Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Governor Kathy Hochul and her challenger Congressman Lee Zeldin during last week’s debate.

Governor Kathy Hochul is fighting for her political life as she seeks a full term as New York’s chief executive. As various polls show, part of the reason the Buffalo Democrat is losing ground to her opponent, Congressman Lee Zeldin, is that the issues she focused on earlier this year were issues the public was not interested in hearing about, such as abortion and Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, Zeldin (R-Shirley, Suffolk County) focused on crime, inflation and the economy, issues of major concern to the general public.

During an hour-long Spectrum News debate on Tuesday, October 25, the two candidates sparred over 15 issues including crime, cashless bail reform, public safety, gun control, housing, the economy, congestion pricing, abortion, public corruption, marijuana legalization, immigration policy, economic development, funding of the new Buffalo Bills stadium, the site of a new casino in the New York City area and Covid and polio vaccine mandates.

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Zeldin, 42, pointed out that “halfway through the debate she has not talked about locking up anyone who has committed any crimes.” To which Hochul replied “Anyone who commits a crime under our laws, especially with the change we made to bail, has consequences. I don’t know why that’s so important to you . . . We could do more,” Hochul admitted.

When Zeldin pointed out how bad the economy, crime and pocketbook issues are across the state, Hochul’s only response was to call Zeldin the “grim reaper.” Meanwhile, Hochul has been labeled “Cheerleader-in-Charge” for her cheerful public persona.

As for Hochul’s governing style, she tends to have a need to publicly show herself as a strong vocal woman, like a mother lecturing her children to do the right thing, when she speaks to the media or at public events. She also tends to show that she is tough-as-nails strong and a defender of women making it to leadership positions. She often mentions how there are more women in positions as commissioners in her administration and on her executive staff than at any time in New York’s history.

Hochul came to the position of governor pledging openness and a new era of transparency, and then refused to speak about legislative negotiations because she didn’t want to get out in front of legislative leaders by discussing legislative matters before these leaders agreed to the measures.

Hochul has been anything but transparent, tending to become a mysterious force always working behind the scenes and not revealing what is going on behind closed doors.

While Hochul maintains that she wants to keep a busy schedule outside of the office, her public schedules reveal she is in counties across New York with no detail regarding what she is doing in those counties. She conducts private meetings and is known as a prodigious fundraiser. Hochul has raised more than $50 million for her gubernatorial campaign. She criticizes her opponent for having one billionaire donor who contributed more than $10 million to his campaign.

Her secrecy over legislative matters, scheduling and fundraising efforts have led to a suggestion of impropriety relating to potential conflicts of interest. Hochul maintains she doesn’t compare notes as to who gives and who gets priority and special treatment but that does not mean her staff doesn’t overstep boundaries.

Several suspicious instances of conflict of interest have been pointed out in political ads by her opponent, including the building of a new football stadium for the Buffalo Bills, despite the team being owned by billionaire Terry Pegula.

Zeldin criticized Hochul for suspending competitive bid regulations and purchasing Covid tests from Dayton, N.J.-based Digital Gadgets for twice the price, $600 million, than what California purchased the same tests for.

Hochul retorted, “I told my team, you go out and find every single test kit you can find. I’m glad I got the test kits because we got the children back in school in New York and they didn’t go back to many other places.”

Due to the lack of transparency and her prodigious fundraising efforts, Hochul has left herself open to criticism as a pay-to-play governor, a charge Hochul denies.

“There is no pay-to-play corruption. There has never been a quid pro quo [something for something], a policy change, or a decision made because of a contribution,” Hochul stated during the debate. “We make sure we have internal controls. We have them now. They’ve been in place so why would I change?”

For all the issues Hochul could have brought up when she had a chance during the debate, she chose to continue to hammer Zeldin about his cozy, close relationship with former President Donald Trump.

In response, in part, Zeldin, who is Jewish, talked about how he worked with Trump to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, moving the embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, giving the Abraham Accords a push, making an effort to go after the Iran nuclear deal, “which was fatally flawed and fortunately he stopped it,” Zeldin said.

