A Trump-endorsed Republican could end up running New York. Inside the wild rise of Lee Zeldin

Lee Zeldin voted to overturn the 2020 election results, supports anti-abortion legislation and would fire a recently elected district attorney in deep-blue New York City. Polls show a tight race against Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, Alex Woodward reports

Tuesday 08 November 2022 20:46 GMT
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(AP)

On 6 November 2020, three days after election day, US Rep Lee Zeldin sent a text message to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

“Mark, 2 ideas,” wrote Mr Zeldin, outlining how Donald Trump could make the case to Americans that his baseless narrative of widespread voter fraud and compromised elections was legitimate.

The Republican congressman from Long Island – now running to replace New York governor Kathy Hochul – was among the first elected GOP officials supporting Mr Trump’s presidential bid, more than a year before he won the 2016 election. He voted against both of Mr Trump’s impeachments and tried to block the creation of a congressional committee to investigate the Capitol attack.

Hours after the mob breached the halls of Congress on 6 January 2021, Mr Zeldin joined 146 other House Republicans to challenge the outcome. He posted a clip of his speech on the House floor on 6 January with the title “in defense of the Republic.”

That night, he streamed himself from inside the Capitol to appear on The Ingraham Angle on Fox News, telling host Laura Ingraham that the violent riots are “bigger than the president” and “bigger than 2020”.

He blamed “rogue state actors” and election officials who “usurped” state legislatures to “administer elections however they see fit”, placing the blame for questions about “election integrity” undermining voter confidence not at the feet of the man who spread bogus conspiracy theories that fuelled the attack – but on Democratic officials.

Dozens of Republican candidates who have embraced the former president and challenged the 2020 results are running for offices across the US in midterm elections this fall. But Mr Zeldin is likely the only major candidate running in a close election in a state where voters have resoundingly rejected Mr Trump’s agenda.

Mr Trump gave his “complete [and] total endorsement” to Mr Zeldin in his race to become New York’s first Republican governor in 20 years, marking a stark reversal of the state’s Democratic leadership, upended by a campaign focused on voter perception of out-of-control crime rates.

He faces Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul, who is predicted on relatively slim margins to remain in office as the first woman governor of the state.

Ms Hochul ascended to the governor’s office following the departure of Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace after 11 years in office facing a legislative impeachment probe over allegations of sexual misconduct.

She received the state Democratic Party’s formal nomination in February, a coronation ceremony with former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton raising Ms Hochul’s hand in victory.

“It’s a new day for New York,” Ms Hochul announced moments before a ballroom stage inside the Sheraton New York Times Square was covered in confetti. She handily won the party primary a few months later with 68 per cent of the vote.

Governor Hochul has characterised the race as a critical referendum against the former president and right-wing extremism, as well as a vote to support democracy and abortion rights.

“He sent text messages trying to support the big lie. And he opposes sensible gun safety laws, as well as opposing a woman’s right to choose,” she said during the pair’s only debate before Election Day. “That’s what’s on the line here tonight.”

Lee Zeldin and Kathy Hochul participated in a debate two weeks before Election Day on 25 October
Lee Zeldin and Kathy Hochul participated in a debate two weeks before Election Day on 25 October (AP)

Notably, critics have accused the Democratic Party and Ms Hochul’s campaign of taking the state’s largely Democratic voter base for granted. Polls have reflected a tightening race between Ms Hochul and her Republican opponent.

Five days before Election Day, Ms Clinton and Vice President Kamala Harris headlined a campaign rally in New York City on 3 November alongside Democratic women political leaders from across the state, making a late push in a race that has become worryingly too close for the governor’s campaign.

Two days, President Joe Biden traveled to the state to stump for Governor Hochul.

A Siena poll from late September showed governor Hochul with a 17-point lead over her opponent. Two weeks later, polling from Quinnipiac University narrowed that lead to just 4 per cent. In the week before Election Day, polling from PIX11 News/Emerson College Polling/The Hill showed the governor leading by eight percentage points, 52 per cent to Mr Zeldin’s 44 per cent.

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, widely considered a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination, rallied for Mr Zeldin on Long Island on 29 October, telling the crowd that New York voters electing a Republican governor “will be the 21st century version of the shot heard round the world.”

Still, Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans in the state. Mr Zeldin’s campaign faces a brick wall of Democratic support in New York City as well as Ms Hochul’s $11m (£9.6m) campaign war chest, invaluable name recognition and endorsements from major labour unions and elected officials.

“Embracing Trump. Not a winning strategy,” according to George Pataki, the state’s last Republican governor, in an interview with The New York Post.

On 27 October, it was revealed that the New York Board of Elections is investigating whether Mr Zeldin illegally coordinated with a pair of super PACs supporting his candidacy.

“Just like Donald Trump, Lee Zeldin doesn’t think the rules apply to him,” according to a statement from Ms Hochul’s campaign spokesperson Jerrel Harvey. “Whether it’s overturning the will of voters or his ongoing petition fraud scandal, Lee Zeldin has shown a pattern of contempt for our democracy and is too dangerous for New York.”

In his opening salvo at the debate, Mr Zeldin claimed that “you’re poorer and less safe because of Kathy Hochul and extreme policies.”

“This is your opportunity to save New York,” he added.

