NEW YORK (WIVB/AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul participated in her first debate Tuesday night as she campaigns to keep her job in the governor’s mansion. You can watch a replay in the video player lower on this page.
Hochul, a Democrat who has been in office for 10 months after serving as lieutenant governor under Andrew Cuomo, is facing primary challenges from U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island, who like Hochul has stuck to mostly centrist positions, and New York City’s elected Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is the most progressive candidate in the race.
Debate topics included ethics and transparency, marijuana, bail reform, abortion, COVID-19, the Buffalo Bills stadium, gun safety, new casino building downstate, congestion pricing in New York City, and crypto-mining among others.
“I think the two big issues for all of New Yorkers — whether they’re Democrat or Republican — are taxes and the economy, and then crime and safety as the other,” Professor Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, told News 4.
On gun safety, Suozzi and Williams attacked Hochul’s bail reform stance and they say more money needs to be allocated to address the growing problem.
“We have to deal with the real street violence. In between those press conferences, people are dying,” Williams said.
Suozzi focused on Hochul’s prior endorsement by the National Rifle Association while she served in Congress.
“I have an F rating from the NRA and co-sponsor every piece of gun violence prevention legislation. I will fight crime as my number one priority,” Suozzi said.
Hochul defended her endorsement from a decade ago saying her views have evolved. She focused on passing a series of gun control measures this week, which she says will deter both mass shootings and daily violence.
“I made sure that we had resources to go to community violence disruption programs, tripling the amount of money so we can get at root causes, but also so we can give the tools to law enforcement to do their jobs,” Hochul said.
The Buffalo Bills Stadium deal also took center stage with the downstate challengers criticizing the $1.4 billion dollar deal in the state’s budget.
“It’s so unpopular. It’s a billion dollars. The most lucrative deal in the NFL. She got that done. She twisted arms. When it came to bail reform, she didn’t engage,” Suozzi claimed.
Williams focused on the lack of funding for gun reform and alleged that the Governor was influenced in this deal.
“We asked for a billion dollars for gun violence prevention. What we got was a billion dollars for a billionaire’s stadium that hired her husband,” Williams said.
Hochul defended the negotiations saying she got the best deal for New York taxpayers. She also addressed several concerns about Delaware North and her husband, Bill Hochul, who serves as the general counsel to the concessions company.
“We’ve had to always have a separation especially when I was a member of Congress,” Hochul said.
Her husband served as a federal prosecutor and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York during the Obama Administration while Hochul served in Congress.
Who’s ahead in the race?
Political analysts say although the challengers were strong, they believe Hochul has an edge in the race.
“She has two very bright opponents who can hit hard and are articulate. I think she comes out of this debate tonight in first place,” said Len Lenihan, the former chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee. “I wouldn’t want to run against her.”
Professor Reeher says Hochul is still the candidate to beat both in the primary and general election, but the state’s top office could be more vulnerable now than it has been in the past.
“She wasn’t elected governor and she hasn’t been in office all that long,” Reeher said. “Certainly she’s going to be more vulnerable than an elected governor who’s had more of a chance to build a record assuming that record is a strong one.”
The executive branch is unlikely to go to a Republican this year, according to Lenihan. He believes all of the candidates are connected to Former President Donald Trump, who he says is not widely liked across the state.
“The Republican candidates are embracing Trump as their candidate. I think the next Republican candidate is going to have their hands full,” Lenihan says.
The last Republican governor was George Pataki who served from 1995 to 2007, but the connections to the former President could weigh heavily on voters’ minds in the general election.
“I just don’t think that’s a winning strategy in New York. I just don’t think in New York state in a general election someone with an association with the former president is really electable,” Reeher said. “I think at this point really the Democratic primary is likely to be the election that determines who the governor will be.”
For Gov. Hochul, the budget and the controversy with former Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin could play key roles in the primary race later this month.
“There was a budget that was done. It was another record budget in terms of spending … I give her maybe a B or B- on that,” Prof. Reeher said. “The Lieutenant Governor was a disaster. This is someone who her staff supposedly vetted, she vetted and turned out to have significant corruption issues.”
Scandal is not new to Albany. Gov. Hochul served as Lieutenant Governor to Former Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August following sexual misconduct allegations. Hochul claims she never had a direct relationship with the Former Governor and did not serve as one of his political advisors.
One key endorsement will come from New York City Governor Eric Adams, who has yet to back a candidate in this Gubernatorial election. Reeher said the Mayor’s lack of endorsement is similar to the President in a primary race, who rarely supports one candidate over another.
“That’s the way Eric Adams is handling this and it makes perfect sense because it is possible that she will win, but it is possible that she would lose. He’s just keeping his powder dry in that sense,” Reeher explained.
Lenihan believes Hochul will win the primary later this month despite low polling numbers downstate. He says the vote against Hochul will be divided, which would lend itself to an incumbent victory.
“If there’s an anti-Hochul vote somewhere in downstate in New York, it’s divided and Kathy is able to consolidate her support in Upstate and Central New York and going into the New York metropolitan area. She’s going to hold her own. There’s no question in my mind about that,” Lenihan said.
Overall, Reeher thinks Hochul will win both the primary and the general election based on what she has accomplished in her first year in office.
“I think that the race still hers to lose but you know, certainly she doesn’t have the same level of support that all the other downstate Democratic Governors that we’ve had for ages now have had,” Reeher explained.
The debate was held by WCBS in New York.
Leading Republican candidates Rob Astorino, Andrew Giuliani, Harry Wilson, and Lee Zeldin are expected to meet for a debate next week.
Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.