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Heading into the Democratic primary, Hochul has some wins — and some vulnerabilities

Gov. Kathy Hochul signs gun safety bills into law on June 6, 2022
Darren McGee
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul signs gun safety bills into law on June 6, 2022.

It’s less than three weeks until New York state’s primary for governor, and so far, it seems the contest is Gov. Kathy Hochul’s to lose.

And while she’s ahead of her two challengers, Hochul does have some potential vulnerabilities.

Hochul, in her 10th month as governor, ended the recently concluded legislative session with several wins. Among them was an agreement on a gun control package forged just days after mass shootings in Buffalo and in Texas. She said it was crucial to act fast in the light of the federal government's inaction.

“It just keeps happening, shots ring out, flags come down, and nothing ever changes, except here in New York,” Hochul said. “We are taking bold, strong action.”

Among the steps: tightening the state’s red flag laws and raising the legal age to buy a semi-automatic rifle to 21.

Hochul and the Legislature also agreed on protections for abortion clinics and patients in the wake of an anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The governor is running campaign ads on the topic.

“I will always protect reproductive rights,” Hochul says in the ad. “And keep abortion access safe in New York.”

A proposed constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights in New York mentioned in the ad has not yet been approved.

Hochul has plenty of money to run television advertisements and for other campaign activity. She raised a record $20 million in her first five months in office, much of it from large donations. That’s led to some accusations of pay-to-play, which Hochul’s campaign has denied.

Hochul, a Buffalo native, served as Erie County clerk, a congresswoman, and lieutenant governor. She took over from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned last August amid several scandals, including multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing.

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic strategist who is a senior adviser at the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm, said Hochul has established a strong base within the Democratic Party in her relatively short time as governor.

“She has expanded her wingspan to reach out to both the conservative wing of her party, which isn't very strong, the moderate wing of her party, which is strong,” Gyory said. “And clearly the liberal, or the left wing of the party, that is very strong.”

Hochul has so far had a Teflon-like quality. She was not tainted by the Cuomo scandals; the two weren’t close. And she has survived, mostly unscathed, the federal corruption indictment and subsequent resignation of the former lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who Hochul picked for the post.

But her standing in the polls has been steadily slipping. Her two Democratic primary opponents have tried to gain traction on some of Hochul's perceived weaknesses.

In a recent debate on WCBS-TV and CBS Newsradio 880, they focused on Hochul’s use of public money to keep the Buffalo Bills football team in western New York.

Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is running to the right of Hochul on issues like crime and taxes, said the price for the stadium was too high.

“That’s the biggest taxpayer giveaway in the history of the NFL,” Suozzi said.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive whose views are to the left of Hochul’s, ran a competitive primary race against Hochul for lieutenant governor in 2018. He brought up the governor’s past positions on gun control, which in 2012 earned her the NRA’s highest rating.

“Ten years ago, I wrote my first report on how to deal with gun violence while the governor was touting her ‘A’ rating from the NRA,” Williams said.

Hochul has said her views have evolved. She cites her shepherding of the new laws tightening gun control in New York as evidence of that.

Williams and Suozzi have little money to run their campaigns, compared to Hochul. And they’re largely unknown, even to Democratic voters.

If Hochul wins the primary, she’ll face new challenges in the general election, where she’ll likely also need to address concerns about inflation and high gasoline prices.

Gyory said while Republicans often have an advantage when it comes to issues like the economy, the GOP might be weakened this year in blue New York over the issues that have become Hochul’s trademark, abortion rights and gun control.

“Some of these other issues that are starting to gain salience among voters are going to cut very sharply against Republicans,” Gyory said. “Not to mention the 3 million (voter) registration edge that the Democrats have.”

The Republican Party nominee for governor, Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, is facing his own primary challenge from three candidates, including Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and adviser to former President Donald Trump.

The other challengers are businessman Harry Wilson and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.