The fight to preserve abortion access

New York has some of the strongest abortion rights protections in the US, codified in 2016 with the Reproductive Health Act. That’s since been followed by a suite of legislation backed by governor Hochul to bolster abortion access and grant legal protections to patients in the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling that ended a constitutional right to abortion.

Her anti-abortion opponent could threaten to undo those protections.

Mr Zeldin co-sponsors legislation in the US House of Representatives that would assert a “fetal personhood” doctrine. Such a doctrine would grant fetuses, embryos and fertilised eggs full protection under the law. Earlier this year, he was recorded telling the anti-abortion organisation Right to Life, “I’m not going to change my position on [abortion] based on any poll.”

The Democratic majority in the state legislature will not be sending any restrictive anti-abortion bills to the governor’s desk.

During their debate, Mr Zeldin called his opponent’s claims “disingenuous”.

“There’s a less than 0 per cent chance [Democratic speaker of the New York state assembly Carl Heastie] is going to send me a bill that’s rolling back to law in 2019,” he said.

At war with the Manhattan district attorney

Mr Zeldin has pledged to fire the Manhattan district attorney on his first day in office, if elected.

Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, the first Black district attorney in the borough, was overwhelmingly elected to the role six months earlier with 84 per cent of the vote.

His office is overseeing a criminal investigation into Mr Trump’s business empire, including allegations that he inflated the value of his properties and assets to fraudulently obtain loans and defraud his lenders.

Mr Zeldin’s campaign, meanwhile, has accused the district attorney of abandoning his duties and “refusing to enforce the law” after Mr Bragg pledged that his office would limit the kinds of cases for which prosecutors would seek prison sentences.

An early memo from Mr Bragg’s office said he would only seek jail time for the most serious offences, with a goal to keep non-violent or first-time offenders out of jail, to stress that locking people up does not stop or slow crime. After widespread criticism from police groups and public officials, he later clarified that prosecutors ultimately have that discretion.

The pledge outraged right-wing tabloids and Republican officials, although the likely impact of Mr Bragg’s policy would have had a significant impact on hundreds of people routinely sent to jail for non-violent crimes, an effort that has seen increasingly bipartisan support.

Mr Zeldin has depicted New York City as lawless and crime-infested, blaming recent bail reform laws on recent crimes, with a violent campaign ad telling voters to cast their ballots “like their lives depended on it”.

His campaign has pledged to end cashless bail, a policy set up to reduce the number of people incarcerated before trial on misdemeanours and nonviolent offences, that GOP campaigns have repeatedly tried to tie to crime trends. New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, however, has reported that the re-arrest rate is “nearly identical” since the reforms were implemented in 2020.

Criminologists have not made any connections between crime and progressive prosecutors. But Mr Zeldin’s messaging on both bail reform and Mr Bragg echo similar reactionary agendas in races across the US.

In Florida, governor Ron DeSantis suspended a twice-elected state attorney. Mr DeSantis pointed to the attorney’s refusal to prosecute abortion providers, and doctors, who give gender-affirming care to transgender youth, and transgender people who use bathrooms that match their gender.

That state outlaws abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy. There are no current Florida laws that criminalise gender-affirming care, transgender people or pregnant people.

In San Francisco, now-former district attorney Chesa Boudin was targeted by a multi-million dollar recall campaign that characterised him as a threat to public safety.

And in the weeks before Election Day, Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers are seeking to impeach the twice-elected prosecutor in Philadelphia.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, GOP candidate Mehmet Oz and GOP campaigns have launched a barrage of ads targeting Democratic candidate John Fetterman, baselessly painted by the Oz campaign as “the most pro-murderer candidate in America”.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has attacked his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams with false claims that she wants to “put dangerous criminals back on our streets, and turn our state into the next California”.

New York state’s constitution states that the governor “may remove any elective sheriff, county clerk, district attorney or register within the term for which he or she shall have been elected” following “an opportunity of being heard in his or her defence”.

Public perception of rising crime

For her part, Ms Hochul has sought to strengthen measures against the proliferation of firearms in the state and joined officials in New York City to combat subway violence after a streak of high-profile incidents.

The governor, standing alongside New York City mayor Eric Adams on 22 October, announced a “beefing up of the police presence” on the city’s subway platforms and train cars, along with two state programmes to assist people experiencing homelessness while living with severe mental illness.

There have been nine homicides within the subway system in 2022. There were eight in 2021.

Transit crimes have increased roughly 40 per cent compared to last year, when there were far fewer people riding the subway. In 2021, there were 3,918 complaints, up from 3,411 in 2020.

Those figures mark a reduction from 2019, when there were 4,714 complaints, before ridership plummeted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fears of violent crime on the city’s subway system, with shocking incidents amplified by right-wing media, appear to have influenced public perception of “rising crime” – a trend that is playing out nationally.

More Americans today believe that crime is increasing in their neighbourhood than at any point over the last five decades, according to polling from Gallup.

The October survey found that 56 per cent of respondents believe crime is up in their area, while 78 per cent believe there is more crime in the country overall.

Results note that “perceptions of national crime trends are also influenced by the match between a person’s own party identification and the party of the president”.

“After rising slightly last year, Republicans’ negative assessment of crime in the nation rose further so that they now nearly unanimously think crime is up nationally,” according to Gallup findings. “The 95 per cent of Republicans who think there is more national crime is also the highest ever for any party group, by two points.”

This story was initially published on 31 October and has been updated with developments

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