Gotham Gazette

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Hochul, Suozzi, and Williams Face Off in Democratic Primary Debate

Jumaane Williams, Kathy Hochul, & Tom Suozzi

Governor Kathy Hochul squared off against her Democratic primary opponents, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, for the first time in a debate on Tuesday night. The debate, televised on CBS TV and radio, took place three weeks from primary day, June 28, and a few days after Hochul declined a debate last week where Williams and Suozzi faced each other on Spectrum News.

Hochul, who is running to be elected to the position for the first time, spent much of the debate touting what she has accomplished in the nine months since she took over from disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo and fending off attacks from the two challengers. The candidates sought to distinguish their track records, experience, and positions from the others on a raft of issues including gun violence and bail reform, ethics, congestion pricing, term limits, and more.

While there were a number of attacks on Hochul — who has had wide leads in polling and fundraising — and she rebutted many of them, the debate remained calm and cordial throughout the hour. The questions ranged from the serious to the trivial and a number of important topics were left off the table as the debate finished with a “lightning round” of personal questions. The three candidates are scheduled for one more debate, on June 16, just before the early voting period of June 18-26.

The leading issue at the debate was gun violence, in the wake of the recent racist mass shooting in Buffalo.

Williams has been an ardent proponent of investing in community-focused solutions to gun violence prevention, and he faulted both Hochul and her predecessor for stalling legislation and funding to prevent street-level crime. 

Hochul touted a package of ten gun control laws she signed just on Monday. “We got so much done that had been hampered and unfulfilled for a decade,” she said. She also said she was preparing the state for a potential adverse ruling from the Supreme Court that could weaken New York's restrictions on the concealed carry of firearms. “Within hours of that Supreme Court decision, we will have a response,” she promised, floating the possibility of convening a special session of the Legislature to address the issue. 

Suozzi pointed to his 15-point “crime intervention and prevention” plan, which includes changing the state’s bail reform law that was passed in 2019 and which has subsequently been watered down and modified twice, including in the April budget deal negotiated by Hochul. He and Williams both also criticized Hochul for her past record which earned her an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and its donations for her campaigns. 

Hochul insisted that her positions have since “evolved” since she represented a conservative area of her native Western New York in Congress. “You know what we need? More people to evolve,” she said. “We have to change the hearts and minds of people all over this country so we can finally have common sense legislation from Washington.”

One of the main points of contention on bail reform this year was a push by moderates and conservatives to allow judges to use a “dangerousness standard” while setting bail for defendants. Hochul supported the change but was overruled by legislative leaders who noted that it could lead to disproportionate impacts on defendants of color, instead negotiating a compromise she touted for heading in that direction.

Asked why she did not use her political capital to push through the change, Hochul noted that the tweaks made this year did give judges more discretion. “I think what we gave the judges is better than this vague term that can be subjective and many times used against the individual because of the color of their skin,” she said. “We don't need to go backwards. We need to go forward in a thoughtful way but we're not compromising either justice or safety.”

Suozzi also supports instituting a dangerousness standard, which 49 other states already employ, while Williams has been opposed to it. The public advocate has repeatedly noted that there is little data to connect bail reform to the increase in gun violence over the last two years.

Suozzi was pressed by the moderators to explain a potential ethics probe by the House of Representatives into whether he failed to report stock transactions in a timely manner for years. “It's a paperwork error,” said Suozzi, who has a very large stock portfolio, insisting he regularly filed annual disclosures though he was required to report his transactions more regularly. “The reality is we've corrected it and we're moving forward with this on a going forward basis,” he said. Suozzi has repeatedly noted that he has no say in how his portfolio is handled by his financial manager.

But Suozzi also took the opportunity to pivot into an attack on Hochul for her appointment of Brian Benjamin, who had to resign as her lieutenant governor after being indicted on corruption charges from his time as a state senator, and for rushing through a last-minute deal in the budget to build a new Buffalo Bills stadium with $850 million in taxpayer subsidies. Hochul’s husband, William Hochul, is one of the top executives at Delaware North, the massive concessions company that currently has contracts with the Bills stadium. 

Hochul conceded that she was disappointed with Benjamin. “I promised the voters of New York and the people of the state that I would do everything I can to restore their faith in government and that was a setback,” she said.

She also would not say whether Delaware North should be precluded from bidding for contracts from the new stadium. “I worked hard to structure the best deal I could to the benefit of the taxpayers,” she said, insisting that her husband and the company had no involvement in the negotiations of the deal and that over many years both Hochul have had to be very careful on ethical lines, including during her time in Congress and his as a U.S. Attorney.

The debate also touched on a wide range of specific issues while a number of major challenges facing the state went fully or largely unaddressed, including affordable housing, child care, health care, and climate change.

Hochul and the Legislature recently accelerated the issuance of three casino licenses for downstate New York, and the candidates were asked if they would like to see one in Manhattan. 

