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Lee Zeldin wins GOP primary, challenging Kathy Hochul for governor of New York

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J.D. Allen
/
WSHU
Lee Zeldin, who won the Republican Party primary election for governor of New York, mocks the swearing in process, saying he will roll back criminal justice reform, gun control measures, and COVID-19 pandemics on his first day in office.

Lee Zeldin, a four-term congressman from eastern Long Island, has won the Republican Party primary election Tuesday night — becoming the official GOP candidate for governor of New York.

“This is a race to save our state and losing is not an option,” Zeldin cheered in front of hundreds of supporters.

He will challenge Democrat Kathy Hochul, who defeated Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, after serving in the role for nearly a year. Her predecessor Andrew Cuomo resigned amid an impeachment inquiry into alleged sexual misconduct.

  • Hochul hopes to become the first woman elected governor of New York. 
  • If Zeldin is successful, he would be the first member of the GOP elected head of state since the three-term Republican Governor George Pataki in 2002.
  • New York will hold its second of two primary elections on August 23 for state Senate and Congressional districts, including Zeldin’s vacant NY-1 seat.

A rising star

Even before being picked as the state Republican Party favorite in March, Zeldin emerged as a frontrunner for the GOP candidacy for governor. He started his campaign in April 2019, seeking to oust Governor Andrew Cuomo — November is the first time New Yorkers are casting votes in a gubernatorial race in more than a decade that does not include the name "Cuomo".

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J.D. Allen
/
WSHU
Lee Zeldin's running mate Alison Esposito, New York City Police Department's deputy inspector, cruised through the Republican Party primary unopposed.

He ran on a platform critical of Cuomo and Hochul’s use of emergency powers to handle coronavirus, single party rule of Democrats in Albany, and sweeping criminal justice reform in New York, blaming the elimination of cash bail for nonviolent offenses for an increase in gun violence.

“This November, in the state of New York, one-party rule will end, Kathy Hochul will get fired and we will restore balance and commonsense to Albany again,” he added.

As early voting began last week, Zeldin brushed off a recent Siena College poll that showed Andrew Guiliani, the son of former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, pulling ahead. His Republican opponents blamed Zeldin for not embracing former President Donald Trump enough and supporting too many of Cuomo’s budget proposals.

However, by primary election night, he defeated Guiliani, businessman Harry Wilson, and former Westchester County executive Rob Astorino. Zeldin said Guiliani and Astorino called him to concede Tuesday night.

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J.D. Allen
/
WSHU
Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin said he wants New Yorkers to fire Governor Kathy Hochul.

Who is Lee Zeldin?

Zeldin began his political career in a wave of anti-Democrat sentiment. He was part of the freshman Republicans who retook the state Senate in 2011. He is credited with championing to the rest of the state a Suffolk County-based peer-to-peer veterans support program named after a deceased military service member, Joseph Dwyer. Zeldin is also a veteran of the Iraq War and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

He rode a second political wave into the U.S. House of Representatives in a “red wave” against the Obama administration.

In Congress, Zeldin continued his advocacy for veterans, as well as environmental protections for Long Island Sound and a decades-sought beach restoration project from Fire Island to Montauk Point — even though he sided with GOP rollbacks of Obama-era environmental protections.

However, Zeldin moved further to the right under the Trump administration. He was on former President Donald Trump’s legal defense team during his impeachment hearings. Zeldin also sought to overturn President Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election.

Zeldin hopes the tides will again be in his favor.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.