The four Republican candidates for governor lashed out at Albany Democrats and unelected bureaucrats at a Monday night debate who they claimed have run amok in state government with COVID-19 mandates, critical race theory, bail reform and more.
“They want this forever pandemic mentality. They use it to be able to spend money on things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to spend money on, to change laws they wouldn’t otherwise be able to change,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Suffolk) said about Gov. Kathy Hochul and Democratic lawmakers at the beginning of the debate hosted by Spectrum News.
His rivals – former Westchester Executive Rob Astorino, businessman Harry Wilson and former White House staffer Andrew Giuliani – joined the putative frontrunner in opposing the idea of mandating COVID-19 vaccines for school children.
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“My kids are not vaccinated,” bragged Astorino while arguing such choices should be up to parents.
“This is something that’s very close to my heart … getting New Yorkers their job back – who have lost them – with back pay,” Giuliani, who participated in the debate remotely because of his vaccination status, said of public employees who wouldn’t get the jab.
Wilson too said parents ought to make the decision for the children, especially considering the recent drop in COVID-19 cases compared to past waves of the disease.
“I think it’s a fundamentally different disease and that’s why I think it should be treated differently than existing vaccination requirements,” the businessman said.
Zeldin has the edge in the final stretch of the campaign with polling, fundraising and endorsements from Republican leaders ahead of the final day of primary voting on June 28.
The winner of the GOP primary will face the Democratic nominee in the November election, which appears likely to be Hochul.
A final debate is scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesday on Newsmax.
His rivals refrained from attacking him though early on while blasting progressive-backed ideas like defunding the police and racial equity efforts they likened to critical race theory.
“Most people understand that racism is a problem. and we should confront it and we are. But things like CRT which is seeping everywhere, is obviously [where[ you divide people and tell people: ‘You’re bad. You’re a racist,” Astorino said when asked to what degree he wants racism taught in schools.
Giuliani added that he believed in equal opportunity even if it doesn’t lead to similar economic or social outcomes for people across demographic categories like race.
“I think equity is a very dangerous concept here in the United States,” he added.
Wilson blasted “loaded terms” like CRT that he argued needlessly divided New Yorkers while Zeldin suggested that government leaders are too focused on specific types of discrimination at the expense of others.
“We have anti-Semitism right now inside of schools, not just in the halls of Congress,” the Long Island Republican said in a veiled reference to controversial squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar.
The four candidates also found common ground ahead of the June 28 primary vote on the idea of firing controversial Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg per a provision in state law allowing governors to remove certain officials.
“People focus on the ideology rather than focusing on the facts on the ground,” Wilson, who has been criticized over a past campaign donation to Bragg, said about criminal justice reforms championed by Albany Democrats amid an increase in violent crimes.
Businessman Harry Wilson said he would even consider doing the same to “rogue DAs” that he sees in other progressive places like Brooklyn, the Bronx and Ulster County.
Zeldin called for requiring unanimity from the state parole board, rather than a majority vote, before convicted people could be released while joining his rivals in calling for the repeal of bail reform while giving judges more discretion to jail people over public safety concerns.
“We are soft on crime and we got to get back to what worked,” Astorino added.
While none of the candidates directly criticized former President Donald Trump, only Giuliani explicitly backed the former president’s discredited claims that he had won the 2020 election.
“I believe that President Trump was reelected. And I think unfortunately, we’ve seen one of the greatest crimes in American history committed against our country,” Giuliani said.
“Certainly Joe Biden was a duly elected president of the United States,” Wilson said when asked his take on the Jan. 6 hearings dismissed by some Republicans as Democratic stunt.
His father, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has lost his license to practice law in the Empire State for helping Trump wage a series of failed lawsuits to overturn the election ahead of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The younger Giuliani also expressed his sense of victimhood over not being allowed to join his rivals in the same studio because of his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Republican collegiality broke down towards the end of the 90-minute debate as Giuliani, Astorino and Wilson took aim at Zeldin.
“I want to know Lee, have you ever called President Trump’s past statements racist?” Giuliani asked the putative frontrunner, who responded by saying the former president has been “misinterpreted” in the past.
Much of the criticism focused on the Long Island congressman’s two terms as a state senator and the praise he lavished on former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his first term in office.
Wilson and Astorino attacked Zeldin for voting yes on state budget bills.
New York governors have enormous leverage in the state budget process compared to their counterparts in other states that require legislators to either vote for fiscal legislation or ıe accused of opposing popular spending couples with controversial policy items.
“We have a job to try to find common ground, however possible and I don’t care if it’s a President Obama or President Trump, a President Biden or a Governor Cuomo – we have a responsibility to work together,” Zeldin said.
His campaign got a recent boost when he was endorsed by the Post Editorial Board and the onslaught of attacks from his rivals seemingly confirmed his status as the frontrunner in the race.
But Zeldin appeared rattled at times, especially as Wilson repeated attacks about Zeldin’s past praise of Cuomo – who Zeldin once contrasted favorably with Obama – while talking up his record as a millionaire businessman.
“You’re not a turn around expert. You’re a fraud … Mr. Elitist, you went to Harvard,” Zeldin snapped at one point.