When Rep. Lee Zeldin released his Top 10 gripes about Gov. Kathy Hochul last month, unsurprisingly, most of them were related to crime. It’s been the major policy plank in his platform. He has said he would replace Manhattan District Attorney on “Day ONE,” when in reality it’s going to be slightly more complicated than that. And on other issues, such as abortion rights and congestion pricing, it’s unclear exactly what he could accomplish on his own as governor – given the barriers in the state Legislature, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the federal government and others.
Zeldin has said he would appoint a pro-life health commissioner and put a stop to the congestion pricing plan for New York City. None of these issues were listed on Zeldin’s campaign website, and Zeldin’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. If Zeldin is actually elected governor, what can he actually do on these three key issues?
Being pro-life in a pro-choice state
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson that ended nearly 50 years of federal protections for abortions, it was one of the most important issues in New York’s August special elections for Congress and will be again in the midterms, including in the governor’s race. “I think that’s a major area of concern for the Zeldin campaign. … He really cannot run away from the national dialogue around abortion rights,” Javier Lacayo, political media strategist and senior vice president with SKDK, told City & State.
Zeldin has made his anti-abortion stance clear throughout his political career. He co-sponsored a bill that was introduced last year to implement a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks. During an April virtual town hall with the New York State Right to Life Committee, the representative discussed having a state health commissioner who is opposed to abortion rights. “I do believe that it would be a great benefit to the state of New York to have a health commissioner who is pro-life instead of what we’re used to,” Zeldin said.
That may be the extent of what he could accomplish. Legislatively, Zeldin wouldn’t be able to do much to weaken the package of abortion laws that Hochul signed into law following the Dobbs decision that protects reproductive health care providers and establishes the state as a safe haven for those seeking abortions. Nor would he have much success in making changes to the landmark Reproductive Health Act, which enshrined the right to abortion into state law.
Zeldin has said publicly he has no intention of limiting or restricting abortion access through executive order and has assured voters that he supports the checks and balances of the state Legislature. But governors hold a lot of power over the state budget. Political observers have pointed to the possibility that Zeldin could restrict access to abortions by cutting state funding to reproductive health care providers and withholding funding for Plan B. Still, he would need to work with the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass those changes. “The budget is one of the Legislature’s biggest tools and biggest sources of power in the state,” Lacayo said. “(Zeldin) would be up against major headwinds”.
Zeldin would need to decide what issues to fight with the Legislature on, and abortion would likely be a losing issue for him.
James Batista, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo, said if Zeldin wins, the state Legislature might decide to strip the governor of powers. “It’s virtually certain that the Legislature and current governor would move to solidify abortion rights and to remove the governor’s powers over things that he might otherwise be able to do by executive order,” Batista said. The left would be taking a page out of the GOP playbook, as this strategy has been more common when a Democrat wins the governor’s race in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature, such as Kentucky and Wisconsin.
State Sen. Anna Kaplan, a member of the Women’s Issues Committee, said, “Zeldin wants to take away women’s rights and ability to make their own health decisions and have access to their own reproductive health care.” She underscored the state Legislature’s power in voting on the state budget and said they would not simply allow a governor to attack abortion rights through the budget. “We would have strong authority, and we would make known that this is not the agenda that we want and that we can't have it in the budget,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan also confirmed she and her colleagues in Albany were “working on other laws to see how (they) can protect women in the state of New York,” but did not confirm additional details. “We can’t leave any stone unturned,” she said.
Congestion pricing criticisms
After years of stalled progress in implementing congestion pricing in New York City, the plan and the strong debate around it has intensified in recent months.
Under congestion pricing, drivers will be tolled anywhere from $9 to $23 to enter the Manhattan core south of 60th Street. The tolls, by law, must bring in at least $1 billion in annual revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to finance signal upgrades and repairs in the capital plan.
While Hochul has been on board with congestion pricing, there is still at least a year before the tolls take effect. Zeldin called congestion pricing a “scam” and criticized the transportation plan while campaigning in Rockland County earlier this month and on social media.
“Congestion pricing is one of the worst ideas out of Albany in a long time and that’s saying a lot. Kathy Hochul couldn’t be more wrong to be peddling this massive new fee on cash-strapped NYers. As governor, I’ll do everything in my power to kill it!” Zeldin wrote on Twitter.
Sam Schwartz, a transportation analyst, said politicians are against congestion pricing to “score political points” with drivers who don’t want to pay additional tolls. “It’s disingenuous for any politician to hold on to this anti-congestion pricing mantle,” Schwartz said of those taking a stance against the plan when there are currently tolls to travel to Staten Island and to enter the city from New Jersey.
When asked about Zeldin’s criticisms of congestion pricing, MTA officials referred to a recent board meeting where the agency’s chair and CEO, Janno Lieber, responded to questions from reporters about congestion pricing critics. “Do these people actually believe what’s going on in New York? Have they been to New York? You know, we have a problem in our country, we have climate deniers, we have election deniers. It seems like we now have traffic deniers,” Lieber said.
Schwartz said Zeldin, if elected, would have the power to “thwart” congestion pricing. He pointed to the 1970s when then-Mayor John Lindsay wanted to implement a version of congestion pricing that was approved by the federal government. Years later, Mayor Abe Beame was elected and removed the tolls.
As governor, Zeldin would have the authority to appoint the MTA chair and members of the board who would play a pivotal role in implementing the congestion pricing. “(Zeldin) will likely choose someone in line with him on congestion pricing, someone who would throw every obstacle in the way and won’t proceed with the contracts to implement it,” Schwartz said.
Day One decision
Zeldin has focused much of his campaign on crime and has been critical of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and bail reform.
Like many Republicans, Zeldin blamed Bragg for the increase in crime and called on the governor to remove the district attorney from office. While Hochul has not done so, Zeldin has vowed to remove Bragg immediately after being elected.
“My first act on my first day in office is telling the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that he’s going to be fired,” Zeldin said while on “Fox News Sunday.”
Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the governor may have the “ultimate authority” to remove or suspend a district attorney, but there would have to be cause for removal. “It’s not clear what ‘cause’ they would have and the DA would certainly be in a good position to fight it,” Briffault said of Zeldin’s promise to remove Bragg. “It would be a major project to show that the governor’s action was justified.”
According to the state constitution, the governor may remove a public officer within their elected term but first must “give to such officer a copy of the charges against him or her and an opportunity of being heard in his or her defense.”
Under Section 34 of the state Public Officers Law, the governor has the authority to remove public officers following an investigation into the charges. After the investigation, a hearing is required to be conducted by a justice of the Supreme Court, county judge or commissioner. The governor can’t remove a public officer without a hearing.
“No evidence taken in such investigation shall form the basis of any report to the governor or the basis of any determination by the governor, unless such evidence is presented at the hearing provided for in this section,” according to the state law.
If elected, Zeldin would have the authority to review charges against Bragg – but not immediately fire him on the first day.
When asked about Zeldin’s vow to remove Bragg, the district attorney’s office pointed to an interview Bragg did on NY1 in June where he addressed criticisms from Republican gubernatorial candidates on his policies for prosecuting nonviolent crimes.
“Well I’d ask them to look at the record. I’m a 20-plus year career prosecutor and we’re delivering results. … Homicides (are) down. Shootings (are) down – lots more work to do. We’re going to focus on the work and not on the politics,” Bragg said.