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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden and Clinton try to narrow Hochul’s enthusiasm gap in New York

upporters hold signs boosting Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the Republican candidate for governor, and his running mate, Alison Esposito, in a rally in Chester, N.Y., on Nov. 5, 2022.

By Jesse McKinley

Leaning on presidents past and present, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York barnstormed around the New York City area this weekend, furiously trying to stave off a major upset by focusing on areas where high Democratic voter turnout will be crucial for her chances.

In a eleventh-hour rally Sunday at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County, New York, President Joe Biden appeared with Hochul, calling her a governor who can “get things done” and characterizing Election Day as “a choice between two fundamentally different visions of America.”

“Democracy is literally on the ballot,” Biden said.

Speaking for a half-hour in front of crowd of college students and other supporters, Biden repeatedly criticized Hochul’s Republican opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin, for his stances on gun control and abortion and ridiculed his focus on crime as empty rhetoric.

“Gov. Hochul’s opponent talks a good game,” the president said. “But it’s all talk.”

The president’s visit underlined that the governor’s race in New York, once thought to be a worry-free contest for Democrats, has grown tighter, reflecting the party’s troubles across the nation.

His appearance came on the heels of an event in Brooklyn on Saturday with Bill Clinton, the former president, who urged party faithful to reject what he characterized as fearmongering and macho bravado voiced by Zeldin.

Democrats are girding for loss of the House and possibly the Senate, where races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin are all considered close to impossible to predict.

In New York, the governor’s race has become one of the more competitive in the nation, a shock in a liberal state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the governor’s mansion since George Pataki won a third term in 2002. Numerous polls have shown Hochul, a first-term Democrat who rose to power in August 2021 after the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, leading Zeldin by single digits even though her party has millions more registered voters in the state.

During the closing days of the campaign, Zeldin’s rhetoric on public safety and inflation seemed to be galvanizing and invigorating his supporters, like Tony Donato, 60, a retired 911 dispatcher from Warwick, New York, who said that a 2019 law that eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies “has got to go.”

“Criminal justice reform is killing cops,” said Donato, a registered Republican. “It’s making our prisons more unsafe for the corrections officers.”

While Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in New York, there are also millions of independents like Barrett Braithwaite, 42, who was shopping in downtown Brooklyn with her daughter Saturday afternoon. Braithwaite said she would probably vote Democrat but wasn’t especially excited about the election.

“I think everybody is tired, after the last few years, in politics and the pandemic,” she said. “Overall, everyone is just fatigued. But I’m trying.”

At the Brooklyn rally, Clinton suggested that Zeldin was preying on fears of crime, saying that he “makes it sound like Kathy Hochul gets up every morning, goes to the nearest subway stop and hands out billy clubs and baseball bats to everybody who gets on the subway.” He added that the congressman “looks like he’s auditioning to replace Dwayne Johnson in all those movies.”

At the same time, Zeldin held a series of rallies in the Hudson Valley and its environs, where three competitive congressional races may well determine control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats have sought to channel outrage over the overturning of Roe v. Wade, threats to democracy and the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, as well as the specter of former President Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in a state he once called home.

But Zeldin’s supporters seem to have little interest in such issues.

“Nobody cares about Jan. 6. Nobody cares about Trump,” James DiGraziano, 55, of Massapequa Park, said at a Zeldin rally last weekend featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Crime is at the top of the ticket.”

At rallies, many of Zeldin’s supporters said they planned to vote Tuesday, saying they didn’t trust the early voting system, a reflection of Trump’s and some other Republicans’ repeated, and unfounded, assertions of nefarious meddling in the 2020 election. Sunday was the last day for early voting, with hundreds of thousands of votes already cast in New York City, though that rate still lagged far behind 2020.

Jack Lanthan, a registered Republican and retired New York City police officer from Chester, where Zeldin held a lively rally Saturday night, said he’d vote Tuesday and was “amazed” that the Republican was seemingly running so close in “this dark blue state.”

“I hope the polls are right and he wins,” Lanthan said, noting high prices for gas and Sother things. “We need a change in Albany.”

Not everyone, however, was willing to blame Democrats for rising prices and other woes. At a Halloween rally in Queens, Andy Liu said the economy is one of his big concerns, but that he still feels “good with the Democratic Party.”

“They try to make everybody better,” said Liu, a 40-year-old cashier. “They care about everyone.”

Such were the arguments made by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, who spoke alongside Mayor Eric Adams, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, and Attorney General Letitia James, all from Brooklyn, a vote-rich borough which has long been critical to Democratic success in state elections.

Jeffries, whose 8th Congressional District includes a chunk of Brooklyn and a slice of Queens, urged the assembled crowd — many of whom were union members, another critical constituency in the Democratic calculus — to vote against what he called a virulent new brand of Republicanism, saying that his party fought for “the least, the lost and the left behind.”

As for Republicans, Jeffries said, “These people are out of control, they are off the chain.”

In his speech, Biden said Zeldin — who voted against certifying the 2020 election — and other “election deniers” were dangerously out of step with most New Yorkers — and Americans.

“These deniers not only are trying to deny your right to vote, they’re trying to deny your right to have your vote counted,” Biden said, adding, “With these election deniers, there are only two outcomes for any election. Either they win or they were cheated.”

He added, “You can’t only love the country when you win.”

Some voters seemed inclined to give Hochul the benefit of the doubt. Nia Howard, 30, said she felt the governor had been blamed for things beyond her control. “I don’t know how much she could’ve done better,” said Howard, who works in office administration. But she added: “The way the economy is, people are desperate.”

On Saturday in Chester, Zeldin was promising his fans a concession speech this week from “soon-to-be-former governor Kathy Hochul,” while mocking Hochul’s use of Clinton and Biden as surrogates.

“You know that you are really scraping the bottom of the barrel when that is your message as your final pitch,” said Zeldin, a conservative congressman who has voiced support for Trump and his agenda for much of the past six years.

He added that the very presence of such prominent Democrats — including earlier appearances by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Kamala Harris — spoke to Hochul’s concerns about the race.

“Why are you bringing all these people to New York if this race isn’t as close as we know it actually is?” Zeldin said.

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