WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Zeldin said he’s being urged to run for governor as the controversy engulfing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo grows over his handling of the pandemic, but he insisted on Wednesday that he’s not even thinking about it — yet.
Zeldin, a Shirley Republican in his fourth term in Congress, recently has been on Fox TV shows and has given interviews to conservative publications disparaging Cuomo while drawing questions about whether he will take on the governor in the 2022 election.
In a phone interview with Newsday, however, Zeldin said he’s in a listening mode.
"I have been listening to people who are calling me, texting me, emailing me, sharing their thoughts and their desires, their encouragement," Zeldin said. "For me, I would have to have a serious discussion with, and decision to make, with my wife and daughters to even start thinking about a race."
Among those talking to Zeldin is Nick Langworthy, chairman of the New York Republican State Committee.
"We’ve had a lot of conversations. I'll keep those conversations private, obviously," Langworthy said. "But I'll share this: I think he would be an excellent candidate."
New York Republicans appear ready to pounce and are gearing up for the election, hoping to find a candidate to knock off Cuomo as he tries for a fourth term, just like his father Mario Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term to George Pataki in 1994.
"I want to be fully operational, you know, by the third quarter of, of 2021, you know, with a statewide candidate and hopefully a good chunk of the slate in place," said Langworthy in a phone interview.
Zeldin’s name makes all the lists of potential Republican challengers as Cuomo’s reputation takes hits following news that his top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted his administration withheld nursing home death figures from the State Legislature.
"What had happened was a big mistake. That doesn't warrant a reaction of doubling down, showed no remorse lacking transparency, not being honest and bullying others who want to talk about it," Zeldin said of Cuomo. "He has made it 100 times more of an issue because of a massive character flaw."
Zeldin has urged the State Legislature to revoke Cuomo’s emergency powers to deal with the pandemic and also blames Cuomo and his taxes and policies for driving New Yorkers to leave the state.
Joining Zeldin on those prospective candidate lists are Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning), who has hinted he might be ready to jump into a race for governor, and Rep. Elisa Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), who hasn’t given any strong indications of her interest.
Zeldin and Stefanik would appeal to the base of former President Donald Trump, who they both strongly and vocally support, and Reed would present a more moderate choice.
New York, however, has become a deeply blue state — no Republican has won a statewide office since Pataki stepped down as governor in 2006 after three terms. In the 2020 presidential election, 61% of the voters cast ballots for Democrat Joe Biden.
Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, scoffed at a Zeldin run for governor, saying he hopes he does run.
"If it is Lee Zeldin, I'll contribute to his campaign — because I think he'd be so easy to beat that I'd love him to be the candidate," Jacobs said in a phone interview. "New York State is not going to elect as its governor a Trump sycophantic wackadoo."