In his uphill battle to become New York’s next governor, Representative Lee M. Zeldin, the Trump-supporting conservative Republican from Long Island, has turned to an unlikely weapon: Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City.
In recent weeks, and despite Mr. Adams’s protestations, Mr. Zeldin has repeatedly aligned himself with Mr. Adams, a first-term Democrat, over the issue of the state’s 2019 bail reform law, which both men have argued is deeply flawed and needs to be overhauled.
It is a message that some other Republicans have also begun sounding, echoing the law-and-order credo that helped Mr. Adams get elected last year and the litany that Republicans have been reciting in races across the country. Their goal appears to be to focus swing voters on crime and public safety rather than divisive social issues, like abortion, that often lead those voters to favor Democrats.
Marc Molinaro, a Republican running for Congress in the newly redrawn 19th Congressional District, which now stretches from the northern Hudson Valley to the Southern Tier, said he sometimes invokes Mr. Adams’s call to tighten bail restrictions.
“I will say it in town hall meetings, sort of to emphasize the logic of the reforms that we want to see, I point to Mayor Adams,” said Mr. Molinaro, who serves as the Dutchess County executive.
The Republican minority leaders in the State Legislature have also cited Mr. Adams, and Nick Langworthy, the state Republican Party chair, suggested other Republicans would be wise to employ the tactic.
“I do think that Mayor Adams’s position could be used” more broadly, he said. “Not because he’s collaborating, but because common sense should unite people of all party affiliations.”
With less than two months until Election Day, Mr. Zeldin is generally considered an underdog against Gov. Kathy Hochul, with polls generally showing him consistently behind the incumbent. Mr. Zeldin is also badly trailing Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, in the fund-raising race, and has recently leaned on Mr. Trump for help.
Mr. Zeldin’s embrace of Mr. Adams is particularly striking given Mr. Adams’s endorsement of Ms. Hochul and the outsize role that the mayor’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, played as a boogeyman for conservative campaigns across New York State during his eight years in office. Republicans frequently deployed Mr. de Blasio as an example of liberalism run amok, often tying him to candidates with little or no actual connection to the former mayor.
“I believe the story that will be written in 2023 is how well a Governor Zeldin is working with Mayor Adams to save this city and to save the state,” Mr. Zeldin said in a recent interview.
History is against him: Mr. Zeldin, a four-term congressman who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, is seeking to become only the second Republican to be elected governor of New York in the last 50 years.
But he believes he has a path to defeating Ms. Hochul, if he can capture about 30 percent of the New York City voters, something he thinks he is capable of doing despite daunting odds. The city is overwhelmingly Democratic, with Republicans and Conservative Party members making up about 10 percent of the city’s more than five million registered voters. Voters who decline to state their affiliation — generally considered independents — make up approximately 20 percent.
William F.B. O’Reilly, a Republican consultant who worked with Rob Astorino, one of Mr. Zeldin’s vanquished primary opponents, said that by parroting Mayor Adams’s rhetoric on crime, Mr. Zeldin and Republicans elsewhere can heighten their appeal to independents and some middle-of-the-road Democrats.
“By aligning himself with a prominent Democrat, it suggests that he’s part of the middle,” Mr. O’Reilly said, noting that Mr. Adams’s race could also be a factor. “He’s Black, he’s a Democrat, he’s a former police officer, and I think he’s generally considered a centrist. So the closer that Zeldin can get to him the better.”
Ms. Hochul’s camp scoffs at the notion that Mr. Zeldin — who opposes abortion rights, supports nearly unfettered gun rights and has been close with former President Donald J. Trump — can somehow present himself as a moderate.
“This is another pathetic attempt from Lee Zeldin to distract voters from his extreme MAGA positions,” said Jerrel Harvey, a spokesman for the Hochul campaign. “Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams have made progress on countless issues and shared Democratic priorities, from reducing gun violence to expanding child care to getting our economy back on track.”
