Jumaane Williams and Tom Suozzi
At the first debate of this year’s Democratic primary for governor, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi presented a cordial front to one another on Thursday night even as they sought to distinguish their individual political ideologies. The candidates reserved their barbs for Governor Kathy Hochul, who declined to participate in Thursday’s but has agreed to two upcoming debates.
Over the course of an hour, Williams and Suozzi expressed their similar and differing positions on various issues confronting New York including gun violence, the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade federal abortion rights, the state’s economic recovery, the worsening opioid crisis, and climate change, among others. Williams, who lost to Hochul in the 2018 primary for lieutenant governor, is an avowed “activist elected official” and a progressive left candidate backed by the likes of the Working Families Party. Suozzi describes himself as a “common sense Democrat” with more moderate leanings similar to Hochul, though on Thursday he repeatedly sought to position himself to the governor’s left on some issues, like gun control, and to her right on others, like tackling crime.
On several occasions, Williams and Suozzi were in agreement, and trained their criticisms towards the absent governor. Thursday’s debate was hosted by Spectrum News, airing in New York City on its NY1 network, and moderated by political anchors Errol Louis and Susan Arbetter.
Williams said his top issue is public safety, while Suozzi said that crime in the state is the leading issue for his campaign. But they vary on the solutions that they presented, in particular on gun violence, an issue at the forefront in the wake of the tragic mass shootings in Buffalo and in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the ongoing pandemic-era spikes in shootings and murders in New York City and other cities around the state and country.
Williams, as he has in the past, insisted on investments in communities and in non-law enforcement solutions to gun violence prevention. “What we have to stop doing is spending more money on the consequence of accountability, which you should have for doing those things, and spend more on the prevention,” he said.
In his response, Williams took a shot at Hochul for having received an endorsement from the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the past. “Buffalo, where I was, is reeling from that hate crime, but they've been reeling from other types of violence as well that no one has addressed,” he added.
“I agree with everything that Jumaane said and I'm glad that he pointed out the hypocrisy of this governor, who sought the NRA’s endorsement, voted with the NRA, took money from the NRA and had an ‘A’ rating from the NRA in Congress,” said Suozzi, referring to Hochul’s record of roughly a decade ago and noting that he himself had a “F” grade from the gun rights organization. Suozzi touted his 15-point “crime intervention and prevention” plan including measures such as better implementing the state’s Red Flag law, which was enacted in 2019 and allows guns to be taken away from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. “We need to educate the police, social workers, mental health experts, teachers, family members that you can take guns away from people that are mentally unstable, that have a drug and alcohol problem, by bringing them through a due process procedure,” he said.
Where there were key distinctions between the two Democrats was on broader criminal justice issues. The Legislature and Governor Hochul recently approved additional tweaks to the state’s bail reform law that was first approved in 2019 but which has, with very limited evidence, been broadly blamed by critics for the state’s recent uptick in crime. The new changes were relatively minimal, including allowing judges to set bail for more gun crimes. However, Hochul and other leaders such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Suozzi have called for allowing judges to consider a “dangerousness standard” when setting bail, a proposal that progressive legislators have rejected.
Suozzi supported the changes to the law, though he insisted “we need many, many more.” He has also pushed for the dangerousness standard and faulted Hochul for failing to get it approved. It was one of several issues where Suozzi said Hochul has not shown enough leadership or come through for Adams, whom Suozzi is close with and supported throughout his winning mayoral campaign.
Williams reiterated that there is no evidence of a link between higher crime and the bail reform laws of 2019. “The Democratic Party I belong to does a horrible job in talking about public safety,” he said. He also noted that demands by progressives to put $1 billion in the state budget for gun violence prevention were ignored.
When pressed by the moderators, Williams pointed out that he has never used the phrase “defund the police,” saying he never thought it was the right framing but that he also doesn’t believe it appropriate to try to lecture activists on their language. Williams has long been part of the movement that garnered national momentum in 2020 and aims to move funding from law enforcement to social services and community resources.
“We know that law enforcement has a role to play. We want to lift that up with transparency and accountability. But if we want to support them, one thing we could do is make sure that everyone else has the services that they need as well,” he said.
With recent indications that the U.S. Supreme Court is leaning towards overturning Roe v. Wade, which established the federal right to abortion, New York leaders have been taking steps to make the state a haven for reproductive rights. At Thursday’s debate, Suozzi and Williams were asked how they would protect abortions if they were governor and given a chance to explain their own evolution on the issue. Both said they support making abortion a constitutional right in the state (Roe protections were enshrined in New York law in 2019).
“This state has to strengthen its laws, has to make sure that it is a sanctuary for folks to come get the service that they need,” Williams said. “What we also have to make sure we do is elongate that conversation so we have reproductive justice. So that people can have affordability, Black, brown, [immigrants], when they make this decision.”
He also reiterated that his past reservations about abortion – which he expressed more than a decade ago – were based on his personal faith and experience. “I brought myself into it. That should not have been done,” he said, insisting that he has since “removed myself…when I answer this question, make sure I answer it first from the people who will be most affected.”
