In NY Governor’s Race, Republican Lee Zeldin Stokes Fears of Dark-Skinned Criminals to Surge in the Polls

A Donald Trump acolyte’s race-baiting campaign shows that he learned a thing or two from his mentor.

Theodore Hamm Oct 21, 2022

For related coverage, see “Welcome to Eric Adams’ Fear Factory” by John Teufel.

When Donald Trump first floated a presidential bid in 2011, his main line of attack was the false claim that Barack Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen. From the slogan “Make America Great Again” through Build the Wall, race pervaded Trump’s successful 2016 run. 

This week Trump endorsed one of his main acolytes, Lee Zeldin, in the race for New York governor. Zeldin’s race-baiting campaign shows that he learned a thing or two from his mentor. 

Zeldin, a four-term Long Island congressman, vows that if elected, he will fire Manhattan’s first Black district attorney on day one, rollback reforms aimed at scaling back mass incarceration and restore the death penalty. His “Securing Our Streets: Putting Communities Before Criminals” agenda is a laundry list of reactionary proposals that are music to the ears of law enforcement officials, Upstate prison boosters and Rupert Murdoch’s minions. 

The New York Post indeed led the charge against Alvin Bragg as soon as he took office in January, causing the incoming DA to backtrack on the decarceration proposals he had made on the campaign trail. Zeldin immediately helped stoke the hysteria by calling for Bragg’s removal from office. Coincidentally, or not, Bragg then let the clock run out on grand jury proceedings that investigated Trump’s taxes. 

Zeldin’s campaign recently ran an ad that contained a flurry of video clips of mostly Black or brown assailants captured on surveillance footage.

Zeldin’s rage against Bragg has nonetheless continued at a fever pitch, with the candidate launching a July petition drive to remove the duly elected district attorney from office. The governor of New York, of course, cannot simply sack another elected official on “day one” — the chief executive can only initiate lengthy proceedings toward that end. This essential point makes no difference to the Murdoch machine

Although Zeldin has pledged to issue an executive order that allows him to suspend recent criminal-justice legislation such as bail reform and the raise in age of youthful offenders, the New York State Constitution does not allow him to do so. Some may find it alarming that a prospective governor lacks basic respect for the separation of powers, but Zeldin evidently learned civics from his dubious mentor. 

To drive home his “crime is out of control” message, Zeldin’s campaign recently ran an ad that contained a flurry of video clips of mostly Black or brown assailants captured on surveillance footage. One was Saheed Vassell, a Crown Heights man experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed by plainclothes police officers in 2018. Vassell was armed not with a gun, but instead a piece of pipe that looked like a gun. “It’s painful and enraging to see Mr. Zeldin playing politics with my son’s image,” said Eric Vassell, Saheed’s father, to Brooklyn Paper.   

In the wake of the mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store in May that killed ten (and injured three) Black people by a white suspect, Zeldin proposed a dubious remedy. “For those who commit fatal hate crimes, acts of terrorism and other extreme violence,” the candidate declared, “the only fitting form of justice is the death penalty.” The solution to racist vengeance, in Zeldin’s view, is racist retaliation

For those sent to prison, Zeldin’s “Securing Our Streets” pledge promises to make parole more difficult to obtain. Lawman Lee wants all parole decisions to be unanimous (among the three commissioners handling each case) and vows to fire any board members “who have expressed poor judgment.” Zeldin’s website makes no mention of clemency, but Trump certainly might come knocking on the governor’s door.  

Whether or not Zeldin is a racist is irrelevant. Inspired by Trump, Zeldin’s campaign has been nothing if not racist. It’s now up to New York voters to decide whether that’s the state we want to live in.

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