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New York voters say crime is a top issue. Hochul and Zeldin offer competing approaches

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

Editor’s note: As part of a series of stories that public radio is reporting on issues in the New York governor’s race, today we examine both candidates’ approaches to addressing crime. 

In his campaign for New York governor, Republican candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin has kept the spotlight on the state’s increased rate of violent incidents, and he’s banking on the issue becoming Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Achilles heel in the race.

And in recent days, as Hochul’s lead shrinks in the polls, she has pivoted to focusing more intensely on crime-related matters.

Zeldin has made reducing crime a central theme of his campaign, airing ads portraying scenes of mayhem and blaming Hochul for the increase in violent crime.

“You’re looking at actual violent crimes caught on camera in Kathy Hochul’s New York,” the narrator says.

Zeldin said the crime spike is because Hochul and the State Legislature have backed several criminal justice reforms. They include an end to many forms of cash bail, and changes that send 16- and 17-year-old defendants to family court -- and juvenile detention, if they are convicted -- instead of to criminal courts and adult prisons. Parole requirements have also been eased.

Zeldin said if he’s elected governor, on Jan. 1, he’ll use his authority to create a crime state of emergency and temporarily suspend what he calls the “pro-criminal” laws.

“The laws on day one, that we are talking about here are going to be suspended,” Zeldin said. “It’s a 30-day suspension.”

He said he would then ask the Legislature, which is currently led by Democrats, to work with him to craft replacement laws.

The congressman said he agrees with the intent of keeping teens out of adult jails. But he claims gangs are using younger members to commit crimes to evade stiffer penalties. And he said under the state’s bail reform laws, judges are not given enough discretion to hold someone before trial if they believe that person presents a danger to the community.

Zeldin has held several campaign events each week outside crime scenes, including one on Oct. 9 outside his own home on Long Island, after a drive-by shooting occurred outside his house while his twin 16-year-old daughters were inside.

“I’m standing in front of crime scene tape, in front of my own house,” a shaken Zeldin said as he faced media cameras, his wife and daughters beside him.

The daughters hid in a bathroom and called police and their parents, who were at a campaign event. The two 17-year-olds who were shot crawled into the bushes in the Zeldins’ front yard and under their porch. They were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening gunshot wounds.

Zeldin said the incident frightened and angered him.

“You can’t get any more outraged than right now,” he said. “We’re more pissed off today than we were when we woke up this morning.”

Hochul expressed relief that none of the Zeldin family were harmed, and said she ordered State Police to help with the investigation.

But the governor disagrees that the state’s criminal justice reforms, many approved in 2019, are the reason for the higher crime rate.

Hochul told a graduating class of state troopers on Oct. 19 that she believes the COVID-19 pandemic and related societal disruptions, as well as a growth in gun trafficking, are what’s behind the crime spike.

“What I saw during this pandemic was something that we could not have anticipated,” Hochul said. “Almost immediately, the crime rate started going up all over our country. Not just here in New York -- all over our nation. And much of it was driven by access to illegal guns that were crossing state lines and coming to our cities and our rural areas.”

The governor said state and local police, under her direction, have seized over 8,000 illegal guns in the past year.

Hochul also oversaw some legislative actions.

She called a special session of the Legislature in early July after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s 100-year-old law limiting the carrying of concealed weapons. The new laws require more steps to get a pistol permit, including a three-year lookback at social media posts and 15 hours of in-person firearm training. Some parts of that law that made some locations off-limits for guns are now on hold due to legal challenges.

Hochul and the Legislature also acted to strengthen the state’s red flag laws and banned anyone under 21 from buying a semi-automatic rifle after the May 14 mass shooting allegedly carried out by an 18-year-old at a Buffalo supermarket that killed 10 people.

“So no 18-year-old can walk in on their birthday, and walk out again with an AR-15,” Hochul said at a bill-signing ceremony on June 6. “Those days are over.”

Zeldin opposes many of the state’s gun control laws, including the establishment of gun-free zones.

Though Hochul supports the bail reform laws and other recent criminal justice changes, she did convince the Legislature last spring to make some tweaks to them. They agreed to make several gun-related crimes once again eligible for bail and to allow judges more discretion on whether to set bail, if they believe the person arrested might commit a new crime if released.

But she has resisted calls to hold a special session on the bail laws, saying she wants to wait until January when more data will be available on whether the current measures are working.

The governor, who has been endorsed by the state’s Police Benevolent Association, said it’s not true that she is soft on crime.

“I’ve been laser-focused on fighting crime since my first day in office,” Hochul said recently.

With polls showing that crime is a rising concern for New Yorkers, Hochul isn’t taking any chances.

In recent days, she’s pivoted to highlight her crime reduction efforts, saying she’s always been “laser-focused” on reducing crime. She released another ad that highlights her efforts to promote public safety.

“You deserve to feel safe,” Hochul says in the ad as she faces the camera directly. “And as your governor, I won’t stop working until you do.”

And Hochul joined New York City Mayor Eric Adams to announce an increased police presence on the subways, and to better train officers to deal with people experiencing mental illness.

She held an event this week at the State Capitol with Attorney General Tish James where she recounted her administration’s efforts to fight crime. Hochul said the changes to the state’s red flag laws have resulted in nearly 2,000 extreme risk orders of protection issued since the new law took effect, perhaps preventing numerous crimes.

“The bottom line is, New Yorkers want to know this: ‘Are you focused on this? Are you taking steps? Are you making a difference?’” Hochul said. “And the answer is yes.”

Zeldin responded after the announcement about the subways. In a statement, he said that after nine subway murders in the past year and the highest crime rate on mass transit systems in years, Hochul’s response is a “day late and a dollar short.”

State Republican Minority Senate Leader Robert Ortt called Hochul’s actions a “Hail Mary” pass as Election Day nears.

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.