5 Takeaways From the Hochul-Zeldin Debate


In their only scheduled debate, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and her challenger, Representative Lee Zeldin, quarreled intensely on Tuesday over divisive issues such as rising crime and abortion access, while accusing each other of corruption and dangerous extremism.

Mr. Zeldin, who has spent his campaign trying to appeal to voters’ dissatisfaction with the status quo, went on the attack from the get-go, frequently raising his voice as he channeled a sense of outrage, especially around crime. Ms. Hochul, a Buffalo-area Democrat vying for her first full term, took a more measured approach that fit her insistence that the state needs a steady hand to lead it.

Beyond trading barbs, neither candidate appeared to have a major breakout moment or gaffe that could reshape the race, which, according to recent polls, may be tightening just two weeks before Election Day. But both staked out starkly different positions on substantive matters from crime to vaccine mandates and the migrant crisis ahead of the general election on Nov. 8.

Here’s a recap of some of the most memorable moments.

Mr. Zeldin, a Long Island congressman, has for months made crime the central focus of his campaign for governor, and Tuesday’s debate was no different. From the start, he attacked Ms. Hochul, charging that she was not doing enough to stem an increase in serious offenses in the state and especially New York City, and blamed her policies for fueling fears.

New Yorkers, Mr. Zeldin said in his opening statement, were “less safe thanks to Kathy Hochul and extreme policies.”

Mr. Zeldin largely stuck to tough-on-crime policy points that he honed during his primary campaign. He forcefully criticized Ms. Hochul for opposing further revisions to the state’s bail law and called for changes to laws that reformed the juvenile justice system and the parole system in the state.

Mr. Zeldin also doubled down repeatedly on a vow that, if elected, he would immediately remove the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, from office, accusing Mr. Bragg of failing to enforce the state’s criminal code.

Ms. Hochul sought to redirect attention to her efforts to stem the flow of illegal guns and noted that she had already tightened the bail reforms earlier this year. Those efforts, she said, had already proven fruitful.

But Mr. Zeldin argued that the governor was overly focused on gun crime and had not focused enough on other offenses of concern to New Yorkers, including a rise in violent incidents in the subway system.

In New York City, the number of murders and shootings both dropped by about 14 percent through Sunday compared with the same time period last year, though other serious crimes, including robbery, rape and felony assault, have increased, according to police statistics.

Though she largely kept her cool during the hourlong debate, Ms. Hochul appeared frustrated with Mr. Zeldin’s insistence on discussing crime when moderators were asking about other topics, something he did even during a discussion of abortion.

Throughout the debate, Ms. Hochul sought to criticize Mr. Zeldin’s anti-abortion stance, saying that he couldn’t run from his long record in Congress opposing access and funding for abortions.

“You’re the only person standing on this stage whose name right now — not years past — that right now, is on a bill called ‘Life Begins at Conception,’” Ms. Hochul said.

Ms. Hochul cast herself as a bulwark against a potential rollback of abortion protections in New York, warning that Mr. Zeldin, if elected, could appoint a health commissioner who is anti-choice — as he once pledged to do — and shut down health clinics that provide reproductive care.

“That is a frightening spectacle,” said Ms. Hochul, the first female governor of New York. “Women need to know that that’s on the ballot this November as well.”

Reiterating a pledge from earlier this month, Mr. Zeldin vowed that he would not seek to unilaterally change the state’s already-strict abortion protections, which are enshrined in state law. Mr. Zeldin said that doing so would be politically unfeasible and that Ms. Hochul was being disingenuous by suggesting he would do so, given that Democrats control the State Legislature in Albany and are likely to retain control this election cycle.

Mr. Zeldin, however, raised the prospects of potentially curbing funding for abortions for women traveling to New York from other states where abortions are banned.

“I’ve actually heard from a number of people who consider themselves to be pro-choice, who are not happy here that their tax dollars are being used to fund abortions, many, many, many states away,” he said.

