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The NYN Interview: Lee Zeldin

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Rep. Lee Zeldin is the Republican nominee in this year's race for New York governor. 

He joins us to discuss his background, top issues facing New Yorkers, and more.


DAN CLARK: I want to start with a little get to know you couple of questions. A recent Marist poll said that about 27% of voters don't really know enough about you to have an opinion just yet. So can you take me through a little bit on your background? We have the whole show to talk about anything under the sun, so I want to start with: who is Lee Zeldin?

LEE ZELDIN: So I'm a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised. I've lived in New York my entire life except for four years; I was on active duty in the Army. When I came back off active duty, my daughters were very young, they were only about a year old. And we moved about a mile or so from where I grew up. I grew up in Suffolk County, but I ended up spending a lot of time in the summers in Sullivan County. I would go up to Lake George with the family, often every summer, college and law school in Albany. I did Army RTC, commissioned as a second Lieutenant Military Intelligence Corps out of graduating, finishing the Army ROTC program. I actually was assigned in New York for six years with the Army Reserve based in Albany in Schenectady. Have been assigned in Farmingdale and on Staten Island, including some other assignments out of state as well. So I currently serve in my 20th year. I'm married, my wife's named Diana. The two of us have twin, beautiful 16-year-old girls, Mikayla and Arianna. And they've been through an awful a lot in their life. They were born 14 and a half weeks early.

DC: That must have been scary.

LZ: They were a pound and a half when they were born, the girls. They went through a lot, both in the first couple weeks; lung surgery, intestinal surgery. Mikayla was two weeks old, an extra pound of fluid, septic shock, 80 to 90% mortality rate, had a stroke. Doctors recommended we discontinue treatment and let her go, but she was not getting any worse. But she wasn't getting any better, so she was clearly fighting. So we figured, if she's gonna fight, we're gonna fight too.

We elected to do a very risky brain surgery on her. Said goodbye, didn't know if we were ever gonna see her again. Doctors came out after the surgery and said, "She's not outta the woods, but things went better than expected." I remember my wife and I high-fiving each other. And actually the whole experience left one third of the left side of her brain a hole. But because she was only 27 weeks along in, in development, her brain re-circuited itself around the hole.

None of what they were telling us was likely. They were saying that she was not gonna be able to see, walk, talk, and will have cerebral palsy. This is what they're telling us when they're trying to talk us into letting her go. But some early intervention, and Mikayla and Arianna are doing great, 11th grade girls, and that's, you know, that's part of the story. 

I'm in my fourth term serving in the United States House of Representatives. I served four years, two terms in New York State Senate and I look forward in January to serve as New York's next governor and coming up to Albany and hopefully saving our state.

DC: Something that I haven't talked to you about is your time in active duty - you were stationed overseas?

LZ: So I spent four years on active duty. I was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then when I was in Iraq, it was Tikrit, Iraq. I started as a military intelligence officer. I switched over to the the JAG Corps. I was a military attorney, I was a paratrooper, jumped out of airplanes, did all that stuff too. Four years of very adventurous time on active dut. I'm in my 20th year today in the Army Reserve.



"When we talk about rising crime and making our streets safer, you don't have to be a Republican or a Democrat to feel like this is an important issue that Albany needs to do a better job focusing on."


DC: So that same Marist poll that I mentioned at the start puts you 10 points behind Governor Hochul right now. Which might sound bad to some people, but it's actually very close. If you, if the election was held today and you ended 10 points behind her, or she ended 10 points behind you, either way, that would be close. That would be the closest margin in 20 years I think. So you're certainly making ground, but to win, I think everyone would agree, you need to pick up Democrat and Independent votes, especially in New York City. What's your pitch to them?

LZ: Well, first off the great news, you'll be thrilled to hear this, Dan, is that the race is actually even tighter than that. I mean that poll was registered voters. Even as that poll whittled down the numbers to try to figure out who's likely to vote, the numbers get closer. They also sampled about 26% Republican voters. That number will actually be closer to 30. If you look closer at the poll, you'll see big enthusiasm gaps, not just between parties, but also geographically. We've been tracking the poll close, the polls closer, and the Trafalgar poll about a week and a half ago, two weeks ago, said that it was a 2% race and we're gonna win. George Pataki, at the end of that race in '94 against Mario Cuomo, there were six public polls that came out the last week. He was down in all six. Four of the six had him down double digits. That was the last week of that race and he ended up winning. Now as far as communicating with voters of New York, there's so many issues that it doesn't matter what party you are, you care about the issue.

