'Never Trumper': Zeldin goes on attack in first GOP debate for New York governor

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ALBANY, N.Y — After one of the nine occasions in which Rep. Lee Zeldin called businessman Harry Wilson a “Never Trumper” in the first hourlong Republican gubernatorial debate in New York on Monday night, Wilson responded by saying that Zeldin asked him to be his running mate in January.

“Why is he dishonestly attacking me now? Because his campaign is disintegrating,” Wilson charged.

“I never asked and I wouldn’t ask Never Trumper Harry Wilson,” Zeldin replied. “That is a zero percent chance.”

“Stop lying,” said Wilson.

The exchange summed up the tenor of the first debate between the Republicans hoping to reverse their party’s two-decade losing streak in statewide races in New York — and their support or lack thereof for former President Donald Trump, the New York native with close ties to many of the candidates, was front and center.

Zeldin; Wilson; former Trump White House adviser Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino will appear on the June 28 primary ballot. The winner will face the victor of the Democratic primary the same night, and Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is leading in polls against Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.


There has been minimal public polling conducted on the GOP primary, but most of the available numbers suggest Zeldin might have an edge. The Long Island congressman has received nearly universal support from the party establishment.

But some numbers suggest that Giuliani has a lead. And Wilson, the former Wall Street executive, is putting $12 million of his own money into an effort to blanket the airwaves in advance of the vote.

Zeldin, however, was by far and away the most aggressive candidate during the statewide televised debate just two weeks before the primary. He regularly attacked Astorino as “Rolex Rob,” a nickname used by Democrats in past elections referring to a gift that he received from an individual caught up in a federal bribery investigation.

But he reserved special ire for Wilson, the moderate candidate who has about matched Zeldin's ad spending, according to the most recent filings.

“You can lie as much as you want, but Republican voters are smarter than you, Harry Wilson,” Zeldin contended. “You went to Harvard, yes, but don’t think you are smarter than the Republican voters across the state of New York. They’ve figured you out, Never Trumper.”

Wilson jabbed back.

“He’s attacking the biggest threat because we’re surging,” Wilson, who has said he wrote in former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for president in 2020, responded to Zeldin, a former state senator. “[I’m] not some career politician who failed us in Albany for four years.”


Astorino also attacked Zeldin, saying Zeldin supported state budgets and parts of the agenda pushed by former Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Zeldin said it wasn't true.

“You were part of the status quo in Albany,” Astorino said to Zeldin, who has been a staunch backer of Trump in Congress.

Giuliani, also with close ties to Trump, was ignored in most of the attacks, and he stayed clear of throwing barbs tossed by his primary foes — somehow becoming the moderating voice in the room.

“Let’s be mature here guys. Let’s talk about the issues that are important to New Yorkers,” he said at one point. “Enough of this.”

His voice was all that was in the room. Due to the Covid policies by debate host CBS in Manhattan, the candidate — who is not vaccinated — was required to participate via a video feed.

There wasn’t a massive amount of difference on their positions on most issues. None likes Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg; all defended the Second Amendment; and they all agree that Covid regulations and mandates went too far in New York — vowing to get rid of any remaining ones if elected.

“We’ve heard health mandates come down from two health commissioners and two governors saying you do not have a choice of what you can put in your body,” Giuliani said of vaccine mandates. “I stand with them not just in empty words, but in actions.”

To the extent there were differences on policy, they came from Wilson as he argued that he wanted to focus on economic issues and overhauling Albany rather than topics like abortion or debates over same-sex rights. He said, for example, he wouldn't look to overturn new abortion laws signed earlier Monday by Hochul, while the other candidates noted their opposition to abortions; Wilson is pro-abortion rights.

“Respectfully, the issues you’re focusing on are not the most important issues,” said Wilson, who is running as a moderate.

“You’re on the wrong debate stage, man,” Zeldin countered. “You should be on the Democratic party debate stage right now.”

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