Gotham Gazette

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‘The Stakes Have Never Been Higher’: GOP Frontrunner Lee Zeldin Intensifies Campaign for Governor

the stakes higher

Rep. Lee Zeldin (photo: @Congressman Lee Zeldin)

Republican leaders in nearly every county in New York have endorsed Long Island Congressional Rep. Lee Zeldin for governor in this year’s election, making him the perceived frontrunner for the party’s nomination. Zeldin, now in his fourth term in Congress representing New York’s 1st District, is forgoing a bid for reelection to the House of Representatives in order to attempt breaking the four-term Democratic hold on the governor’s office.

But, in order to have a shot at the governor’s office, Zeldin must first win a competitive primary against two other formidable candidates: former Westchester County Executive and 2014 Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino and Andrew Giuliani, previously a White House aide to then-President Donald Trump and the son of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani.

At the official opening of his campaign headquarters in Midtown Manhattan on October 4, Zeldin expressed optimism, which he had in large supply even before Republican gains in New York and beyond were evident through the 2021 elections.

“The stakes have never been higher,” Zeldin told supporters. “Everything is on the line right now.”

Zeldin spoke about issues raised by New Yorkers during his campaign trips across the state — he has been aggressively traveling beyond his native Suffolk County on Long Island to hold events, meet voters, court local leaders, and raise money, all helping lead to his many endorsements from Republican and Conservative officials. He said New Yorkers are concerned about crime, education, and the cost of living; that people feel unsafe, that they are losing control over what their children are learning in school, and that the state’s taxes are making life in New York more and more unaffordable.

Throughout his campaign, Zeldin has railed against Democratic COVID-19 policies, especially arguing against any vaccine or mask mandates, warning against further requirements like those to protect children from the virus via inoculation in order to attend school and promising to roll them back if he becomes governor. Indeed, much of Zeldin’s early campaign platform appears focused on rolling back Democratic policies, such as reforms to the state’s bail laws, income tax increases on the wealthy, and more.

Zeldin highlighted his early start on the trail in the 2022 race, which will be decided through the June primaries and the fall general election. He said that since his campaign began so early, he has been able to have conversations with voters that would not have happened if he started later, and that he has already been able to visit each of the state’s 62 counties.

Zeldin’s early blitz in campaign travel, fundraising, and endorsements is also giving him an air of inevitability as the GOP nominee for governor. But while his attempt to box out his two major primary opponents is certainly showing significant dividends thus far, early polling in the race has not shown Zeldin with an advantage, but instead that Giuliani has it, likely in large part due to name recognition as the former mayor’s son, and the pair’s ties to Trump, who remains popular among New York Republicans.

As for the status of the race, Giuliani’s recent polling has given him optimism going forward despite Zeldin’s popularity among party leadership and significant fundraising advantage.

“Hey, you know, those nearly 3 million Republicans deserve a say in the nominating process,” Giuliani said in an interview. “And since we came out with our own poll in June that had us up eight points. And then Siena came out with polls in September, I think October, December and January. They had us up double digits in all four of those public polls, and this last one had us up 12 or 13 points.”

Giuliani, just 36 years old, is leaning heavily on his ties to Trump and White House experience, which included working as Associate Director of the Office of the Public Liaison and Special Assistant to the President.

As the GOP nominee for governor in 2014, Astorino won 40% of the vote to Andrew Cuomo’s 54%, the closest of Cuomo’s three gubernatorial victories. He went on to lose his reelection bid as county executive in 2017, then lost a State Senate bid in 2020.

Zeldin’s favorability among party leaders “doesn’t mean anything” to Astorino, who said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that “the actual nomination, from whoever wins the primary in June, which will be voted upon by the actual registered Republicans in New York, that's all that matters.”

Astorino touted his wins in Democratic-leaning Westchester County as a sort-of secret weapon he holds over Giuliani and Zeldin.

“It's harder to win in Westchester than it is to win statewide as a Republican,” Astornio said. “It's tougher, and yet, you know, I was able to do it…We're not going to kid ourselves. We're not going to win New York City, but I'm going to be able to get above 30% [there], which is the magic number to win statewide.”