“I’m not opposed to it but I do need to look more at it and I'm not sure that Manhattan would be a place to build,” Williams said, then stressing that he wants New York to be careful about how casinos often take money from those who can least afford to gamble it away. 

“I'm not opposed to it, but I'd rather have some public hearings, find out what the people have to say locally, as well as the state Legislature to have public hearings on the location,” said Suozzi, who had also criticized Hochul for not having any public hearings on the Bills stadium deal. 

“I'm not going to put my finger on the scale,” Hochul said about the potential site of a casino, touting the process that’s in place including a panel of decision-makers.

The plan to institute congestion pricing in New York City, specifically Manhattan below 61st Street, to limit traffic and bring in revenue for the MTA is still under environmental review by the federal government and isn’t expected to be approved until later this year. But the candidates differed on the timeline for implementation, though all three said they support congestion pricing overall.

Suozzi said the mechanism should be delayed by “at least a year,” arguing such a delay could be helpful to the state’s economic recovery. 

Hochul said the federal government has placed new hurdles in implementation. “So this is not going to happen over the next year under any circumstances, but now is not the right time,” she said, but added that it will happen.

“[We] should do it now,” said Williams, insisting that it is necessary for the environment as well as to raise much needed revenue for the MTA.  

With the Supreme Court leaning towards overturning Roe v. Wade, all three candidates have reriterated their support for safe, legal, and accessible abortions and expanding reproductive rights in the state. At the debate, Hochul defended her decision to create a $35 million abortion access fund, which will serve New Yorkers and those who travel from out of state to seek an abortion. 

Though Suozzi tried to put Hochul on the defensive for failing to usher through a constitutional amendment making abortion a constitutional right in the state. “She didn't put her weight behind it and it didn't pass through the legislature during the legislative session,” he said, noting that Hochul has TV ads touting her efforts to do so. 

But Hochul in turn critiqued Suozzi for refusing to support a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for abortion coverage – thereby precluding it from Medicaid, which covers the poorest Americans. “I don't think that the right to have an abortion should be reserved only for wealthy women,” Hochul said. Suozzi said he didn’t know what Hochul was talking about.

Under newly drawn congressional lines, there is a crowded Democratic race shaping up in New York’s new 10th congressional district, covering parts of downtown Manhattan and a large swathe of Brooklyn. One of the candidates is former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the candidates were for unclear reasons asked if they would endorse his run. None of them said they would. 

“I am probably going to weigh in with that race so I don't want to tip my hand,” Williams said. 

“I don't think he's the best person for the job,” Suozzi said. 

“I'm not getting involved in primaries,” Hochul said, insisting that she is more focused on helping Democrats win races in the general election to maintain their tenuous hold on the House of Representatives.

New York City passed a local law that, beginning in January 2023, will allow hundreds of thousands of noncitizens with green cards and certain types of work authorization to vote in municipal elections. The candidates were pressed on whether they would push for such a provision statewide. 

“Of course, in the state, we want to make sure that everyone is civically engaged,” Williams said, indicating support for doing so but not explicitly saying it. “And that includes some of our noncitizen residents who are dealing with the impacts of very bad policy.” 

Suozzi said “the right to vote should be reserved for citizens” but touted his past efforts to help immigrants.

“I respect the right of a locality to make that decision as they did in New York City,” Hochul said. “But I will not be proposing that it be extended to the entire state.”

On term limits for state elected officials, Suozzi was entirely opposed. Hochul has previously proposed term limits for statewide officials, but not for members of the Legislature, and she reiterated that stance. Williams, on the other hand, said there should be limits for all state elected officials, with legislators allowed to serve more terms than statewide officials. 

After the Legislature approved a two-year moratorium on certain types of energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining, Hochul indicated that she may not sign the bill into law. Her critics have pointed out that both she and her new lieutenant governor, Antonio Delgado, have received major campaign donations from the cryptocurrency investors. 

At the debate, Hochul refuted that her reluctance to sign the bill was influenced by wealthy donors. “We have over 800 bills that were passed. And this bill came up at the very end of session,” she explained. “We didn't have a chance to have our legislative team engage with it to work out any problems or to say yes or no or any modifications that normally occurs in the process.”

Williams said he agreed with the moratorium and noted there are other methods of producing and verifying cryptocurrency than through the mining process. Suozzi said he agreed with a moratorium but that he would have liked it to be shorter than two years.

Williams was the only candidate to say that the state should pay compensation to the families of more than 15,000 New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, in part because of the decisions of the Cuomo administration. “Of course they should,” he said. 

Suozzi critiqued Hochul for not having already convened hearings to examine the state’s covid response. “I don't know why the governor has not put together a committee to look at this so we could learn lessons from what we went through,” he said.  

The governor’s office previously confirmed to Gotham Gazette in April that such a review was underway, and Hochul has since talked more about it, again noting on the debate stage that she has a review underway. But Hochul would not say at the debate whether the families of the deceased deserved compensation. “I gave them an apology and I said I will look at this even further to determine what else we can do to help them,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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