We bring a lot into the voting booth. Our experiences, the roles we play, our identities, what gives us hope and what makes us afraid. In the New York governor’s race, the candidates are playing on our fears — in this moment.
So what is this moment?
For the incumbent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, it’s about losing access to reproductive healthcare and the ability to access an abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this past summer. At a rally at Barnard College on Thursday night she reminded the crowd, made up largely of women, that she would protect abortion rights and offered a stinging rebuke of her opponent's position.
"I've heard my opponent say, 'Oh don't worry. The day after the Dobbs decision, nothing changed in the state of New York, so don't worry.' You know why nothing changed in the state of New York? Because I'm the governor," she warned.
For Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, the issue is crime.
"There are many people across this state who will share stories like two Mexican cartel drug smugglers busted with $1.2 million worth of crystal meth and instantly released on cashless bail," he said pledging to declare a “crime emergency” on day one.
Mara Gay, a member of The New York Times editorial board, joined me to talk about what’s at stake in this election. She’s written about the housing crisis, criminal justice and politics with a focus on New York state and local affairs. She also interviewed both gubernatorial candidates for The Times endorsement process. Before joining The Times, Mara was a New York politics reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.
Here are excerpts from that conversation edited for clarity and readability.
Brigid Bergin: I want to focus on the governor's race. It's literally at the top of the ticket here in New York. The Times endorsed Hochul, who entered the race with a huge lead, but polls really have showed it tightened up. Why do you think that has happened?
Mara Gay: Yeah, it's fascinating, unusual, alarming to many Democrats and others. I think there's a perfect storm afoot in New York, which is of course not removed from talk of a red wave election throughout the country. But this is unusual. It's a blue state, right? My theory is basically that we have tremendous upheaval in New York state. Tens of thousands of deaths from the pandemic. Others who are sick or were sick. People are very angry; their lives have just been disrupted, and so we have a perfect storm for Democrats that I see in which people are filled with malaise about the state of affairs. And then you have a very motivated though minority of Republicans who are very eager to get to the polls and to essentially, I think, punish Democrats and the people who they believe they represent. I think people are very angry. They're grieving and they feel a lot of economic insecurity. Some insecurity as well about rising crime. But I don't think that we're too divorced in the Republican Party. Republicans in New York, I think, are just as motivated as Republicans in Florida by the same forces of Trumpism.
One of the things I think we do hear a lot is some criticism for Hochul about how she's run her campaign. It's been over the fundraising, she's raised boatloads of money; was up on TV, but some folks have said she wasn't really on the ground early enough. More like an incumbent's campaign, but for someone who's not really a traditional incumbent, obviously. She's certainly barnstorming her way across the state at this point. You and I have both covered a lot of campaigns. How much of that critique do you think is valid?
I think it's very difficult because one piece of context that really is different in New York is that the Democratic Party in New York is really not set up to win and run competitive general elections. In fact, its voting system, its election system is in many ways still a relic of party machine politics. And so it's actually set up not to turn out voters, because it's set up to protect incumbents. So that certainly seeps over into the Democratic party itself, which dominates the state and has not really had to focus on a general election statewide in about 20 years that's been seriously competitive.
I think Hochul is really suffering from that. The Democratic Party is suffering from that. People I know who wanted to go out and do canvassing for Democrats, they kept reaching out to the Democratic Party of New York and not hearing back about where they needed to be and where they should go because New York Democrats are not used to this level of competition in a November election. On top of this, Hochul is new to this role.
The idea that there are people who are literally offering to help here in New York and can't find a way to plug is a pretty stunning assessment.
I want to focus on this one particular point and that is Hochul as a woman candidate. Hochul is running to try to make history. She's already made history. She's already the governor of New York, but now she is seeking to be elected the governor of New York and to be the first woman elected to that position. Do you hear any of the echoes from Christine Quinn's mayoral campaign in 2013 or Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, a kind of gendered scrutiny about whether a woman can really do this?
I do. It feels different to me simply because I believe that a lot of what is driving the Republican Party right now is Trumpism and just from putting your politics hat on and kind of an academic perspective, so much of Trumpism I believe is actually about masculinity and what that should look like and about power and kind of restoring what people who follow that movement see as a very right wing version of Christianity and masculinity and imposing that upon America.
So, not to get too deep here, but I actually think that Hochul is really suffering as a female candidate for governor simply because that's kind of turbo-charging the opposition against her. Not only from the Republican Party in New York state, but also from people who are swayed by that kind of return to a more traditional American way of life. I think she's up against that headwind for sure.
I just don't see the Republican Party in New York as really any different than the Republican Party and how radical it's become elsewhere in the country. I think for New Yorkers that is the real surprise here; that New York Republicans are just as radical at this point in our history as a Republican in Mississippi. And I think that for independents, for moderate Republicans and for Democrats who certainly outnumber everyone in the state of New York, that has been shocking.
This is the first general election since Roe was overturned and certainly Hochul has been talking about how she will protect abortion. I'm wondering to what extent you feel like that message has really broken through and, and how persuasive it is.