Zeldin has been successfully locking up support among party officials, including New York State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy, who dubbed Zeldin the “presumed nominee” as early as June, a full year before the primary. But even with these types of endorsements, there is a recent precedent for early and establishment favorites losing the primary when the results come in. Incendiary conservative Carl Paladino won 62% of the vote in the 2010 Republican primary despite Rick Lazio’s significant lead in both party endorsements and early polls. Paladino went on to lose to Cuomo in a landslide.

As Astorino said, “just because some of the party leaders go with somebody else does not mean that it's game over. It's just the start of the game.”

The looming election is unfolding on an uncertain playing field given Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, GOP gains in the 2021 elections, expectations for a Republican surge in the 2022 midterms, the fact that this is the first statewide election cycle since 1998 where Andrew Cuomo’s name is not expected to be on the ballot, and other factors. Both Zeldin and Giuliani are outspoken Trump loyalists who have supported Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats appear on the verge of having their most competitive gubernatorial primary in decades as Governor Kathy Hochul seeks election to the position she holds due to Cuomo’s resignation amid scandal, while Congressional Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island, representing New York’s 3rd District that also includes parts of Queens, and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams are also in the running.

Republicans have not won a statewide race in New York since Governor George Pataki won a third term in 2002, and given voter enrollment disadvantages and whether the party of Trump can appeal to the moderates, conservative Democrats, and independents needed to win statewide, there are major questions about whether a Republican can pull it off in 2022. But, the state GOP has been almost solely focused on winning this race, and have some reason for their optimism given the political climate and the potential relative weakness of whoever the Democratic nominee for governor will be.

Facing uncharted waters, many Republican leaders are looking to Zeldin, a candidate they believe can bridge the Trump-supporting base of the party that Zeldin is firmly part of with moderate Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats.

An Army veteran, Zeldin has made a name for himself on the national stage as an ardent defender of Israel, law enforcement, and Trump — he voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election and voted twice against impeachment. National political players have taken notice; Blackstone CEO and major Trump donor Stephen Schwarzman joined pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) in giving generously to Zeldin’s 2020 congressional campaign. Former Secretary of State and Congressional Rep. Mike Pompeo endorsed Zeldin on May 18, with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich following suit on November 4.

In the race for governor, Zeldin is looking to pull off something of a balancing act of building on his reputation as a loyal Trump ally while zeroing in on state issues and preparing for the inevitable move toward the middle in the general election, if he wins the primary.

Long Island-Albany Roots
After graduating from Albany Law School at age 23, Zeldin served in the Army for four years as a military intelligence officer as well as a prosecutor and military magistrate. He was deployed to Iraq in 2006 as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

In 2008, Zeldin challenged then three-term incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop for his seat representing New York’s 1st Congressional district on Long Island and lost by nearly 17 points. Zeldin pivoted to practicing law on Long Island and gearing up for a successful run for the New York State Senate in 2010, winning with 57% of the vote to represent a district including Brookhaven, Patchogue, and Ronkonkoma. He was then re-elected to a second two-year term in 2012 with 55.8% of the vote.

During his time in Albany, Zeldin chaired the committee on consumer protection and served on a variety of other committees during what was a turbulent time in state government and the beginning of Andrew Cuomo’s governorship.

Early on in his tenure as a state senator, Zeldin quickly established himself as socially conservative. Less than a year into his first State Senate term, Zeldin voted against New York’s Marriage Equality Act.

“It is my belief that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman,” Zeldin said in a statement he released after the bill passed on June 24, 2011. “As of tonight, in New York, that definition has changed. This legislation will have a profound impact on the lives of all New Yorkers.”

Zeldin was a pro-business conservative fed up with the state’s high taxes. He responded to Cuomo’s 2013 State of the State address with critiques now part of his gubernatorial platform.

“We must unburden hardworking New Yorkers from the crushing taxes that affect their family budgets and quality of life,” Zeldin said. “We must make government work better and cost less, and we must develop better strategies that support our small businesses and create jobs on Long Island and throughout the state.”

