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With National Guard subway plan, Hochul once again grasps for command of crime debate ahead of November elections

Gov. Hochul, who was weighed down by voter fears about crime in her closer-than-expected reelection victory in 2022, often says that public safety is her single most pressing priority.

So it was fitting that in one of the Democratic governor’s splashiest and most controversial announcements in recent months, she was surrounded by law enforcement and military officials on Wednesday, as she detailed a plan to send 750 National Guard soldiers into the city subway system to check bags, deter violence and soothe commuters’ fears about crime.

Political analysts said Hochul took a gamble by thrusting herself into a challenging issue. But as New York reels from a spate of headline-grabbing transit crimes, the governor is plainly seeking to shore up local Democrats’ standing on public safety — a potent political issue — as a pivotal national election looms in the fall.

New York National Guard members stand post as MTA Police conduct bag checks at Grand Central Station Wednesday, March 6, 2024 in Manhattan, New York. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)
New York National Guard members stand post on the subway. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

For commuters in suburban communities that have been skeptical of the governor, safety on the city’s public transportation network is a uniquely salient topic. Some of those same suburbs — in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island — are central to Democrats’ efforts to take back the House in November.

“This is about the suburbs and about suburban commuters coming into the city subway system feeling unsafe,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “Her problem, and the problem Democrats face, is not New York City. The problem they face is in the suburbs.”

In the suburbs, Hochul drew support for her subway plan from Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island, the Democrat who won a special election last month by running on a relatively conservative platform that is seen as a potential blueprint for Democrats in swing districts in the fall.

“I applaud the Governor for continuing to lean into the crime issue,” Suozzi wrote Thursday on social media. “She is right.”

Former Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, suggested Hochul has adjusted after her narrow 2022 victory over Lee Zeldin, a Republican who portrayed her as soft on crime. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1, Hochul beat Zeldin by about 6 points, dragging down suburban Democratic House candidates as the GOP flipped four New York districts.

“She recognized that her win — though it was a win — was much closer than we would have thought,” Paterson said in an interview.

“We would have thought she’d be winning by 15% to 20%,” Paterson added. “I would say, if they had a rerun, it would be 15% to 20%, because she has embraced what the public thought and reacted to it, and has now really become a leader in the fight to keep the crime rate down.”

New York State Police provide security at Grand Central Station Wednesday, March 6, 2024 in Manhattan, New York. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)
Progressives criticized the plan. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

Hochul has found herself in tune with Mayor Adams, a law-and-order focused Democrat with whom she has long had a warm public relationship.

Last week, ahead of the announcement of the National Guard deployment, Hochul joined Adams — along with officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Police Department — to brainstorm subway solutions at the governor’s Manhattan office. Adams, who has pushed for more state funding for the city Police Department to address subway crime, did not attend Hochul’s news conference.

Though many violent crime rates are dropping sharply in the city, transit crime has climbed 13% year over year, according to government data. Slayings on the subway have garnered particular attention.

Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul

Mayor Eric Adams sits next to Gov. Kathy Hochul during a press conference at the City Hall Rotunda on July 31, 2023. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News

Mayor Adams and Gov. Hochul have been close allies (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

But analysts said that the governor’s proposal did not seriously undercut the mayor, and that it reinforced a perception that the two are working together to address public safety. Adams was at a funeral service during the news conference, according to his office.

“Gov. Hochul has been a true partner in keeping New Yorkers safe on our subways,” Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an email, adding that the new state-level approach “will keep us moving in the right direction.”

If Adams and Hochul appear aligned in their anti-crime crusade, they are far out of sync with city progressives, who loudly criticized the plan to send soldiers into the subway.

They argued Hochul was fanning out-of-proportion fears despite the relative rarity of transit crime. And they predicted that the state’s approach would disproportionately affect people of color who could be racially profiled under the bag-checking program.

“We’re not at war,” said Camille Rivera, a progressive Democratic political consultant, expressing a sense of bafflement after the governor’s announcement. “There are going to be some serious civil liberty issues.”

The governor took the controversial step as she conspicuously builds her national profile, appearing regularly on national TV programs. She is set to serve as a campaign surrogate for President Biden going into the November election, and she is scheduled to attend his State of the Union address on Thursday night.

Still, the subway program seemed more targeted at addressing New York’s concerns than playing into any national political debate, said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Stavisky said. “It’s hard to get a more local issue than subways.”


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