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4 Things to Watch in the Lone Kathy Hochul-Lee Zeldin Debate

Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin

In what should be must-see TV for New Yorkers, Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul and Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin are set to debate tonight for the first and only time in the general election for Governor.

The debate, held at Pace University in Manhattan, will take place from 7 to 8 p.m. on Spectrum News and be moderated by anchors Errol Louis and Susan Arbetter (and broadcast online for those who don’t get Spectrum television). It comes two weeks before Election Day, November 8, with absentee balloting underway and just ahead of early voting (October 29-November 6).

The differences between the two candidates are vast, and the stakes for New Yorkers and the state are high. The debate promises to be full of attacks in both directions and, hopefully, a clear presentation of the candidates’ different stances on key issues and contrasting ideas for moving the state forward. Hochul and Zeldin will surely paint two pictures of New York: Zeldin offering a state in steep decline and deep crisis that's in need of 'saving,' and Hochul a state moving ahead in important ways and facing down big challenges thanks to her leadership.

The backdrop is such: polling shows a tightening race in a state where no Republican has won statewide since Governor George Pataki secured a third term in 2002. Democrats have those trendlines and a big voter enrollment advantage, but Hochul faces significant challenges given large crime and cost of living increases over the last two-plus years, as well as a general sense of dissatisfaction and unease among many voters amid the tumultuous covid pandemic.

While Zeldin has seized on crime and inflation, top issues of concern for voters, he must overcome the fact that his views on other key issues don’t match up with what polling shows most New Yorkers believe in as well as his close association with former President Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in the state where he made his name.

Hochul, a liberal moderate from western New York and the state’s first female governor, has been in office just over a year after replacing Governor Andrew Cuomo upon his resignation amid several scandals. She’s pitching steady, no-drama leadership, protecting abortion rights in the wake of Roe, and the ongoing implementation of a variety of policies dealing with climate change, child care, public safety, and more. And she’s warning of Zeldin’s opposition to abortion rights and gun control and his votes against certifying the 2020 presidential election.

Zeldin, a conservative from Long Island, gave up his seat in Congress to try to break the New York GOP’s 20-year losing streak. Along with an almost single-minded focus on public safety, he’s pitching change of leadership, restoring some balance to a state government dominated by Democrats, tax cuts and business deregulation, the implementation of fracking to create jobs and energy production, and the expansion of charter schools. And he’s arguing that Hochul has performed poorly in her young tenure and continued a pay-to-play culture, tying her to the Cuomo administration she was part of as lieutenant governor on that and other fronts.

Hochul has leaned in to some key advantages of incumbency, particularly the ability to raise a massive sum in a short time, especially from entities with state interests, and to make major governmental funding and policy announcements in the lead up to the election. But, fairly or not, she is among the top officials voters are holding responsible for troublesome trends, from runaway inflation to a spike in subway murders. While Hochul won two statewide races with Cuomo as a ticket, she has not won on her own, and this has long been expected to be an opportune year for Republicans in New York and elsewhere.

Though it is far short of what New Yorkers deserve in terms of general election debate in the race for governor, Tuesday’s one-hour ‘exchange of ideas’ will undoubtedly be an intense affair sure to bring out some of the many differences between the candidates and how they would lead New York over the next four years. While Hochul and Zeldin surely won’t get to several important issues in that short time, the top-notch moderators will help draw out distinctions on a number of the most pressing issues facing the state and its residents.

Here are a few things to watch for during Tuesday’s debate:

1. How Hochul Handles Crime
As pandemic era spikes in crime have dominated the news and recent election cycles, Zeldin has hammered away at the issue. That is sure to continue at Tuesday night’s debate.

Hochul has been facing questions about her plans for handling crime since she took the helm of the state in August 2021, just after Eric Adams won the Democratic mayoral primary on a crime-focused campaign, and she has taken a number of steps toward increasing public safety. But, while there has been some progress this year on murders and shootings, other categories of major felonies are still increasing in New York City, and random attacks in the subways, which the governor controls, have been far too frequent and deadly.

Hochul has advanced a long list of public safety-focused policies — including significant adjustments to toughen the state’s controversial bail law, which Zeldin targets incessantly — but she has often struggled to present her crime-fighting agenda clearly and convincingly. Tuesday night will be her most high-profile opportunity to cogently explain the sum of her efforts and argue how they will soon show more results.

At the same time, it will be interesting to see if Zeldin is pressed to go deeper on his top issue than he has during a largely sound-bite-driven campaign and explain in detail how he would achieve the major turnaround in public safety that he promises.

While pointing to a number of factors, Hochul has said again as recently as Monday that the major social disruptions of the pandemic appear to have had a significant role in the crime spike. If that is indeed a key part of her diagnosis, she should explain more of how she is helping to create a holistic recovery that includes, for example, more attention on treatment for those with the most serious mental illness and opportunity for the main drivers of crime: young men from the least-resourced communities who are out of work and out of school.

Given the horrific spate of murders in the subways over the last two-plus years, Hochul has announced efforts to enhance security and outreach, but she often falls back on reminding people that policing the subways is the jurisdiction of the Mayor and NYPD, something that quickly comes across as passing the buck and Zeldin is likely to pounce on at the debate.

For his part, Zeldin decries bail reform as a top culprit of the crime spike, but may need to explain that theory beyond providing anecdotes. And, beyond the change in the bail law that he wants — more judicial discretion to hold defendants in jail pre-trial — he may need to provide more evidence of how his public safety plan differs all that much from what Hochul has been doing. (The governor has, after all, been telling anyone who will listen that she doesn’t support ‘defunding the police’ and that her administration has only added funding for law enforcement.)

