Zeldin and Hochul outline drastically different visions for New York in only gubernatorial debate

Legislative Gazette image by Christian Evanko. Cover photo courtesy of Spectrum News.

Republican challenger Lee Zeldin and Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul faced off in the only scheduled gubernatorial debate for New York, hosted live by Spectrum News 1

The debate took place at Pace University in Manhattan live from the Schimmel Theater and was hosted by Spectrum political anchors Errol Louis of Inside City Hall and Susan Arbetter of Capitol Tonight. 

The two candidates laid out starkly different visions for the future of New York, with the topics of public safety, abortion rights, economic development, homelessness and environmental protection emerging repeatedly throughout the hour-long debate.

Former President Donald Trump played a role in the spirited discussion, as did Hochul’s predecessor Andrew Cuomo. Hochul frequently brought up Zeldin’s close ties to Trump and his vote against certifying the election for Biden on January 6, 2022, while Zeldin promised to investigate the thousands of nursing home deaths caused by COVID and policies enacted by the Cuomo administration during the pandemic.

There was no live audience: only the two candidates, the anchors, and the production crew and a few select on-lookers were present. 

“I’m here for one reason; to save our state and deliver a safer freer, better future for you and your family,” Zeldin said in his opening statement. “New York is in crisis [that] we’ve experienced on so many levels — attacks on our wallets, our safety, our freedom, your children’s education. 

“You’re poorer and less safe because of Kathy Hochul and extreme policies. This is your opportunity to save New York,” Zeldin added, his voice rising. 

“Over the course of this next hour you’ll get to hear a clear contrast between the two of us as far as our vision for this state. If you’re tired of soaring crime, district attorneys that let violent criminals out on the street to roam free, crushing taxes and skyrocketing costs, New Yorkers struggling to feed their families and heat their homes … The reality is, for you, you deserve better.”

Hochul sounded more measured in her opening statement.

“Every single day I wake up [and] think about how I can fight harder for you and your families, to invest in education for your kids, give you more childcare opportunities so you can get back to your jobs,” the governor said. “Also keeping more money in your pockets with middle class tax cuts and property tax rebates, but very much focused on public safety and getting more and more illegal guns off the streets. 

“[I also want] to protect your safety but also your fundamental rights — what you want done with your body, particularly this message is for women. 

“You will see a great contrast here today between myself and my record, and someone who has been called one of Donald Trump’s strongest and most loyal supporters,” Hochul added. “He helped him on January 6, by supporting the overturning of an election. 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. 

“That’s what’s on the line here tonight,” Hochul said. “I’m looking forward to the conversation.”

The debate started off by focusing on the issue of crime. Spectrum News 1 host Errol Lewis posed the question first to Zeldin, citing statistics from the State Division of Criminal Justice Services that show it might be too early to make a correlation between cashless bail and crime rates.  

“My question is: if you become governor, would you make policy despite the agency’s findings,” asked Louis. 

Foreshadowing the fiery tone that he would employ throughout the debate, Zeldin said, “You ask the will of the people, they want to see reform…I don’t think that if you are two mexican Cartel drug smugglers busted with $1.2 million worth of crystal meth that you should just be instantly released on cashless bail.” Cashless bail was a major talking point for Zeldin during the debate and throughout his campaign. He said he would declare a “crime emergency” on the first day of office, if he is elected, to begin to revoke the current cashless bail system.

Hochul responded in a more methodical, calculated fashion, choosing rebuttals that highlighted the policies she has implemented to combat crime in New York. “You can either work on keeping people scared, or you can focus on keeping them safe,” Hochul said.

Singling out bail reform, Hochul said, “I did focus on bail reform in our budget, that’s why the budget was nine days late, because I insisted on common sense changes.”

Again remarking on public safety, Hochul pointed to gun control and its correlation to crime in New York. She said, “There is no crime fighting plan if it doesn’t include guns, illegal guns.” 

Another key talking point was the economy. Each candidate was asked about how they would help to bring economic relief to New York families amidst record high inflation rates if elected. “Could you talk about, specifically, how you plan to provide relief to New York families?” said Arbetter.

Zeldin exploded into an answer taking the moment to place a heavy emphasis on bringing state spending under control, an issue he argues is heightened by an increase in yearly baseline spending and perpetuated by high taxes. 

“What we have to do is have a state spending cap, we need to bring down taxes across the board, we should reverse the states ban on the safe extraction of natural gasses and pursue other opportunities to create more jobs,” Zeldin said.

“If you are really serious about helping people you cut their taxes in the middle class families, I did that this year with the Legislature,” said Hochul. 

The governor continued, choosing her words carefully, and 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.” 

Hochul later emphasized that the largest expense on middle class families is their mortgage and rent payments and claims that she has a plan heading into the next session, where she will actively work to create over a million new homes and drive down affordability issues for the working class. 

Another hot button issue was abortion. Fresh off the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade, each candidate was asked to expound upon their position regarding abortion. “Mrs. Hochul you say that you support a women’s right to choose and make her own reproductive choices in regard to abortion and contraception. Is there any restrictions around abortion that you would approve of?” Arbetter asked. 

“What we have in New York state is simply a codification of Roe v. Wade,” said Hochul. 

Hochul maintains that nothing did change, and nothing will change, while she is governor, in regard to how New York treats abortion rights and that the state will operate as if the overturning of Roe v. Wade did not happen. 

“Before the Supreme Court undid 50 years of progress for women, women like myself and my daughter would have a right,” Hochul said.

The majority of New Yorkers support the right to have safe and legal abortions, something Zeldin has strongly opposed in the past. Arbetter, asking about Zeldin’s possible actions on reproductive rights, said, “What if the Republican legislator did change the abortion laws? Would you sign a bill into law?” 

Zeldin has maintained that he would not try to overturn New York’s strong protections, not could he if he wanted to.

“The day after the Dobbs decision the law in New York was exactly the same as it was the day before. It doesn’t matter who the governor was the day of the Dobbs decision because it was already passed into law a few years ago,” Zeldin said.

Zeldin went on to say that he would not change the prior codification of Roe v. Wade in New York state law. 

Many major issues were covered throughout the debate but there is still one question that remains: where do New Yorkers currently stand as elections approach?

Polls have shown Zeldin tightening the gap with Hochul as a Quinnipiac Poll from Oct. 18 shows Zeldin trailing by only four points, 46 percent to Hochul’s 50 percent. A Siena College Research Institute Poll from the same day favored Hochul more, leading by 11 points, with a 52 percent share of votes to Zeldin’s 41 percent. 

The full debate can be watched on the Spectrum News website.

Early voting begins October 29.

Election Day is November 8.

Voters can check enrollment status and their polling location at the New York State Board of Elections website.