For months, Ms. Hochul has emphasized Mr. Zeldin’s close relationship with former President Donald J. Trump, focusing particularly on the congressman’s vote to overturn the results of the 2020 election hours after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Though Mr. Zeldin has scoffed at Ms. Hochul’s focus on that day, when asked by debate moderators if he would repeat his vote, he stood by it.

“The vote was on two states: Pennsylvania and Arizona,” he said. “And the issue still remains today.”

Mr. Zeldin walked a delicate line as he was questioned about his relationship to the former president. When asked if he wanted to see Mr. Trump run in 2024, he waved away the question as irrelevant. When Ms. Hochul asked if he thought Mr. Trump — who lost New York by 23 percentage points in 2020 — was “a great president,” he refused to give her a simple “yes or no” answer.

Yet Mr. Zeldin did not denounce Mr. Trump, who remains popular with many of the Republicans that he needs to draw to the polls if he hopes to defeat Ms. Hochul. He said he was proud to have worked closely with the former president on a laundry list of issues ranging from local crime to international politics.

Ms. Hochul appeared satisfied with the reply. “I’ll take that as a resounding yes,” she said. “And the voters of New York do not agree with you.”

Mr. Zeldin wasted little time impugning Ms. Hochul’s fund-raising efforts, accusing her of orchestrating “pay-to-play” schemes because of the large sums she has raised from people with business before the state.

In particular, Mr. Zeldin referenced a $637 million contract that the state awarded in December to Digital Gadgets, a New Jersey-based company, for 52 million at-home coronavirus tests. The founder of the company, Charlie Tebele, and his family have given more than $290,000 to Ms. Hochul’s campaign and hosted fund-raisers for the governor.

The Times Union of Albany has reported that the company charged the state about $12.25 per test, similar to the retail price for many tests, and that the company did not go through a competitive bidding process.

“So what New Yorkers want to know is what specific measures are you pledging to deal with the pay-to-play corruption that is plaguing you and your administration?” Mr. Zeldin asked.

Ms. Hochul vehemently denied any connection between the campaign donations and the contract, saying the company helped the state obtain an extraordinary number of tests at a time of huge demand when tests were relatively scarce nationwide. The company has also previously said that it never communicated with Ms. Hochul or her campaign about any company business.

“There is no pay-to-play corruption,” the governor said. “There has never been a quid pro quo, a policy change or decision made because of a contribution.”

Ms. Hochul, clearly expecting the attack line, used the opportunity to underscore the millions of dollars that Ronald Lauder, the heir to the cosmetics fortune of Estée Lauder, has steered into super PACs supporting Mr. Zeldin’s campaign, saying, “What worries me is the fact that you have one billionaire donor who’s given you over $10 million.”

Despite public polls showing that inflation is a top-of-mind concern for voters, the economy and rising costs of living received less attention than anticipated during the debate.

Mr. Zeldin promised to slash taxes across the board if elected, saying that “New York is going to be back open for business on January 1.” He also vowed to block the congestion-pricing plan that would charge drivers a toll for entering part of Manhattan, which he believes would burden middle-class New Yorkers during a precarious economic moment.

Mr. Zeldin questioned what Ms. Hochul has done as governor to try and stem New York’s recent population loss. The state has lost 319,000 people since mid-2020, a decline of 1.58 percent that is higher than any other state, primarily as a result of residents moving away, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In response, Ms. Hochul turned to a turn of phrase she deployed several times during the debate, saying that Mr. Zeldin was more fixated on “sound bites” than “sound policy.” She challenged him to detail which social programs he would reduce spending on if he cut the state’s corporate and personal income tax rates, which are among the highest in the nation.

And she highlighted her own record of economic investments. She mentioned the tax rebates she had enacted for the middle class, as well as a recent agreement to persuade Micron to build a semiconductor facility near Syracuse, a deal that the company said could generate more than 50,000 jobs.



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