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With Early Voting Underway, Republican Candidates for Governor Try to Separate Themselves at Debate

(l-r) Harry Wilson, Lee Zeldin, Andrew Giuliani, Rob Astorino 

With early voting underway for the June 28 primary election, the four Republican candidates for Governor of New York faced off on Monday for the second debate of the race, hosted by Spectrum News NY1. It was one of their last opportunities to introduce themselves to voters, outline their priorities, and differentiate themselves from the competition. The candidates are expected to meet again at a debate hosted by Newsmax in Rochester on Tuesday. 

At Monday’s debate, there was limited daylight on most issues among the four candidates: U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, businessman Harry Wilson, and Andrew Giuliani, a former White House aide to President Donald Trump. But where there was daylight, it was especially significant given Trump’s apparent hold on the Republican Party and the question of which, if any, Republican nominee could be the first GOP candidate to win statewide in New York in two decades.

The son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Andrew Giuliani appeared at the debate virtually, as he did at the first debate, given he has chosen not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and studio rules requiring proof of vaccination.

Each of the candidates decried one-party rule in Albany – where Democrats have controlled both houses of the state Legislature since 2019 and the governor’s office since 2011 – and accused Democrats of being soft on crime. They each promised to cut taxes and regulations to spur the economy, and to end covid-related mandates. They all pledged to fire prosecutors who fail or refuse to do their jobs, specifically taking aim at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a progressive who they have inaccurately blamed for rising crime in his jurisdiction. 

Unlike the first debate, the candidates seemed more focused on the audience than each other. But fireworks nonetheless flew, particularly between Zeldin, the state GOP’s preferred candidate, and Wilson. Zeldin has previously attacked Wilson as a “Never Trumper” for refusing to support the one-term president who may be running again in the 2024 election, while Wilson, in turn, has sought to paint Zeldin as a “Cuomo clone” who he says failed in his time as a state senator to stand up to the policies of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. 

During the cross examination round, Zeldin was the target of each of the other candidates’ questions. Giuliani sought to undermine Zeldin’s support for Trump, asking if he had ever called the former president’s statements racist, referring to a comment Zeldin made during the 2016 race when Trump, not yet the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, attacked a judge based on the judge’s Mexican heritage. Zeldin said he was unaware of what Giuliani was referring to and returned fire, saying Giuliani believes he should be governor by birthright. 

Astorino criticized Zeldin for voting for state budgets under Cuomo and for praising the former governor. Zeldin again defended his time in Albany throughout the debate, pointing to an unvarnished record of supporting other Republicans, including in the three gubernatorial races Cuomo won. Wilson posed his question to Astorino, asking him what Zeldin did to oppose Cuomo’s agenda as part of the state Legislature. “Well, that's a good question. The answer is nothing,” Astorino said. 

Zeldin, for his part, challenged Wilson, accusing him of lying in campaign ads about the congressman’s legislative votes, presenting them in misleading fashion as votes to defund law enforcement, which Zeldin unequivocally supports.

A Test on Trump
Loyalty to Trump was a key question for the candidates, with the backdrop of the ongoing congressional hearings on the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection. Each of the candidates were asked if they believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, as the former president has falsely claimed time and again, including in whipping up the mob that attacked the Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election result.

Only Wilson acknowledged President Joe Biden’s victory, while the others raised concerns about election integrity or outright professed the Trump conspiracy theory.

“So I believe Joe Biden was duly elected president of the United States,” Wilson said. “I believe that we Republicans need to move on and focus on addressing the problems that really hurt working families today.”

Giuliani – whose father closely advised Trump during the events leading up to and the day of the insurrection – rejected Biden’s victory. “I believe that Donald Trump on November 3, 2020 was reelected,” he said, making unsubstantiated claims about election fraud and alleging a great, historical crime had been perpetuated on the American people. 

Zeldin pointed to the lawsuits over election law changes and vote counts in Pennsylvania, one of the major battlegrounds of the 2020 election. Pushed to answer the question by debate moderator Errol Louis, Zeldin added, “It's something that we’ll never for sure know the exact consequence of in Pennsylvania, allowing one county to have different rules than another county or not allowing the close observation of the opening of ballots,” he said. Zeldin was among the members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election results on the night of January 6, 2021 after the Capital had been cleared of the rioters, some of whom sought to harm Vice President Mike Pence, House colleagues of Zeldin’s, and others.

