By MARINA VILLENEUVE
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is running for election to the post after assuming it following Andrew Cuomo's resignation, faced off Thursday in a final debate with two of her fellow Democrats, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City's elected public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who are challenging her in the race.
The evening grew tense at times, with a restrained Hochul repeatedly asking Suozzi to stop interrupting her.
Suozzi and Williams criticized Hochul's strategy toward gun violence, with Suozzi questioning Hochul on her support and donations from the National Rifle Association when she served in Congress from 2011 to 2013.
After a racist shooting May 14 that left 10 people dead at a Buffalo supermarket, Hochul has signed new gun laws, including raising the age for buying and possessing semiautomatic firearms to 21 and requiring licenses.
Williams said Hochul and other lawmakers have focused on mass shootings while having yet to effectively address the complicated, daily reality of handguns and out-of-state firearm trafficking.
And Suozzi pressed Hochul on her vote in Congress to defeat a Democrat's federal amendment to make it harder to bring concealed weapons across state lines.
``We've been waiting months for you to answer this question,'' Suozzi said.
``Please stop interrupting me, the people want to hear my answer,'' Hochul responded.
Hochul, who hails from Buffalo, said that she has ``evolved'' and that voters are more interested in her agenda as governor now, rather than her political stances a decade ago.
But Suozzi charged that Hochul has shifted her policy stances to suit whatever office she's held. Suozzi also criticized Hochul's vow as Erie County clerk in 2007 to arrange for the arrest of immigrants living in the country illegally if they applied for a driver's license.
``The only thing that's changed are the governor's political ambitions,`` Suozzi said.
When asked about his previous personal opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, Williams argued his past stances didn't directly harm people.
Early voting starts Saturday in New York, where Democrats will weigh in on their party's future in a race that has pitted the state's moderate, first female governor against a centrist Long Island congressman and a progressive New York City official.
Hochul came into the debate touting a new endorsement from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a fellow Democrat; newly signed laws protecting abortion providers and patients; and a spot atop the latest of a string of polls suggesting she has outsize support ahead of the June 28 primary.
She has also sent out property tax rebate checks earlier than usual to New Yorkers ahead of the primary alongside letters that say the checks were provided by ``Gov. Hochul and the New York State Legislature.''
Suozzi, who had hoped Adams would decline to endorse anyone in the primary, has said he'll again make the case that he'll succeed where he says Hochul has failed on tackling crime and affordability in New York state. The accountant and attorney wants to reduce Medicaid costs, create a public bank to help underserved communities access loans, and push for high-speed rail across the Northeast.
Suozzi also wants to roll back a liberal criminal justice reform law aimed at jailing fewer people before trial; he proposes giving judges more leeway to detain people who threaten public safety.
Hochul unsuccessfully proposed a similar rollback this year. Williams, in contrast, has promised to end cash bail and for-profit commercial bail bonds for misdemeanor offenses.
Williams has said Hochul, like her predecessor Cuomo, has failed to take enough bold steps to help New Yorkers. He has vowed to create or preserve a million new affordable housing units, increase clean energy investments, pass a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights, guarantee health care for all New Yorkers, and make it harder to evict tenants.
Williams last faced Hochul in the Democratic lieutenant governor primary. She won by 6.6 percentage points, or nearly 100,000 votes.
Hochul has a steep fundraising advantage as of late May, when she reported an $18.6 million campaign war chest.
That dwarfed Suozzi's $5.25 million and Williams' $130,000.
Williams and Suozzi slammed Hochul for continued controversies in Albany, including the $850 million in taxpayer funding she announced for the new Buffalo Bills stadium and the resignation of her former lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, following corruption charges he denies.
Hochul has defended the Bills funding as a way to boost jobs in western New York.
``We're disappointed in a lack of judgment you used,'' said Suozzi, who criticized Hochul for picking Benjamin last fall despite questions at the time over ethics issues.
Hochul acknowledged she should have done a better job of vetting Benjamin. But she pointed out that Suozzi himself has been under investigation.
The House Ethics Committee has probed Suozzi over allegations that he failed to properly disclose various stock transactions.
Both Williams and Hochul said they wouldn't accept an endorsement from Cuomo, who resigned to avoid a likely impeachment trial after a report finding he sexually harassed women.
Suozzi said he would accept Cuomo's backing because of his record as governor. Suozzi said Cuomo's still ``very popular'' despite his ``baggage.''