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State GOP leaders meet to choose candidates for governor and other statewide races

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.)
J. Scott Applewhite
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.)

New York State Republicans take their turn on Monday to hold their nominating convention for the 2022 elections after Democrats nominated Governor Kathy Hochul for election nearly two weeks ago. Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin is expected to be the GOP’s pick, but he’s facing some challenges.

Zeldin has served in Congress since 2015, and before that was a state Senator. He is also an active member of the U.S. Army Reserve. Zeldin was backed as the presumptive nominee several months ago by party leaders, who hoped to avoid a primary. He’s been traveling the state lately.

Zeldin has focused on the state’s rising crime rate since the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said he’d roll back bail reform laws approved by the Democratic governor and Legislature in 2019 that ended most forms of cash bail, and would give judges more discretion to incarcerate people who are accused of serious crimes and believed to be in danger of committing more offenses.

He’s also called for the removal of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who made remarks that some perceived as being too soft on crime. Bragg has since clarified his comments. Zeldin spoke recently at a rally at the state Capitol.

“Cashless bail needs to be repealed, Alvin Bragg needs to be removed,” Zeldin said. “We need to support law enforcement more, not less.”

Zeldin has also spoken out about pandemic-related mandates, including the requirement that schoolchildren wear masks. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Sunday that the mask mandate wound end Wednesday.

“As governor of the state of New York, on day one, all COVID mandates end,” Zeldin said to cheers. “There’s no generation more desperate to return to normalcy than our kids.”

Zeldin has chosen a running mate to serve as lieutenant governor. Alison Esposito, a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department, said she will also make lowering crime rates a priority.

Two other Republican candidates are also running for governor: Former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, and Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Zeldin is little known, even among Republican voters, according to a recent Siena College poll. Spokesman Steve Greenberg says while Andrew Giuliani is better known because of his famous father, who most recently has been an adviser to former President Donald Trump, Zeldin and Astorino have very low name recognition.

“Voters don’t know who they are, largely,” Greenberg said. “Even Republican voters.”

The poll finds that while 27% of GOP voters have a favorable impression of Zeldin, 57% either don’t know who he is or don’t know enough about him to have an opinion.

But perhaps Zeldin’s biggest challenge will come from independently wealthy businessman Harry Wilson, who announced his candidacy in late February. Wilson says he will spend millions of dollars of his own money to campaign. He’s already begun advertising.

Wilson ran for state comptroller in 2010. He said while he lost that race, he came the closest to victory of any statewide Republican candidate in 20 years.

Wilson told WAMC public radio that he does not believe that Zeldin can win.

“The reason I'm running for governor is because I think New York's badly broken and in desperate need of a turnaround. And that's what I've spent my entire career doing is leading the turnaround of failed organizations,” Wilson said. “And as I looked at the field, I did not believe that there was a candidate who could bring the same skill set that we desperately need to the race.”

Delegates at the convention will also choose a candidate for attorney general and state comptroller.

Michael Henry, a New York City-based attorney specializing in commercial litigation, is the front-runner for the nomination to run for attorney general. He would face New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is running for reelection.

On Friday, Wall Street financier Paul Rodriguez announced his candidacy for state comptroller. Rodriguez, a Queens native who spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico, would be the first Hispanic New Yorker to run for comptroller on the Republican line. He’ll face Democratic incumbent Tom DiNapoli.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.