“Unfortunately, Joe Biden is our president because we're dealing with this right now,” said Astorino. “I'll tell you what was stolen from us. What was stolen from us was our belief in the election system right now.” Both Zeldin and Astorino expressed support for voter ID laws, which Democrats have long opposed because they tend to suppress votes in communities of color. 

“The problem was every state, every Republican governor, every Republican legislature, every state, all 50 sent in their certified results. So there really wasn't anything that they could do other than accept those results” Astorino added of Congress and Pence. 

Covid Vaccines
On Saturday, the CDC recommended that children between 6 months and 5 years old should receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Except for Wilson, the other candidates did not come out in support of the recommendation. They all opposed adding the covid vaccine to the list of required vaccines for attending school, raising questions about the data on effectiveness even as they supported existing vaccine requirements for diseases like measles and struggled to explain that inconsistency.  

“That's a parental choice that needs to be made by a mom and a dad or a guardian,” Astorino said. “That should not be required by the state of New York.”

“I think it's a fundamentally different disease, and that's why I think it should be treated differently than existing vaccination requirements,” said Wilson, who pointed to the contagiousness (covid can still be contracted by vaccinated individuals) and the relatively quick development of the covid vaccine.

“Leave it up to the parents,” said Zeldin. “I believe in the fundamental right of a parent to control the upbringing of their child, that the government should not infringe upon that right at all.”

Giuliani said he was outright opposed to any mandate. “I am not a biologist, nor am I an epidemiologist,” he noted, but he insisted that he wanted to see more data before recommending that parents give their children the vaccine. “I think we've completely politicized the science when it comes to this at this point,” he said, raising unfounded concerns about the impact that the covid vaccine could have on young girls’ reproductive health.

Both Zeldin and Giuliani said that mask mandates for young children, which have already been lifted, amounted to “child abuse” in their opinion. 

All the candidates said they would lift covid-related mandates on day one, including vaccination requirements for public employees, and have all promised to rehire state employees that have been terminated for refusing vaccines.

Juneteenth and Critical Race Theory
Monday was the celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States. But among Republicans, the teaching of the history of slavery in schools has become a contentious issue.

At the debate, candidates gave vague, somewhat off-topic answers when asked if the history of slavery and racism should be taught in schools, as required by state law. They did, however, each take turns to emphasize that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” 

Giuliani, for instance, insisted that he wanted an “honest telling” of American history and praised the celebration of Juneteenth. But he also wondered why Columbus Day wasn’t celebrated as a federal holiday as well. “​​When I look at this, and when I look at American history, and I look at our education system, I see a system in New York and in America that's under attack,” he said. 

He also name-checked the New York Times’ 1619 project, which reframed the founding of the United States from when the first slave ship landed here. The project, which Giuliani falsely called “fictionalized,” has been the subject of intense criticism from the right. 

Zeldin implied that teaching students about slavery and racism was divisive. “Kids are getting along just fine until maybe that teacher, that educator, that school district comes in with their agenda and they start pitting students against each other,” he said. “We need to be uniting kids. They should be coming together and we also see it with sex education inside of classrooms and more.”

Wilson was the only candidate to address the question directly. “Certainly we need to understand the legacy of slavery,” he said. “It’s the darkest part of our history and there are so many things that we can learn from that.”

Astorino said that school enrollment has dropped “because they're getting force fed junk at times, including things like white privilege and dividing people by class and by race and ‘you're victims and you're to blame and it's your family's fault.’” 

He also falsely claimed that the 1619 project “was completely debunked.” He continued: “And yet, for some, that was the foundation of America. It was based on slavery. That is completely incorrect. Juneteenth proves that we've moved forward in our country.” 

The candidates gave somewhat unclear answers when asked about a State Board of Regents initiative to teach “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” in schools, which, as debate moderator Susan Arbetter pointed out, has often been wrongly equated with Critical Race Theory, a legal theory taught in college-level courses, graduate and law schools. CRT has become a cudgel for Republican politicians across the country, used as an election talking point to try to convince white parents that their children are being indoctrinated, that parents’ rights are being eroded, and that ‘woke’ school officials have run amok.

