SCHENECTADY — Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin has an opportunity to attract undecided and Democratic voters during November’s election due to his stance on criminal justice reforms and growing concerns about public safety, former New York Gov. George Pataki said Tuesday.
Zeldin, a Long Island congressman, has been railing against criminal justice forms approved by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature in 2019, arguing the changes are responsible for a rise in violent crime and have made New Yorkers less safe. He has also criticized Democrats, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, for failing to protect New Yorkers and has vowed to try to repeal the changes if elected.
“Crime is not a partisan issue,” Pataki said. “It’s something that affects you. Most importantly, it affects the people living in low-income communities who are most often victims of violent crime. Certainly, Democratic voters are going to take a look and say, ‘I don’t want this.’”
Pataki, a Republican who served three terms as governor from 1995 to 2006, weighed in on November’s election during a brief stop in Schenectady, where he toured the development of downtown 24 years after signing legislation that created the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, which many view as the catalyst that sparked downtown’s redevelopment.
He also gave his thoughts on Monday’s FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to release additional information on what prompted the search, and raised concerns that the raid could have been politically motivated.
“I’m shocked by it,” he said. “Either they have clear evidence of a very serious crime, like treason having been committed, in which case it is an appropriate act. Or, it troubles me enormously that the Justice Department has evolved into a political operation with a double standard depending on your party. We don’t know yet.”
Asked by a reporter if he sees any comparisons to Zeldin’s campaign and his own in 1994 against former Gov. Mario Cuomo, Pataki said both campaigns are similar, noting that public safety was the cornerstone of his campaign, which included a platform for stiffer sentences for violent criminals and reinstituting the death penalty amid some of the worst crime rates in the country at the time.
Pataki said the state is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to crime and that he’s worried if state lawmakers don’t scrap criminal justice reforms, New York will become one of the most violent states in the country.
“Crime is out of control and not just in New York City, but in other parts of the state as well. To me it’s so disappointing because the most important thing government does is provide for the safety of citizens, and New York state is failing,” he said.
The former governor’s remarks align with public opinion polls released in recent months that have found crime and public safety are the top issues for voters heading into this year’s election.
Last week, a poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute found Hochul had a 14-point lead over Zeldin, 53% to 39% among likely voters.
“Fourteen weeks is a long time in politics, and we know most voters don’t really begin to focus on elections till after Labor Day,” Siena pollster Steve Greenberg said in a released statement. “Still, Hochul has an early — but certainly not insurmountable — lead.”
Changes to the state’s criminal justice law have been under constant attack by Republicans, law enforcement officials and even some moderate Democrats since first being approved in 2019.
The changes included the end of cash bail for certain misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies and modifications to the discovery process intended to expedite the process of turning over evidence, which proponents have said creates a more equitable system.
But the law has since been tweaked twice, in 2020 and 2022, to expand what crimes would be bail eligible and to give judges more discretion in certain cases.
Several prominent Democrats in recent days, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Albany County District Attorney David Soares, have called for the Legislature to hold a special session to further amend the law. Soares also called for changes to a law that raised the age for criminality to 18 in New York.
The renewed push comes amid an increase in violent crime that has swept the nation, including New York.
Violent crime, including murder and rape, in New York increased 7.9% between 2021 and 2020, growing from 70,708 incidents statewide in 2020 to 76,229 in 2021, according to data compiled by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Violent crime mostly had been on the decline in the state since 2012, when 79,301 violent incidents were reported.
But Democratic lawmakers, including Hochul, have said changes were made to the law earlier this year and that judges have enough resources to ensure public safety as a result.
But Patiki said he disagrees.
“You see Mayor Adams saying Albany has failed us. I think it shows that the city can’t do it alone,” he said. “Other communities in the state can’t do it alone. We need to change the laws in Albany from top to bottom when it comes to crime.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.