Likewise, Mr. Adams has resoundingly and repeatedly rejected any suggestion that he and Mr. Zeldin have anything in common, saying that Mr. Zeldin is a threat to public safety, not an asset. Mr. Zeldin has criticized the state’s strict gun laws and hailed a recent Supreme Court decision allowing easier use of concealed weapons.
“In spite of what people are attempting to say — Lee Zeldin and I are aligned at the hip — we must have a broken hip because he clearly doesn’t get it,” Mr. Adams said in August. “He has voted against all of the responsible gun laws in Congress.”
Still, the implied association between the mayor and the Republican nominee has dismayed his fellow Democrats, particularly those whose political beliefs are to the left of his.
“It’s not surprising that Zeldin wants to latch on to the Democratic mayor of the state’s largest city,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, the Queens Democrat who serves as deputy majority leader in Albany’s upper chamber. “What is surprising is the mayor is giving him the fuel to do so.”
Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat, said that it was “inevitable” that Republicans would pick up the similarities between their rhetoric and Mr. Adams’s in an election year, even if the mayor disapproves of Mr. Zeldin.
“As a Democrat, this isn’t where you want to be, especially with other gender and racial justice issues that he’s clearly not aligned with Lee Zeldin on, ” Mr. Kim said. “So it’s unfortunate that he’s giving him cover around bail when there’s other big things that Democrats want to home in on.”
The disdain expressed by Mr. Gianaris and Mr. Kim is part of a larger schism in the state Democratic Party between progressives and more centrist leaders like Mr. Adams, a former police captain who was elected in part by promising robust law enforcement in a city suffering from a rise in some forms of violent crime.
Mr. Zeldin has made repeated references to Mr. Adams’s stance on bail in campaign events and news releases, echoing the mayor’s call for a special legislative session devoted to the issue.
In 2019, the state changed its bail law to prevent those charged with relatively minor crimes from being held on bail. Proponents of the new law argue that the issuance of bail disproportionately affects poorer people, keeping them in jail because they cannot afford to post bail.
The law, which took effect the following year, has since been amended twice amid widespread opposition from law enforcement officials, who claim it has led to increased crime. No data has emerged indicating that to be the case.
Zellnor Myrie, a state senator from Brooklyn who helped craft the bail reform legislation, says it is particularly rich for Mr. Zeldin to use bail reform to paint himself a law-and-order candidate, in light of his fealty to Mr. Trump.
“Lee Zeldin and those around him in my mind have zero credibility on public safety,” Mr. Myrie said. “This is the same candidate who, after the former president stole nuclear secrets from the White House, instead of distancing himself from that, has only drawn closer to him.”
Mr. Myrie, who is Black, also noted a racial dynamic inherent to the debate. Both Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who is a constant Zeldin target, and Mr. Adams are Black. Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Trump are white.
“I truly believe that deep down, race is driving this conversation,” he said. “That’s why to me it’s very insidious sometimes what we hear emanating from the mayor’s office or from various other city agencies, because they — they being the Republicans — are not good faith actors when it comes to this, and you have put Black men in the line of fire because of the nature and the temperature of the rhetoric around public safety.”
In an interview, Mr. Zeldin said that bail wasn’t the only issue on which he agreed with Mr. Adams, noting his support for mayoral control of schools, something that Albany lawmakers agreed to in June, but only after extracting concessions on reducing class sizes.
“I thought it was absurd,” said Mr. Zeldin, of the Legislature’s negotiating tactics. “He had just got into office. The correct policy is just to extend mayoral control. So just do it.”
Mr. Zeldin says that he and Mr. Adams became acquainted, from opposite sides of the aisle, when both were state senators in Albany, sometimes sharing lunch amid colleagues in a conference room adjacent to the Senate floor.
While in Albany in 2013, Mr. Adams also served as a chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging, the only mainstream Democrat to hold a chairmanship in that period from the chamber’s Republican leaders. Mr. Zeldin, who also served on the committee, recalled that the two “got along well, and we stayed in touch afterward.”
“It’s not like he’s calling me up to be the best man at his wedding, or vice versa,” Mr. Zeldin added. “But the goal here, the objective, the motive is to work together.”
Jonah Bromwich contributed reporting.