The three leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates for the June primary will appear together for the first time Tuesday night in the second of three televised debates.
The first debate took place last Thursday without Gov. Kathy Hochul — a mainline Democrat and perceived front-runner in the race — who skipped it to monitor the end of the legislative session in Albany, according to campaign spokesperson Jen Goodman. This left her two opponents — progressive New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and centrist Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island — to lay out their vision for New York.
Both are considered largely underdog candidates compared to Hochul, whose $30 million campaign war chest, coupled with key endorsements and positive polling numbers by Siena College and Zogby, make her a formidable opponent.
Her campaign hasn’t been a smooth ride. Hochul’s first lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, was charged in a bribery scheme, forcing his resignation and losing a critical element to her campaign strategy.
HOW TO WATCH
- You can tune into this evening’s debate on either WCBS-TV (Channel 2) at 7 p.m.
- You can stream the entire event here.
- To tune in to WCBS 880 AM at 7 p.m. to hear it
HERE ARE THE CANDIDATES
Gov. Kathy Hochul: New York’s first female governor, Hochul presided as the state’s lieutenant governor for more than six years until August 2021, when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace. Prior to being elected lieutenant governor, Hochul served in the U.S. House of Representatives after winning a special election in 2011. She represented the then-26th Congressional District covering the northern end of the state, including her home city of Buffalo, beating expectations she would lose in a heavily Republican district.
Hochul is largely considered a middle-of-the-road Democrat with strong views on reproductive rights and now gun reform, a position that’s evolved over the last decade. In 2012, Hochul received an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association for fast-tracking the permit application process as Erie County Clerk and pushing to expand access to hunting grounds for gun owners as a member of Congress.
As governor, Hochul saw the passage of a $220 billion spending budget that includes a $600 million taxpayer-funded subsidy for the construction of a new $1.4 billion Buffalo Bills stadium and modifications to bail reform.
NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams: A self-described “activist elected official” who once served on the New York City Council for a Brooklyn district, Williams has been in public office for 12 years, dominating the progressive lane.
His platform for a more equitable state led to a run for lieutenant governor in 2018 when, ironically, he lost to Hochul by a relatively slim margin. Williams’ political ambitions didn’t subside, leveraging his progressive platform to win the public advocate seat in 2019 through a special election. In his role as public advocate, Williams claims to have passed 70 Council bills during his tenure as public advocate, passing bills that include increased training for construction workers, the right to record police officers and including racial impact statements to rezoning efforts.
His gubernatorial platform seeks to create “affordable housing, good-paying jobs, and guaranteed quality health care.” His platform has earned the support of the Working Families Party, which endorsed him.
Rep. Tom Suozzi: Considered a centrist Democrat who previously ran for governor in 2006, Suozzi has been a mainstay in Long Island politics, serving as mayor of Glen Cove, followed by Nassau County county executive and now congressman representing the 3rd Congressional District. As per state rules, Suozzi was forced to relinquish his congressional seat to run for governor.
Suozzi has largely framed his campaign around kitchen-table issues such as lowering taxes as a way of keeping New Yorkers from leaving. Borrowing from Mayor Eric Adams’ campaign from last year, Suozzi has also leaned in on a pledge to tamp down crime across the state, notably in New York City. He’s also been pushing for greater enforcement of the state’s Red Flag Law, which prevents individuals from obtaining a gun if they’re considered a danger to themselves or others. He’s railed against bail reform while also calling for the removal of progressive Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
A full rundown of the candidates and where they stand on the issues can be found here.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
Hochul will likely bear the brunt of any broadside
Tuesday’s debate will mark the first time Hochul joins the debate stage with Williams and Suozzi, who each took part in the gubernatorial debate hosted by Spectrum News/NY1, arguably giving them an advantage in sharpening their attacks on Hochul.
And with a massive campaign fortune and prominent endorsements, Hochul is likely to bear the brunt of the attacks during the debate, according to David Birdsell, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Kean University. Suozzi and Williams haven’t generated the kind of momentum each candidate sought to build, given the paltry fundraising sums and few endorsements, opening the door for creating a defining moment.
“This is going to be almost entirely consumed with attacks on Kathy Hochul,” Birdsell said. “That she is either, on the one hand, not progressive enough, not sufficiently representative of underrepresented communities in New York [...] And on the other hand you’re going to have Tom Suozzi making arguments that she is insufficiently inattentive to public safety.”
Bruce Gyory, a political strategist, said he expects Hochul will bear much of the attacks, raising the question of how poised she’ll be absorbing those broadsides.
This is going to be almost entirely consumed with attacks on Kathy Hochul.
“And then the question is how does she handle those attacks?” said Gyory. “If it comes across that it is these guys, particularly Suozzi who is coming across as angrily attacking her and she comes across as having a rationale, then she’ll come out looking well.”
Gyory noted that should Hochul lack answers to tough questions from her opponents, or completely wilts, “that can hurt her.”