Into the House
In 2014, Zeldin defeated then six-term incumbent Tim Bishop with 54.4% of the vote and has represented New York’s 1st Congressional District in Congress since 2015. There, Zeldin’s party was in the majority from 2015 until 2019, ceding control to Democrats after the 2018 midterm elections. In the House, he has served on two committees: Financial Services and Foreign Affairs.

His website touts among his biggest accomplishments many local issues, among others, including saving Plum Island, securing funding for an Electron Ion Collider to be constructed in Brookhaven, and the $1 billion coastal storm risk management project stretching from Fire Island to Montauk. Zeldin has also worked on issues close to him as a military veteran; his website mentions his involvement in a new veterans health clinic and the Adult Day Health Care Act, which helps elderly and disabled vets more easily gain access to healthcare and other resources. He also boasts aid for first responders, noting his support for the permanent reauthorization of the Zadroga Act — a law that provides healthcare to first responders, volunteers, and survivors of the September 11, 2001 attacks — and the 9/11 Victim Compensation fund.

In 2015, his first year in Congress, Zeldin proposed an amendment to a bill revisiting No Child Left Behind that would permit states to opt out of adopting Common Core educational standards without losing federal funding. The amendment passed 373-57 in the House and became part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Obama signed into law on December 10, 2015.

Heritage Action for America — a sister organization to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank — gave Zeldin a 59% rating during the 2015-2016 session of congress, meaning he adhered to their program, and presumably against President Obama’s, 59% of the time.

Then came the Trump years.

The Trump Alignment
On May 3, 2016, Texas Senator Ted Cruz suspended his campaign following Trump’s victory in the Indiana primary, rendering Trump the presumptive nominee. The next day, two months before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Zeldin and fellow Long Island Congressman Peter King endorsed Donald Trump for President.

Zeldin was quoted in Newsday saying “even though I don’t agree with Donald Trump on everything, and I think there may be certain things or statements of his that I may disagree with, he is a better candidate by far than Hillary Clinton.” The article also mentioned that Trump had donated $2,000 to Zeldin’s 2014 Congressional campaign. 

According to Newsday, once Donald Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee for President, Zeldin began to boast a long-standing intergenerational relationship. The May 2016 article mentioned that Trump called Zeldin after his 2014 victory to note that he and Zeldin’s father shared ties to the New York Military Academy; Zeldin and his wife, Diane, met with Donald and Melania Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in March 2015.

A USA Today article published during the 2016 GOP convention noted that Zeldin was one of 11 incumbent House Republicans whose re-election was dubbed a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. According to the article, Zeldin was the only one of the 11 endangered Republicans who chose to travel to Cleveland in lieu of “sidestepping any controversy” associated with Trump.

Politico reported that Trump won 72.5% of Suffolk County’s vote in New York’s 2016 Republican primary — held on April 19 with only Trump, Cruz, and then-Ohio Governor John Kasich on the ballot  —  and 52.5% of the county’s vote in the general election later that year against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and others on the ballot.

Four years later, Trump’s tally decreased to 49.4% in Suffolk County, defeating Joe Biden there by only 232 votes, according to the New York Times, while in Nassau County, Biden bested Trump by 69,788 votes, winning 54.2% of the vote in the other Long Island county.

The New York Times reported in June 2016 that Zeldin defended Trump’s attack on a judge in a lawsuit relating to Trump University. Trump, who had launched his campaign with xenophobic comments about Mexicans, alleged the U.S.-born judge was biased against Trump because of the judge’s Mexican ancestry. The article also noted that Zeldin suggested then-President Obama could be deemed racist on account of his policies and statements.

In a piece in The Hill on Zeldin’s comments on CNN, Zeldin was quoted saying “my purpose here isn't to just go through the list and call everyone a racist. I'm saying that we all can up our game with rhetoric and policy because America, we are a nation of immigrants, we are a melting pot.” The article added that Zeldin said Democrats were guilty of political “microtargeting.”

The Trump Presidency
During Zeldin’s second term in Washington, and under a Republican president and Congress, he supported a slew of early Trump-era deregulatory measures. In January 2017, Zeldin voted in favor of a budget resolution nicknamed Trumpcare in hopes of at least partially repealing the Affordable Care Act — the bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.