So when we talk about rising crime and making our streets safer, you don't have to be a Republican or a Democrat to feel like this is an important issue that Albany needs to do a better job focusing on. What I have found is that there's so many New Yorkers who are hitting their breaking point in this state, and they're deciding whether or not to even stay here. They've spent their whole lives in New York, they actually have always loved it here. They wanna stay, but they just decide they can't. From the economics to some, talking to me about education, others citing issues that you might even say are related to freedom. People are looking at other states and they feel like their American dream is no longer a New York dream. So we're just going to continue to work hard all day every day, taking nothing for granted. One of the biggest contrasts between Kathy Hochul and I, is that she's not really campaigning. I'm out there campaigning hard to earn the support of New Yorkers. 

All day, every day. This is something where I have, I have so much respect for the voters that I believe that we should have multiple debates all across the entire state. I mean, we should come back here and be sitting right next to each other.

You know, Kathy Hochul and I should be here to answer whatever questions that you have for your audience. When I first ran for reelection to the House it was 2016. I was pulling 15, 20, 25 points up in our internal polls. I could have easily followed a rose garden strategy and decided I'm just gonna focus on being a congressman, but I'm not gonna actually go out there and campaign in front of all of these voters and answer all of their questions. But you know what? In 2016, my first time running for reelection, and despite all of the polls that had us way up, I agreed to over 20 joint appearances with my opponent that year. 

And you had all these people who wanted us to come before them to answer their questions. I feel like we owe it to them. You know, Hochul's trying to get away with just one debate for one hour at the very end of October, over a month after the start of absentee voting. Quite frankly, as debates should have started, I was just looking at all of the debates that have just happened, you know, within the last 24 hours of you and I sitting down here and all across the entire country. We're talking about governor's races, Senate races, House races. We're looking at some of these people running for state legislative seats. So whether you're running for higher office, you're running for President of the United States, they do multiple debates. I think that that level of accountability is owed out of respect to the voters.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – September 5, 2022: New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin (middle) marches with lieutenant governor candidate Alison Esposito (left) at the West Indian Day Parade. (SHUTTERSTOCK)

DC: You've been campaigning a lot in New New York City - that's key for you to win this election. New York City and the suburbs especially. You're up upstate, not a lot of surprises there, I don't think. In New York City, a big issue right now is this migrant crisis, these people being bused to the city and the city trying to figure out what to do about it. And the governor trying to figure out what to do about it. If you are elected in November, I'm assuming this will still be a crisis by then. What will you do?

LZ: Yeah, yeah. I know it will be. So that's a good take that you have. Listen, regardless of blue state, red state battles between governors, you could have blue state versus red state battles amongst mayors. Even if they all got totally on the same page, I mean a hundred percent perfect chemistry to solve this, it still would be more of an issue tomorrow because people are still coming into the country in large numbers. And it's not just about people. It's also things like fentanyl, which is killing our kids and others. So you really need the federal government to step in and lead to act. I've called on the federal government to do a number of different things that I believe would help. I believe that it would be great if the governor, Governor Hochul, would call up President Biden and say that he needs to step in and do these things.

Finish construction of the border wall, end catch and release, and force the 'Remain in Mexico' policy, support our customs and border patrol agents, stop incentivizing and rewarding illegal entry. This is my opinion. Now, if Governor Hochul disagrees with any of those policies, then she should state so, but you have to be calling for some type of an action to secure our southern border. The idea that this is just about getting a check from the federal government, that actually doesn't solve it. Because if you got a check today to cover everyone who has come into the state by now, you still are gonna have more of an issue tomorrow because people are still coming across our southern border. And by the way, we had an issue here before the first bus arrived. I mean we had planes coming in for a while that people were getting flown in. They were coming to Westchester and Stewart. Now they're coming into Montgomery, still coming in to Montgomery. Regardless of whether people are coming by planes, whether they're coming by buses. 

This is the other thing that's important: New Yorkers want transparency. New Yorkers want to know who's coming, where are they coming from and where they're going. And I think the other aspect of the way Kathy Hochul is failing is that beyond calling on the federal government to act and laying out the specifics, I lay out the specifics of what I believe. Whether you agree with it or not, I'll at least tell you what I believe the federal government could and should do. But I also believe that's important for this governor to be providing that transparency that New Yorkers are insisting on.

