Suozzi's strategy: How he sees a path to the NY governorship
ALBANY — Rep. Tom Suozzi left the state Democratic convention this month without being named the party designee for governor and without an automatic slot on the June primary ballot against Gov. Kathy Hochul, who won more than 85% of support from delegates.
He remained in third place in a Siena poll last week and has a fourth of Hochul's campaign funds total. But the Long Island congressman still has a path to win, albeit a narrow one, according to political analysts.
"Of course there’s a path," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll. "But, man oh man, is that path thin. … He’s going to need a lot of help if he’s going to navigate that path," he said, citing the lack of party backing, fundraising and poll numbers.
Suozzi of Glen Cove is seeking to become the first Long Island native to be elected governor and could be in an all-Long Island general election contest against Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley, who is the leading GOP candidate.
Suozzi’s plan to win the Democratic nomination depends on convincing voters that he is a better, more experienced executive than Hochul, that he has a record of working with moderates and Republicans, that Hochul is too beholden to progressive Democrats who are out of step with the more left-center bulk of the party, and that Hochul has made mistakes, including her management of COVID-19 and mask mandates.
"I am fighting to address the issues people care about," Suozzi said. "Whether it's fixing bail reform, stopping attempts to end single-family zoning in our neighborhoods, highlighting unsafe conditions at Penn Station, or lowering property taxes, I am standing up while Kathy Hochul stands by."
Suozzi, who served two terms as Nassau County executive, is also trying to make inroads with the important Latino vote, which he argues has been ignored by the Democratic Party. On Feb. 16 he named former Brooklyn Councilwoman Diana Reyna as his running mate and the next day named Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and New York City mayoral candidate, as his campaign chairman.
But Suozzi’s most fervent message is about the rise in crime statewide. He blames Hochul for failing to change the 2020 law adopted by the legislature and former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that eliminated bail for misdemeanors and most nonviolent felonies. Suozzi says this and other recent progressive measures have let dangerous people loose and worsened rising crime. It's an argument that also leads the Republican platform.
Hochul has said that the bail law was intended to make sure the poorest defendants don’t languish in jails awaiting trial just because they can’t afford bail, but that she is open to changes. She said she needs more data on the small number of repeat offenders before trying to negotiate change with the State Legislature.
"We have to be very concerned," Suozzi told Newsday. "The path to prosperity doesn’t come unless you have public safety first. … We have to make sure that enforcing the law is part of it."
Last week’s Siena poll may bolster Suozzi’s point. The poll found 91% of voters believed crime is a serious or somewhat serious problem.
Political experts agree Suozzi is making some progress on those fronts.
"His differentiation with Hochul on crime and criminal justice reform is probably the issue where he could create the most daylight between Hochul and himself," said Lisa Parshall, political science professor at Daemen College in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst who researches state and local politics.
"It's not as if he has no path, " said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. "Suozzi has a great resume and reputation as a centrist focused on getting things done. He is a strong campaigner, has an appealing presence, even on these virtual town halls that are drawing up to 8,000 people."
But Levy says Suozzi's path "seems to be narrowing by the day."
Hochul is proving to be a formidable foe. Challengers are finding the opportunity to run for governor against someone other than three-term Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned in August amid sexual harassment accusations, is much more difficult in practice than they expected.
"Four months out, the race appears to be Hochul’s to lose," Greenberg said. "Suozzi has little in the way of a base, but has the resources to already be on TV touting his record. So far though, he has not broken through with Democratic voters."
In Tuesday’s Siena poll, Hochul had 46% of support from Democratic voters compared with 17% for New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and 9% for Suozzi. Hochul also had strong leads in New York City, the suburbs, upstate and among moderates.
In another measure of viability for candidates, the January financial filings with the state Board of Elections showed Hochul had a commanding lead. Hochul reported that she had $21 million in her campaign account to Suozzi’s $5.4 million, while Williams had $189,221, according to state Board of Elections records.
And because of Hochul’s endorsement at the Democratic convention, Suozzi and Williams must collect at least 15,000 signatures and at least 100 each have to be spread among half of the state's congressional districts.
Suozzi’s "path is not an easy one, in part, because he’s appealing to the same nonprogressive wing of the party from which she draws her support," Parshall said.
"Hochul’s strength is grounded in support of upstate, and Western New York; she’s weaker in terms of her downstate support," Parshall said. "He’s vying with her for suburban votes, counting on his stronger appeal to New York City suburban areas. He’s courting moderates of both parties, and some Republican voters perhaps who might opt for him as a more pragmatic or palatable choice" in the general election.
"The challenge for Suozzi is trying to distinguish enough nuance to broaden his coalition and shake voters away from Hochul," Parshall said. "It’s a difficult task in so far as she has thus far successfully framed herself as a pragmatic, moderate Democrat."
Suozzi is trying to make that case through a packed schedule that mixes press events with frequent town hall meetings making use of low-cost webcasts and Zoom meetings.
On Jan. 27, Suozzi sparked an effort against Hochul’s proposal to combat a shortage of affordable housing by requiring local governments to accept more additions, apartments and backyard cottages on single-family parcels. Suozzi — as well as Republicans and many Democrats — called it an assault on suburban life and local control. Hochul pulled her proposal Feb. 17.
Suozzi also may benefit from the uncertainty of what is at this point a potentially three-way race in the June primary. A three-way race would mean that the primary can be won with less than a majority of votes. Democratic primaries are traditionally dominated by the party’s more progressive members. That’s where Williams fits in. He has landed most of the support of the most progressive leaders statewide and could cut into progressive voters supporting Hochul, but wouldn't likely add any support for Suozzi.
Since Hochul took office in August, she has constantly crossed the state announcing new programs and funding and piling up endorsements. She has also presented a fresh face for state government, even though she spent seven years as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor. Her budget proposal in January includes a record increase in school aid, tax cuts, bolstering the health care system battered by the pandemic and infrastructure projects.
"She has been very shrewd so far," said Stanley Feldman, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, whose research includes political psychology. "People see her stepping in to try to clean up the mess that Andrew Cuomo left behind and I think she’s done a really good job of getting attention of very popular proposals."
"Suozzi’s approach looks like something that could work in the general election, but he has to get through the primary first," Feldman said. "I’m not sure running a more centrist campaign is a good strategy given this. In this political climate, saying you can work more effectively with Republicans is not going to be appealing to a lot of Democrats."