NEW YORK – Nine months after she stepped into the job of New York governor as a relative unknown, Democrat Kathy Hochul easily locked up her party's nomination Tuesday, setting her on an expected glide path to win the office in November.
Hochul was serving as an under-the-radar lieutenant governor under the shadow of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo until last year, when he resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, catapulting her into office.
Hochul beat back primary challenges Tuesday from New York City’s elected public advocate, Jumaane Williams, and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a moderate from Long Island. She now turns her eyes to becoming the first woman to win election to the New York governor’s office this fall.
In a nod to the barrier-breaking campaign, Hochul gave an election night speech Tuesday on a stage underneath a glass ceiling at an event space in Manhattan.
“I’m also here because I stand on the shoulders of generations of women, generations of women who constantly had to bang up against that glass ceiling. To the women of New York, this one’s for you," Hochul said.
Hochul enters the general election campaign with a big advantage, running as the incumbent with a heavy fundraising advantage in a state that has more than twice as many registered Democrats than Republicans and has not had a GOP governor in 16 years.
She faces U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, who won the Republican Party’s nomination Tuesday. Zeldin is a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump and was among the Republicans in Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election results.
“Are we ready to fire Kathy Hochul?” Zeldin said to cheers as he spoke at a victory party on Long Island.
The Long Island congressman will try to become the first Republican elected governor in New York since Gov. George Pataki was reelected in 2002.
“This November, in the state of New York, one-party rule will end," he said. "Kathy Hochul will get fired. We will restore balance and common sense to Albany again.”
Hochul's prospects are expected to be even stronger this fall after the U.S. Supreme Court last week overturned the Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights. She has made bolstering abortion rights a key plank of her campaign.
Hochul repeated that in her Tuesday night speech, proclaiming that the state had “gone on offense to protect abortion rights" and "making the world know that New York State is a safe harbor for America’s women.”
Since taking office in August, Hochul has sought to step out from Cuomo's shadow, promising a clean break from his administration. She has said she was not close to the former governor, who has denied wrongdoing, and was not around to witness any alleged misbehavior.
Still, Cuomo’s presence loomed over her campaign early on when he began making public appearances this past spring, criticizing Hochul and Democrats in Albany over their approach to crime and suggesting he might run for his old job. Despite suggesting he might run as an independent, the former governor ultimately did not file to run.
Zeldin is an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who has represented eastern Long Island in Congress since 2015.
He defeated primary challenges from former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, businessman Harry Wilson and Andrew Giuliani, the son of New York City’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who frequently campaigned for his son.
He has focused his campaign on rising crime and criticized Hochul for not toughening the state’s bail laws, for imposing COVID-19 mitigation mandates and for rising costs. And despite Hochul seeking to project a fresh start from Cuomo, Zeldin has referred repeatedly to the “Cuomo-Hochul Administration.”
“New Yorkers are hitting their breaking point. They’re deciding whether or not to stay here or head to other places," he said.
He will have to persuade the state’s independent voters, which outnumber Republicans, along with Democrats in order to win the general election. Democrats are expected to focus on Zeldin’s vocal defense of Trump during both of his impeachments and objection to the election results. Hochul is also likely to focus on Zeldin’s statements praising the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and his comment that, as governor, he would appoint an anti-abortion state health commissioner.
“We must answer one question,” she said Tuesday night. “Are we going to move New York forward, or let the far-right extremist drag our state backwards?”
Hochul focused her campaign on steps she took to bolster abortion rights and moves to toughen the state’s gun laws after a racist mass shooting in Buffalo.
Suozzi and Williams criticized her for her endorsement a decade ago from the National Rifle Association and over her plan to spend more than $1.1 billion in state and county funds on building and maintaining a new stadium for her hometown Buffalo Bills.
She also faced questions about her choice for lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who was arrested on federal corruption charges in April related to his campaign funds.
Benjamin pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing. Hochul pointed to the short time frame she had to pick a No. 2 and said she had been assured that any questions previously raised about Benjamin’s campaign fundraising had been resolved.
Hochul replaced Benjamin with Antonio Delgado, who stepped down from his seat in Congress to accept the role. Delgado, also Hochul's choice for a running mate, won his primary Tuesday. Zeldin's running mate Alison Esposito is the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.
Tuesday’s election in New York covered statewide offices and state Assembly races, but primary elections for U.S. House seats and the state Senate will be held Aug. 23. Those elections were delayed because of a redistricting lawsuit that led a court to throw out new political maps.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.