I think it's heartbreaking as a woman, of course, that this isn't a bigger issue; that abortion rights doesn't seem as salient as Democrats thought it would be with voters. I believe that when you do look at the polls though, nationally, you see that among Democratic voters protecting democracy is often the top issue that is animating Democratic voters. And then Roe is not far from that. I actually see them as very related. So I think most people in America who are concerned about abortion rights are also concerned about democracy. They see it as about protecting freedoms, and they see the Republican Party in 2022 as encroaching on those freedoms. So I’m actually not quite as despondent about that issue being important to voters. I just think it's very much related for Democratic voters with the threats to democracy that they see. I might be a little bit more optimistic than others about that. I think Democratic voters know exactly what is at stake on the ballot, and it's not just abortion rights. It is equality and they see that and are expressing that I believe in their concerns about democracy itself.
Yesterday, President Clinton was on the stump for Hochul in Brooklyn, and he said this about getting out the vote: "You've got a few days where you can go out and talk to everybody that lives in this borough, this is the biggest Democratic county in the United States of the world."
What do you think Hochul's path to victory is? Does it run through Brooklyn?
It absolutely does. It runs through Brooklyn. If prime voters in vote-rich areas like Park Slope, like the Upper West Side, like Southern and mid-Westchester — if those prime Democratic voters don't show up in great enough numbers, we will be talking about Governor Lee Zeldin.
And the campaign for Kathy Hochul knows that Democrats know that. And the editorial board [at] The New York Times upon which I sit, we endorsed Kathy Hochul and we hope that Democratic voters know that this is not a state ... where voters are used to every vote counting. Often you feel like your vote doesn't matter, even though it does. But this is an election in which really the Democrats need to turn out every single vote they can in populous areas of New York City and its close suburbs or Lee Zeldin will win. The math is pretty clear. So Kathy Hochul needs to run up those vote totals in Southern New York, especially because Long Island has been becoming increasingly Republican. So with Lee Zeldin being from Long Island, it really doesn't look good there for Democrats.
I wanna spend a moment on your interview with Congressman Lee Zeldin as part of that endorsement process. One of your questions to him was about his critique of bail reform, something he talks about a lot. Why did you decide to start there?
Well, Congressman Zeldin has, of course, focused his campaign largely around the issue of crime. So we really wanted to press him on bail reform. He has made very clear that he intends not only to push for the reversal of the state's 2019 bail reforms and introduce a standard of "dangerousness" when setting bail, but also that he would remove the duly elected, district attorney of Manhattan, Alvin Bragg the first Black man to hold that role on day one. That's what his first move would be as governor. Part of the reason that I wanted to ask him about it was that there's actually no evidence that reversing bail reform would make the state any safer. So we were very unsatisfied with his answers.
Of course, we wanna be clear that crime is of course a real concern. I live in New York City; I'm concerned about public safety, but simply arguing for a reversal of bail reform does not make a public safety plan and so I think it's really important that we think more strategically about how to drive down crime in New York. And that's going to include things, for example, like getting more riders back on the subway, social programs, attacking homelessness, making sure that young people have jobs. And that is not of interest to Congressman Zeldin. What's of interest appears to be fear mongering.
I want pick up on the thread about his frequent comment that he will fire Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on day one; the first African American elected to that office. He constantly says he wants to turn to him and say, "You're fired," which sounds a lot to me like he's ripping Trump off and his signature line from "The Apprentice," but, you know, I also reported that that's not actually how the law works. What else do you hear baked into that critique?
I feel personally like it is directly from the Willie Horton playbook. I think it's a fear mongering tactic. And frankly, I think if it were a serious public safety policy, then you might expect to see voters in Manhattan, and Black voters in particular, rallying around Lee Zeldin's campaign since they are the ones who elected that district attorney and are most impacted by the crime that the congressman is talking about, but yet you don't see that.
In just our last couple of minutes, we talked about Hochul's path to victory, what would be Zeldin's path to victory? And what are some of the down ballot implications that you might see for New York's Congressional or state legislative candidates if he has a lot of momentum?
The path for Lee Zeldin is that Republicans in New York are extremely motivated. They are really riled up. You see that in the numbers that show up at his campaign rallies. They are fired up and ready to go. Then on top of that, he would really have to win some portion of voters in New York City.
His campaign has been quite open about that and that could come from any number of places. But he would have to kind of depress turnout for Democrats in downstate, including in New York City. And he would have to win really big on Long Island, additionally. And then of course, down ballot, I think you're gonna see that if Democrats, prime Democrats and others aren't showing up to the polls, it's going to be even harder. I mean, Kathy Hochul could eke out a victory. But you could still see Democrats down ballot suffering by lack of turnout on the Democratic side.
I mean, one headwind that Kathy Hochul and the other Democrats are facing this year is that it has been a really hard few years in New York and the Democratic Party has not delivered fully yet on some of the issues that are of prime importance specifically on housing, which is a huge issue in the state, across the state. And so, even though I believe this year the Democrats have the best policies to address that they still haven't fully delivered, and so there's a lot of anger out there, and there's also just a lot of kind of just malaise and exhaustion among Democratic voters in the state. That's all going to work to Lee Zeldin's favor.