Suozzi touted his “100% rating from Planned Parenthood” and said he had never been opposed to abortion. “We have to do everything we can to keep New York State as a model for the rest of the nation to make sure that abortion remains safe, legal and accessible,” said Suozzi. But, he added, “I've always said that abortion should remain safe and legal. I used to say that it should be safe, legal and rare and we should encourage education and contraception.” He now says safe, legal, and accessible but reaffirmed he believes in expanding education and contraception to avoid unintended pregnancies.
When the candidates were given an opportunity to cross-examine each other, their questions were designed to elicit criticisms of Hochul not to differentiate from the other.
Williams asked Suozzi how he managed to receive an F from the NRA when Hochul received an A, though they are both moderates. “I'm a lifelong Democrat and kept those values,” Suozzi said. He contrasted himself with Hochul’s past conservsative positions such as her opposition to drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants and her current left leanings, including her appointment of an avowed democratic socialist to her administration. “She used to be on the far right and now she's on the far left. I don't know what she stands for,” he said.
Suozzi, in turn, asked Williams his assessment of Hochul’s performance. Williams pointed to a recent Siena poll from April showing Hochul’s approval drop. “That means people believe that the job she's doing is not good for them,” he said. “They can feel it. They are facing eviction. They are facing foreclosure. They can't pay for their medicine. They can't pay for their medical care. They feel it right now.”
The two candidates did offer different prescriptions for economic revival, whether in New York City where Mayor Adams wants workers to return to the office or in Upstate New York, where local economies have struggled for decades.
Suozzi said the requisite for the return to offices is public safety. “People are not coming back to their office buildings in New York City because they don't feel safe. They don't feel safe to take the subway…and it's not COVID, it's crime,” he said, though there is limited evidence to support that assertion. He did say he was open to conversation with the private and public sectors about allowing remote work where possible. On the upstate economy, Suozzi insisted that the state needs to cut taxes and regulations.
Williams said the state needs to lead in embracing a hybrid work model that allows for a work and life balance without affecting productivity. “This is a great example of where people like the governor are trying to force the old normal when the veil has been lifted and we understand that we have a new normal,” he said.
He also criticized the governor for continuing failed policies of the past that he said have not helped Upstate New York, such as former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program. “Instead of dumping money into these big projects, instead of dumping money into big corporations coming, what if we gave small businesses upstate and across the state…the same tax incentives that were given to these projects that never produced the things we wanted to produce?,” he said.
One component of a possible economic boost upstate has been proof-to-work cryptocurrency mining, which comes at a major energy and environmental cost. Williams called for a two-year moratorium on that type of mining, aligned with a possible moratorium being considered by the State Legislature, noting that it has been banned in certain other countries.
Suozzi emphasized his pro-environment record, but he insisted that climate solutions will have to be implemented and funded at the federal level. “[We] can't do it all by ourselves here in New York state where we're pushing our utility rates through the roof and it's hurting the people that can least afford to pay their utility rates,” he said. Pressed by Arbetter to answer the question about the proposed moratorium, he did somewhat reluctantly say he would consider a “brief” moratorium on crypto-mining.
When pressed on how they would handle covid restrictions if cases should spike again in the state, both candidates criticized the Cuomo (and by extension Hochul) administration for how it handled the pandemic.
Williams said he would be open to reinstituting minor restrictions and protections such as vaccine and mask mandates. “What we need to do when those numbers are going up is we need to do a little bit of restrictions at that time so we can prevent stronger ones moving forward,” he said.
Suozzi was more circumspect about bringing back any restrictions. “I just want to be very clear that I supported mandates back in 2020, and most of 2021. But there's come a time now that mandates are too toxic in our culture, and they're not appropriate at this time,” he said.
There was also a clear gulf between the two candidates’ approach to the opioid crisis, which has worsened significantly in recent years, particularly during the pandemic.
Williams insisted on a non-punitive approach of “compassionate care,” pointing to the success of two overdose prevention centers in New York City that have saved lives. “We want to make sure that we're treating people as human beings who need assistance,” he said.
Suozzi, however, seemed opposed to the centers and implied that they encouraged open drug use, though that is what they are designed to prevent. “It’s not fair to communities that they're being overburdened with these injection sites, with methadone sites, all concentrated in certain neighborhoods and not in other neighborhoods,” he said, while calling for a comprehensive plan to address mental health in the state including the expansion of Kendra’s Law, which allows for court-ordered out-patient treatment of individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others and was expanded already this year in the April state budget deal.
Both candidates called for more funding for the SUNY and CUNY systems, though Williams pushed for “free public education” while Suozzi said “the answer to everything is not college” and insisted the state must invest in skills and jobs training.
In two lightning rounds, the candidates gave brief answers to various questions, both significant and trivial.
Neither was in favor of permanently suspending the state’s gas tax, which was suspended till the end of the year in the state budget.
Suozzi supported a four-year extension of mayoral control of city schools – Mayor Adams was just awarded a two-year extension. Williams insisted it should be “municipal control” instead, with the City Council and other local electeds playing a greater role.
Williams did not say whether the Legislature should lift the state cap on charter schools. Suozzi said the state cap should remain intact but the cap in New York City, which has already been met, should be lifted.
They both supported an increase in the state minimum wage. And they both were in favor of banning state elected officials from trading stocks.
Asked which former governor they consider a role model, Suozzi pointed to Mario Cuomo.
Williams said, “The only thing I can say is, in about four years, I'd like to say myself.”