Gov. Kathy Hochul wasn’t on stage during the first televised gubernatorial debate for the Democratic primary contest — but she was still the main character as her two rivals spent much of the hour criticizing the governor rather than going after each other.
The debate, hosted by Spectrum News/NY1 on Thursday, was one of three scheduled in the weeks ahead of the June 28th primary, in which Hochul is seeking a full term in office. The governor’s absence gave more airtime for her opponents — New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island — to make their case to New Yorkers.
The evening offered the pair a platform as they struggle to gain momentum in their respective campaigns — a struggle that has translated to low fundraising figures and few endorsements.
The two men represent opposing camps within their party as Suozzi runs to the right of Hochul and Williams to the left. But the interactions between them were cordial, with each directing their ire at the governor, who has a dominant fundraising advantage and is considered the front-runner in the race. Hochul had $18.6 million in her campaign war chest as of late May, compared to Suozzi's $2.7 million and Williams' $130,580.
“I want to thank Tom for being here. Although we have some differences, at least we both showed up,” Williams said. “I really wish that the governor would have as well. I think New Yorkers deserve to hear the different visions that we have.”
Jen Goodman, a spokesperson for Hochul's campaign, said in a statement that the governor declined to participate to put her attention to the end of Albany's legislative sessions, which coincided with the debate.
"The governor looks forward to debating over the next two weeks ahead of the primary election," Goodman said.
The debate marked the first time Suozzi and Williams shared a stage in person, presenting distinct policy platforms ranging from the economy to public safety.
Turning first to public safety, candidates were asked whether they support Hochul’s legislative package to toughen the state’s gun laws to prevent mass shootings. Williams, a progressive Democrat who previously served as a member of the New York City Council, initially didn’t answer the specific question but instead recalled a report he helped release in 2012 on how to address gun violence. Among those was the creation of the Crisis Management System, which includes a “credible messenger” program to stop retaliatory shootings before they happen. The initiative continues today.
“In that same year, Gov. Hochul was receiving an ‘A’ rating from the [National Rifle Association] and touting that endorsement,” Williams said, referring to the NRA’s endorsement of Hochul when she served in Congress.
Moderator Errol Louis pressed for a more direct answer, prompting Williams to propose addressing mental health and white nationalism to prevent massacres. He also said the state should better enforce the 2019 Red Flag Law intended to prevent people from obtaining a gun if they proved to be a danger to themselves or others.
Suozzi also berated Hochul’s “A” rating from the NRA a decade back while also calling on her to implement the Red Flag Law, which he claims she hasn’t enforced. As he touted his “F” rating from the NRA, Suozzi touted his own public safety plan.
“We need to educate the police, social workers, mental health experts, teachers, family members that you can take guns away from people that are mentally unstable [or] that have a drug and alcohol problem, by bringing them through a due-process procedure,” Suozzi said.
Suozzi has centered much of his campaign around reducing crime, an approach similar to New York City Mayor Eric Adams. He accused Hochul of ignoring public safety and focusing instead on earmarking $600 million in public subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
Hochul has backed a plan to increase safety on the New York City subways while pushing for stronger gun control reforms. She also put forth a plan to pass more stringent gun laws that were approved by the state Legislature late Thursday.
The topic of bail reform emerged with an April Siena College poll showing crime to be a major issue for voters this election season. Williams criticized his party for not properly laying out a defense for the state’s 2019 bail reforms, which he said has no bearing on the increase in crime. The bail laws were also amended by the state Legislature during the budget season after Hochul pushed for tweaks.
“We know for a fact most of the high-profile cases that are usually brought up had nothing to do with bail reform,” Williams said. “There are places across this country that [have] never changed their bail laws and their violence is worse than in New York.”
Suozzi said changes to bail reform are one of many ways to reduce crime, while also supporting changes to Kendra’s Law, which mandates court-ordered psychiatric treatment for those considered a danger to themselves or others.
“Bail reform would not have addressed the racist massacre in Buffalo but it will help us with many other violent crimes that are taking place every single day in New York state,” Suozzi said.
