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Abortion rights is one of the top issues driving the New York governor's race

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, left, and Rep. Lee Zeldin.
New York NOW
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, left, and Rep. Lee Zeldin.

Several issues are driving the New York governor’s race, and abortion is among the top ones.

Democratic candidate Governor Kathy Hochul believes her strong support of abortion rights will sway more swing voters to her, compared to Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, who opposes abortion.

The issue of abortion intensified after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade.

Hochul, a decades-long backer of a woman’s right to choose the procedure, has made it a priority issue in her campaign, running ads that highlight her efforts to defend abortion rights.

“I’ve protected abortion rights,” she says in the ad.

She’s also bought airtime to define Zeldin, who is less well-known to the public, as holding views against abortion that are too “extreme” and therefore too “dangerous” for him to become governor.

“(He) has supported abortion bans so cruel toward women, they include no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother,” a narrator says in the ad.

New York in 1970 was the first state to approve abortion rights laws. It updated those laws and codified the rights in Roe into state law in 2019. Hochul said she is the only candidate who can guarantee that those rights will continue to be protected, and that the state won’t adopt abortion bans or severe restrictions like many other states have done since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe.

“Ask any woman if abortion is still an issue to her,” Hochul said, answering media questions on Oct. 18.

She said abortion is “on the ballot,” and New Yorkers should not take their right to choose the procedure for granted.

“The reason abortion rights are safe in the state of New York is because I’m the governor,” Hochul said. “That’s the only reason why they are safe right now.”

Earlier this year, just before the Dobbs decision, Hochul and the State Legislature approved funding to help pregnant people from states where abortion is limited or banned to receive reproductive health care services in New York. They also authorized funds to strengthen abortion clinics and passed new laws to protect providers from potential legal actions from other states.

The laws also prohibit the state from extraditing a patient or a health care practitioner to another state to face abortion-related charges if the procedure was conducted in New York.

Zeldin is against abortion rights. During remarks he made at a private fundraiser last spring, obtained by Spectrum News, he pledged to appoint a pro-life health commissioner. In the recording, he said he wants to find the “most qualified” health commissioner “who is also pro-life."

In a candidate questionnaire he completed for the Long Island Coalition for Life, Zeldin said he would vote against the use of “taxpayer” money to fund abortion, and that he would deny funding to Planned Parenthood.

Zeldin in July voted against bills in Congress to protect abortion rights, including the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022, which prohibits government restrictions on abortion services through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

He also voted against the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act, which prohibits anyone acting under state law from interfering with a person’s ability to access out-of-state abortion services.

In recent days, Zeldin has been trying to downplay the issue. He’s running his own ads that say Hochul is trying to “deceive” New Yorkers.

“Let me be clear,” Zeldin says in the ad. “As governor, I will not change, and could not change, New York’s abortion law.”

Zeldin, who has said he is not in the governor’s race because of his views opposing abortion, said he would respect the “will” of the people. The majority of New Yorkers back abortion rights.

“When we woke up the day after the Dobbs decision, the law in New York was exactly the same as it was the day before. Nothing changed,” Zeldin said. “And I’m not going to change it.”

Zeldin has said that if he’s elected, he would declare a crime state of emergency and would issue executive orders to temporarily suspend New York’s recent criminal justice reforms. But he said he would not do the same for abortion laws.

Hochul’s campaign is calling Zeldin a “liar.” And the governor said she believes Zeldin is trying to have it both ways.

“Someone, who running for governor in the state of New York, who applauded and cheered the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Hochul said. “I stand by my assessment. That’s how I define an extremist.”

Polls show abortion is not the top issue of concern to New Yorkers. But it is important to a significant portion of the electorate, and it could be a swing issue in the race.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.