Gotham Gazette

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Three Democratic Candidates for Governor Set to Debate as Primary Heads Into Final Weeks

Jumaane Williams, Kathy Hochul, & Tom Suozzi

With just three weeks till the June 28 primary, and only eleven days till early voting begins June 18, Governor Kathy Hochul is set to face off Tuesday for the first time on the debate stage against her two Democratic primary opponents, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

The debate, set to air Tuesday at 7 p.m. on CBS television and Newsradio 880, comes a few days after Suozzi and Williams appeared for a debate on Spectrum News that Hochul declined to participate in.

Hochul, formerly lieutenant governor, is running for her first full-term as governor since taking over from Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year, when he resigned in disgrace after facing a series of sexual misconduct allegations, among other scandals. In the months since, Hochul has consolidated her position as the state’s top Democrat, courting wealthy donors that have bolstered her campaign coffers to a massive funding advantage over her opponents, and strengthening alliances with major labor unions and other special interest groups, and receiving the backing of many elected and party officials.

Hochul has sought to distance herself from Cuomo, and in some ways has followed through on promises of a different leadership style. While she has mostly proved to be more collaborative and respectful than her former running mate known for bullying and browbeating, Hochul raised hackles and to some extent soured relationships in the Legislature over the way she handled several major items in the state budget passed more than a week late in April.

Like Cuomo, Hochul is a moderate liberal. She has certainly moved leftward after her time as a county clerk and congressional representative in Western New York, where she opposed driver’s licenses for undocumented New Yorkers with threats of arrest and touted an “A” rating from the NRA. In the passage of this year’s state budget, her last-minute move to push through a large subsidy deal for the Buffalo Bills stadium project provoked more than a few comparisons to Cuomo.

Unlike Cuomo, Hochul has formed a friendly and productive working relationship with the New York City Mayor, who represents more than 43% of the state’s population in the city. While Hochul has worked well with Mayor Eric Adams, Cuomo spent years antagonizing and picking fights with Adams’ predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, often to the detriment of New Yorkers.

Hochul is heading into the final weeks before primary day set to sign a number of bills bolstering abortion rights and gun control in New York, among many other pieces of legislation passed by the Legislature as it ended its 2022 session in recent days.

Though she has not been elected to the position, incumbency has given Hochul several advantages, including the ability to command headlines for those bill-signings and the allocation of budget dollars. Her time as lieutenant governor made her a ubiquitous presence around the state, giving her more name recognition than her opponents in many places. She has quickly built a massive campaign war chest and public polling has her well ahead of Suozzi and Williams.

Suozzi is running as a “common sense Democrat,” with many moderate policy positions that aren’t far removed from Hochul. He is running on the strength of his two decades of experience in executive and legislative positions, while touting his longtime record backing gun control, environment protections, and abortion rights. His campaign has largely been focused on rising violent crime, and he has criticized Hochul for failing to take tough measures to control it, aligning himself with his ally, Mayor Adams, in calling for far more judicial discretion to jail defendants pre-trial. Suozzi has called for cutting taxes and regulations to spur the economy.

Williams is challenging Hochul for the second time, after having failed to unseat her as lieutenant governor in 2018, though he came somewhat close. As a self-declared “activist elected official,” Williams is to the left of the other candidates. He has a long history as a progressive on many issues, especially housing and police reform coupled with community investment, and has been endorsed by the Working Families Party. Though he has also said that public safety is his top issue, he has insisted that the solution lies in funding the social determinants of crime rather than law enforcement. He has called for higher taxes on the wealthy to fund everything from education to affordable housing to climate action.

On Thursday night, Williams and Suozzi met at the first televised debate in the primary, which Hochul decided to skip. Though there are clear differences between the two, they did not battle it out at the debate, instead training their criticisms at the governor. It was a sneak peek into what is likely to happen on Tuesday as the candidates try to tarnish the incumbent and present their visions to voters.

“She's gonna get attacked from her left flank by Jumaane Williams and from her right flank by Tom Suozzi,” said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in a phone interview, previewing the debate. “The question is, what is the reaction of media, pundits, and most importantly the public? Is that attack going to be seen as tripping her up or is that attack going to make her seem like the obvious choice in the middle.”

The two challengers clearly have honed several lines of attack against the governor. They’ve both been critical of the deal to help build the Buffalo Bills stadium, at a cost of $1.4 billion that includes at least $850 million in state and local subsidies. Polls have shown that voters also overwhelmingly disapprove of the deal.

They also questioned the governor’s judgment in rushing through the vetting of Brian Benjamin to be her lieutenant governor, only for him to resign seven months later after being indicted on corruption charges from his time as a state senator. Hochul then chose U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado to replace Benjamin after the Legislature rushed through a bill that allowed Benjamin to get off the primary ballot, a move that also invited criticism from her opponents.

“The perception coming out of the polling data that they're way behind may lead one or both of them to overreach in the attack,” Gyory said. “On the other hand, they may perfectly calibrate it and…it's not easy to be attacked by two people.”

He had specific advice for the two candidates as well. “If Jumaane can add practicality to his progressivism, I think he'll do well,” he said. “I think for Suozzi, it's a question of how does he calibrate his attacks on Hochul…and distinguish himself from Hochul without coming across as being churlish and caustic.”

On The Issues
Public polling has consistently shown that crime is a top concern for voters. An April 25 Siena College poll found that 24% of voters picked crime as the single most important issue in deciding who to support in the primary, with taxes a distant second at 9%. It was on crime and the economy that Hochul’s approval fell dramatically in that poll.

