New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and her Republican opponent Rep. Lee Zeldin squared off on Tuesday night in their only scheduled debate, which saw the two candidates largely stick to their campaign talking points without any major gaffes.
The hour-long debate, hosted by Spectrum News and simulcast on WNYC, was held at Pace University exactly two weeks before Election Day and included questions on crime, inflation, abortion, and former President Donald Trump — topics that have dominated the campaign trail.
Hochul, the Democratic incumbent, painted Zeldin as a Trump-supporting, anti-abortion extremist who would be dangerous for New York state. The two candidates repeatedly confronted each other on their records, with Hochul telling Zeldin, “All you have is rhetoric. I have a record of getting things done.”
Zeldin, a congressman from Long Island, focused heavily on issues of safety, the economy, and corruption, accusing Hochul of having no clear plan to deal with violent crime and trying to distract voters by repeatedly invoking Trump’s name.
“If you’re tired of soaring crime, [district attorneys] that let violent criminals out on the street to roam free, crushing taxes, and skyrocketing costs, New Yorkers struggling to feed their families and heat their homes, the reality is for you? You deserve better,” Zeldin said.
Here’s a fact check of some of the claims Hochul and Zeldin made during the debate:
Kathy Hochul: “Lee, you can’t run from your record. You’re the only person standing on this stage whose name right now — not years in the past — is on a bill called Life Begins at Conception. You did that right now.”
Facts: This came during a portion of the debate focused on New York’s abortion laws and Zeldin’s anti-abortion record.
In 2021, Zeldin signed on as a co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act, a controversial bill that would declare the constitutional right to life begins at fertilization, which critics say would effectively outlaw abortion. He’s still listed as a co-sponsor now.
Zeldin also voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would make it a crime in most cases to provide an abortion to a woman more than 20 weeks from fertilization. It includes an exception for minors who are rape victims, as well as adult rape victims, so long as they receive counseling first.
But, with Zeldin facing a heavily Democratic electorate in New York, he has tried to soften his stance in recent weeks. He noted the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade didn’t change anything in New York, where the right to an abortion has been codified in state law since 2019.
“When we woke up the day after the Dobbs decision, the law in New York was exactly the same as it was the day before,” he told reporters in Albany earlier this month, referencing the case that overturned abortion rights on the federal level. “Nothing changed, and I’m not gonna change it.”
During the debate, Hochul took issue with Zeldin’s comment.
“You know why nothing changed the day after the Dobbs decision? Because I’m the governor, and he’s not,” she said.
Lee Zeldin: “My opponent has lost the trust of so many New Yorkers as they see all these stories with regards to the pay-to-play corruption. Someone hosts a fundraiser for (Hochul). And then just days later, she suspends, unilaterally, New York’s competitive bidding laws.”
Facts: Zeldin was referring to the Hochul administration’s decision to spend $637 million buying 52 million at-home COVID tests from a company known as Digital Gadgets — whose founder and CEO, Charlie Tebele, is a big Hochul campaign donor.
Tebele and his family contributed at least $290,000 to Hochul’s campaign, which includes more than $9,000 in “in-kind” contributions — money Tebele spent hosting fundraisers in November and April for the Democratic governor, according to the Times Union of Albany.
In late November — the same month Tebele hosted a Hochul fundraiser, and while COVID rates were rising sharply in New York — Hochul issued a state of emergency that suspended the state’s contracting rules for COVID-related purchases. That allowed her to begin buying test kits the next month without having to solicit bids from multiple companies. Her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had suspended similar rules as part of the sweeping emergency powers he claimed at the onset of the pandemic.
Hochul’s critics, including Zeldin, say her move was evidence of pay-to-play corruption.
The governor has repeatedly denied the accusation. She says the massive purchase was necessary, arguing she was launching a plan to provide huge amounts of test kits to students free of charge so they could safely return to school after the holiday break. Digital Gadgets was able to deliver, Hochul’s administration said.
“There is no pay-to-play corruption,” Hochul said during the debate. “A year ago, just over a year ago, we had a crisis where my responsibility was to protect children and get them back in schools when omicron hit. … I told my team: You go out and find every single test kit you can find.”
Hochul: “(Zeldin) helped (President Donald Trump) on Jan. 6 by supporting the overturning of an election. He sent text messages trying to orchestrate the ‘Big Lie.’”
Facts: The first part of Hochul’s quote is undeniable.
On Jan. 6, 2021 — hours after pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol — Lee Zeldin voted to object to the results of the 2020 presidential election in two states, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
After he cast his vote, Zeldin posted a video of his remarks on the House floor to Twitter with the caption: “In defense of our republic.”
In his Jan. 6 speech, Zeldin listed a variety of reasons why he was objecting to the vote certification, including a number of COVID-era voting rules that he claimed usurped the state constitution and laws in the two states. He also claimed more people voted in Pennsylvania than were on the voting rolls — a claim that had been debunked a week prior to Zeldin’s vote.
“Today’s debate is necessary, especially because of the insistence that everything President Trump and his supporters say about the 2020 election is ‘evidence-free,’” Zeldin said on the House floor, using finger quotes. “It’s simply not true.”
The second half of Hochul’s quote is based on a text message from Zeldin to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after the 2020 election. (The text was recently reported by journalist Hunter Walker.)
The text included two pieces of advice for the Trump White House. First, that the White House create a “narrowly focused” website to showcase “vetted voting irregularities (e.g. videos, etc)” and a “donation link” for Trump’s legal fund. Zeldin also recommended the Trump camp have one lead spokesperson holding a daily press conference that “credibly lays out the facts communicated in an effective way.”
“What my concern was, that I expressed, was that you should only be putting out confirmed, verified actual irregularities, because the problem was everything was getting mixed together,” Zeldin said during the debate. “But that was the very beginning of November before the race was even called.”
Lee Zeldin: “At the eleventh hour of a budget deal, (Hochul) slams (the Buffalo Bills stadium deal) in, she screws over the Seneca Nation and she puts the squeeze on legislators – no vetting, no debate.”
Facts: On March 28, with just three days before the state budget was due, Hochul’s administration agreed to a deal that will put taxpayers on the hook for $850 million for a new $1.4 billion football stadium for the Buffalo Bills, the governor’s hometown NFL team.
Of the total construction costs, the state will pick up $600 million, Erie County will take on $250 million, and the Bills (owned by the billionaire Pegula family) and NFL will pick up the rest. At the time the deal was announced, it was the largest public subsidy for a U.S. stadium, though it’s since been surpassed by a proposed football stadium in Nashville.
In addition, the state and county would also chip in about $400 million total for maintenance, repair and capital improvements over the length of a 30-year lease agreement — pushing the total public subsidies past $1.2 billion over three decades.
By early April, Hochul asked state lawmakers to formally approve the deal — which they did, despite resistance from New York City-area lawmakers, as part of a much broader, $220 billion state budget agreement that was several days late.
Here’s where the Seneca Nation of Indians comes into play: Two days before Hochul announced the Bills stadium deal, the state froze the Seneca Nation’s bank accounts. It was a successful attempt to force the nation to pay more than $500 million in casino revenues owed to the state, which had been at the center of a long-standing legal dispute.
Hochul then flagged that money for the new Bills stadium, which angered the Seneca Nation, whose president called it “ransom money for a new stadium.”
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