DC: So that's a New York City issue mostly. But there's a, there's a big issue that's affecting the whole state, I mean, the whole country, really, is this inflation issue and cost of living. I mean, cost of living in New York hasn't really been going down. It's certainly been going up. That hasn't helped with the nationwide cost of living going up with inflation. It must be frustrating because some of these things, as governor, would be out of your hands. You can't really control inflation nationwide. You can't control the cost of gas nationwide. You can't really control the cost of gas, to some extent, in New York. If you're elected in November, what do you do? What could you do to give New Yorkers some immediate relief in that first six months in office?

LZ: Well, for one, I, I would say that there's something important that could be done. My position as it relates to energy policy is that I've spent a lot of time on the Southern Tier and I've come across a whole lot of New Yorkers who are begging for the state to reverse the ban on the extraction of natural gas. And they look over into Pennsylvania, and they're seeing where these communities, Republicans and Democrats, this isn't a party thing on the other side of the border, where they're tapping into the same resource, same shale named after two New York towns by the way. And other states tapping into the same resource, same shale. And the threats that were made up in Albany to get the ban put into place are not actually playing out in these other states. 



"I am going to declare a crime emergency in New York. Actually think Governor Hochul should do it today, but I'll do it on my first day."


I believe that New York should reverse its ban on the safe extraction of natural gas. The Southern Tier's begging for it. I believe that New York could be exporting energy to other states, that New York could be exporting energy to other countries. We could bring down energy costs. When I was at Anne's Pancakes in the Southern Tier a few weeks back, when I walked in, a lot of hungry patrons, electric was out. But they still got their pancakes because they don't just operate on electric, they operate on gas. There are people up in Albany right now who feel like Anne's Pancakes shouldn't be allowed to hook up into gas. If you wanna put solar panels on your home, God bless you. I mean, I believe in choice. I believe in all across this entire state, whatever, I'm an all of the above energy guy. I believe that if you have a big piece of property, you want to throw up a windmill, throw up a windmill, that's fine. But other people, they want to be able to access gas. You know, as far as inflation and what can the state do about it, the spending's been outta control in this state and it's resulting in not just a need for higher taxes, but the trajectory that we're on is going to result in them needing to have even higher taxes. So many New Yorkers pay the highest income tax rate in the higher country.

You have to understand that breaking point is amongst people who are struggling to afford to survive here in New York. Young families starting their kid in the basement of mom and dad's house are buying your own home. Seniors who are leaving, spent their whole lives here, love it, but can't afford to stay. And then there's also people who can afford to pay more in taxes. They'll say, "You know what? if you're gonna raise my taxes by a percent, I'm just gonna call my accountant, call my attorney and move to some other state. And now I'm not giving you anything." We have to bring spending under control, the tens of billions of increase from the last few years. And just like the way that they're so fiscally irresponsible that they would get bailouts from the federal government, we've gotten multiple, and then instead of paying off the federal unemployment insurance loan that you're getting to pay, pay down the principle like other, a bunch of other states did, they decide to kick the can down the road. And what ends up happening is that these businesses get hit with a surprise letter from the Department of Labor saying in the beginning of September, we're gonna go to your pocket, we're gonna go to your wallet to pay for our fiscal mismanagement up in Albany. So I just believe that right now there's a lack of balance as it relates to fiscal policy in Albany. And on the spending side and on the tax side, this is something that is absolutely unsustainable.

DC:  So the budget is currently at $220 billion. It's not a small amount by any means. Do you have a target where you would want to get that down to in terms of cutting spending and where would you want to cut? Do you have anywhere that you would go after first?

LZ:  Yeah, so I believe that this needs to be viewed multi-year. One of the mistakes that we make in the way we do budgeting in Albany is that it's year-to-year. If it's education dollars, the timing lines up where a school district has to finalize their budget 'cause it's coming out for a vote and they don't even know how much education dollars they're gonna get.

They should not only already know how much education aid they're gonna get the next school year, they should actually have a pretty good idea how much school aid they're probably gonna be getting the year after that and year after that and year after that so that they can do long-term planning. So multi-year budgeting is something that we need to get into the practice of. You need to come up with more trajectories, more advancement in your proposals beyond just getting past that next budget. 