He voted to repeal many environmental and labor regulations in the administration’s first months and continued to support Trump’s legislative agenda 88.8% of the time throughout Trump’s tenure, according to FiveThirtyEight, a political analysis site.

In addition to the former President’s legislative goals, Zeldin was broadly supportive of the Executive Branch’s approach to foreign policy, counter-terrorism, and the southern border wall. 

On August 21, 2017, during Trump’s first year in office, Zeldin released a statement in response to a Trump speech laying out his strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Zeldin lauded Trump for intending to shift the administration’s focus to “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary deadlines,” and policy that would “improve the integration of diplomatic, economic and military options to support our interests in the country.” He also said Trump’s plan would hold Pakistan to account for harboring terrorists. 

Zeldin added that the U.S. strategy should include “a more stable political environment in Afghanistan,” the Afghan government exercising control over more of its territory, countering Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and securing the country’s border. 

“For years, we have been trying not to lose in Afghanistan,” Zeldin wrote in the statement. “Now is the time to win and end this never ending war altogether."

Republican control of the White House and Congress lasted two years, and Democrats took the House after the 2018 midterm elections — Zeldin won re-election with 51.5% of the vote. He remained supportive of Trump’s objectives at home and abroad throughout his third term in office. 

On January 18, 2020, early in Trump’s fourth year as president and with the campaign heating up, Zeldin tweeted a list of Trump talking points:

“US markets => record highs, Soleimani & al-Baghdadi => dead, ISIS caliphate => destroyed, USMCA => passed, China trade deal Ph 1 => signed, MS-13 members => arrested, Border wall => being built, US produced energy => now net exporter, Unemployment => 50 yr low, Keep it going!!”

The Associated Press reported on February 6, 2020 that an Al-Qaeda leader who had killed three Americans at Naval Air Station Pensacola was killed in a counter-terrorism strike in Yemen. That day, Zeldin tweeted: “this is a really bad time to be a terrorist targeting the US. Sleeping with one eye open just isn’t good enough for these terrorists to stay alive. We have the strongest military in the history of the world & the Trump admin is exceptionally taking out these targets left & right!”

In addition to supporting the former President’s policy objectives at home and abroad, Zeldin frequently voted with Trump while in the minority in the House. But there was also something of a mixed picture on several major policies.

Some key Zeldin votes in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, 116th Congress, in 2019-2020:

  • Voted against opposing a ban on openly transgender people serving in the military in March 2019
  • Voted against restoring net neutrality in April 2019
  • Voted against creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children in June 2019
  • Voted against requiring background checks for all firearm sales in February 2019
  • Voted against both charges of Trump’s first impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on December 17, 2019
  • Voted for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, directing federal aid for coronavirus impact in March 2020
  • Voted against the Heroes Act in May 2015, which would have entailed $3 trillion in federal spending in COVID relief
  • Voted against the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act in June 2020

FiveThirtyEight determined that Zelin voted with Trump’s agenda 86.5% of the time in the 115th Congress, 90.9% of the time in the 116th Congress, and, in the very short start of the 117th (and current) Congress before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, 100% of the time.

Zeldin did deviate from the president’s legislative agenda on occasion. He dissented on votes related to statecraft, taxes, and the budget. Some of the votes that did not align with Trump, covering 2017-2020:

  • Voted against a 2017 repeal of an FCC rule prohibiting internet providers from sharing data on users’ activities 
  • Voted in 2017 against increasing the debt limit/extending funding related to Hurricane Harvey relief 
  • Voted against the fiscal year 2018 budget resolution
  • Voted in late 2017 against overhauling the tax code (the major Trump tax overhaul, which Zeldin opposed because it put in place a cap on state and local tax deductions from one’s federal taxes)
  • Voted in early 2018 against a two-year budget bill
  • Voted against the 2018 fiscal appropriations bill
  • Voted in June 2018 against the Republican “compromise” immigration bill
  • Voted against making 2017 individual tax reductions permanent
  • Voted in early 2019 in favor of disapproving the Trump administration’s lifting sanctions on three Russian companies
  • Voted against the two year budget bill in July 2019
  • Voted in September 2019 in favor of banning drilling off of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts
  • Voted to oppose Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria in October 2019
  • Voted in favor of requiring healthcare and social service employers to have plans for workplace violence in November 2019
  • Voted in January 2020 in favor of requiring the EPA to issue regulations regarding certain chemicals

