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Hochul and Zeldin spar over crime and abortion rights in the only debate of the campaign

 On the left, a brunette woman smiles as she speaks. On the left, a middle- aged man in a suit looks into the distance.
Hochul: Max Schulte, WXXI News/Zeldin: J.D. Allen, WSHU News
Gov. Kathy Hochul, left, and Rep. Lee Zeldin are facing off in the New York governor's race.

The two candidates for New York governor, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is seeking election to a full term in office, and challenger Republican Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin sparred in a spirited debate held Tuesday night on Spectrum News that touched on crime, abortion, and threats to democracy.

Zeldin, who has made fighting crime a focus of his campaign, said that if elected, he intends to create a crime state of emergency on his first day as governor. He said he would rescind recent criminal justice reforms, including bail law changes that ended most forms of cash bail, and that he says favor criminals, because the people want him to.

"This is our opportunity. Two weeks from tonight, we can continue with the status quo, where they believe they haven’t passed pro criminal laws,” Zeldin said. “Or we can take control of our destiny and make sure law-abiding New Yorkers are in charge of our streets again.”

Hochul said she oversaw changes to the state’s bail laws to make more crimes bail eligible, but said the answer to curbing crime is not that simple.

“You can either work on keeping people scared, or you can focus on keeping them safe,” Hochul said.

And she said decreasing the number of illegal guns has to be part of the solution.

“There is no crime-fighting plan, if it doesn’t include illegal guns,” said Hochul, who added Zeldin refuses to discuss gun safety measures.

“You didn’t even show up in Washington when a bipartisan group of enlightened legislators voted for an assault weapons ban,” she told Zeldin.

Hochul repeatedly brought up Zeldin’s congressional record, including his vote on Jan. 6, 2021, against certifying the 2020 presidential election, which Joe Biden won, and Donald Trump lost.

Zeldin said he voted against the certification because he was concerned over potential technical problems with voting in Pennsylvania and Arizona, allegations that were later proved unfounded.

Several times during the debate, Hochul tied Zeldin to Trump, who has endorsed Zeldin in the race, asking the congressman at one point whether he thinks Trump, who is unpopular in New York, was a great president.

“Is Donald Trump a great president?” Hochul asked Zeldin. “Yes or no?”

Zeldin demurred, instead recounting economic development projects Trump brought to Long Island and crediting him for his handling of the pandemic.

The congressman steered his remarks several times to questions over campaign donations Hochul has received, and whether there was pay-to-play involved in state purchase orders, including one awarded to a donor for COVID tests. Hochul said there was no quid pro quo and that she follows the rules.

Zeldin also questioned the $1 billion deal the governor cut to build a new Buffalo Bills stadium, saying it was too favorable. He also said if he is elected governor, he would renegotiate the deal and that he disagrees with “giving a multibillion-dollar owner of a football team all of these tax dollars, which aren’t yours as governor.”

“You actually are supposed to be steward of the money,” Zeldin said.

The debate also addressed abortion rights, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade in June.

Zeldin, who opposes abortion, said he won’t change New York’s law, which codified the rights in Roe into state law. But he would not directly answer a question on whether he would sign a bill banning abortion in New York if the Legislature passed one, saying that in blue New York, that is not going to happen.

“When we woke up the day after the Dobbs decision, the law in New York was exactly the same as it was the day before,” Zeldin said. “And I’m not going to change that.”

Hochul, who backs abortion rights, said the only reason nothing changed after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision is because she is governor. And she cast doubt on Zeldin’s promise to not interfere with New York’s abortion rights laws.

“You even said on the first day that you’re willing to suspend laws. How do we know you won’t do it then?” Hochul said to Zeldin, “I don’t trust this, women don’t trust this.”

Afterward, both candidates claimed that they had won the debate.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.