It would also be interesting for both candidates to be pushed to explain why they think murders and shootings are down this year but other felonies have continued to spike in the city.

2. Zeldin’s Mismatching Views, Votes
If Hochul is well-prepared she’ll also turn attacks from Zeldin on public safety around by pointing to his opposition to virtually all gun control and gun safety measures, like his vote against reinstating an assault weapons ban, his questioning of red flag laws, and more.

Zeldin’s opposition to gun control is one of the most glaring examples of how his politics and congressional votes don’t match what polling shows most New Yorkers believe in. The other major example sure to come up at the debate is abortion rights.

Any persuadable or swing voters who could determine the outcome of this gubernatorial contest — which will of course also hinge on how well the two candidates turn out their bases — could be drawn to Zeldin on crime and the economy but wary of him on gun control, abortion, and his alliance with Trump, especially his efforts to undermine the results of the 2020 election. Right now, the polling shows that Zeldin is doing quite well with men while Hochul is dominating among women.

While Zeldin has been whacking Hochul on crime, she has been relentless on abortion and depicting Zeldin as an extremist. He has been so concerned about how his anti-abortion beliefs and record could hurt him that he has started running ads promising voters that if elected governor he “could not” and “would not” change New York’s abortion law.

As he does in the ad, Zeldin is likely on Tuesday night to repeat that pledge and argue that Hochul is trying to use abortion to change the subject from crime, inflation, and the other areas where he believes she is falling short. She is unlikely to let him make that point without repeatedly stressing that a Zeldin governorship would be a threat to reproductive rights in the state, no matter what he may say on the campaign trail. Zeldin would then be right to point out that polling shows New Yorkers are most concerned about public safety and cost of living.

3. Making New York More Affordable
But one key question for the debate may be if either candidate has any real plan for bringing down the cost of living in New York, or at least stemming its rise.

Hochul has touted her several modest tax policies that have put some money back into New Yorkers’ pockets, but mostly acknowledged that inflation is an international phenomenon. Can she make a convincing case that if elected she will ease the financial burdens of living in New York? This is where her focus on both economic development and child care may come in.

Zeldin is promising sweeping tax cuts but has offered virtually no details for what his plan would include, not even a sketch of what he would attempt to get the Legislature to agree to. That and the abortion law speaks to another major likely challenge Zeldin must confront in discussing a potential governorship: how he would work with a Democrat-dominated Legislature to find compromise and ensure that governing doesn’t grind to a halt or become filled with acrimony, delays, and chaos.

The Republican nominee may use the opportunity discuss cost of living to hit Hochul for her support of congestion pricing in New York City, but that attack could quickly be at least somewhat undercut by his lack of a plan to fill the massive hole in the MTA capital plan that would result from reversing course on congestion pricing.

Aside from more general promises to cut taxes and business regulations, Zeldin’s main talking point on cost of living and economic activity is his promise to reverse the state’s ban on fracking, which he points to as a potential boon to economically-distressed areas of the Southern Tier. It is among the many climate- and environment-related issues where Hochul and Zeldin disagree significantly.

Beyond the question of fracking, climate-related policies dovetail with economic activity on a number of other fronts where the candidates could find fertile ground for debate, including how each plans to manage a transition to renewable energy and the job opportunities involved. Hochul has taken many steps toward such a transition and has had other ideas for continuing on that path, while Zeldin has questioned some of her climate and energy policies, warning against the state moving too quickly and the potential costs to residents.

On economic development more broadly, Hochul may tout some of the deals she has reached as governor, while Zeldin may find footing in questioning their details, whether tax breaks for a new Buffalo Bills stadium or a microchip manufacturer.

Talk of jobs and the economy will also necessitate discussion of how the two candidates plan to manage the $220 billion state budget in the face of forecasted deficits, the drying up of federal pandemic aid, and other fiscal headwinds. It could also include how Hochul and Zeldin plan to maximize the massive federal infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act, both of which promise many billions for New York to upgrade its built environment, adapt to climate change, and create jobs.

As much as the economy and inflation have been major focus areas throughout the race for governor and other elections in New York and beyond, all too often the discussion excludes what is often people’s largest expense: housing.

Hochul has a Cuomo-era housing plan that she slightly refashioned in her lone budget but she abandoned several of her main housing policy proposals that could help address the state’s major affordable housing crisis and says it will be a focus for her next year if elected. Zeldin has no housing plan whatsoever. It could be helpful to hear both candidates offer their ideas.

4. Vision, Anyone?
Speaking of no plan, the 2022 race for New York governor has been perhaps most defined by a lack of vision from both candidates.

Hochul put together an agenda for her lone state budget and legislative session and got a lot of it passed. She is running on those accomplishments and a handful of other actions she has taken in recent months, some in reaction to two major Supreme Court rulings on abortion and gun control. In sum, Hochul is running for her first full term to further uphold and implement what she has put in motion or continued or tweaked from the Cuomo administration. While there is indeed a lot to protect, manage, and implement, she has offered virtually no platform for next year, much less the next four years.

Meanwhile, Zeldin is running on an almost shocking lack of a policy platform, offering only a sketch of plans on a few top issues and virtually nothing on topics from housing to mass transit to climate change to CUNY/SUNY and more.

There are no shortage of additional topics the two candidates may be asked to address or proactively raise, from handling another covid wave and whether to require covid vaccination among schoolchildren and others to broader education policy and how the state can spur better results for its massive amount of school spending, and more.

It’s only an hour, but hopefully Tuesday night’s debate will not only showcase the candidates’ key differences to help voters make their choice but also address some of these areas where Hochul and Zeldin have been less than forthcoming as they seek to lead the state in the years to come.

Tune in, New York.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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