts as Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin compete to win the governorship of New York.