There was little consensus among the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates during the first 54 minutes of Tuesday’s tense, hourlong New York primary debate.
Then the moderator asked if they believed in ghosts.
Gov. Kathy Hochul faced a barrage of criticism from Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams during Tuesday’s debate hosted by WCBS-TV, the first of two scheduled between the three Democratic candidates. But she rarely fired back with attacks of her own, defending her record and her “evolved” positions on gun-control despite the repeated and direct attacks from her two challengers, who targeted their ire solely on the governor.
She has cemented herself as the Democratic frontrunner by using the powers of incumbency to her advantage, opening up a wide edge in name recognition and campaign fundraising. Hochul’s campaign carried a balance of about $18.6 million to Suozzi’s $2.7 million and Williams’ $131,000 as of late last month, according to state Board of Elections records.
But there were a few moments where the three candidates were in agreement, such as when they declined to endorse former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s run for Congress and when co-moderator Maurice DuBois asked if they believe in ghosts. (For the record: Suozzi said he believes in “spirits,” Williams said he believes in the afterlife, and Hochul said she speaks to her deceased mother.)
Guns and crime dominate early part of debate
There were no opening or closing statements from the candidates, leaving DuBois to lead off with a question about an issue that polls show is on the mind of many New Yorkers: crime.
DuBois asked the candidates to say what action they would take to ensure New York doesn’t turn into the “wild, wild West.” It drew responses about the state’s brand-new gun laws that will require a license to purchase a semi-automatic rifle eventually requiring microstamping capabilities in new handguns, provided the state deems the technology viable.
Williams faulted Hochul for not focusing enough on everyday gun violence in places like the Bronx, where she held a news conference Monday to sign the package of bills into law.
Hochul touted the new laws as decisive action in the face of tragedy in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, the site of two mass shootings. And she vowed to take more action “within hours” if the U.S. Supreme Court throws out the state’s restrictions on concealed carry permits that allow gun owners to carry their weapon in public, which could happen as soon as Wednesday.
“We cannot have a situation where people can literally carry a gun into subways, into grocery stores with reckless abandon,” Hochul said. “And I pray the Supreme Court doesn’t do that, but we stand ready.”
Suozzi was quick to pounce on Hochul, noting she had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association when she briefly represented a conservative Western New York district in Congress a decade ago.
“When the governor was a member of Congress, she voted with, was endorsed by and took money from the NRA,” he said. “Where’s the principle in that?”
Hochul rebutted: “That was a decade ago. 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.”
Should ‘dangerousness’ be considered in bail?
Co-moderator Marcia Kramer went on to ask Hochul about New York’s bail laws, which do not specifically allow judges to consider a defendant’s “dangerousness” when determining whether they can set cash bail for someone awaiting trial.
Hochul touted the tweaks to the state’s 2019 bail reforms that she pushed for as part of this year’s state budget. Those changes, she said, gave judges more leeway to consider a specific range of factors – such as whether the person has a history of gun use or orders of protection – in determining whether someone is released or remanded to jail.
“I think what we gave the judges is better than this vague term (dangerousness) that can be subjective and many times used against the individual because of the color of their skin,” the governor said.
Suozzi, a centrist running on a tough-on-crime platform, countered. He said he “100% supports giving judges the discretion to consider the dangerousness of the defendants who come before them.”
Williams pivoted, saying more should be done to combat gun violence. When Kramer pressed him, he acknowledged 49 other states have a dangerousness standard in some form.
“And many of those states have cities with gun violence that is worse than ours,” he said.
Suozzi faces stock probe questions; Hochul answers for Brian Benjamin pick
Suozzi faced a direct question from DuBois about the House Ethics Committee’s ongoing scrutiny of his stock transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and whether he properly disclosed them in a timely manner.
The congressman attempted to dismiss the issue as a “paperwork thing.”
“It's a paperwork error,” he said. “The reality is we've corrected it and we're moving forward with this on a going-forward basis.”
Suozzi quickly pivoted. His stock-transfer issue is “nothing” compared to Hochul’s botched selection of Brian Benjamin for lieutenant governor.
Benjamin was appointed by Hochul to serve as lieutenant governor last August, which ended in scandal when Benjamin resigned after he was arrested on bribery charges in April.
Hochul acknowledged Benjamin’s arrest was “very disappointing.”
“I promised the voters of New York and the people of the state that I would do everything I can to restore their faith in government, and that was a setback,” she said. “But I have been able to build an incredible team, the most diverse, the most talented group of individuals.”
Should New York fund abortions for out-of-state individuals?
Kramer asked Hochul about her commitment to start a $35 million “emergency fund” for abortion providers, helping them expand access amid an expected increase in out-of-state patients should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade abortion rights.
Kramer asked Hochul why New York taxpayers should be expected to foot the bill for those women coming from out of state. Hochul emphasized that the funding would go to the state’s existing providers.
“We're simply helping our existing providers be ready,” Hochul said. “We already have people from Ohio, traveling to Western New York to get services now because their laws are already more restrictive. So we need to be ready for them.”
Suozzi said he didn’t think there was “a lot of daylight” on the issue of abortion between the three candidates, though he faulted Hochul for failing to get a constitutional amendment protecting people from discrimination based on pregnancy outcomes approved before lawmakers left Albany last week.
The “daylight” line prompted Hochul to pounce, directly criticizing Suozzi for the only time during the hourlong debate. She suggested Suozzi supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion.
“You talk about daylight,” she told Suozzi. “There's so much bright daylight between our positions that I need to find a pair of sunglasses.”
Hochul’s campaign later pointed to a Vice article, which highlighted his one-time resistance to embracing the repeal of the amendment. The article included a link to a YouTube video from 2017 in which Suozzi said he “[doesn’t] know that [he] would want to get rid of the Hyde Amendment,” before pledging to further research the issue. (Suozzi has since co-sponsored a bill to repeal the amendment.)
After Hochul’s attack, Suozzi went on to tout his “100% rating from Planned Parenthood,” and said his votes on the issue of abortion have mirrored those of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“I don't know what the governor is talking about,” Suozzi said.
What’s next for the governor’s race?
Next up, the Republicans get their turn.
GOP candidates Lee Zeldin, Andrew Giuliani, Rob Astorino and Harry Wilson are all scheduled to take part in a June 13th debate on WCBS-TV. Kramer and DuBois will moderate that one, too.
Three days later, the Democratic candidates will square off again. NBC New York, Telemundo and the Times Union of Albany will host the June 16th debate.
The gubernatorial primary is set for June 28th, with early voting beginning June 18th.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the debate moderator who asked whether the candidates believe in ghosts. It was DuBois who asked.