Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her first campaign debate, clashed Tuesday with her Democratic gubernatorial rivals over crime, guns and bail in a tense debate three weeks before the primary.
For 60 minutes, Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams sought to portray Hochul as ineffective during her brief nine months as New York’s governor. They attacked her shift on guns from a decade ago and said she has not done enough on crime.
Hochul argued she’d made a break with the former Cuomo administration and accomplished more than any other governor in such a short tenure. She noted she had just gotten gun legislation through Albany that had been stymied for years.
The WCBS-TV debate ended on goofy questions about karaoke and ghosts. Along the way, it was far more civil than the gubernatorial debates of 2018 — no one was accused of lying or bullying — but provided opportunities for each candidate to make some sharp points.
Hochul, for instance, sought to put to rest criticism about accepting gun lobby support 10 years ago in Congress and turned her changed stance into a virtue.
“That was a decade ago," Hochul says. "Judge me on what I’ve done. A lot of people have evolved since I took that position. You know what we need? More people to evolve.”
Williams tried to portray Hochul’s gun-law package and related news conference as more flash than substance, saying they “remind me of (Andrew M.) Cuomo’s pandemic press conferences.” He said he supports the new laws — such as raising the purchase age for semi-automatic rifles to 21 — but said as a whole, they do little to address street crime.
Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) repeated his campaign mantras on crime, bail and ethics. “There’s a crime crisis and there’s a gun crisis,” he said in his opening question, saying Hochul hasn’t done enough. “I will fight crime as my number one priority.”
He went on to criticize the governor for not changing the bail laws to give judges discretion to detain defendants based on possible “dangerousness.”
Hochul contended she shepherded changes that were better than a vague idea of “dangerousness.” She said a new law she signed allows judges to consider seriousness of a crime and a defendant’s history, among other factors.
"Dangerousness is subjective," Hochul said. “" What we did on bail reform — we came up with more standards. … I think what we gave judges is better than this vague term.”
The debate comes at a key moment in the campaign — the primary is just three weeks away. Hochul has been the front-runner in campaign cash and polling, but a dipping job-approval rating has given her rivals hope for some sort of breakthrough.
Further, there is just one more time when all three will be in the same room: June 16, the second and final three-way debate.
The Democrats largely agreed on protecting abortion rights — especially if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade as expected. Hochul later made a subtle point about being the only female in the race.
“I have put together a leadership team that is second to none and it is mostly driven by women, because they see the world differently," she said.
Williams used a question about whether the state should remove homeless people from the streets and subway stations to talk about perceptions of people and his having Tourette syndrome.
He said while he was on an Amtrak train, he had a string of nervous ticks that almost prompted the staff to have him removed because they didn’t understand Tourette's. He said the episode shows the same misunderstandings that can happen when police and others encounter homeless people and that the state needs to invest more in training and mental-health services.
Suozzi sought to tar Hochul for the arrest of Brian Benjamin, her first lieutenant governor, on bribery and fraud charges in an alleged campaign contribution scheme, which triggered his resignation. Suozzi called it a blow to an administration that promised to be ethical.
Hochul said she selected Benjamin last year based on information he provided. “We worked with the information we had at the time … and that was a setback,” Hochul said. She recently swore in former Rep. Antonio Delgado as her new lieutenant governor.
The candidates agreed congestion pricing — charging a fee to drive into Manhattan during certain hours — should be delayed while the city is still trying to come back economically from the pandemic. They generally agreed there should be further investigations about the state’s handling of COVID-19 and nursing homes.
They differed slightly on term limits: Williams supports them, Suozzi doesn’t and Hochul believes it should be applied to statewide offices but not the legislature.
Williams supports a bill the legislature approved to put a two-year moratorium on cryptocurrency mining because of the environmental impact of fossil fuel plants. Suozzi said he supports a shorter moratorium.
Hochul said she was still studying the bill and denied that large campaign contributions from cryptocurrency businesses would influence her decision.
And they also differed on allowing noncitizens to vote — a change recently approved in New York City.
Williams agreed with the policy. Hochul said she wouldn’t interfere with a local decision, but wouldn’t support a statewide policy. Suozzi said he wouldn’t support extending voting rights to noncitizens.