It is hard to imagine two Democrats more ideologically divergent than Jumaane D. Williams and Thomas R. Suozzi. But for an hour Tuesday night, they set all that aside in favor of a shared mission: Shoving Gov. Kathy Hochul off an apparent glide path to a full term as governor.
With three weeks until Primary Day, the two Democrats threw everything they could at Ms. Hochul. They blamed her for doing too little to confront elevated crime rates and street violence, accused her of selling out taxpayers in a sweetheart stadium deal for her hometown Buffalo Bills and compared her to her disgraced predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo.
“She pledged to make it the most ethical, the most transparent government in the history of New York State,” said Mr. Suozzi, a centrist congressman from Long Island. “And that simply hasn’t happened.”
Both candidates repeatedly accused Ms. Hochul of being beholden to special interests, from Delaware North, the hospitality and gaming company that employs her husband, to the National Rifle Association, which once endorsed her in a race for Congress.
“We asked for $1 billion to be put in for gun violence,” said Mr. Williams, New York City’s left-leaning public advocate. “What we got was $1 billion for building the stadium that hired her husband.”
The result was a disjointed debate—the first major contest featuring the three Democratic candidates for governor—in which personal confrontation often obscured the candidates’ competing visions for New York.
With a commanding lead in the polls and a firm grip on the powers of the governor’s office, Ms. Hochul tried to avoid the fracas. She was determined to deny oxygen to her opponents’ attacks and cast herself as a guardian of liberal values at a time when some rights, and Democratic hold on power, appear under threat nationally.
She spoke enthusiastically about a package of gun bills that she signed into law on Monday in response to a spate of mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, Texas, and elsewhere, and promised to make New York a national leader for abortion rights if the Supreme Court strikes down the federal protections in Roe v. Wade this month, as expected.
“No governor has done more in less time to address gun violence,” she said, adding later: “We led the nation.”
But Ms. Hochul, who took office less than a year ago after her predecessor resigned, still spent much of the night on the defensive, trying to explain past positions and actions taken by her young administration on guns, crime and her ethical record.
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She said that the return on the $600 million the state has agreed to contribute to the new Buffalo Bills stadium would “far exceed the investment,” which she called a priority for Western New York. Ms. Hochul also said her husband had nothing to do with the deal, and defended his ethical record.
“They literally sell beer and hot dogs at the games,” she said, referring to Delaware North, which provides concessions at the Bills stadium.
She did not try to duck her past support from the NRA, but when repeatedly challenged by Mr. Suozzi — “Only one of us up here has ever been endorsed by the NRA,” he said — she suggested that her record in recent weeks proved that her views have evolved.
“Judge me on what I’ve done,” she said. “A lot of people have evolved since I took that position. You know what we need? More people to evolve.”
She acknowledged that the indictment of her handpicked lieutenant governor, Brian A. Benjamin, had been a “disappointment” and a setback for her efforts to restore confidence in Albany after years of corruption charges and Mr. Cuomo’s resignation in the face of mounting sexual harassment claims.
And she stood by the modest changes included in this year’s $220 billion state budget to strengthen bail restrictions and tighten rules for repeat offenders.
Mr. Suozzi, again, has pilloried the governor for not going farther at a time of heightened fear about crime in New York City, by allowing judges to consider the “dangerousness” of a defendant when determining bail.
“The governor says she cares about crime, she wants to address crime, but she does nothing to fix bail reform,” he said Tuesday night, stressing that combating gun violence and cutting taxes would be his top priorities.
But Ms. Hochul did not yield.
“What we gave the judges is better than this vague term that sometimes can be subjective and used against an individual because of the color of their skin,” she said.
Amid the personal barbs, there were clear differences on policy visions, particularly between Mr. Williams, 46, a New York City progressive, and Ms. Hochul, 63, and Mr. Suozzi, 59, more moderate lawmakers with roots in the suburbs.
Mr. Williams said he would be in favor of extending voting rights to green card holders in cities across the state, as New York City recently did. Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Hochul said no.
Mr. Williams also repeatedly pushed for the state to take a more aggressive approach to combating climate change. He said he would immediately implement a congestion pricing plan in New York City championed by environmental activists, which Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Hochul said must be delayed.
“Climate change was an abysmal failure in this legislature,” Mr. Williams, pointing out that lawmakers and the governor had failed to provide additional money to meet the state’s ambitious climate goals.
The debate was a major test for Ms. Hochul, who despite her clear lead, has yet to generate the kind of enthusiasm with voters that would ensure her victory in the June 28 primary and in this fall’s general election.
A new poll released earlier on Tuesday by Spectrum News NY1 and Siena College found that only 35 percent of New York City residents view Ms. Hochul as doing an “excellent” or “good” job, compared to 36 percent who rated her performance “fair ” and 18 percent who said it was “poor.”
Still, with just 21 days to go, the primary race remains Ms. Hochul’s to lose. The state’s powerful Democratic establishment has coalesced around the governor’s campaign, bolstering it with endorsements and five-figure checks so that she enters the final stretch with an unrivaled stockpile of cash, $18.6 million at last count.
The debate did offer some moments of levity and even the supernatural.
At one point, Mr. Suozzi, who is fond of speed-dialing reporters and supporters alike, said he could not live without his cellphone, and Mr. Williams professed a love of theater.
Asked whether they would support former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign for a New York City House seat, all three candidates smirked. Not lucky.
But the candidates were more receptive to talking about their communications with the afterlife when one of the moderators, Maurice DuBois from WCBS-TV, asked if they believed in ghosts.
“No. I believe in spirits, though,” Mr. Suozzi said. “Yes, I guess I do.”
Mr. Williams said he believed in an afterlife, and the current governor said he found strength in the great beyond, too.
“I speak to my mother all the time,” she said. “So yes, I do communicate with someone who is no longer with us.”
Four Republicans vying for their party’s nomination for governor will debate for the first time next week. They include Representative Lee Zeldin, Andrew Giuliani, Harry Wilson and Rob Astorino.