ALBANY, N.Y. — Lee Zeldin is already running a tough race for governor of New York as a Republican in a very Democratic state. Now his opponent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, has a new and timely line of attack: Link him to far-right extremism and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But Hochul, being a governor and all, isn’t going to get her hands dirty saying so. She’s got a deputy for that job, and one who served with Zeldin in Congress.
Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado, a former Hudson Valley congressman who assumed his position in May after Hochul’s first pick resigned, is excoriating his Long Island colleague for his behavior on the day of the insurrection at the Capitol last year — when Zeldin objected to the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. He’s also begun trying to tie Zeldin to groups like the Oath Keepers.
“To have somebody who you served with take such an extreme position is very hurtful,” Delgado said in an interview this month. “And it's alarming.”
Delgado's comments give the clearest view yet of the emerging Hochul campaign strategy. Her team wants to seize on the Capitol assault and Zeldin's conservative positions, including his support for former President Donald Trump, to boost Democratic turnout as she seeks a full term in a heavily blue state. And she’ll stay above the political fray by letting her running mate be the public aggressor, mitigating any potential downsides to going negative early.
Zeldin is poised to run a race focused on the economy, crime and state corruption — hoping a red wave this November can help him beat the odds.
Hochul has broadly condemned far-right zealotry — during her primary victory speech and during several events since — but has rarely called her opponent out as directly as Delgado is now doing. The campaign did not make Hochul available for comment on Zeldin’s Jan. 6 actions.
Zeldin spokesperson Katie Vincentz blasted the comments from Delgado, saying in a statement that he's “having a disgraceful meltdown of epic proportions, misstating facts, peddling misinformation and trying to distract to absolutely any topic other than the issues that have New Yorkers fleeing the state in droves.”
She said that Zeldin has acknowledged that Joe Biden is president and has said it’s politically dangerous to label an election “illegitimate.”
Vincentz claimed Delgado should be concerned about the state’s bail reform laws, which Republicans charge with fueling a crime surge, “instead of spending all of his time pathetically clutching his pearls and peddling his fake outrage for political expediency.”
That issue moved to the forefront of the race on Friday, after a man charged with attacking Zeldin during a campaign event the night before was released from custody.
Zeldin was unharmed during the altercation, which took place at a rally upstate. But he and other Republicans said it offered proof that candidates this November should be focused on public safety and criminal justice.
“I believe they have blood on their hands and I'm sick and tired of it. This has to stop,” state GOP chair Nick Langworthy said Friday, referring to Democrats. “We have to say collectively as New Yorkers that enough is enough. We are living in the twilight zone where heroes are treated like criminals and criminals are treated like heroes.”
Prior to the Thursday incident, Zeldin had said in a statement that he believes he and his running mate for lieutenant governor are focused on the issues New Yorkers most care about.
“While the top two issues to New Yorkers are crime and the economy, Kathy Hochul and Antonio Delgado are missing in action, cowardly trying to distract, punt, and hide, rather than lead,” Zeldin said. “This is why Alison Esposito and I are running to replace them on November 8th, and this highlights exactly why we are going to win.”
Delgado was not on the House floor during the Jan. 6 attacks — his family was in town, and he was with them at his apartment a few blocks away — but he did make his way there that evening to vote to certify the election for Biden.
“To be there experiencing that with my family and my little boys — watching it unfold, trying to process it — was deeply troubling,” Delgado said. “And to have to stay up until the wee hours of the next morning to certify the election, and to do so with individuals who felt otherwise, at that moment, despite what we just experienced, was incredibly disheartening.”
Those in Washington at the time are now reliving the day through the House Select committee hearings investigating the attack, which include new evidence against members of far-right conservative groups who contributed to the violence. Both Zeldin and Delgado made their remarks prior to Thursday’s Jan. 6 hearing, which detailed hours of inaction during the riots from Trump, who Zeldin fiercely supported throughout his presidency.
Delgado pointed to at least one meeting Zeldin had years ago as a congressman with the Long Island chapter of the Oath Keepers. Multiple members of the group now face seditious conspiracy charges for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack.
More recently on the campaign trail, Zeldin has applauded the Long Island Loud Majority, one of the groups the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center classified as “extreme anti-government” in 2021.
The Loud Majority, which the law center included on its list for making “threats of political violence around issues of vaccines, masking, COVID restrictions,” describes itself as “a home for Patriots who have been cast off, disenfranchised, and abandoned” with a mission to inspire action.
On Jan. 6, 2021, Zeldin’s congressional campaign sent out a fundraising email telling supporters why he voted against certifying the election: “My objection today is necessary to protect our Constitution, our elections, our people, and our Republic.”
Since then and during his campaign for governor, Zeldin has sidestepped questions on whether his position has changed now that multiple legal inquiries into fraud found no evidence of the claims. He has instead indicated that some election systems adjusted for the pandemic may have created opportunities for fraud that will never be proven one way or another.
Delgado found the explanation unsatisfactory.
“The fact that he continues to pander and cater to these groups to this day, in and of itself is problematic, but that he himself can't bring himself to say what is in fact the case, while seeking the highest office in the state, is grossly reckless,” Delgado said. “And it's a willful disregard for protecting the legitimacy of our democracy.”
New York State Oath Keepers President Dan Devlin said in an interview that the group has not met with Zeldin in his capacity as a candidate for governor, nor has it endorsed him.
“Unfortunately, some people feel as though endorsements for or by certain groups is a liability,” Devlin said.
Almost 2,000 New Yorkers are on its membership roll, though not all are active. The group — which on a national level describes itself as a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional — would be unlikely to support a gubernatorial candidate this year, Devlin said.
“The fact of the matter is that unfortunately no matter who’s running for office, until they get into office and actually show what they can do, it’s pretty difficult to know what they will do,” said Devlin, who lives in Buffalo.
The Long Island Loud Majority — more political in its stated goals — has endorsed Zeldin, one of the group’s founders, Kevin Smith, said in an interview. But Smith dismissed the characterization that the group, which describes itself as the nation’s most exciting grassroots conservative patriot movement, is “anti-government.”
“If I was anti-government, would I be helping to get people elected to government? That seems very odd,” he said. “If I was anti-baseball, do you think I’d play baseball? It's just a fundraising mechanism that the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center] uses. “
“As far as Lee Zeldin goes, he’s our local congressman,” Smith continued. “He's done a great job serving our community, and I think he’d do a great job as governor of New York.”
Zeldin’s campaign did not respond to inquiries about his current relationships to either group.
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