This week our publisher S. Mitra Kalita spoke with civics reporter Felipe De La Hoz to answer some last-minute elections questions.
Felipe! It’s Mitra again, publisher of Epicenter and leader of the No-Dumb-Questions movement. Before we begin, I want to thank you for writing one of the earliest “MAGA is in blue New York!” stories I read. I have returned to it a few times over the last few weeks to understand all the noise around me. So with just a few days to go before Election Day, I hoped you might answer a few questions for us once again.
Mitra: How did Gov. Kathy Hochul get to this place where the polls are so close? Do you think she is at risk of losing to Republican Lee Zeldin? Where does it seem a close vote?
Felipe: Fundamentally, I think Hochul and the Democratic party apparatus in New York wrote off this race. It’s not that a Republican being elected governor of New York is some unheard-of eventuality — George Pataki served three terms and left office just 16 years ago — but Hochul entered the heat of the election as a relatively popular incumbent in a state where the Democrats do still have a substantial advantage.
She seemed to have competently handled the Covid-19 crisis, and was quick to make allies and jettison the abrasive bully image that had characterized the Cuomo years. She made a point to get chummy with NYC’s popular new Black Mayor Eric Adams, strove to find common ground with a legislature with which Cuomo had often clashed, and relied on local surrogates to make her case in New York City, an incredibly important part of a statewide electoral campaign in which she had limited name recognition as a politician from western New York.
There were some stumbles, no doubt. One of those surrogates, Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, resigned after being indicted on federal bribery charges. Everyone hated the Buffalo Bills stadium deal, where the team got hundreds of millions in public funds. Still, it was largely smooth sailing for a while and team Hochul got complacent, particularly because Lee Zeldin isn’t exactly a superstar candidate. He has proven, however, to be an effective enough receptacle for a number of public discontents, particularly around crime (more on that later) and has been aggressively promoting himself in a way that Hochul hasn’t really, until pretty recently. I do still think she’s going to win, but it’s much closer than Democrats are comfortable with.
Mitra: Personal question, but also asking for many friends: Let’s say you’re a woman of color who doesn’t want to be under attack for … existing. Let’s say you have daughters and want to make sure there’s abortion access and birth control, too. Let’s say you have many undocumented neighbors who rely on city and state services to get through … life. Should we be worried?
Felipe: Oof well, that’s a heavy one. Short answer is: there is plenty of cause to be worried, but we have to temper that with the understanding that there’s no world where NYC goes hard right, and even throughout the Trump years and such it was a relatively solid bulwark doing its own thing to counterbalance the president’s policies. It’s the sort of city that will approve noncitizen voting (since blocked by a judge but hey, they tried), or institute a public managed care plan so that the uninsured will have access to hospitals.
That said, a victory for Zeldin would obviously shift things around. At a moment where we’re facing a deluge of conspiracies and election-denying sentiment in the extreme right wing, a posture that threatens democracy itself, Zeldin has long been close with the chief flame-fanner, former President Donald Trump. In fact, it’s been reported that the congressman was in touch with the Trump team as the latter was involved in strategizing on how to contest the 2020 presidential election, and offered thoughts on the matter. He has since downplayed his role, but the text speaks for itself.
On abortion specifically, Zeldin has long supported national restrictions, including pledges to defund Planned Parenthood, a fact that Hochul has now seized on as an electoral attack on him. Zeldin knows he’s still running in New York and can read the tea leaves, and so has emphasized that he will not try to change New York’s abortion laws if he wins, but campaign promises are cheap. The legislature would likely still be a bulwark against any such attempts, but the governor has substantial leverage to shape policy, including through the budget negotiating process.
Zeldin has, like many Republicans in New York and around the country, fixated on crime, and particularly New York’s oft-controversial bail reform laws. In office, he would likely work to roll them back further than they were already softened since their 2019 enactment, and probably make some other moves on crime which, obviously, could have an overwhelming impact on low-income and communities of color in NYC in particular.
Mitra: Zoom out for me: NY is a blue state and NYC is a bluer city? Does my vote matter? Tell me again why I need to do this.
Felipe: Your vote always matters, and I say this with even some envy as someone who can’t yet vote. To get a little existential about it, in the U.S. we’ve come to accept this culture of being rather cavalier about voting, and I think it helps to understand that, globally, that’s not the norm. In a survey of democracies, the U.S. ranked 31st in turnout, far below countries including Mexico, Australia, and Sweden, and that’s for national elections. New York City itself has seen abysmal turnout recently, hovering around 10 percent; some of that is due to practical factors like the prevalence of noncitizens, but a lot of it is apathy, driven in part by a sense that it doesn’t matter much, the Democrats will win.
The Democrats probably will win, but the state at large is an unexpected battleground, with several House races in close contention, which could in theory determine control of Congress as a whole. There are also multiple ballot proposals that are subject to a statewide vote, and which are worth weighing in on.
Mitra: Speaking of ballot proposals, as we’ve been out there reminding people to make sure they vote and FLIP that ballot over to answer the questions. Is there a percentage they need to pass by or does a single vote do it?
Felipe: The ballot proposals have to get a single vote over 50% approval (by those who actually vote, as opposed to leaving it blank, so make sure you flip over your ballot).
Mitra: What news sources are you watching on election night?
Felipe: NY1 is always a classic, and they will no doubt have people at various headquarters and watch parties for New York races. For granular policy analysis and such, Gotham Gazette is good, and to keep up with the national races, the New York Times does a decent job. Really, though, the action is on Twitter, where people will be dissecting and discussing the results and their implications in real time (yes, even after the Elon Musk takeover).
Mitra: What has been the most memorable moment from the run up to midterms?
Felipe: I wish I could recall something funny or amusing, but really what stands out to me is the prevalence of election deniers on the ballot around the country, and the sense, like we had in the aftermath of the 2020 election, that we’re standing at a bit of a precipice for our democracy. People like Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake are unabashed anti-democratic figures, who want, fundamentally, to stop having free and fair elections, and soon there might be a lot more of them with real power. It’s been a sobering trajectory to watch, and it won’t lead anywhere good.
Mitra: Once and for all, is crime really worse?
Felipe: This could be its entire separate newsletter, so I’ll try to keep it succinct, including with this graph of NYPD’s own CompStat data of NYC murders going back some three decades:
This is certainly not the sense you get from reading the news these days. I will also leave you with this excellent chart from a terrific Bloomberg News story about the mismatch between crime coverage and the actual incidence of crime:
Some crime trend lines have gotten worse in the last couple of years, no doubt, but the thing about a low baseline is that, 1+1 is a doubling but 2 is not a large number. It sounds scarier if you say “50% increase!” but it is decontextualized. Crime is, from a historical perspective, very low.