There were some early signs that Tuesday’s New York Republican gubernatorial debate would be different from the first two, more-traditional affairs.
There was the raucous applause each candidate received when they were introduced by Newsmax moderator Eric Bolling, as opposed to the radio silence that greeted them in empty CBS and Spectrum News studios in the prior debates.
And there was the fact that Andrew Giuliani – who says he is unvaccinated – was allowed on stage at all and not participating from a remote location, as he did twice before.
But when the candidates settled in for the hourlong debate on Newsmax – which largely caters to a Republican audience – the topics they homed in on weren’t all that different from the other debates, with abortion, crime, prosecution policies and Trump’s presidency featuring prominently among them.
And the candidates’ strategies didn’t change much either, with Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin facing near-constant criticism from former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and businessman Harry Wilson mixed with occasional barbs from Giuliani, the former Trump aide and son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“There are three people being honest on this stage and that consists of Rob, Andrew and me, and Lee is consistently lying,” Wilson said as the debate neared its end.
“He’s a snake oil salesman,” Zeldin said in response.
Zeldin, who has represented the eastern end of Long Island in Congress since 2015, is the presumed frontrunner in the four-way GOP race, having received the endorsement of the state Republican and Conservative Party committees. But he’s facing a barrage of negative advertisements from the self-funded Wilson, who has poured $10 million into his campaign and has repeatedly tried to tie Zeldin to disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo – going as far as calling him “Cuomo’s wingman.”
Much of Wilson’s criticism focuses on Zeldin’s two terms as a state senator, which spanned Cuomo’s first term in office. Zeldin voted for the state budget each of those four years, which Wilson has branded as “Cuomo’s budgets.”
Things got tense when the topic came up during Tuesday’s debate, at times devolving into incomprehensible crosstalk when Zeldin claimed Senate Republicans – who held a slim majority at the time – rejected Cuomo’s budget proposals and voted for proposals of their own.
“So the four years I was there, instead of passing Cuomo’s budget, the state Senate passed our own budget with a self-imposed 2% spending cap, and then we reached an agreement,” Zeldin said.
In actuality, Albany’s budget process calls for the governor to propose a budget each year in January. Then the Senate and Assembly majorities pass their own one-house budget proposals – which are non-binding resolutions with no practical effect. From there, Senate and Assembly leaders meet with the governor to negotiate a final budget plan in March.
That’s the process that was in place from 2011 through 2014, when Zeldin voted for the final budgets.
“I would respect Mr. Zeldin more if he said, ‘Hey, I screwed up. I was a young state senator, I was trying to get a job in Congress and I voted with the party,’” Wilson said.
The wording of some of the questions on Newsmax differed sharply from the prior debates hosted by more moderate outlets, such as when Bolling asked the candidates about “Soros-backed” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. (All four candidates have said they will use their gubernatorial powers to oust Bragg for his policy of declining to prosecute certain low-level crimes.)
A spokesperson for Bragg did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Bolling also asked the candidates where they place themselves on a Republican scale “from (former Vice President Mike) Pence to Trump.” (Giuliani said Trump, Astorino noted he defended Trump as a CNN panelist, and Zeldin and Wilson largely did not directly respond to the question.)
But just as they did during the two previous debates, the candidates all said New York’s current abortion law – which allows the procedure at any point if the fetus is not viable or the life or health of the person is in danger – goes too far, though Wilson said he is “pro-choice” and had previously said he does not intend to seek changes to the law.
And they all spoke out against the state’s 2019 bail reforms, which prevented judges from requiring a defendant to post cash bail as a requirement of their pre-trial release on most misdemeanors and non-violent felony charges.
“No cash bail obviously is a big mistake and needs to be repealed, and it will be,” Astorino said.
Bolling also asked Giuliani about his father, who was Trump’s personal attorney at one point, and whether the younger Giuliani is trying to ride the elder’s coattails.
“I’m very proud of my name,” Andrew Giuliani said. “People would say, well, with the famous last name, it’s easy to run in politics. I would tell you with a name like Andrew” – as in, Cuomo – “it's very difficult to be the leading candidate for governor in a Republican primary.”