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Zeldin downplays Trump's endorsement as Hochul draws attention to it

Hochul-Zeldin new collage 3.jpg
New York NOW
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Rep. Lee Zeldin, left, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has seen her lead in the governor’s race slip in the polls, is coming down hard on her opponent’s ties to former President Donald Trump.

Republican Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, who initially had far less campaign cash than Hochul, held a fundraiser over the summer hosted by Trump. The money raised has helped Zeldin run ads blaming Hochul for the state’s increased rate of violent crime, which has been resonating with voters.

Hochul blames the crime rate on societal disruption due to the pandemic.

This week, Trump endorsed Zeldin, predicting on his social media site that Zeldin will be a “GREAT governor of New York.” In the post, Trump said he has “watched and known Congressman Lee Zeldin for many years,” and calls him “a great and brilliant lawyer.”

Trump also said Zeldin was a key resource for other Republicans in Congress when they faced legal obstacles in crafting legislation.

Trump, a polarizing figure, is largely unpopular in New York; a recent poll found he was disliked by 61% of voters.

The Hochul camp wasted no time in cutting a new television ad.

The ad features footage of Trump at an April 2022 event at Mar-a-Lago saying, “Lee fought for me very, very hard.” Zeldin is seen standing nearby.

Zeldin’s voice is also featured.

“President Trump, I stand with him, I support him,” Zeldin says in the ad.

The narrator continues: “Zeldin voted with Trump too, nearly 90% of the time.”

The ad also shows Trump giving Zeldin a friendly tap on the shoulder and a photo of the two men, smiling.

Zeldin is downplaying the endorsement, saying “a lot of people” endorse him.

“It shouldn’t have been news,” Zeldin said. “He’s supported me before this weekend.”

Zeldin, speaking to reporters on Monday, said he welcomes “everyone’s support,” but the race is between himself and Hochul -- and nobody else.

“At the start of this campaign, I was asked, ‘Are you a Charlie Baker Republican or a Ron DeSantis Republican?’” Zeldin said. “I’m my own man.”

Zeldin also held a fundraiser over the summer with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a conservative who has been active in national controversies, including the immigration debate. He did not hold a fundraiser with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican who has distanced himself from Trump.

Hochul’s campaign also criticized text messages that Zeldin sent to Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, on the day before the 2020 election was called for Biden. In the messages, he advised Meadows to create a file of any alleged voting irregularities and include a donation link for Trump’s legal fund. Zeldin told Meadows that needed to be done “instantly.”

He also advised Meadows on how to coordinate media coverage for highlighting any alleged wrongdoing in voting practices in “battleground states.”

Trump continues to falsely claim that he won the election, in the face of facts and evidence that show President Joe Biden won both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

The texts, uncovered by the congressional committee investigating the events of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, were released by investigative journalist Hunter Walker.

Hochul said the texts, along with Zeldin’s votes in Congress on that day against certifying the election, show that Zeldin is unfit to be governor.

“Not only did he vote to overturn the presidential election, he was one of the early co-conspirators,” Hochul said. “Sending text messages, trying to give a strategy to the White House, the chief of staff of the White House, on how to subvert the will of the people.”

Zeldin’s campaign does not deny that the congressman wrote the texts, but they said the Hochul campaign is mischaracterizing them for political gain.

In a statement, Zeldin campaign spokesperson Katie Vincentz said Hochul is “desperate, when she’d rather obsess over a text message sent at the beginning of November before the election was even called, rather than focusing on the issues most important to New Yorkers.” Vincentz said those issues include the rising crime rate and the “skyrocketing” cost of living.

Polls released this week show Zeldin is between four and 11 points behind Hochul in the race, and he is leading among independent voters.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.