By William Neuman
NEW YORK — As undercards go, it would be hard to go further under than this one.
On Wednesday morning, the two Democratic candidates for New York lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul and Jumaane Williams, squared off in a debate several hours before the anticipated slugfest between the headliners in the race for governor: Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon.
The event was so far under the radar that few could immediately watch it: It is not scheduled to air until Thursday – and even then, only on a Manhattan local access cable channel and online. The only audience for the half-hour debate was a handful of reporters watching on a monitor in an adjoining room.
That pretty much sums up the race for lieutenant governor: Two people whom few people know about, speaking without an audience about a job that attracts little attention.
Williams, a rabble-rousing New York City councilman who prefers to call himself an “activist/elected official” rather than a politician, said he thinks that should change.
“The lieutenant governor’s office has been one that simply does what the governor says to do,” Williams said as the debate began. He was eager, he said, to work with the governor when they agree. But when they do not, “Someone has to step up, stand out and have the courage to say, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’”
Hochul, the incumbent lieutenant governor who was previously a county clerk in Erie County and served briefly in Congress, punched back.
“As a strong woman, I do not do what men tell me to do,” Hochul said. “Four years ago, the people of the state of New York elected me to be a partner with Gov. Cuomo because, basically, they want us to get things done.”
Williams persisted: The job under Hochul and her predecessors, he said, has been largely ceremonial, a “ribbon-cutting role.”
Hochul said that Williams was denigrating her role. “I’m sorry,” she said, “when a ribbon is cut, that means something good and new is happening.”
Under questioning from the debate moderator, Ben Max, the executive editor of Gotham Gazette, Hochul was unable to point to any occasion when she opposed a policy or proposal supported by the governor and changed his mind. Their conversations, she said, were private.
Max pressed her: “So no issue that you’d say that you changed his mind on at this time?” Hochul shook her head.
The debate was videotaped by the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public-access cable network that can be viewed by 600,000 cable subscribers in Manhattan. It will be aired on the network at 6 p.m. Thursday and can also be viewed online beginning at that time. It is the only scheduled debate between the candidates.
Cuomo is also running for re-election and is strongly favored in the polls before the Sept. 13 primary. But the ballot is filled with Democrats challenging his authority from his left: Nixon, his direct challenger; Williams; and Zephyr Teachout, whose campaign for attorney general is based partly on her assertion that she would be more independent than Cuomo’s favored candidate, the New York City public advocate, Letitia James.
Earlier this year, Cuomo even tried to get Hochul, 60, to stand aside and run again for the seat she once held in Congress, against Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who has since been indicted – perhaps hoping to find a different lieutenant governor candidate who might better guard his flank against challengers like Williams, 42. One name that was briefly floated as a replacement was Lovely Warren, the mayor of Rochester, who, like Williams, is black.
A Siena College poll conducted in late July showed that 30 percent of likely Democratic Party primary voters said they would vote for Hochul while 21 percent favored Williams. Half of those polled said they were undecided. Williams held an advantage in New York City and among black and Hispanic voters, while Hochul, who is white, did much better among upstate and suburban voters and among white voters.
Yet both candidates remain largely unknown. More than two-thirds of the voters polled said that they had not formed an opinion about either candidate.
Hochul’s political career should give her the benefit of name recognition; in 2011, she won a special election in a solidly Republican congressional district. She was unseated the following year by Collins, despite taking conservative stances on issues such as gun laws and immigration. She went to work as a bank vice president in Buffalo, until being tapped by Cuomo in 2014 to run for lieutenant governor.
Williams, who is from Brooklyn, has been one of the City Council’s most outspoken proponents of police reform, and he co-sponsored bills that created an inspector general for the police and placed greater restrictions on profiling.
He prides himself on his activism and the times that he has been arrested in acts of civil disobedience. When Hochul boasted that she had helped the governor pass an increase in the minimum wage, Williams pointed out that long before Hochul and Cuomo threw their support behind the wage increase, he was leading protests at fast-food restaurants to raise awareness of the issue.
Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant, said that several factors favor Hochul, including sharing in Cuomo’s strong support from labor groups.
“There has never been an upset winner in a statewide Democratic primary that labor has not had an instrumental role in precipitating,” Gyory said.
Hochul also has an overwhelming financial advantage. The most recent campaign finance report, in mid-August, showed that she had $1.5 million in her campaign account; Williams had just $38,575.