Dems Risk Losing the NY Governor’s Race—But “Big Brother” Can Only Win

Published: Nov 4, 2022  |  

Writer, podcast producer, and political communications specialist

New York City Mayor Eric Adams is massively unpopular, but he has at least one high-profile fan. Just two years after the city convulsed with protests against police brutality, an unexpectedly close race against Republican Lee Zeldin has sent incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul running into the arms of Adams and his expanding police state.

The tumultuous pandemic summer of 2020 saw Americans’ faith in the police reach historic lows. That was especially true in New York City, where night after night of massive protests saw hundreds of arrests and blatant displays of police brutality. A tidal wave of pandemic-related anxiety and anger at the status quo swept the most progressive class of legislators in New York State history into office, including some who had not only endorsed “defunding” the NYPD, but led chants of “No justice, no peace!”

Two years later, nobody has defunded the NYPD. Since rising past $5 billion per year in 2016, the department’s budget has never fallen below that enormous number, nor has any measure to cut it advanced to a vote in City Hall or in Albany. Crime numbers across the country rose sharply in the wake of the pandemic and ensuing economic crash, and New York was no exception. In the wake of social and economic catastrophe, Adams’s message that “The prerequisite for prosperity is public safety” won him the mayoralty. 

Adams is a true New York character with a disorienting array of beliefs and interests. A vegan and health fanatic, he has stated that New York City sits atop rare stones that give it “special energy.” He took his first paycheck from the City in cryptocurrency, a move that immediately cost him roughly $1,000. In a video from before his mayoral tenure, then-State Senator Adams warns parents that their children may be “secreting” drugs and guns inside of everyday objects like dolls and “popular knapsack[s] with many different locations.” Finding a crack pipe in a bookbag might not be cause for immediate alarm, he instructs, but it’s certainly “a conversation piece.” The key is “to inspect what you expect.”

Beneath these baffling lines is one truth we know for certain about Eric Adams: This mayor believes that law enforcement should be everywhere. Crime has always been his chief concern, and it remains a huge concern in the city and across the nation. Studies conducted since the COVID crime spike reveal that the New York metro area is actually the second-safest in the country, with less per-capita crime than the average suburb and with far fewer murders per capita than America’s other megacities. But even as the murder rate declines in 2022, a series of bizarre, disturbing, and seemingly random subway attacks have struck fear in the hearts of New Yorkers, keeping crime in the headlines throughout Adams’ first year in office. So while the 488 murders in New York City last year represent a dramatic reduction in crime since his days on the beat, when there were well over 2,000 murders per year, Adams’ demonstrably untrue statement that he’s “never witnessed crime at this level” rings true to voters.

Most experts agree that simply throwing police officers at the problem is not an effective way to reduce crime, but their increased presence is the most tangible change that Adams has brought to New York. The NYPD will far exceed its overtime budget this year thanks to Adams’ programs, even as he stymies hiring for other City agencies. As he slashes the education budget with no explanation and hands out lucrative jobs to friends and family, Adams has repeatedly turned to the issue of crime to score political points. 

The mayor has joined Republicans in lambasting Democratic efforts to reform bail. Their 2019 bail reform law was common sense to anyone who believes that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and that an inability to pay bail should not condemn them to the menagerie of crimes against humanity known as Rikers Island. Nevertheless, it quickly became a lightning-rod for the tough-on-crime crowd. Since the bill passed, it has been revised and weakened several times, but even after the modifications, Adams kept up his criticism of what he calls an “insane, broken system” that lets criminals run wild. 

Data indicate that bail reform has had absolutely no impact on crime rates while keeping tens of thousands of people out of jail. But Kathy Hochul, a relatively unknown politician from Western New York who suddenly assumed office after her predecessor’s resignation in 2021, is not inclined to defend it. Under pressure from Republicans and from Adams, Hochul helped roll back the reforms, proudly announcing “I got that done” when the topic arose during her debate with Zeldin.

Zeldin is an arch conservative, and a slippery one at that. A sponsor of the Life at Conception Act, Zeldin asserts that “nothing will change” regarding abortion if he is elected, even as he campaigns on cutting funding to Planned Parenthood. Zeldin openly questions the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, but when asked about the election at the debate, he pivoted to his winning issue: crime.

On this topic, he sounds nearly identical to Adams. When confronted with statistics indicating that bail reform has had no impact on crime rates, Zeldin cited “the will of the people” as justification for throwing pre-trial detainees into Rikers. While he dodged the question of whether polio vaccines should be mandatory for schoolchildren, Zeldin was crystal-clear on crime, echoing Trump in his call to “make our streets safe again, make our subways safe again.”

As Zeldin boasted that he would “make sure that cuffs go on the hands of criminals,” Hochul responded, as she has for months, by linking herself to Adams. “We’re there to be of assistance to the mayor,” she said, proudly noting that she was “in the room” for discussions between Adams and President Joe Biden. Despite Adams’ criticism of her administration and his sub-30-percent approval rating, Hochul has made every effort to align with him when it comes to crime. Just three days before the debate, she appeared with Adams to announce that the city would pay for an extra 1,200 overtime shifts per day, putting even more police in the subways.

Zeldin has called for a special session of the legislature to undo the remaining bail reforms. He has also pledged that, if elected, he will declare a “crime emergency,” opening up the possibility of suspending laws and assuming direct control of state agencies. And while Hochul takes pains to portray herself as a reasonable foil to Zeldin, she can strike a similarly Orwellian tone: “You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway?” she asked as she and Adams unveiled a new program of subway-car cameras. “You’re absolutely right. That is our intent.”

It’s unclear how many votes Hochul can win by following Zeldin’s lead and parroting Adams’ rhetoric, but she needs every vote she can get. Some polls put her just four points ahead of Zeldin, a dismal showing for a liberal in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one. An unelected incumbent, Hochul’s position was never ideal, but for a Democrat to lose the New York governor’s race less than six months after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade would be a bag-fumbling for the history books. Such failure could plunge the state into chaos overnight, with a hardcore conservative governor using every trick in the book of executive overreach to restrict abortion and brutalize suspected criminals. But regardless of who wins, the unpopular ex-cop who runs New York City appears set to get what he wants: a city overrun by cops.

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