As for Trump’s many incendiary public comments, Zeldin rarely if ever spoke out. During a June 29, 2017 CNN appearance, Zeldin said that Trump’s disparaging tweets about MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough were “ugly” and that he holds the president “to a higher standard.”

All told, Zeldin offered nearly unwavering support for a president well-known for prizing loyalty, and to a degree that Trump tolerated virtually no criticism before waging a personal war. This, while Trump brought criticism upon himself for constantly lying, engaging in one feud after another, often in very personal terms, making false allegations of election fraud, cozying up to dictators, and more — criticism that very often included independents and some Republicans.

In perhaps the ultimate test of Trump loyalty, Zeldin voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election when it came down to the wire on January 6, 2021, even after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol seeking to obstruct that certification.

January 6, 2021
Zeldin was one of four in New York’s congressional delegation to vote against certifying the 2020 election results in Congress on the night of January 6, 2021.

He defended what he said were his doubts of the election’s integrity by pointing to election officials’ actions leading up to Election Day, November 3, 2020.

There was and remains no evidence that the 2020 election was compromised, including the presidential election or any congressional results where votes were tallied at the same time.

While rioters coming from the Trump-led “Stop the Steal” rally stormed the Capitol seeking to stop the certification and, in some cases, do harm to Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress involved in the process, Zeldin released a statement:

“This should never be the scene at the US Capitol. This is not the America we all love. We can debate and we can disagree, even on a January 6th following a Presidential election. We can all passionately love our country, but in our republic we elect people to represent us to voice our objections in the House and Senate on this day. Additionally, there must be ZERO tolerance for violence in any form! It is very important now for everyone to please cooperate with Capitol Police who need to gain control of this situation immediately."

After members of Congress reconvened that evening following the assault on the Capitol, Zeldin addressed the House floor challenging the validity of the election.

"This debate is necessary, because rogue election officials circumvented state election laws,” he said. “They made massive changes to how their state’s election would be run. These acts, among other issues, were unlawful and unconstitutional."

Zeldin proceeded to vote against certifying the results of the election in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

High-profile GOP leaders who voted against certifying the results of the election  — Reps. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, and rising conservative star Elise Stefanik of New York, among others — followed a similar trajectory to Zeldin’s. They voted not to certify the election though they could not provide any proof of faulty results, condemned the rioters, voted not to impeach President Trump, voted not to form an independent commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and maintain a largely avoidant stance on all of the above.

Zeldin was quoted in a May 2021 Newsday article saying “​the duties of the proposed commission are already being carried out, but Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi wants to politicize this issue and distract from her party’s disastrous policies that are depressing the workforce and slowing economic growth.”

As the 2022 New York elections unfold amid the national backdrop of Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 election and potential 2024 candidacy, it is an open question how much Zeldin’s close ties to the former president will help and hurt him — and the answers could be very different in the Republican primary versus the general election, which would also be true for either of the other GOP candidates, particularly Giuliani. The answers will also be informed by how much the 2022 election centers around the debates over criminal justice, school, tax, covid, and other policies controlled at the state level.

The most recent Republican governor of New York, George Pataki, has distanced himself from the direction the GOP has taken in the Trump era, especially when it comes to the Capitol attack. Even before the riot, Pataki called efforts to subvert the results of the election “a grave threat to our freedom.”

Zeldin did not mention January 6 at his Manhattan headquarters opening, opting to dismiss questions about his record on the issue. “What's important is that we focus on the issues that voters want us to be focused on,” Zeldin said when asked.