Now as it relates to specifically the Medicaid budget, Medicaid serves an important purpose and it needs to efficiently serve that purpose. There are individuals who make seven, eight figures off of milking the Medicaid system. They are abusing the Medicaid system. We saw it with the first conversion to manage longterm care with the first Medicaid redesign team. And the way that there was this race going on to sign up healthy people where they're getting paid, even if that person was healthy, actually targeting people, was reported that they were targeting people who would be showing up at the local senior center. You know, if they're walking there, riding their bike there, maybe they're playing ping pong at the senior center, well, they're more active, they look healthy, it's a better investment. You're signing them up, you're making the money, but you don't have to actually pay, pay out the service.

LZ: This is something that was proposed to be fixed in a big way in the second Medicaid redesign team.

DC: Right, MRT II.

LZ: MRT II. And by the way, I was critical of Governor Cuomo's MRT I for doing this, at the same time, Governor Cuomo's MRT II, I was working with them to help them fix it. And they needed permission from the federal government to be able to make the MRT II change. The craziest part of it was that there was a, you need a four-way agreement, Republican, Democrat, House, and Senate. And we worked the entire process and we got sign off from three of the four. They signed off on the change that was needed to federal law that would allow Governor Cuomo to go forward with this change that would save billions of dollars to New York taxpayers.

DC: Who is the person who didn't?

LZ: One of the four from New York. We have to be pursuing a number of efficiencies that are right in front of us. Medicaid is just one of the many examples. I feel like we just need to, across the board, find every possible way to make state government operate more efficiently. I oppose the Excluded Workers Fund, one that was first created with the budget in the spring of 2021. That was a multi-billion dollar fund. There are many opportunities in the state budget to not save millions, but to save billions.

And by the way, also the trajectory in the future, it's also just important, like the mindset. If you get a one shot from the federal government to the state, the baseline can't be what the $220 billion number that you said, well, what are you gonna cut? Well, what we received was a massive billion, a massive bailout last year that there's no hint is coming again. Maybe there will be another one. But our mentality needs to stop being that when you get that bailout and then you spend it and that get, you end up with a higher budget item, that can't continue to be the next baseline. 'Cause $220 billion is far more than what our state should be passing in the annual budget.

DC: We have a few minutes left, but I wanna wrap up with a very different topic of crime. You recently said that if you were elected you'll suspend certain laws, the state's new cashless bail law, HALT, which is about solitary confinement in state prisons and the Raise the Age law. Can you talk about what that would look like? You would have to obviously declare a state of emergency on crime and then would you be looking to suspend those whole laws or do you want to kind of take pieces of them to suspend and keep others?

LZ: Well, first off, I look forward to working with the legislature to find common ground however possible. I want the legislature and Governor Hochul to do this today. I want them to fix this law. There was a mother of three who was just murdered outside of Buffalo by her husband in front of her three kids by somebody released the day before, charged with a slew of domestic violence offenses, and the judge couldn't keep this person detained. The mother was saying, "If you let him loose, he's going to kill me." And when she was murdered, she was wearing a bulletproof vest. I believe that judge should have discretion to weigh dangerousness. This isn't a Republican versus Democratic issue. Mayor Adams, the Democratic mayor of the City of New York, says that there should be a special session and we should overhaul cashless bail and give judges discretion to weigh dangerousness and amend Raise the Age, and he's right. I spent time all around the state, I've lost count of how many dozens of times I've been inside of Rochester and Syracuse and Buffalo. My first six months in the campaign I went to a campaign in every county in the state at least twice, and we just kept on going. Now if you go, you're near Malone in Franklin County, they might talk to you about the HALT Act more than if you are walking the streets of Manhattan.

And since April 1st, these numbers have gone up because of the HALT Act. And by the way, solitary confinement isn't like what people are used to like in the movies. Solitary confinement isn't like solitary confinement was. So I just gave you an example of a couple points, cashless bail, referenced Raise the Age, I mentioned the HALT Act. There's some issues where less is more. There's some issues related to the discovery law changes that were made. We have to make the streets of New York safe. That is a job always. No one should ever say, "Oh no, our job here is all done." So what I hope for is that I want, every single day, I wake up in the morning hoping that that day the state legislature and governor decides to get their act together, come January, to force the state legislature to the table. 

I am going to declare a crime emergency in New York. Actually think Governor Hochul should do it today, but I'll do it on my first day. And I would suspend these individual laws related to cashless bail and the others that we were just discussing. And the state legislature, if they have their own ideas of what they think is better, come meet with me. Let's work together to find common ground however possible to make New York safer.


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