The gloves will come off, but male candidates will might temper their attacks
For the first time in state gubernatorial history, male candidates will be taking on a sitting female governor. This means any attack by Suozzi or Williams against Hochul will have to be measured, according to Fordham University political science professor Dr. Christina Greer.
“To debate a female candidate is a different finesse,” Greer, host of the FAQNYC political podcast, said. “Tom Suozzi can’t be seen as too aggressive because he’s running to his right of her. So I think we’ll see, hopefully, substantive attacks without people attacking.”
The balance will be placed more on the men, Birdsell said, who will have to criticize without appearing to “mansplain to a sitting governor.”
To debate a female candidate is a different finesse.
“To a certain extent, Tom Suozzi, has adopted a tone without her in the room, which is arguably condescending – that she doesn’t have the experience that he believes to lead the state effectively, that she doesn’t understand issues in government, and it would be very easy for him, it seems to me if that’s the tone, both in terms of his word choice and in terms of his manner, that he adopts in this debate that can be very badly alienating for women in the audience,” Birdsell said.
But that doesn’t mean Hochul will be given a pass. Greer also noted that while eyes will be on the tenor of Suozzi and Williams, Hochul’s demeanor will also be scrutinized.
“Oftentimes sitting electeds don’t want to do these things because they feel they’re sometimes beneath them,” Greer said, adding she’ll be watching for her tenor.
Will a breakout moment turn things around for Suozzi or Williams?
It’s decidedly clear Suozzi and Williams have struggled to gain momentum as illustrated by lackluster campaign fundraising figures. So the debate opens the door for Suozzi and Williams to come out swinging against Hochul.
But even if the two manage to take advantage of a breakout moment, Gyory says it’s highly unlikely that will turn around their campaigns.
“Gubernatorial debates have rarely had breakout moments,” Gyory said. “These sorts of debates are not given to the breakout moment. And if they come it’s more likely to come from someone making a mistake than from someone saying, ‘Oh my God, this is the second coming of Daniel Webster.’”
It’s unclear whether standout moments wI’ll peel away many votes from Hochul, according to Gyory. While Williams has carved a lane in the progressive voting bloc, and Suozzi garnered the centrist bloc, Gyory notes Hochul’s managed to attract both ends of the spectrum.
“If you look at the polling data she’s well regarded across the broad cross-section of the Democratic coalition and none of the other two can do that,” Gyory said. “Jumaane doesn’t have strength in the suburbs, and upstate, or amongst older white ethnic voters. Suozzi has no apparent strength amongst the important constellation of voters of color and he doesn’t appear to be anywhere upstate or in New York City. Hochul is the only one who seems to have built bridges to all areas of the state.”
Hank Sheinkopf, another Democratic strategist, agreed that a breakout moment won’t really save Suozzi’s or Williams’ campaign, pointing to Hochul’s greatest advantage.
“It’s almost impossible to defeat an incumbent governor in the primary,” Sheinkopf said.
He was a little more blunt when describing Williams’ chances of securing the Democratic nomination.
“Jumaane Williams ought to stay home because he’s really not in the race,” Sheinkopf said.
It’s almost impossible to defeat an incumbent governor in the primary.
Buffalo Bills, public safety and pandemic will be key debate topics
While political experts agreed this is Hochul’s race to lose, how to manage the state’s issues will remain at the center of this debate for the candidates.
And if the first debate is seen as a primer to subsequent verbal jousts, public safety and abortion will be among topics raised, according to experts.
“I think crime and economy are absolutely the key go-to issues,” Birdsell said. “In some respects, COVID, yes, but at this stage I don’t expect anybody to be debating heavily to COVID policy simply because we’ve learned, or at least we should’ve learned by this point, the virus is immune to our best planning.”
Sheinkopf stipulates public safety will be an issue aggressively touched on, with Hochul touting her record on the issue.
“She’ll talk about what she’s done, but frankly most of what she’s done doesn’t bear careful analysis because it’s already been in place. We have the toughest gun control laws in the country right now, in New York City and New York state,” Sheinkopf said. “But she doesn’t have to do that. All she’s got to do is keep the guys at bay at a time of the attempt to stop abortion in this country. And as a woman she immediately gets the advantage. And as an incumbent she gets an advantage.”
But if there was one surefire point that will likely be raised by Suozzi and Williams is Hochul’s decision to lobby for a $600 million public subsidy for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, the biggest public subsidy ever provided for an NFL team (Erie County earmarked an additional $250 million to the stadium deal). Both candidates charged that Hochul prioritized this earmark over more critical projects for the state.
Suozzi’s criticism over the Bills deal goes back to when the deal was cut.
“Couldn’t there at least be a debate about it? Couldn’t there have been a public hearing? Did it have to be that it was negotiated in secret and then done four days before the budget?” Suozzi said on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC in April.
Correction: A previous quote from Sheinkopf was misattributed. It has been updated.