Republican Lee Zeldin Seeking Upset Win in Deep Blue New York
By Reuvain Borchardt
NEW YORK – Republican Lee Zeldin is running for governor, and this may be the best opportunity in years for the GOP to nab a win in a New York gubernatorial election.
“In any normal year and environment, this wouldn’t even be a close race; a Democrat would dominate,” one moderate Democratic insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Hamodia. “But in 2022, anything is possible.”
A poll commissioned by Republican consulting firm Big Dog Strategies and released earlier this month showed Zeldin, 42, a Jewish four-term U.S. Congressman from Suffolk County and the favorite to emerge from the Republican primary, within four points of incumbent Kathy Hochul, 63, who is expected to cruise to victory in the Democratic primary. A Zeldin internal poll released last month showed Zeldin actually leading Hochul by 1.5 points, with a 3.4% margin of error making the race a virtual dead heat.
Those polls showed starkly different results from two Zogby polls earlier in the year that showed Hochul leading Zeldin by double digits.
This in deep blue New York state, which has not had a Republican in statewide office since Gov. George Pataki chose not to run for a fourth term in 2006.
CRIME and BAIL
The leading issue in 2022, according to politicos on both sides of the aisle, is rising crime, particularly the controversy over New York’s 2019 bail reform. The reform, which eliminated cash bail for many crimes, was passed by a Democratic supermajority Legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in whose administration Hochul served as lieutenant governor until Cuomo resigned amid multiple scandals last summer.
“The issue that I hear about the most is that people don’t feel safe in New York,”
Zeldin told Hamodia in a Zoom interview last week Tuesday. “I believe that we need to repeal cashless bail, give judges discretion to weigh dangerousness and flight risk and past criminal record and seriousness of the offense and other factors on all offenses when setting bail.”
“I believe that we should be firing district attorneys like Alvin Bragg who refuse to enforce the law,” Zeldin says, referring to the Manhattan DA who has come under fire from conservatives and moderate Democrats for his progressive policies. “The governor has the constitutional authority to remove a district attorney who refuses to enforce the law.”
“We should be backing the blue, rejecting the ‘defund the police’ movement in its entirety, and passing a law enforcement Bill of Rights.”
As we spoke, Hochul was holding up passage of the New York state budget, at least partially due to her desire to include a rollback of the bail reform. But Zeldin slammed this move by the governor as too little, too late.
“The governor isn’t proposing to make a major overhaul of cashless bail. She’s proposing some tweaks — and that was her starting position. She wanted to give judges discretion on just a few offenses. And that was her opening salvo. She actually started off in such a weak position, and she didn’t propose these changes until just recently. Her executive budget didn’t propose any changes.”
“We were all stating the entire time that a major overhaul was needed. She waited until after she dropped the first puck at Madison Square Garden and got roasted out of the arena. She waited until the end of a week that had a poll that showed us a point-and-a-half ahead. That week also included public information about Andrew Cuomo seriously thinking about entering the race. So it was at the end of that particular week where she said that she wants to make some tweaks to it. And with an opening starting point that was too weak. So I’ve been very unimpressed with the entire strategy focus of this governor.”
Days after our interview, the state budget passed with some rollbacks of the bail reform, despite the protestations of progressive lawmakers. But Zeldin, in a statement, criticized these rollbacks as “toothless cosmetic alterations that will maintain the status quo of our streets and subways being ruled by criminals.”
Zeldin has also slammed Hochul’s pick for lieutenant governor, former New York state Sen. Brian Benjamin, a leftist Manhattanite who could help Hochul, an upstate moderate, appeal to the progressive wing of her party.
“Brian Benjamin wasn’t just a champion of the ‘defund the police’ movement,” Zeldin says. “He was the champion of the ‘defund the police’ movement in the state Senate.”
Zeldin, on the other hand, sent a message about his priorities by choosing as his running mate Alison Esposito, an NYPD deputy inspector with no political experience.
