Gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Lee Zeldin doubled down on his conservative trajectory and leaned into his law-and-order campaign messaging in his choice of lieutenant governor. He announced NYPD Deputy Inspector Alison Esposito as his running mate in the 2022 election. Though the political newcomer has never won an election, her experience as a cop and Brooklyn precinct commander offers Zeldin a new way to make his case for the Republican nomination. But the presence of protesters at the announcement underscores his battle to reach across the aisle if he makes it to the general election.
Esposito – who sought the Conservative Party nomination for mayor last year – currently faces no challengers in the GOP primary for LG, which is separate from the primary race for governor. If she won, she would make up half of a ticket that could bring the first Republican to statewide office in two decades. She might also help Zeldin prevail in a gubernatorial primary that remains up in the air by helping him bash progressives on criminal justice reforms, which recent elections and polling suggests could become a potent attack line this fall against whoever wins the Democratic Party primary for governor (most likely Gov. Kathy Hochul as of now). Some types of violent crime have increased in recent years following historic lows.
“For far too long, I’ve witnessed the state and city that I love deteriorate in spiraling decline,” Esposito, who currently leads the NYPD 70th Precinct in central Brooklyn, said at a Wednesday press conference with Zeldin outside the NYPD headquarters in Manhattan. “Fatally flawed liberal policies like cashless bail, defund the police, the Less is More Act and even DAs like Alvin Bragg who refused to enforce the law have surrendered our streets to criminals.” When asked about her almost run for mayor, Esposito added that it was “fate” that she didn’t get the endorsement she sought since “this is the ticket I should have been on.”
Esposito is the latest example of how Republican nominees for governor run alongside relatively obscure candidates who nonetheless help them emphasize key points about their candidacy. Former Rye Deputy Mayor Julie Killian helped 2018 nominee Marc Molinaro bash Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his record with local governments. Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss added some upstate balance to former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s 2014 campaign against Cuomo. Esposito could become the first major party nominee for lieutenant governor since 2002 without experience in elected office. If elected, Esposito would join Betsy McCaughey and Mario Cuomo as the only people who have served as lieutenant governor in the past half-century without previously holding elective office, according to Politico New York.
Zeldin and Esposito spun her lack of experience as a virtue when it comes to running a state of 20 million or so people. “My name is Alison Esposito, and I am just like you,” Esposito said at the press conference. While the position of LG has few formal powers, recent history shows how they can become enormously consequential because of their status as the heir apparent to the Second Floor in the state Capitol. Two out of three previous governors – all Democrats – have resigned in disgrace leading to unexpected governors like David Paterson (who was minority leader of the state Senate before joining the gubernatorial ticket of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer) and Hochul, who was working in the private sector when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked her to become his running mate in 2014. It remains unclear who Democratic voters will choose for lieutenant governor, but the front-runner appears to be incumbent Brian Benjamin, who Republicans are criticizing over his past statements about defunding the police.
The Wednesday press conference where Zeldin announced his selection of Esposito allowed him to grab some headlines before the Republican state convention at the end of the month, but it also highlighted the difficulty Zeldin and Esposito both face in their respective bids. Protesters heckled Zeldin over his past votes against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election in some states while reviving questions about whether he believes the 2020 election results were valid. Past complaints about unspecified misconduct by Esposito in her capacity as a cop were quickly sent to a reporter.
While Esposito may help bolster Zeldin’s campaign in the primary, she doesn’t seem to help much in distancing him from Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in New York. Before the press conference began, at least one supporter present questioned President Joe Biden’s legitimacy while arguing with protesters, calling him an “illegal resident” of the White House. Despite affirming his own belief that Biden is in fact the president, Zeldin would not say whether he denounces the views of his supporters on the matter. Whatever Zeldin really thinks about the election, he is hardly distancing himself from Trump. Despite poor poll numbers in the state for Trump, Zeldin said he would accept an endorsement from him should he offer one. He added that he had been in contact with the former president. “There are others all over the state … who I believe will be happy to hear of his support should he choose to announce it,” Zeldin said.
Zeldin is reaching a critical juncture in his campaign for governor. He has accumulated the endorsements of nearly every GOP county leader in the state while building a multimillion dollar war chest. He is expected to secure ballot access at the upcoming party convention by receiving the majority of votes from party officials. Yet, the entrance of businessman Harry Wilson into the primary race highlights ongoing doubts about whether Zeldin is really as strong as he has looked. Picking a cop to be his running mate is hardly going to secure the nomination, but at least it adds a little oomph to his candidacy when he seemingly needs it most. “New York Republicans are putting our money where our mouth is,” state party Chair Nick Langworthy, who is backing Zeldin for governor, said in a statement endorsing Esposito. “Voters are demanding change and this is the ticket that will deliver it.”