As for how his votes against election certification on January 6 may affect his candidacy for governor, Zeldin said voters are “talking to [him] about their cost of living, they're talking about their desire to support law enforcement more, not less. They are expressing their concerns about their son or daughter's education.”

Flipping New York
Hillary Clinton won New York by 22.5 percentage points in 2016 and Joe Biden won by 23 points in 2020. Andrew Cuomo won a third term by just over 23 points in 2018.

While Zeldin or another GOP nominee for governor would surely face difficult odds in the 2022 general election, Democrats will not be fielding a nominee with the electoral strengths of Clinton, Biden, or Cuomo.

Governor Kathy Hochul was little-known to New Yorkers before her ascent to the state’s top office in August of last year. Rep. Suozzi and Public Advocate Williams would both likely be weaker than Cuomo going into his 2018 reelection for a third term. Hochul, the first woman to ever be Governor of New York, has shown significant strength in early polling and brought in massive fundraising hauls. 

When Zeldin launched his campaign, he was centering it around defeating “King Cuomo,” who was eyeing a fourth term. Since Cuomo’s resignation amid several major scandals, Zeldin wasted no time in shifting his critiques of Cuomo toward Hochul, whom he has dubbed “Complicit Kathy” for her role as Cuomo’s relatively muted lieutenant governor.

In some ways, Zeldin is still campaigning against Cuomo as a metonym for Democratic rule in New York. On December 4, Zeldin tweeted a petition to change the name of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, writing that “a whole lot of reminders are flying in why we need to restore the Tappan Zee Bridge back to its original name and end this Cuomo show for good.”

Many of Zeldin’s talking points hinge on “one party rule” in Albany, where he argues Democrats have run amok with progressive policies out of touch with the majority of New Yorkers, driving people out of the state, and hurting those who remain.

Numbers suggest that Democrats’ advantage in statewide elections is only growing. Since the 2018 gubernatorial election, the New York City share of the statewide vote has increased, pushing the state electorate bluer.

In its November data roundup, the State Board of Elections reported 7,791,315 registered voters outside the city and 5,598,883 voters in New York City, meaning 42% of the potential state electorate comes from the city compared to 40% in November 2018. As always, much will come down to turnout, and while New York City turnout often lags other parts of the state, any Republican nominee would need a suppressed city turnout coupled with an energized upstate vote, which leans strongly Republican, plus a solid red swing in the suburbs, including Zeldin’s Long Island. Still, a Republican would very likely need a better-than-recent-cycles performance in the five boroughs to win.

Zeldin touts himself as a candidate uniquely capable of flipping districts. 

“We know how to win tough races in districts where they say we're not supposed to win,” Zeldin said at his headquarters opening. “In 2010, we took out an incumbent [state] senator who between him and his father were there for 30 years. In 2014, we took out an incumbent congressman who was in office there for 12 years. And we've had targets on our backs.”

GOP victories this past fall, notably in the Virginia governor’s race and various local Long Island races like for Nassau County Executive and District Attorney, indicate momentum for Zeldin or whomever the Republican gubernatorial nominee will be this year. On November 3, Zeldin released a statement forecasting an inbound “Red Tsunami.” 

“Whether it’s county-wide races on Long Island in Suffolk and Nassau Counties, New York City Council seats in Queens and Brooklyn, local races in places like Colonie or Hornell, and so many other elections throughout the state, it’s clear that New Yorkers are fed up with the failed one-party leadership that has run the state we love into the ground,” Zeldin said.

As for delivering on that “red tsunami,” Conservative Party leadership is confident that Zeldin is their candidate.

At Zeldin’s HQ opening, New York Conservative Party Chair Gerard Kassar said that Zeldin received the party’s nomination in record time, “but that shouldn’t surprise a single person in this room.” He chalked this up to Zeldin’s record on issues like taxes, Israel, crime, and the “horrendous policies” implemented by Democrats in New York. 

“This is a special campaign because we have a real need, the greatest need that we’ve had in decades, to bring about change in this state,” Kassar said at the Manhattan HQ opening event. “Fortunately, we have a vehicle for change.”

When Zeldin spoke, he discussed the advantages of getting an early start on his campaign for governor. 