Asked about his choice, Zeldin responds, “Alison has a ton of experience and wisdom and passion. Extremely knowledgeable on the issues, she comes to the table fully equipped with solutions. She is someone who is able to hit the ground running on day one. She is somebody who you can tell has incredible work ethic. She’s deeply committed to saving the state.”
Zeldin adds, “I can’t wait to see the debate between Alison Esposito and Brian Benjamin talking about crime and public safety. It’s night and day.”
The BDS Movement
Zeldin has been among the foremost opponents in Congress of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which he says he would continue to fight as governor.
“I believe that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement is an antisemitic movement that should be crushed,” he says.
New York already has an executive order — first signed by Cuomo then continued by Hochul —that mandates the divestment of securities held by companies that engage in BDS. After Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company said last summer it would cease selling its products in Judea and Samaria, New York state pension funds announced it would divest stock of the brand’s parent company, the multinational conglomerate Unilever.
Asked by Hamodia whether he would go further and actually bar the state from purchasing the products of a company that engages in BDS — such as banning the purchase of Unilever soaps and shampoos from prisons and schools — Zeldin responds, “Yes, absolutely. That should be the law in New York.”
Benjamin is potentially facing indictment over a campaign-finance fraud. Cuomo (with whom Hochul reportedly had a cool and distant relationship) resigned amid many scandals. And Zeldin says Hochul cannot claim innocence.
“The governor is trying to follow her MO of being complicit or out to lunch whenever there’s a scandal. She never has any facts about anything when you ever asked her about any scandal ever. This was her MO during the Cuomo administration. And this is her MO today: she should take responsibility with the fact that this is her lieutenant governor pick.”
As for Cuomo’s misdeeds, Zeldin says Hochul is “responsible for being silent from scandal to scandal. She had nothing to say ever about any of it. That’s not leadership. She was actually calculating her own political selfish advancement, based off of not having anything to say about any scandal. And when Andrew Cuomo was covering up the deadly nursing home order, where was Kathy Hochul? When the administration was being investigated for providing COVID testing to family and friends at private residence, done by state health department officials and then the samples got moved to the front of the line, where was Kathy Hochul? When Andrew Cuomo was using the administration’s taxpayer funded staff to help write his over $5 million self-congratulatory book, where was Kathy Hochul? When all of these different individuals were stepping up with complaints about the governor because of the bullying, harassment, intimidation and abuse, where was Kathy Hochul? Was she complicit or was she out to lunch? She could choose. She has those two choices. There’s no third option. And she is responsible for being either complicit or out to lunch.”
Zeldin is also critical of Hochul for including in the budget $850 million of taxpayer funds for a new stadium for her hometown Buffalo Bills, arguing that the governor is “conflicted” because her husband is general counsel of the company that runs concessions at the team’s venue, and that taxpayers should not be on the hook for such large sums for a football stadium.
“I believe that the taxpayers have been hosed in not getting a substantially better deal,” Zeldin says. “Basically, the governor got rolled. And when the governor got rolled, that meant that the taxpayers and the state of New York got rolled.”
When supporters of Republican former President Donald Trump were contesting the results of the 2020 election, Zeldin objected to certification of the election in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Asked about that now, Zeldin says Biden is currently president and that he is “happy to work with” him, but he sidesteps a direct question about whether the election results were fair.
“I do believe that [Biden] was elected president,” Zeldin says. “My issues with the election is that state legislatures have the U.S. constitutional authority to set the administration of elections. And in the name of the pandemic, you had non-state legislative actors who, without getting legislative approval, were changing how the elections were administered.”
“As far as the reality right now, I am happy to work with the president, wherever we can find common ground to be able to move our country forward. That’s my job. That is something that I’m committed to. And I also believe that there are ways to improve election integrity going forward. But there are issues that I could cite in just about every election ever, and ideas that I would have on how to make elections better and stronger for the American people and for the process.”
