Plenty of sparks flew at the final Democratic gubernatorial debate Thursday, as challengers prodded and tried to rattle the front-runner, Gov. Kathy Hochul, on a raft of issues from the gun lobby to the economy to political fundraising and ethics.
In a series of sharp exchanges, Hochul sought to bat down attacks from Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and portray herself as a leader who has managed crisis after crisis since becoming governor 10 months ago.
The final Democratic debate came just 12 days before the June 28 primary, and two days before the early voting period opens across the state.
Beyond the sharp words, the forum gave viewers to see some differences among the candidates on taxes, crime, education curricula, rent control and government spending.
Hochul and Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) especially exchanged figurative blows, accusing one another of misrepresenting each other’s past while whitewashing their own.
“She didn’t evolve after Columbine. She didn’t evolve after Virginia Tech. The only thing that’s evolved is her political ambitions,” said Suozzi, referring to a string of mass shootings and what Hochul has called her evolution from NRA supporter a decade ago to strong gun control advocate.
But Hochul delivered zingers, too.
After Suozzi criticized the governor’s ethics on a number of issues, she brought up a U.S. House probe about Suozzi’s tardy filing of stock transactions, saying: “The only person on stage who is under investigation by the House ethics agency is you … So you are not in a position to lecture anyone on ethics, congressman.”
Williams also was critical of the governor, if less combative.
“I don’t have a corruption scandal, but I would like some time if possible,” Williams said, injecting a moment of levity as he tried to get in a word between Suozzi and Hochul. In fact, Williams was standing between the two on the WNBC stage in Manhattan.
The most liberal candidate in the contest, Williams also second-guessed the governor for not putting more state money into climate-change resiliency and anti-eviction efforts. He also tried to tie her to Andrew M. Cuomo — who resigned as governor in August, triggering Hochul’s ascendancy from lieutenant governor — saying she was part of an administration that failed to address affordable housing.
With Hochul holding a commanding lead in the latest poll, it was no surprise that she was the target of her rivals, with Williams attacking from the political left.
As in the one previous debate, Suozzi and Williams sought to portray Hochul as the front-runner primarily because special interests are cozying up to an incumbent. They cast support for her as wide on the surface, but thin.
Suozzi pressed Hochul on many occasions, speaking over her and moderators. She, at one point, replied: “Stop interrupting me. The people want to hear my answer.”
That exchange came when Suozzi criticized her for accepting NRA backing when she was a Buffalo congresswoman in 2011-12. After the “interrupting me” line, she called it “decades old attacks.”
“It wasn’t decades ago. It was 2012,” Suozzi replied.
That led later to Hochul’s line about the House investigation — which Suozzi said is more about tardy paperwork.
Later, Suozzi said Hochul misrepresented his remarks about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Earlier in the campaign, he said he was “inartful” about answering a question related to the law and gave the wrong impression that he favored it, which he says he doesn’t.
When Hochul raised the issue, Suozzi not only defended himself but also turned to his left to prod Hochul into looking at him instead of the cameras. “Governor? Governor?! Governor!” Suozzi said, finally prodding Hochul to shoot him a millisecond of a sideways glance and a raised eyebrow. Then, he added: “You know that’s not true.”
Besides the fireworks, the forum did bring forth differences among the Democrats on policy and philosophy:
- Taxes. Suozzi said he would cut state income taxes 10% and implement a “circuit breaker” threshold to reduce local property taxes. Williams proposed raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires. Hochul touted the implementation of recent property-tax cuts but didn’t propose anything new.
- State funds for abortion. With the U.S. Supreme Court considering overturning abortion rights, Williams said he’d use state funds to pay travel costs for women who might come to New York State for an abortion. Hochul and Suozzi, while strongly supporting abortion rights, said they would not.
- State unemployment aid for people in the country illegally who lost jobs during the pandemic. Hochul and Suozzi, while supporting extraordinary aid given during the pandemic, opposed a continuation. Williams said he’d provide more money.
- Cuomo. Suozzi was the lone candidate to say he’d accept the former governor’s endorsement. Even though Cuomo resigned amid an impeachment probe and had much “baggage,” Suozzi said the former governor had many accomplishments. Hochul answered the question by saying: "No, I would not, because people just want us to look forward and not backward.”
- Buffalo Bills stadium. Williams and Suozzi criticized Hochul for earmarking $850 million in state subsidies for a new NFL stadium, calling it bad judgment and a giveaway. Hochul has defended the funding as a way to boost jobs and the economy in Western New York and said half the money is coming from a casino lawsuit settlement with the Seneca Nation.