“Too often these campaigns are started in an election year, and the meetings that we’re having now around this state, that wouldn’t happen until just before an election,” Zeldin said.

He also said that the conversations he has had across the state have informed his campaign’s sense of urgency.

“We can all share stories of how we know people in our lives who either have left, or are thinking about leaving,” Zeldin said. “Many cite the cost to live here. They talk about the inability to walk outside of their own street and around the block because they’re concerned about crime and public safety. They speak of the troubles of their son or daughter and the quality of their education being impacted with policies seeking not to provide the highest quality to them, but instead, seeking to indoctrinate or brainwash and try to keep parents out of being as active as possible in this process.”

As to whether he can sway moderate voters who largely agree with his platform but will not support him because of his record on the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot, Zeldin said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that “what’s important is we focus on the issues that voters want us to be focused on.” 

The Platform
Based on social media posts, speeches, press releases, and other materials, Zeldin’s campaign seems to focus on the issues he discussed at his HQ opening: crime, education, covid mandates, and cost of living. 

Zeldin is a vehement “Back the Blue” supporter, stressing the importance of support for law enforcement and pushing back against calls for police reform or divestment. He spoke at a Back the Blue rally on Long Island in July 2020, a moment when the national conversation on law enforcement was red hot in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer two months prior.

On May 28, 2020, Zeldin’s office issued a press release condemning Derek Chauvin — the officer who killed Floyd who has since been convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter — and stating that Zeldin comes from a law enforcement family and he unequivocally supports police. “[I]t makes me that much more disturbed by the actions of this thug officer and the inaction of the other officers present,” Zeldin said in the statement.

Early in October, a 16-year-old girl was shot in the head in a Brooklyn park. In response, Zeldin tweeted that “when politicians eagerly defund the police, enact cashless bail, empty out prisons like Rikers, undermine the NYPD’s ability to do its job, & more, the communities that need law enforcement most suffer the greatest.”

Zeldin is often eager to pounce on news headlines related to certain crimes and events involving law enforcement; offering a conservative position that has a lot of traction in some parts of the state, including his home constituency on Long Island, where gang violence has been surging in recent years, particularly around the MS-13 gang.

Early this month, Zeldin announced his “Secure our Streets” plan — the most concrete element of his platform to date — promising to put “communities before criminals.” Partitioned into “public safety, correctional facilities, and victims,” the plan concretizes much of Zeldin’s campaign rhetoric and elaborates on how exactly he hopes to get tough on crime if elected. Within the public safety section, the plan lists repealing “cashless bail,” allowing judges to set bail based on dangerousness assessments of the accused, making changes to “Raise the Age,” a 2018 law that increased the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and ousting “District Attorneys who don’t enforce the law” — Zeldin has been targeting new Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg since Bragg took office and began implementing his reform-minded policies that includes declining to prosecute certain crimes and more use of diversion programs.

The plan also calls for repeal of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, a 2021 law limiting solitary confinement in prisons and jails to a maximum of 15 days, commissioning a study on violence in the state’s prisons, and repurposing defunct correctional facilities. The plan also targets the parole process, aiming to require unanimous decisions from the parole board, replacing board members “who have expressed poor judgment,” and establishing an appeal process for victims and their families.

Throughout the platform, Zeldin emphasizes a need for the state to hire more correctional and police officers, provide economic assistance to communities where correctional facilities have closed, enact a “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights,” and, in essence, “back the blue.” The platform states explicitly that Zeldin intends to “oppose any effort to Defund the Police.” Instead, he wants to expand the law enforcement footprint and amplify the punitive powers of the state’s criminal legal systems.

On November 1, Zeldin tweeted that New York’s police officers and firefighters should be “treated as heroes” and that then-Mayor Bill de Blasio was unfairly “targeting their livelihoods” with covid vaccine mandates. This dovetails two key issues in Zeldin’s platform: virtually unequivocal support for law enforcement and opposing government mask and covid vaccine mandates.

While there is little evidence of Zeldin encouraging New Yorkers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which has killed more than 65,000 people in the state, he constantly expresses opposition to any vaccine mandates and promises to repeal them if he becomes governor.