Hochul replied, “The voters of New York do not agree with you.”

Zeldin said he would issue by executive order a “crime emergency on day one in office.” He also made one other point during the debate about how Jews are affected by the rising crime rate in New York City.

“People are at home waiting for action to make sure the handcuffs are going on criminals instead of law-abiding New Yorkers so that people can walk the streets of Manhattan instead of having to call an Uber just to go two blocks because they’re afraid. People who have changed their behavior … maybe they’re Jewish and they take their yarmulka off because they’re afraid of being attacked. There are criminals out there who need to pay the consequences for their actions instead of the catch and release policies that Kathy Hochul champions.”

Early in the debate, Zeldin criticized Hochul for having a weak crime policy.

“Jewish people are targeted with raw, violent antisemitism on our streets and it happened yet again [a few days before this debate]. We need to be talking about all these other crimes but instead, Kathy Hochul is too busy patting herself on the back for a job well done.”

Throughout the entire debate, Hochul never mentioned any issue pertaining to the Jewish community. Her silence was deafening. Issues facing the elderly, the banking industry or the environment, even though a $4-point-2 billion environmental bond act is on the ballot in the upcoming election, were never mentioned. The Environmental Quality Bond Act would fund Water Quality & Resilient Infrastructure, Open Space Conservation & Recreation, Restoration & Flood Risk Reduction as well as Climate Change Mitigation.

Also never mentioned was the name Andrew Cuomo, Hochul’s predecessor. Hochul appears at ribbon-cutting events Cuomo started and never mentions him by name, as if he never existed.

Hochul’s best line in the debate was that she doesn’t “govern in sound bites but with sound policy.”

In many circles, Hochul is known as the “accidental governor” as she rose to become governor and to other government leadership posts in her career without a vote by the people.

Hochul constantly likes to remind voters how she, at age 29, was on the staff of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1987. After graduating from law school, Hochul began working for a Washington, D.C., law firm, but she said she found the work unsatisfying. She then worked as legal counsel and legislative assistant to Congressman John LaFalce (D-Buffalo) and also for the New York State Assembly, before seeking elected office.

Her political career began in 1994, at age 36, as a board member in the town of Hamburg, Erie County, where she spent 13 years focused on local issues. She also served as the deputy county clerk. When her boss resigned in 2007 to become the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles under the Spitzer-Paterson administrations, Hochul was appointed to the position of top paper pusher. She was elected to a full term as Erie County clerk in 2007 and reelected in 2010.

As county clerk, Hochul was in charge of receiving court filings, recording and preserving land transactions, issuing passports, overseeing the distribution of various permits and serving as the county’s motor vehicles agent. In her role as the county’s motor vehicles agent, Hochul administered all DMV activities in Erie County on behalf of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In May 2011, Hochul won a four-way race in a special election to fill a vacancy for New York’s 26th congressional district, with only 47 percent of the vote. The vacancy was created by the resignation of then-Congressman Chris Lee, a Republican, becoming the first Democrat since LaFalce to represent the district in 40 years. She was given an A-minus rating and endorsed by the National Rifle Association during the campaign, a rare move for the organization. The district was seen as a safe Republican district but when the GOP vote was split, Hochul slipped into the position for one term beginning on May 24, 2011. Her predecessor and successor both resigned from Congress amidst sex scandals. Her predecessor as Governor also resigned under the shadow of a sex scandal.

Before being tapped by Governor Andrew Cuomo as his lieutenant governor in 2014, Hochul worked as a government relations executive for the Buffalo-based M&T Bank. When Cuomo resigned, Hochul was sworn into office as the first female governor of New York on August 24, 2021. It was the second time Hochul would be elevated to a higher post when, being in the position at the right time, her boss resigned.

Hochul, 64, identifies as an Irish Catholic. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Syracuse University and her legal degree from the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. She is married to Bill Hochul. The couple have two children. Hochul is a founder of Kathleen Mary House, a transitional home for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.