Suozzi has attacked Hochul repeatedly for failing to rein in violent crime. “This governor has not made it the priority it should be,” he said at the Thursday debate with Williams. Suozzi has taken particular aim at the state’s bail reforms that were approved in 2019 and which subsequently have been used by moderates and conservatives as a scapegoat for rising crime, with very limited direct evidence to support the assertion.

Those reforms had already been altered somewhat in 2020 and were again this year, but Suozzi and others have insisted that leaders did not go far enough. He has called for allowing judges to consider a “dangerousness standard” while deciding to set bail, a position that Hochul in fact shares, as does Mayor Adams.

Williams, on the other hand, is pushing for greater resources for crime prevention, with $1 billion going towards anti-gun violence programs and community investments. Including at Thursday’s debate, he has repeatedly pointed out that the push for that $1 billion was not met in the state budget.

The two challengers have also said that Hochul has not done enough to tackle gun violence specifically, a particularly poignant issue in the wake of the racist mass shooting in Buffalo followed soon by the massacre of school children in Uvalde, Texas. They have both pointed to Hochul's past endorsement by the National Rifle Association, which gave her an “A” rating when she was in Congress and donated to her past campaigns. Hochul, however, has easy rebuttals to offer, having quickly moved to strengthen gun control after the two mass shootings and having been a public champion for the initial passage of the state’s “red flag” law under Cuomo.

Inflation and cost of living have become a particularly pressing issue and while Hochul has taken measures to tackle them, it's likely a topic that each of the candidates will have to address at the debate. Both Hochul and Suozzi have talked about reducing taxes – Hochul has continued tax cuts for the middle class that were approved in previous years, and passed a property tax rebate and gas tax holiday in the new budget – while Williams wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to increase state revenue and fund several progressive priorities.

Another issue at the forefront this year is abortion rights, with indications that the U.S. Supreme Court is getting ready to overturn Roe v. Wade. Hochul stands on a strong foundation on the issue, having quickly announced a series of measures to strengthen reproductive rights, funds for abortion, executive action on contraceptive coverage, and more. Williams and Suozzi have both expressed full-throated support for abortion rights, though they may be slightly vulnerable on the issue because of past positions that were more conservative to varying degrees.

Ethics and integrity in government could be another contentious sticking point. Hochul promised a new era in Albany when she took office, distancing herself from the several scandals that engulfed Cuomo as well as the overall culture he perpetuated where pay-to-play politics, bullying, and a lack of transparency and ethics enforcement were all rampant.

But Suozzi and Williams have taken aim at her for being quietly acquiescent as Cuomo’s number two and then, as governor, for continuing to raise massive sums from those with state business interests, the Benjamin debacle, and the Buffalo Bills deal, which government reform groups have criticized for several reasons including the secretive process and the fact that the governor’s husband, William Hochul, is a top executive at Delaware North, the massive concessions company that serves the current stadium.

The Money Race
After becoming governor, Hochul quickly built up a donor network to rival her predecessor and raised more than $20 million in five months, a record-breaking fundraising pace. According to the latest campaign finance disclosures from May, she has raised a total of $33.8 million for her campaign and has spent about $16.6 million – she raised $10.3 million and spent $13.1 million since January alone. She had a whopping $18.6 million in cash on hand as of May 23, according to that filing.

Suozzi is in second place. He raised $6.7 million in total in contributions (and also transferred more than $2 million from his congressional campaign) and has spent about $6.5 million. He had about $2.7 million left over as of the filing.

Williams has barely any funding compared to the other two. He has only raised $471,000 in total and has spent about $311,000. He had just $130,000 in the bank as of the latest campaign finance disclosure.

Hochul Ahead in Polling
Public polling shows the governor holding a commanding lead over both her competitors. In a March 28 Siena College poll, Hochul had a 40-point lead over Williams and Suozzi in a three-way race – she received 52% of the vote compared to 12% for Williams and 11% for Suozzi. The poll showed that Hochul’s standing in the primary had only improved over time, following a January poll that showed her with a 30-point lead. 

The March poll also considered whether Cuomo might jump into the race, in which case Hochul got 38% of the vote compared to 30% for Cuomo, 10% for Suozzi, and 7% for Williams.

A May 26 poll from Unite NY/John Zogby Strategies found that Hochul had a 58% approval rating, with 38% disapproving. In the Democratic primary, she led with 49.4% of the vote compared to 14.1% for Williams and 10.3% for Suozzi. She also led all potential Republican challengers by double digits as the poll looked ahead to the general election.  

Hochul did suffer some setbacks in April after the criticism over the Buffalo Bills deal, the Benjamin scandal, and the chaotic state redistricting process that led to lawsuits, new districts being drawn, and the congressional and state primary eventually being moved to August. Hochul declined to act to consolidate the primaries in August, apparently interested in trying to cement her advantages and not give her competitors (and potentially Cuomo) more time to dent her lead.

In the April 25 Siena poll, Hochul’s job performance rating plunged. Only 36% of those polled said she was doing an “excellent” or “good” job as governor, down from 43% in March; about 57% said she was doing a “fair” or “poor” job compared to 53% who said the same in March. 

Her overall favorability among voters remained relatively unchanged – 44% gave her a favorable rating compared to 34% unfavorable, compared to 45-35% in March. 

Suozzi had a favorability of 21% to 18% unfavorable, with 61% saying they either did not know him or have an opinion of him. Williams came in at 24% favorable and 20% unfavorable. For both candidates, it was a clear indicator that they are far behind in name recognition compared to the incumbent.

Along with Tuesday’s debate, the second and final televised debate Hochul has agreed to with Suozzi and Williams will be on June 16.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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