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Gov. Hochul and Lee Zeldin Talk Crime, Abortion, Trump and Asylum Seekers in Their Only Debate

Six takeaways from the head-to-head between the gubernatorial candidates, as polls show a tightening race.

SHARE Gov. Hochul and Lee Zeldin Talk Crime, Abortion, Trump and Asylum Seekers in Their Only Debate

Gubernatorial candidates Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rep. Lee Zeldin

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY, Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

In an oft-frantic hour-long debate, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rep. Lee Zeldin battled over crime, inflation, Trump and reproductive rights in their one-and-only head-to-head before the election, as polls show the governor’s lead over her Republican opponent has shrunk in recent weeks. 

The debate, hosted by Spectrum News NY1 and held at Pace University in lower Manhattan, was mostly focused on crime – which recent polls show is an “urgent” issue for voters.

“You’re poorer and less safe because of Kathy Hochul and extreme policies,” Zeldin said in his opening remarks. “This is your opportunity to save New York.”

Hochul, who was lieutenant governor under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was formally sworn in on Aug. 24, 2021 after Cuomo resigned. She became the state’s first female governor, and would serve a full term if she wins in November.

“Every single day I wake up, think about how I can fight harder for you and your families, to invest in education for your kids, give you more child care opportunities so you can get back to your jobs,” the governor told voters in her opening statement.

Hochul had been heavily favored in the overwhelmingly blue state, where Democrats enjoy a two-to-one registration edge over Republicans. The governor has also outraised Zeldin by millions of dollars, bringing in more than $11.2 million, according to state election filings. Zeldin has raised more than $6.4 million, which is a stronger haul than previous Republican gubernatorial candidates. 

But Zeldin, who represents parts of Suffolk County in Congress, has been closing in on Hochul’s lead, according to recent polls.

A Quinnipiac poll released Oct. 18 found him within 4 points of the governor. Another poll, released the same day by Siena, had Hochul up by 11 points.

Elected officials held a rally last weekend in Manhattan to get out the vote for Hochul, painting the election as a fight against radical right-wing extremism. She spoke frequently throughout the debate about Zeldin’s relationship with former president Donald Trump, while Zeldin focused on crime and safety.

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8, but early voting begins Saturday, Oct. 29 and goes through Sunday, Nov. 6. There is no early voting on Monday, Nov. 7.

Here are some of the main takeaways from Tuesday’s debate.

CRIME

Zeldin has made crime and the state’s criminal justice reforms the focal points of his campaign, and the recent Quinnipiac poll found the issue to be a top concern amongst some polled voters, especially among Republicans. 

“We need to make the streets safe again,” he said during the first question of the debate – which mentioned the facts surrounding bail reform, including state data that found the percentage of people re-arrested after being released on bail is around the same as it had been before the changes.

Hochul has defended bail reform, enacted by the state legislature in 2019 – but Zeldin went after the governor from the podium, as he has throughout the campaign season. 

For her part, Hochul highlighted passing multiple gun-control laws, including a ban on the sale of assault rifles to people under 21.  

“It is a joke to talk about a crime policy that doesn’t include doing something about illegal guns,” she said, noting Zeldin’s record in Congress of either voting against weapons bans or not being present for the votes.

The former congressman has also vowed to fire Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on his first day in office, saying he hasn’t been doing his job as the county’s prosecutor.

“He said that he was not going to enforce all different kinds of laws across the board,” Zeldin said of Bragg, referring to his “Day One Memo” on priorities within the district attorney’s office.

Does Zeldin’s vow matter? Maybe.

Although district attorneys are elected, New York state’s constitution rules that a governor “may remove any elective sheriff, county clerk, district attorney or register within the term for which he or she shall have been elected” aftering giving an official “an opportunity of being heard in his or her defense.”

ABORTION

Hochul has heavily focused on reproductive rights and abortion access during her campaign, especially after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Although New York state has some of the strongest abortion protections in the country – it was codified in 2019 by the Reproductive Health Act – Hochul pointed to Zeldin’s stance on abortion and support from pro-life groups.

Zeldin has vowed to leave the state’s abortion rights alone, but on Tuesday Hochul said she is the only candidate who will protect the state’s rights. 

“We can talk about policies all we want but let’s look at the record – there are very few people in Congress who have a more pro-life record,” she said of Zeldin. 

Zeldin said he wouldn’t change any of the state’s laws relating to abortion and found the fears around what he would do if elected to be “disingenuous.”

“There’s less than 0% chance Carl Heastie, the [Democratic] speaker of the Assembly, is going to send me a bill that’s rolling back to law in 2019,” he said.

COST OF LIVING

The rising cost of living across New York state has also been a major concern for voters, according to polls. 

Hochul spoke about plans she has to help build more affordable housing across the state, which would ease housing burden. And she pointed to Zeldin voting against bills in congress like the infrastructure bill that would create jobs.

“We have to bring spending in this state under control,” Zeldin said. 

Hochul pointed to tax cuts and rebates she provided to middle-class New Yorkers. 

“If you’re really serious about helping people, you cut their taxes and middle class families, I did that this year with the legislature,” she said. 

“We gave people property tax rebates this year, we suspended the state tax on gasoline to help get more money back in their pockets.”

CORRUPTION

Minutes into the debate, Zeldin brought up Hochul’s selection of former State Sen. Brian Benjamin as her lieutenant governor – months before he was arrested for his role in a fundraising scheme first exposed by THE CITY.

He later brought up the state spending more than $600 million to buy COVID-19 tests run by a top campaign donor.

“One of the other reasons why my opponent has lost the trust of so many New Yorkers is they see all these stories with regards to the pay-to-play corruption,” Zeldin said.  

Hochul focused on Zeldin’s connection to former President Donald Trump, including voting against the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. 

“He sent text messages trying to orchestrate the big lie, and he opposes sensible gun safety laws as well as opposing a woman’s right to choose,” Hochul said. “That’s what’s on the line here tonight.” 

ASYLUM SEEKERS

Both candidates discussed the influx of asylum seekers coming to New York from states along the border. Hochul said she’s spoken with President Joe Biden and his chief of staff and asked for federal assistance. 

“He understood our frustration that this really is a federal problem, that these people shouldn’t be used as political pawns by these governors, that’s disgraceful” Hochul said, referring to the governors of Florida and Texas. She suggested the path to asylum begins at the border for those entering the United States, instead of when they reach New York.

Zeldin said Hochul only took a stand on the migrants when she had a “boogeyman” in the form of Florida and Texas’s Republican governors, and said New Yorkers just want transparency about who is arriving. 

“They want to know who’s coming, where are they coming from, who are they, where are they going?” he said.

“Instead of attacking, support our customs and border patrol agents, stop incentivizing and rewarding illegal entry.”


Once again: Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8, but early voting begins Saturday, Oct. 29 and goes through Sunday, Nov. 6. There is no early voting on Monday, Nov. 7. 

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