Asked directly whether Biden was elected fairly or fraudulently, Zeldin responds, “I have never gotten into the whole ‘fraudulent’ thing. Those words have never come out of my mouth.”
Zeldin says that while he did object to the certifications in Pennsylvania and Arizona due to perceived irregularities there, Biden “won the 2020 election. It’s my job to work with him. And while some people in the media — obviously, present company excluded — are trying to rhetorically tie everybody up in knots, I think that the best thing for us is to communicate with each other as opposed to past each other.”
Pressed again to state directly whether he believes Biden’s victory was fair or fraudulent, Zeldin replies, “I just answered your question.”
Zeldin is a staunch opponent of COVID restrictions.
Asked whether there is any circumstance under which as governor, he would reinstate a lockdown and/or mask mandate and/or vaccine mandate, Zeldin replies with a flat, “No.”
And what if new variant comes which the vaccine is shown to be completely ineffective against, and positivity rates are soaring?
Zeldin replies, “What you’re seeing is that each variant that’s been coming out has been causing milder reactions than the past variant. And there are people who are asymptomatic, there are individuals who, they have natural immunity, we should be acknowledging that better. There are individuals who don’t have comorbidities, they’re at lower risk … There’s so much that hasn’t been taken into account. And the fact is that just because somebody is testing positive for COVID doesn’t mean that we should act ill-informed as if this is still February of 2020. The reality is, as you fast-forward to the spring of 2022, we know a lot more about it. Individuals are able to make their own decisions as to what they feel like they need to do behaviorally to protect themselves and their family. And I don’t believe that government and Kathy Hochul knows best … Kathy Hochul has called on New Yorkers to be her apostles to go get the COVID shot. And I don’t believe that public service is about being served by the public. It’s about serving the taxpayers, the residents of New York.
“So you look at the information. And I think the government has an important role to play, in putting out facts and data and science — not about whatever fits the narrative. Just give people the information so that they can make individual decisions based off of what they know. And they know … a lot more than they used to. And the variants, while contagious, are causing significantly milder reactions.”
“As someone who attended nursery school in a yeshiva in Brooklyn where my mother was a 4th grade teacher, I’ve personally had the opportunity to appreciate the high quality of a yeshiva education,” says Zeldin, who supports the school choice movement.
“As the father of two daughters currently in high school, my bias will always be towards empowering parents and making decisions that are in the best interests of students first and foremost. And I believe parents, not Albany bureaucrats, should shape their child’s education. So I support tuition tax credits, vouchers, and education savings accounts to give parents true school choice.”
And for those who choose to send their children to yeshivas or other private schools, the New York State Education Department is currently seeking to enact oversight over the secular-studies curriculum by defining what constitutes the legally mandated standard of an education “substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools. But Zeldin says he supports parents and schools’ independence in setting a curriculum.
“I am all in to defend parents, to defend students, to defend yeshivas that are providing a quality education. Government wants to get more involved in what is an outstanding quality education. [But] you shouldn’t at all break something that is working extremely well,” he says, criticizing “bureaucrats in Albany, who, whether they’re bored or they have ulterior motives, are choosing to sabotage what is an outstanding, quality education.”
While Zeldin says the government has “an oversight role” in “making sure that a minimum standard of … education is provided,” he believes government’s current attempt to define a “substantially equivalent” education is “a really bad idea.”
Zeldin also criticized the recently proposed regulations for allowing anyone — even if they are not a student or parent — to trigger an investigation of school by filing a complaint.
“Why allow virtually anyone to act as an aggrieved party in a complaint with the state, even if they don’t have any connection to the school in question? “ Zeldin says. “It suggests that the Orthodox community continues to serve as a favorite target for Albany Democrats; whether the redzoning of Orthodox neighborhoods during COVID, closing shuls but allowing casinos to remain open, or unfairly singling out yeshivas for regulation. This all ends in a Zeldin-Esposito administration.”
However, the Republican says, he would intercede if he saw schools promoting liberal ideologies, or social issues that he deems non-age appropriate.