Zeldin’s candidacy is clearly rooted in contemporary culture wars: covid mandates, school closures and curriculum, racial and ethnic resentment politics. Zeldin no doubt took notice of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race, which revolved in large part around backlash against covid policies, especially school closures, and larger cultural debates, like around the teaching of Critical Race Theory, which was largely cultivated on the right and not based in reality.

In a Politico opinion piece on the results of the Virginia gubernatorial race, political analyst Jeff Greenfield concluded that the culture wars worked in winning elections in 2021. With Youngkin winning handily in a state that went 10 points in favor of Joe Biden the year before, this no doubt informs Zeldin’s campaign in a state Biden also won by 10 points.

Zeldin derided Hochul’s “boneheaded” decision to terminate her director of Italian-American affairs in a Nov. 14 tweet that he later deleted. In the tweet, he assured his followers that as governor, “Italian-American NYers will be once again treated with love, respect & admiration. They will be PROUDLY & strongly represented across my admin when we restore NY to glory!” The New York Post reported that a Hochul spokesperson said the administration was looking for a new appointee to fill the position.

Later that month, when Hochul tweeted that her husband had selected the “holiday tree,” Zeldin responded: “It’s called a Christmas Tree, Kathy, and that’s coming from the Jewish candidate for NY Governor. Just call it for what it is! Merry Christmas!”

On education, Zeldin mentioned at his headquarters opening that New Yorkers he spoke with are concerned about their role in their children’s schooling. It may have been a nod to critical race theory -- an academic theory rarely taught K-12 but that has become a buzz phrase used on the right to mean almost any teaching about systemic racism and as a wedge in  the culture wars across the country.

Zeldin wrote an opinion piece for Fox News alleging that “critical race theory in education teaches children that America’s law, institutions, values, traditions and language are systemically racist and must be torn down. It requires that everything be viewed through the lens of race. It focuses on identity group politics and ignores that we are all unique individuals with different goals, skills and limitations. Further, it suggests that those who support equal opportunity for all, meritocracy and Western liberalism are helping to perpetuate racism. Therefore, according to the proponents of critical race theory, such as Ibram Kendi and Robin Di’Angelo, it is necessary for "anti-racist" activists to name and shame people with those beliefs into either silence or submission.”

Citing critical race theory in an apparent attempt to trigger white parents, Zeldin argues that parents deserve a more active role in what gets taught in public schools. In New York, he has vehemently opposed then-Mayor de Blasio’s announcement that New York City public schools would replace its small gifted and talented program with a more universal enrichment model. 

“Terrible move! Why punish students reading at a higher reading level & doing math at a higher math level? Challenge ALL students to perform their very best,” Zeldin tweeted. Mayor Eric Adams has promised to expand the current gifted and talented system, not follow through on de Blasio’s planned reforms, which were announced just a short time before he was due to leave office.

Another key issue for Zeldin on the campaign trail is cost of living, an ongoing focus for New York Republicans who want to reduce the state’s high taxes. And he’s been connecting Democratic leadership of the federal government and of state government in New York.

At his campaign headquarters opening, Zeldin said inflation and taxation are further jeopardizing New Yorkers’ ability to afford to live in the state. New York has been a leading state in out-migration for years, part of a trend of population movement to southern states that has been chalked up to a combination of tax policy, cost of living, lifestyle, economic opportunity, and weather.

On October 1, Zeldin tweeted: “Inflation is on the rise & your hard earned $$ won't go as far when purchasing everyday goods. Those in control of DC & NY are instead focused on spending massive sums of $$ we don't have, hitting manufacturing hard & hiking the cost to do business. 1-party rule is devastating!” He followed up ten days later, writing: “Every time NYers fill up their gas tanks, they get a punch to the gut reading the latest price at the pump. The craziest part? Albany wants to INCREASE the gas tax another $.55 PER GALLON. 1-party rule in DC/Albany is attacking wallets hard right now & this pain must be reversed.”

by John Besche, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to correctly reflect the margins of victory in several races, which were originally depicted as smaller due to a math error.

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