Some of the candidates, however, committed the very error that Arbetter pointed out. 

“I would look at ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,’ and I would call it what it is, which is Critical Race Theory 101,” Giuliani said, though he was unable to define CRT or give an example of its teaching when pressed. He also insisted that “equity is a very dangerous concept” and that he was, instead, focused on equality of opportunity. 

“They keep coming up with new names for Critical Race Theory,” said Zeldin, who then criticized Governor Kathy Hochul for signing a proclamation recognizing Indigenous People’s Day on Columbus Day. “I believe that right now the people who are in charge of our Department of Education, the people in charge of our government are going the wrong way with what might sound good with some of these terms on paper,” he said. 

Astorino too conflated the two issues. “[T]hings like CRT, which is seeping everywhere, is obviously when you divide people and tell people you're bad, you're a racist if you don't agree. No, that's not what we should be teaching,” he said. He had first complained that the debate was focused on things that regular people are not concerned about, arguing that people are more concerned with the price of gas than racism in society.

Wilson seemed to tread softly with his response. “I look at it quite differently, Susan, which is that I think we have to celebrate the diversity of America but not go into these labels that don't really mean anything and are loaded terms,” he said. 

Law and Order
Public polling shows that crime is the top issue for voters in 2022 amid yearslong increases, and Republicans have sought to blame the recent rise in violent crime on Democratic policies. In particular, they have said, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that bail reforms passed by the state Legislature in 2019 (and rolled back some last year and this year) are the prime cause. 

The candidates were on shared ground when it came to the issue. They’ve all called for a rollback of the bail reforms and a shift to more judicial discretion for pre-trial detention, pushed back against efforts to “defund” the police, promised to use executive power to remove prosecutors whose policies they don’t like, and for a return to more aggressive policing. They’ve also pushed back against other criminal justice measures passed by Democrats in recent years including reforms to the discovery process, parole, and restrictions on solitary confinement in jails and prisons. 

Zeldin again jumped on the issue to take a swing at Wilson for “donating to the Soros-funded liberal Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg while the rest of us are here talking about how Alvin Bragg should not have been elected to this position in the first place.” 

“Yes, I did give one donation just like I gave money to Mr. Zeldin when he came begging for money as well,” Wilson responded, insisting that he doesn’t agree with Bragg’s policies and would also seek his removal from office. Wilson has said repeatedly he gave Bragg a donation because they went to college together. 

Economy and Inflation
The candidates had broadly similar prescriptions for boosting the state’s economy and for reducing the impact of inflation.

Wilson said he could cut regulations that lead to higher costs for New Yorkers. In total, he said he would cut state spending by $25 billion and put almost $5,000 back in the pockets of state residents by cutting income and property taxes by 20%. 

Astorino said he would phase out school taxes for seniors, eliminate the estate tax, and cut income and corporate taxes. 

Zeldin also wants to cut taxes and reverse the state’s ban on fracking for natural gas, to reduce the cost of energy and spur economic activity.  

Giuliani said he too would restore fracking. He promised to cut three regulations for every new one he signs into law (referencing the similar promise of his old boss, President Trump), cut income and property tax cuts, eliminate property taxes for those above the age of 65 making less than $100,000 a year, and eliminate the state gas tax. 

Of the four, Wilson is the only one who supports abortion rights, saying clearly on Monday night, “I am pro-choice.” He did add that the state’s current law “goes too far” and said that he opposes allowing non-doctors to conduct abortions and is against late-term abortions (which rarely occur and only if the mother’s life or health are at risk or if the fetus is not viable).

Zeldin also raised similar concerns. “I am pro-life, but there are people who consider themselves to be pro-choice who are against the current law that allows for late-term partial-birth abortion, people who consider themselves to be pro-choice who are against non-doctors performing abortion, people who consider themselves to be pro-choice who are in favor of parental consent,” he said.

“I've said before I am pro-life, but I look at what we've seen in New York as a loss of morality,” said Giuliani. “When we're talking about lighting up Niagara Falls, lighting up the Empire State Building to celebrate our abortion, it is beyond disgusting.”  

Astorino criticized allowing abortions “going to the moment of birth,” a false claim that has been repeatedly made about the state’s law. He said the state should make it easier to adopt, and called for instituting parental consent and funding pregnancy care centers.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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