WATERTOWN — Rep. Lee M. Zeldin of New York’s 1st Congressional District and likely the GOP frontrunner for next year’s gubernatorial race, stopped in the city Saturday to meet with organizations, local leaders and speak about the issues he’s running on, wide-spread worker shortages, the COVID-19 vaccine and his plan to beat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Outside City Hall, Rep. Zeldin, R-Shirley, sat alongside his family, surrounded by team members, on day six of an eight-day campaign swing around the area.
On Monday, he hit his 18-year career with the Army — which has brought him to Fort Drum several times — with his first four in active duty and the rest as a reservist. His goal for next year’s gubernatorial race is to grab 68% of the vote in Jefferson County. He was pitched the idea of getting 62%, but the 68 figure — which only would alter the race by a fraction — seemed more ambitious. If he can get a similar bump in 15 or 20 surrounding counties, then that could be astronomical in the scheme of things.
“That could be another two, two-and-a-half percent of the vote statewide,” he said, “and that could be the difference between winning and losing.”
He said he’s going to do it by focusing on what he says are the issues that matter most to New Yorkers: the economy, cost of living, public safety, not supporting law enforcement enough, quality education and issues related to freedoms.
“There are a lot of New Yorkers who are hitting their breaking point and choosing to leave,” he said. “Others are still here. They don’t want to go but they want to turn things around to be able to stay.”
Related to freedoms, Rep. Zeldin said he’s vaccinated but doesn’t think it should be mandated. He doesn’t believe in vaccine passports or that a baseball park crowd should be separated by those who have received the shot and those who have not. The fact, remains, he has been vaccinated and he tells people that, always adding that he’s willing to talk about the studies done that legitimized them.
“I think there are a lot of people out there who know how quickly the vaccines were developed,” he said. “They just want to make sure that there are people they know who have gotten it who they can talk with to help them form their own independent judgement.”
He believes not only that the governor has been in office for too long — he said he wouldn’t run for a third term even if it wasn’t the law that he couldn’t — but he wants Gov. Cuomo to resign, mostly over his handling of COVID-19 and virus-related deaths in nursing homes across the state.
Another problem he calls huge is the worker shortage. A leading factor, many experts, lawmakers and business owners say, is unemployment benefits being increased.
“People are getting paid more money by the government to stay at home than to return to the workforce,” he said. “I believe that every able-bodied adult who has an available job for them in their community should not be getting paid more by the government to stay at home — unless they have a very exceptional, compelling reason.”
He also believes that many policies he’s running on don’t fall under one party, namely education. His kids say they have to wear masks at school for six hours a day, separated by 3 feet and Plexiglass barriers. The only time they get to remove their mask is to eat or drink — or they ask for a mask break.
“I feel like a lot of Democratic parents want their kids to be challenged in schools to the max,” he said. “They don’t want their kids to be in masks all day long at this point. There are Democratic parents, just like Republicans, who will talk about the developmental, mental, emotional and physical well-being of their kids. So a lot of these issues we’re focused on in this campaign are not just important to Republicans or Democrats, they are important to all New Yorkers.”
Asked how he liked Gov. Cuomo’s latest book about COVID-19 and his view of leadership, Rep. Zeldin said, “I spent that $15 dollars somewhere else.”