early and often

Hochul’s Democratic Challengers Leave Her Plenty of Middle Ground

Governor Kathy Hochul. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Thursday night, an event structured as a debate between New York’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates turned into a smart, passionate gripe session. The absence of Governor Kathy Hochul from the proceedings did not prevent her from being the main topic of conversation. Hochul had said she was too busy closing out the final hours of the legislative session to participate, but that did not stop the two candidates who made it, Representative Tom Suozzi and New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams, from arguing that she ought to be fired.

“Sixty-nine percent of New Yorkers say Kathy Hochul is failing on crime. Sixty-six percent say she’s failing on the economy and they don’t like her Buffalo Bills billion-dollar taxpayer giveaway,” said Suozzi in his opening statement. “Her lieutenant governor was arrested for bribery and corruption, and a mere 36 percent give her a passing grade on job approval. And yet, this unelected governor didn’t show up for our debate tonight. We can do better.”

Williams struck a similar tone when talking about how to revitalize the upstate economy.

“The Cuomo-Hochul administration has dumped money into things that would never have worked in the first place. We had the first Buffalo Billion. We’re now going on the second Buffalo Billion. We have a film studio in Syracuse that never produced the things that they said it was gonna produce,” he said. “Instead of dumping money into these big projects, instead of dumping into big corporations coming — what if we gave small businesses upstate and across the state the same tax incentives that we’re giving to these projects that never produce the things we want to produce?”

There are plenty of things that need improvement in New York. Forty percent of voters say the state is headed in the wrong direction, according to a recent poll. And about 39 percent say they are actively trying to move out of the state, or have considered doing so — including an astonishing 56 percent of Latino voters; 48 percent of Black voters; nearly 50 percent of voters age 18 to 24; and between 44 percent and 49 percent of voters in households earning between $75,000 and $150,000 a year.

Fundamental unhappiness in four key pillars of the Democratic base — Black, Latino, young and middle-class households — signals a problem for Dem incumbents like Hochul. But with less than three weeks to go before the June 28 primary, Suozzi and Williams have little time to waste in persuading voters to go in a new direction, and that’s easier said than done.

The two challengers were unfailingly polite and tossed softballs to each other on Thursday night, even in the cross-examination session where each candidate was allowed ask his rival a direct question. (Suozzi’s question to Williams: “How do you think Kathy Hochul is going as governor?”) The chumminess of the night didn’t necessarily help the candidates, though.

“I think they unintentionally and unwittingly established why Hochul is in a leading position in this primary,” says Bruce Gyory, a longtime Democratic political strategist and professor of political science.  “They talked past each other. They were attacking her, but the Suozzi wing of the party won’t buy into what Jumaane is saying, and vice versa.”

On public safety, for instance, Suozzi has been a critic of bail reform and has promised to use the governor’s power to remove progressive prosecutors like Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg if they don’t aggressively go after violent criminals. Williams, by contrast, is a longtime advocate for dialing back a police-first approach to public safety and investing in preventive measures like violence interrupters.

Democratic progressives and moderates have been tussling over the issue for a couple of years now. While Suozzi courts moderates who want to dial back bail reform and Williams fires up progressives who want to see more reform, Hochul can cater to the fat middle position of the Democratic Party, which is pro-reform and also strenuously anti-crime.

What sometimes seem to be capricious actions by Hochul, like her suddenly insisting on changes to bail reform in the closing days before this year’s budget deadline, are actually an attempt to find a middle position that commands support in a plurality of Democratic households.

Gyory predicts that Suozzi and Williams will have a tough time cutting into that wide base.

“To win as a Democrat, you have to have a broader wing span than either one of these guys have. Their inability to persuade the other side’s base means there’s a functional limitation on each of their ability to lead a broader Democratic coalition,” he told me. “You can’t win if you don’t get the voters Suozzi is speaking for. And you’re not also going to win in the general election unless you can motivate the base of the party that Jumaane comes from. The problem is each has not yet shown an ability to connect with the other side.”

Hochul’s Democratic Challengers Leave Her the Middle Ground