The Republican debate for New York governor began at 7 p.m. sharp. Two minutes later, the candidates were on the attack.
“Now, Never Trumper Harry Wilson over here, refused to vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 election,” Rep. Lee Zeldin said at 7:02 pm
So went Tuesday’s GOP debate hosted by WCBS-TV, which featured three in-person candidates – Zeldin, Wilson and Rob Astorino – levying repeated and direct criticism at one another while the fourth, Andrew Giuliani, tried to stay above the fray.
Giuliani’s performance stood out for another reason, too. He debated remotely from a separate studio in Manhattan, with his face appearing in a monitor above a lectern. Giuliani was barred from entering the CBS Broadcast Center because he is unvaccinated against COVID-19.
“Sounds like I’m missing some fireworks over there,” he said as Zeldin and Wilson lobbed attacks at each other.
The four Republican candidates are battling for the right to represent their party in the 2022 election, making their case to voters. gov. Kathy Hochul is facing off in a Democratic primary against Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
Throughout the course of an hour, moderators Maurice DuBois and Marcia Kramer asked the GOP candidates their thoughts on a range of issues, from abortion policy to the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol to their favorite smell.
Trump question leads to immediate fireworks
DuBois kicked off the debate with a question about former President Donald Trump: Did he play any role in the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol? And should he run for president again in 2024?
Giuliani is a former Trump aide whose father, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, served as one of Trump’s attorneys during his effort to overturn the result of the 2020 election. Andrew Giuliani said Trump was a “great president” and that he’s “hopeful” Trump will run again.
Then the fireworks started.
Zeldin, a Trump ally, almost immediately launched into his attack on Wilson, a business turnaround expert who didn’t vote for the Republican standard bearer in 2020. Zeldin went on to repeat the phrase “Never Trumper Harry Wilson” more than a half- dozen times throughout the night. (Wilson claims he wrote in the name of Nikki Haley for president.)
“I believe that we’re battling for the heart and soul of our country,” Zeldin said. “And it’s not just the Democrats, but it’s the [Republicans In Name Only] like Harry Wilson who are out there, making sure that we have this moment in time with one-party Democratic rule in Washington, DC”
Wilson, who is self-funding his campaign with loans of $10 million so far, offered a quick retort. He touted his conservative credentials – his daughter’s middle name is “Reagan,” he said, in honor of President Ronald Reagan – while punching back at Zeldin.
“Mr. Zeldin is going to go on to a series of attacks,” Wilson said. “You saw it even before I had a chance to speak, just like he started attacking me before I ran my campaign. It’s because he’s scared because he’s a broken candidate.”
Then came Astorino, the former Westchester County executive.
“I do think [Trump] bears some responsibility, but I think most people would say, look, we have to move on here,” he said.
But Astorino quickly pivoted to an attack on Zeldin, faulting the congressman for being a “reliable vote for Andrew Cuomo” during the congressman’s tenure in the state Senate.
Zeldin countered. He said he supported the Republicans who ran against Cuomo in each of the former governor’s three elections – including Astorino, who was the GOP candidate for governor and lost to Cuomo in 2014.
That led Zeldin to bust out another Trumpian nickname: “Rolex Rob,” a reference to a Rolex watch Astorino forfeited to the FBI as part of a bribery investigation in 2016. Astorino was never charged.
“What’s really ironic is that Rolex Rob, I actually supported him,” Zeldin said. “I brought him into my area. I helped introduce him to voters.”
Gun-free zones ‘don’t work,’ Zeldin and Astorino say
Kramer asked the candidates about the pending US Supreme Court decision on New York’s law restricting concealed carry permits, which could make it significantly easier to obtain a permit to legally carry a concealed firearm in public.
Specifically, Kramer asked if there are public areas that should be off limits to firearms – such as schools or the subways.
Both Astorino and Zeldin said gun-free zones “don’t work.”
Zeldin said New York should become a “shall carry” state, not a “may carry” state – which is at the crux of the US Supreme Court case. He touted his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
“We have the strictest gun control laws in the entire country,” Astorino said of New York’s laws. “They’ve gone too far as it is, and they target law-abiding citizens.”
Both Giuliani and Astorino called for the return of two controversial forms of policing: broken windows – which, as used by Rudy Giuliani as mayor, calls for the aggressive enforcement of minor crimes – and stop and frisk.
In both cases, opponents say those policing strategies led to widespread and systematic discrimination against people of color who were disproportionately affected.
Giuliani said he would look to expand both tactics statewide.
“We need to utilize these programs [in] New York City specifically and that we can do for the state,” he said.
Kramer asked him: “Are you saying we should go back to the programs that your father instituted: Broken Windows and stop, question and frisk?”
“Yes I am, Marcia,” Giuliani responded. “Clearly.”
Three candidates in person, with Giuliani remotely
Early on in the debate – with Zeldin, Astorino and Wilson engaged in a tense, three-way argument – Giuliani was shown on the side of the screen, grinning from ear to ear.
You wouldn’t have known Giuliani wasn’t in the room. His backdrop was made to look like the other three candidates’. And the tight shots on the split screen made them all look identical.