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New York governor recalibrates on crime, with control of the House at stake

August 9, 2023 Anthony Izaguirre, Associated Press
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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is toughening her public safety platform to help Democrats retake control of the House, a strategic reset after Republicans won a series of upsets in the state’s congressional races by seizing on concerns over crime.

The recalibration follows a disastrous midterm election cycle for Democrats in New York after Republicans flipped four U.S. House seats in the state last year, helping them win control of the chamber.

The Democratic losses were blamed by many, including those in her own party, on Hochul’s apparent failure to mount a forceful, top of the ticket response to fears about crime, a key Republican point that resonated with voters in New York City’s suburbs.

Ahead of next year’s election, the governor has begun amplifying centrist tweaks to the state’s bail laws as well as a slate of new policies on firearms.

“You can’t say you’re serious about fighting crime if you’re not serious about getting illegal guns off our streets,” Hochul said at a recent gun crime prevention news conference with New York City Mayor Eric Adams. “Democrats, Democratic-led states and mayors are focused on one thing, and that’s keeping our citizens safe.”

The reset puts the moderate Hochul in the middle of a national debate between the Democratic Party’s liberal wing and its centrists over how best to reduce injustice in law enforcement while attending to concerns about public safety.

Republicans are expected to continue hammering Democrats over New York’s bail laws, which were overhauled in 2019 to eliminate an old system that allowed wealthier people accused of crimes to pay cash to get out of jail while awaiting trail, while imprisoning poorer people because they couldn’t afford to buy their freedom. Under the new system, most people accused of nonviolent crimes aren’t required to pay money to stay out of jail while their cases move through the courts.

The GOP, which says the new bail system is putting hardened criminals back on the street, is betting voters won’t see Hochul’s adjustments to the bail law as having addressed its weaknesses.

“Until people see meaningful change on the ground, no one’s going to buy it,” said David Laska, spokesman for the New York Republican Party.

Still, things have changed since the midterms. Back then, many voters were fearful about an uptick in violent crime during the pandemic. Crime statistics, however, have improved substantially since then. Shootings, for example, have plummeted 28% in New York City so far this year, compared to 2022. Suburban voters may not be bombarded with as many disturbing headlines depicting a city in distress.

The governor had a tight race herself in 2022 after her opponent, Republican Lee Zeldin, zeroed in on crime, with many arguing Hochul did not address the issue urgently.

The following year she made changing the bail laws a priority and held up the state budget for several weeks as she negotiated with progressive Democrats on adjustments.

She has touted this year’s changes — which allow judges greater discretion over whether to jail a suspect before trial — as a platform for congressional candidates to show voters that the party takes public safety seriously.

Hochul has also made gun control a major policy issue, particularly after a mass shooting in her hometown of Buffalo, signing legislation that bans guns from such places as schools, playgrounds and Times Square. Gun advocates say banning lawfully owned firearms from public places only makes them less secure.

“Governor Hochul has consistently said public safety is her top priority, and works every day to make New York safer,” said Brian Lenzmeier, senior political advisor for Hochul’s campaign.

Party leaders also anticipate that a proposal to enshrine abortion protections into the state constitution that is on the 2024 ballot will help drive turnout in their favor.

Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, who last year defeated the chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm to win a seat in the Hudson Valley that was considered Democratic territory, said the governor’s messaging doesn’t address voters’ underlying concerns.

“What the governor fails to recognize is it’s not necessarily the messaging, it’s the policies, and the policies have been horrifically bad,” Lawler said. “They think just running a coordinated campaign and singing off the same song sheet is going to solve their problems, but again, it’s not addressing the fundamental failure here, which is the policies.”

New York Democrats are set to get a $45 million advertising blitz from the top Democratic House PAC, a signal of the national party’s focus on the state as an avenue to regain a House majority. The sum is more than three times the amount the group spent in New York last year.

Hochul herself has proved an effective fundraiser, taking in more than $4.5 million for her own campaign so far this year. She also raised another $1.5 million for the state Democratic Party for down ballot races, part of a larger campaign coordination and fundraising effort with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

Against the political messaging backdrop, a legal battle over the state’s congressional lines has reached New York’s highest court and could end up reshaping districts before the next election.

Hochul and the Democrats are backing the lawsuit, which seeks to redraw the congressional lines that were used last year. Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to make districts less competitive.

The state’s highest court is expected to take up the case later this year.


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