With the landmark Roe v. Wade case poised to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, candidates were asked how they would protect a person’s right to an abortion.
While both strongly favor abortion rights, debate moderator Susan Arbetter noted both candidates’ views on abortion have evolved over the years.
“In the past I’ve always talked about my faith, talked about other issues. I brought myself into it. That should not have been done,” said Williams, saying women should have access to “safe, and legal, and accessible abortion.”
He added: “It was true 10 years ago, it’s true now. The only thing that’s changed is making sure I center the people who are most affected first.”
Suozzi took a more centrist approach, recalling his days as Nassau County executive when he said abortions should be “safe, legal and rare,” while pushing for contraception and education.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation looming over the state’s fortunes, candidates were asked how they would jumpstart the New York economy.
Suozzi and Williams differed on whether workers returning to the office can stimulate the economy, with Suozzi pressing for greater public safety to encourage workers back and Williams pushing for a permanent hybrid model.
“We all should take into account that workers have learned they could have a better work-life balance, which is better for their health, better for their mental health, better for the state,” Williams said, later adding that New Yorkers are fleeing the state because they’re being offered remote work options elsewhere.
Suozzi, who said he’s open to discussing remote work, said that along with improving public safety, the state should also lower its tax burden on New Yorkers.
“We have the highest taxes in America, the highest state and local taxes, that’s not something emotional — that’s fact,” Suozzi said. “New York State’s got to wake up. We have got to address this crime problem. We have to address this affordability problem.”
Williams agreed affordability is a problem to low-income New Yorkers but not wealthy New Yorkers.
“We have to raise revenue on the wealthiest among us,” Williams said, adding his tax proposals won’t affect those making less than $1 million.
Both agreed a moratorium on cryptomining — which processes crypto transactions — should be considered as it’s not a good way to generate revenue.
While public safety and reproductive rights were a major focus in the debate, there was a little time spent on the pandemic. Louis asked both candidates whether mask mandates should be dropped. Suozzi said yes, arguing the topic has become extremely polarizing.
“I supported mandates back in 2020 and most of 2021, but there’s come a time now when mandates are too toxic in our culture and they’re not appropriate at this time,” Suozzi said, adding if the state experienced a deadly variant it would consider reinstating mandates.
Williams conceded that masks have become a thorny subject, but pointed to those mandates saving a lot of lives.
“What we needed was swift action. What we needed was clear action and concise action. We didn’t get that from the Cuomo-Hochul administration,” Williams said.
Despite the political difficulties of a pandemic mandates, COVID-19 infections remain stubbornly high in New York City.
Even the cross-examination moment between the candidates appeared orchestrated to attack Hochul. Williams asked why Suozzi’s party affiliation has been questioned despite receiving an “F” rating from the NRA and Hochul receiving an “A”.
“She used to be on the far right and now she’s on the far left; I don’t know what she stands for,” said Suozzi.
Suozzi asked a similar question, asking how Hochul’s doing as governor. Williams responded by blasting Hochul for prioritizing $1 billion (the correct figure is $600 million) for a Buffalo Bills stadium over funding for gun violence prevention services.
“It’s almost like you guys planned this,” Arbetter quipped.
Here were some quick questions asked of candidates during a lightning round:
Should New York state gas tax be permanent?
Would you have supported a four-year extension on mayoral control?
Williams: No. Municipal control with the mayor having input.
Should there be a lift on charter school caps?
Williams: “We have to look at it as a whole.”
Suozzi: No. But lift on sub-caps.
When was the last time you were at a live music performance?
Suozzi: Billy Joel concert a couple months ago.
Williams: Old school hip hop concert in Prospect Park.
Favorite food at the New York State Fair?
Williams: Fried Oreo.
Suozzi: Sausage and Peppers.
Most admired New York governor?
Suozzi: Mario Cuomo.
Williams: Myself (in about four years.)
Last book you read?
Williams: “The Revolutionary King”
Jon Campbell contributed reporting. The article has been updated to include a statement from Jen Goodman, Hochul's campaign spokesperson.