“If the curriculum is something like critical race theory, where you’re pitting a student against another student based on race, I believe that that’s wrong and government has to intervene. If you’re insisting that a two-year old must receive … classes on material that wouldn’t be age-appropriate for many more years, and you’re not getting parental buy-in and approval, government has an important role to get involved. But there should be an extremely wide amount of bandwidth given to schools to be able to do what they do best to provide a quality education.”
“If there was a school that was out there pushing antisemitism on students, if there was a student in the classroom getting a lower grade on their essay because they took the anti-BDS position instead of taking the pro-BDS position, there is a role for government oversight, especially when you’re using taxpayer funding.”
A WINNING COALTION?
Just four years after winning a super-majority in the Legislature, Democrats may be vulnerable in the deep-blue Empire State.
In 2021, the GOP flipped the Nassau County executive seat, the Nassau and Suffolk district attorney seats, as well as two New York City Council seats. The same election also saw Republicans flip the Virginia gubernatorial seat, and saw the Democrats hold onto the governorship of New Jersey by a margin closer than polls had predicted.
Democrats who spoke with Hamodia believe that Zeldin may actually accomplish what until recently many believed was unthinkable.
“The fact that I even have to entertain the notion of a Republican winning the gubernatorial election is a testament to how much the left wing has damaged our party,” says the anonymous moderate Democratic insider cited earlier.
But the insider is hopeful that the recently passed budget will improve Democratic chances.
“The bail-reform rollbacks, gas-tax suspension and child-care funding shows that the governor knows where the mainstream voter is, and that the governor has realized that pandering to the left is a losing proposition and not a way to govern.”
Hank Sheinkopf, a moderate Democrat and veteran political strategist, told Hamodia, “If the election were held today, Zeldin has a real possibility of winning. The crime issue is real. If the governor can solve it between now and November, she can win the race. But if not, it’s going to be a much tougher race for her.”
Sheinkopf says he is unsurprised that his party may lose the governorship.
“When you have one-party control, you tend to have factionalization. So it’s not surprising that the Democrats have factionalized into the extreme left and the center. But the Republicans are not factionalizing the same way. New York Republicans have always been different than the rest of the country’s Republicans. They tend to be not as radical, not as right-wing, fiscally conservative, but more able to work with traditional interests that run New York State, like labor unions, trial lawyers and hospital associations. The Republicans are not by any measure as extreme as the Democrats would like to make them out to be, in New York state.”
Therefore, Sheinkopf believes a coalition of all Republicans plus moderate Democrats and independents could come together to give the governorship to the GOP.
“That’s where crime tends to fit in,” Sheinkopf says. “It’s right in that sweet spot where that coalition would work.”
Sheinkopf notes that crime is not only increasing in New York City, but also in upstate cities, potentially adding to Hochul’s vulnerability on her home turf.
“But she’s no pushover,” Sheinkopf says of Hochul, who rose from the town board of Hamburg, N.Y., to the Erie County clerk, to the U.S. Congress, and now the highest elected statewide office in New York. “This woman is a tough cookie, and nobody should undersell her.”
And her opponent says there is nothing he takes for granted – or writes off.
“In my previous races, I understood how important it was to show up and earn a community’s support, even in traditionally Democrat-leaning communities that Republicans had stopped campaigning in,” Zeldin says.
“Running for governor, I’m taking that same approach. In the first six months after entering the race in April 2021, I campaigned in each of New York’s 62 counties at least twice, most of them many more times than that. The issues I hear about are very similar all across New York from voters of all walks of life. Every day, I hear about the attacks on New Yorkers’ safety, wallets, freedoms, and kids’ education.
“Now, these issues can mean something different to different people. In Rochester, the murder rate is amongst the highest in the nation. Meanwhile, the Jewish community is experiencing antisemitic violence we haven’t seen since the early 90s. We’re all suffering from the lawlessness of Kathy Hochul’s New York.”
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