NEW YORK (PIX11) — With the clock ticking toward Election Day and polls tightening in the race between Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin, the two candidates for governor in New York sat down for a PIX11 News gubernatorial forum.
The incumbent Hochul took on leadership of New York after the resignation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She’s aiming to keep illegal guns off state streets and protect abortion rights.
Zeldin, who represents parts of Long Island in Congress, is aiming to protect gun owners’ rights and overhaul the way crime is fought in New York. PIX11 News broke down key takeaways from the New York Race for Governor Forum on Friday:
Watch Zeldin’s forum interview
Watch Hochul’s forum interview
Guns, bail and subway crime:
Zeldin, who recently had a shooting take place outside his home, has made tackling violent crime one of the main platforms of his campaign for governor. Despite his focus on the issue, Suffolk County, where Zeldin lives, had the fifth-lowest violent crime rate of the state’s 62 counties, according to state data.
Through August this year, the Suffolk Police Department, which patrols much of the county of 1.5 million people, had reported 47 shootings and 12 shooting deaths — fewer than at this same point in 2021.
Zeldin believes Gov. Hochul should declare a crime emergency in New York. If he’s elected, he plans to declare one himself. His first act on day one would also be crime-focused.
“I’m going to tell the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, that he’s going to be fired for his refusal to enforce the law,” Zeldin said.
He also plans to suspend cashless bail. During the suspension, Zeldin said he’d work with lawmakers on a permanent fix. Hochul, whose administration already made changes to the bail reform laws in New York, said blaming bail laws for crime is “absurd” when other states without bail laws have also seen increases in crime.
Under already passed changes, more criminal defendants will be sent to jail before their trials. The revisions also allow judges to set bail for more gun crimes, hate crimes and repeat offenses. It also gives judges more discretion.
“We made the changes that people talked about wanting,” Hochul said. “We made targeted bail reform changes. The problem is, they only went into effect a few months ago. They’re only just passed as part of my budget.”
She’s also focused on subway crime. Felony transit crime is up 42%, year over year. To combat the increase, Hochul announced plans to install two high-quality surveillance cameras in more than 6,000 train cars. She also wants more officers in the transit system. Hochul said she’s worked with Mayor Eric Adams to embed more of the MTA transit police in the system, even though the NYPD is in charge of policing the system.
Zeldin supports better lighting and cameras in the subway system. He also wants fare beaters targeted and more support for the NYPD.
“The law enforcement presence is absolutely key to improve ridership,” he said.
One of the key points of divergence between the two candidates is gun laws. After the Supreme Court overturned a restrictive New York gun law, allowing more people to legally carry guns, lawmakers in New York quickly passed new gun laws. Those are currently facing challenges in the court, which Hochul said she expected.
“What keeps me up at night is the whole specter of crime and how we can do more to get guns off the street,” Hochul said. “That’s the area where the governor has the most influence.”
One change, started by Hochul and Adams, establishes Gun-Free Zones. Under the change, guns are blocked in sensitive areas. Signs have been posted around Times Square indicating the rule. Zeldin ridiculed the idea.
“If all you have to do is put up a sign, we should put up signs that say ‘this is a knife-stabbing-free zone, this is a pistol-whipping-free zone,’” he said. “You should put up at the subway stations, at all subway platforms, signs that say ‘you are not allowed to push someone in front of oncoming subway cars.’ It would be fantastic, right, if it’s as simple as that.”
Zeldin wants the focus on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, while still allowing law-abiding people to own firearms. Zeldin noted many changes in New York would not actually impact criminals.
He also voted against an assault weapons ban as a member of Congress, noting the bill hadn’t been well-researched. Zeldin felt it focused more on how scary a gun looked rather than how dangerous it actually was.
There’s no denying that people’s wallets are hurting in New York. Inflation is hovering around 8% with two more rate hikes expected by the federal reserve. There are fears of a recession.
In New York, some of the concerns come down to taxes. Zeldin said it’s sending New Yorkers to other states.
“They’re hitting their breaking point. They feel like their wallet, their safety, their freedom, the quality of their kids’ education is under attack and they’re looking at other states,” he said.
Toward fixing that, Zeldin would bring the tax burden down in the state across the board. New York’s most recent budget under Hochul included tax relief for middle-income earners and property tax relief. She’s not currently planning any hikes.
Zeldin called for fiscal responsibility and bringing the state’s spending under control. Hochul noted that when she proposed her budget in January, she understood the need to “prepare for a rainy day.” While there were billions in surplus funding, she committed to putting much of it away in reserves.
“I have to make sure that there’s no scenario where we have to find other sources of revenue to meet our expenses,” Hochul said.
A big hit to New York’s budget has been the influx of around 20,000 migrants. Leaders in New York City have asked Albany for help.
“As far as the money goes, I don’t think that what New York City is asking for is a responsibility that falls on Albany. It falls on the federal government,” Zeldin said.
Hochul said she’s had multiple conversations with President Joe Biden on the issue. She’s asked for federal aid for shelter and food.
“I said, ‘this is a federal problem,’” Hochul said of her conversation with Biden. “Now these individuals, they’re human beings and they’re being used as political pawns and that’s disgraceful. But we also need a strong federal response at the border to begin the resettlement process or just a pass toward asylum for those who are legitimately seeking it.”
Zeldin stressed a focus on securing the southern border. He wants to finish construction on the border wall and end Catch and Release. Zeldin would, however, support legal immigrants.
“If they come into our country legally, I’ll welcome everybody – the more the merrier, there’s absolutely no limit,” he said.
While Zeldin is personally against abortion rights, he’s pledged not to change New York’s laws protecting abortions. Hochul feels “you can’t trust Lee Zeldin when he says he won’t overturn it.”
“Let me be clear. As governor, I will not change and could not change New York’s abortion law,” Zeldin said in a new campaign ad.
New York has already codified abortion rights, but state lawmakers also signed additional protections into law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.