Hochul, Zeldin offer starkly divergent visions of New York in gubernatorial debate

Viewers of Tuesday night’s debate between New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, were treated to such thoroughly divergent narratives on a range of issues important to voters that they could be forgiven for thinking that the two candidates were sometimes not talking about the same state.

Zeldin’s version of New York was one beset by crime, economic mismanagement and wayward progressive priorities, while Hochul portrayed herself as a responsible custodian at a time of national and geopolitical turmoil.

“We’re taking care of this,” the 64-year-old governor — the first woman to hold that position in New York state — said during a discussion of rising crime on New York City’s subway system, but the remark could have served as an apt précis of Hochul’s closing argument to voters. Her term as governor started in the summer of 2021, after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped down in the midst of a sexual misconduct scandal.

Since then, Hochul — a former U.S. representative from upstate New York who served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor — has charted a moderate course, easily defeating progressive primary challenger Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, and Rep. Tom Suozzi, a centrist Democrat from Long Island. Unlike Cuomo, she did not engage in endless political intrigues that squandered public goodwill and froze legislation in place.

Kathy Hochul holds up her left hand, palm out, in front of an American flag at a podium labeled with: Gun safety.
Gov. Kathy Hochul at a news conference on Aug. 31 regarding new gun laws in New York. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

But in her desire to court various Democratic constituencies, Hochul failed to notice that Zeldin — an ardent Trump supporter — was capitalizing on issues that were challenging Democrats across the country and closing what had seemed, throughout much of the late summer, an enormous gap in public support.

“I’m here for one reason: to save our state,” Zeldin said at the opening of the debate. It will be the sole debate between the two candidates ahead of next month’s election, and the 42-year-old U.S. Army veteran tried to make the most of the moment with quick, cutting attacks that conflated — not always accurately — the policies Hochul has endorsed in Albany with those supported by progressives in Washington and New York City.

Crime has risen across the country, in Democratic and Republican jurisdictions alike. But like many Republicans, Zeldin has used progressive criminal justice policies, such as bail reform and decarceration, as a political cudgel.

“We need to make our streets safe again,” Zeldin said Tuesday. He went after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a progressive prosecutor who has moderated some of his positions since taking office. “The message will absolutely be that if you’re the D.A., it stands for ‘district attorney, not ‘defense attorney,’” he said.

Lee Zeldin.
Rep. Lee Zeldin at the largely virtual Republican National Convention in 2020. (Reuters)

He also tied Hochul to the plight of Jose Alba, a Manhattan bodega worker who fatally stabbed a man who had violently confronted him in the course of a disputed transaction. Bragg initially charged Alba with murder, leading to a public outcry. The charges were eventually dropped; Alba then left for his native Dominican Republic, a fact that Zeldin depicted as a condemnation of criminal justice reforms that he argued Hochul should have nullified.

In April, Hochul amended the state’s bail reform laws, reimposing some provisions that had previously been undone by the state Legislature. But for conservatives like Zeldin, she has failed to voice a sufficiently robust law-and-order message.

Hochul countered Zeldin’s feisty attacks on crime by painting him as a close supporter of former President Donald Trump, one who failed to stand up for American democracy after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She also highlighted his opposition to climate change legislation and his endorsement of abortion restrictions.

“I know you’re an election denier, but also a climate change denier,” Hochul said, later painting him as a coronavirus “denier” as well. In responding to a moderator’s question, she said she would support a run for reelection by President Biden in 2024. Zeldin declined to say if he would endorse another Trump run for the presidency.

Two NYPD officers stand on a subway platform near two riders, all facing a train with closed doors.
NYPD officers check trains in the Union Square subway station on May 14. (Barry Williams/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Though there was no shortage of vitriol on Tuesday night, there was little meaningful engagement between the two candidates, who launched withering attacks but rarely engaged in constructive disagreement.

“It’s not about governing by sound bites. I’m governing by sound policy,” said Hochul, who like many Democrats finds herself on the defensive as worries about the economy persist and outrage over abortion appears to wane. She depicted Zeldin as an unrealistic provocateur who had few solutions for New York state. But she could do little to deny voters’ pervasive discontent.

“Why does New York lead the entire nation in population loss?” Zeldin asked at one point, reprising a favorite argument about the state’s status relative to that of Republican-controlled Texas and Florida, which have both experienced population booms. “Because their wallets, their safety, their freedom and the quality of their kids’ education are under attack."