Gov. Hochul and Republican challenger Lee Zeldin sparred over crime, abortion and the future of New York on Tuesday as they faced off in the sole debate between the two candidates ahead of Election Day.
The one-hour-and-change showdown, hosted by Spectrum News NY1 and held at Pace University’s Manhattan campus, gave the Democratic incumbent and the Long Island congressman hoping to unseat her a chance to appeal directly to New York voters with just two weeks to go before the Nov. 8 contest.
“Every single day I wake up thinking about how I can work harder for you and your families, to invest in education for your kids… very much focused on public safety and getting more and more illegal guns off the streets,” Hochul said as she touted her record in a wide-ranging opening statement.
Recent polls show an increasingly tight race between Hochul, who assumed office last year following the resignation of former governor Andrew Cuomo, and Zeldin.
While Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly two-to-one margin in the Empire State, the Trump-allied conservative has made gains centering his once longshot campaign on crime and public safety. Early voting begins on Saturday.
“You’re poor and less safe because of Kathy Hochul and extreme policies,” Zeldin said. “I’m here for one reason: to save our state.
“New York is in crisis,” he added.
Gloves came off early as Hochul repeatedly zeroed in on Zeldin’s allegiance to the twice impeached former president, calling him out over his vote against certifying the 2020 election after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the process.
Zeldin, meanwhile, grew animated and remained focused on public safety and blamed Hochul and Dem-backed criminal justice reforms including cashless bail for rising crime.
“I am running to take back our streets and to support unapologetically our men and women in law enforcement,” Zeldin said, repeatedly vowing to roll back bail reforms.
At Hochul’s urging, changes were made to the state’s controversial cashless bail system earlier this year. As part of the state budget, the Dem-led Legislature expanded the number of crimes that are bail eligible and gave judges greater leeway to hold people pre-trial.
Hochul on Monday said she wants to analyze data in wake of the changes before potentially working with lawmakers on the issue when the next legislative session begins in January.
She also announced a subway crime crackdown that includes flooding the transit system with cops alongside Mayor Adams over the weekend.
“You can either work on keeping people scared or working on keeping them safe,” Hochul said in response to Zeldin citing a spate of recent violent incidents in the city. “I understand the fear. I walk the streets of New York City every day. I’ve taken the subways. This fear is real.”
Still, Zeldin’s public safety-centered messaging appears to be resonating with New Yorkers as polls show crime is a top concern among Empire State voters. New York has not elected a Republican to a statewide office since governor George Pataki won a third term in office in 2002.
The mayor, meanwhile, weighed in mid-debate to reiterate his support for Hochul and her focus on strengthening the state’s gun laws.
“New Yorkers deserve safety & justice, & we can’t compromise on either,” he tweeted. “Kathy Hochul is the only candidate for Gov who will stand up to extremists & back common sense gun laws that keep our communities safe.”
Throughout the debate, Hochul hammered Zeldin over his ties to Trump and his anti-abortion record in Congress.
“You can’t run from your record,” the governor said. “You’re the only person standing on this stage whose name right now, not years past, that right now, is on a bill called ‘Life Begins at Conception.’”
Zeldin said he would not outlaw abortion even in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v. Wade if elected.
“I don’t trust this.. women don’t trust this,” Hochul responded.
The governor went on to defend subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium and push back on criticisms about outside influence on state business related to deep-pocketed donors.
Hochul, a Buffalo native hoping to become the first woman elected governor after serving in the office for more than a year following Cuomo’s downfall, touted her handling of the COVID crisis and cited her ability to work with Adams on addressing the migrant crisis and crime as positives for New Yorkers.
Zeldin, asked about his ties to Trump and his support for challenging the 2020 election, said he would accept the results of the upcoming election although he couched his response.
“Losing is not an option,” he said. “But playing along with your hypothetical question, of course.”
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