New York governor primary: What we learned in the final Democratic debate

New York governor primary: What we learned in the final Democratic debate

It was a little more than halfway through the final New York Democratic gubernatorial debate Thursday night, and Tom Suozzi was trying to get Gov. Kathy Hochul’s attention.

Suozzi, a congressman from Long Island, wasn’t pleased Hochul claimed he supported Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. So he tried to get her to look at him as he responded from two lectures away.

“Governor, you know… governor… governor… governor,” Suozzi said, pausing between each word. “You know that’s not true.”

Hochul barely glanced in his direction.

The tense exchange was the most outward display of the candidates’ strategies, with Hochul largely declining to directly engage with her primary opponents – Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams – as they criticized her record on guns, the Buffalo Bills stadium deal, climate change and other topics.

NBC New York, Telemundo 47 and the Times Union of Albany co-hosted the debate at a studio in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. It was the second debate featuring the three Democratic candidates ahead of the June 28th primary. Hochul declined to participate in the first debate.

The moderators started by asking each candidate for a 30-second “elevator pitch” to a specific type of New Yorker, with NBC New York reporter Melissa Russo asking Suozzi to respond to a parent worried about their financial situation as the price of gas and goods .

Suozzi spoke of the need for quality elected officials during an affordability crisis, before retreating to his campaign themes.

“I’m a proven executive who knows how to get things done in government,” he said. “I’m a common-sense Democrat. I’m not going to pan to the left. I’m not going to back down to the right.”

Times Union Editor Casey Seiler asked Hochul to frame her response to a salon owner in Midtown who worries about the future of their business when they heard the governor suggest office workers aren’t coming back post-pandemic.

“I tell her as I’ve told so many New Yorkers, don’t bet against New York,” she said. “We’ve been down before. We’ve always come back stronger.”

Hochul added, “I didn’t say they’re not coming back. I want them to come back. They may not be back five days a week, but we want them back three or four days.”

Telemundo’s Allan Villafaña asked Williams, who is challenging Hochul from her left, to speak to someone considering leaving the state because of high taxes and crime.

“I’m asking New Yorkers to move in a new direction to have a new start coming out of this pandemic, to hire a new governor,” Williams said.

Suozzi in particular took a more aggressive tact with Hochul than with last week’s debate on WCBS-TV, again criticizing her for her prior support from the National Rifle Association when she represented western New York in Congress a decade ago.

“[Hochul] voted with the NRA, was endorsed by the NRA and took money from the NRA. She says she’s evolved. She didn’t evolve after Columbine. She didn’t evolve after Virginia Tech,” Suozzi said, referring to the 2007 mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus that killed 32 people.

Hochul started to respond to Suozzi’s “attacks.” Suozzi then spoke over Hochul, taking issue with her characterizing his criticism as an attack.

“Please stop interrupting me,” Hochul said as Suozzi spoke. “The people want to hear my answer.

Hochul’s evolution on guns – she recently signed a suite of 10 gun-control bills into law – was a point of criticism from Williams, too. He took issue with Hochul and other politicians focusing too much on mass shootings and not enough on everyday street violence in the Bronx or elsewhere.

When Williams spoke of Hochul’s past positions on guns, Russo jumped in and asked about Williams’ own evolution on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Williams took issue with the idea that he had an “evolution” on abortion. But he said his situation is different from Hochul’s.

“There’s a difference between saying something wrong – and working always like I did to make sure that the LGBT community had the rights they need and making sure that women and pregnant people had abortion rights – and actively working against New Yorkers, actively working for the NRA,” Williams said.

Hochul allowed for two opportunities to directly knock Suozzi. The first came with the exchange over the Florida law, which prohibits teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation and gender identity.

She accused Suozzi of supporting that law, a reference to Suozzi’s prior comments that some parts of the law were “reasonable” and “common sense.” Suozzi later said he opposes the law “full stop” and that his prior comments were “inartful.”

The second came when Hochul brought up an ongoing investigation by the House Ethics Committee into whether Suozzi properly disclosed his stock transactions, which Suozzi has characterized as a “paperwork issue.”

Toward the end of the debate, the candidates were asked a handful of more lighthearted questions, including one that has perplexed New Yorkers for generations: Where is the dividing line for upstate and downstate New York?

Suozzi said upstate is anything north of Rockland and Putnam counties. Hochul said it’s Westchester County’s northern border. And Williams joked that upstate is a “direction” – claiming someone in Brooklyn would consider the Bronx upstate – before giving his real answer: Anything north of Poughkeepsie.

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