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Will Black Democratic Voters Turn Out for Gov. Hochul?

From the moment she took office, Gov. Kathy Hochul set out to shore up her standing with an important constituency.

She named Brian A. Benjamin, a Black Democratic state senator from Harlem, as her lieutenant governor, and held a celebratory news conference on 125th Street in Harlem to announce it. She spoke from the pulpits of Black churches around the city, including Abyssinian Baptist Church.

The strategy seemed to work: Ms. Hochul, a white moderate from Buffalo, picked up early support from a wide range of Black leaders.

Yet nearly seven months into her tenure, some New York Democrats are concerned that she has not been able to use those endorsements to generate much enthusiasm among Black voters, a key voting bloc.

Ms. Hochul could win the primary even with a muted showing from Black voters, but if they don’t turn out in November to support her, the race for governor could be tighter, and problems could emerge for other Democrats down the ballot.

A Siena College poll released Monday found that if Ms. Hochul’s predecessor, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, entered the primary race, he would lead her among Black voters by 50 percent to 23 percent, although she leads him overall among registered Democrats by eight points, the poll found.

But the poll found that if Mr. Cuomo stayed out, Ms. Hochul led a Black candidate, Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, among Black voters by a margin of 39 percent to 17 percent — a reversal from a February Siena poll in which she trailed Mr. Williams.

Jefrey Pollock, Ms. Hochul’s pollster, said the governor was still getting familiar with voters in the city, a hurdle faced by all statewide candidates not from New York City.

What you can see from data is that the governor wasn’t known before, and she’s just getting known to voters now,” Mr. Pollock said.

But Mr. Williams predicted that the governor would not draw out the Black vote. I think the Hochul campaign and administration are really trying to do the basics and wait everyone out,” Mr. Williams said. “That’s not going to excite the base.”

Indeed, Kirsten John Foy, president of the activism group Arc of Justice, said that in recent trips to Western New York and Long Island, he has seen “no Democratic enthusiasm anywhere,” particularly from Black voters.

Mr. Foy, who is Black, said that the common perception was that Ms. Hochul had “yet to articulate an agenda for the Black community.”

To add to the governor’s difficulties, her lieutenant governor choice, Mr. Benjamin, is now the focus of an investigation by federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. into whether he played a role in an effort to funnel fraudulent campaign contributions to his unsuccessful 2021 campaign for New York City comptroller. He has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Jerrel Harvey, a campaign spokesman for Ms. Hochul, said that as New Yorkers “meet her and experience her leadership, the governor’s support grows rapidly, especially in the Black community.

“The governor won’t take any community for granted, and will continue meeting voters where they are, to share her vision for New York to have safer streets, stronger schools and to be more affordable for everyone,” he said.

Democrats across the country are worried about an “enthusiasm gap” and low turnout in the midterm elections, with no Donald J. Trump on the ballot and public safety emerging as a major issue.

Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the New York State chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., said she was particularly concerned that the 2022 elections in New York might be an extension of last year’s results in Nassau County, where Republicans were able to flip three major seats in the Long Island suburbs, in part by using changes to the state’s bail laws as a wedge issue.

Two Long Island hopefuls for governor, Representative Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, and Representative Lee Zeldin, the leading Republican nominee, have focused on Democratic-supported bail reform as the cause of an uptick in violent crime, though there is no statistical evidence to support their contention.

“I’m worried about the general election,” Ms. Dukes said. “If Republicans use false narratives about criminal justice, and we don’t turn out like we’re supposed to, that’s how they win.”

Ms. Hochul recently proposed changes to the bail law that would give judges more discretion to account for criminal history and potential dangerousness in deciding bail.

Speaking to reporters in Albany last week, Ms. Hochul defended her proposals, which she called “a balanced, reasonable approach that continues to respect the rights of the accused.”

But participants in a rally in Harlem on Friday criticized the governor for her proposal to change the Raise the Age statute to make it easier for teenagers to be prosecuted in adult criminal court for gun possession. They noted that young Black people would likely be most affected by the shift.

State Senator Cordell Cleare of Harlem said her constituents had thought issues like bail reform and Raise the Age were settled.

“I want my governor to stand up for my community that has long been marginalized, victimized, overpoliced and unfairly punished,” Ms. Cleare said in an interview. “We don’t want to be political ping-pongs on either side of the net.”

In New York, the Black vote has been critical in helping prop up Democratic candidates. Bill de Blasio, the former mayor, enjoyed overwhelming support from Black voters; exit polls indicated that he won a bigger portion of the Black vote than David N. Dinkins in 1989, when he was elected New York City’s first Black mayor.

Mr. Cuomo, who resigned in August, used his ties to Black leaders to help him unsuccessfully fight a slew of sexual harassment allegations, and used the pulpit of a Black church in Brooklyn to deliver his first public speech since resigning.

At the Tilden Senior Center in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, Beverley Bishop, 67, a retired activities director, said that Mr. Cuomo “did a lot for the people.”

“In life, you can do a million good things and something bad happens and some people will turn against you,” she said. “But for me, I still like him.”

She was less sure about Governor Hochul. “She seems to be a good person, but we will have to wait and see,” Ms. Bishop said.

Some influential Black leaders have also adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, said that after the governor visited his church in September, he was certain that he would support Ms. Hochul’s election bid.

That changed when Ms. Hochul was drawn into the fray over the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who drew significant backlash on announcing in January that his office would only seek jail time for the most serious crimes. Mr. Bragg has since slightly revised his guidance to prosecutors, but Ms. Hochul initially responded by indicating that she had the power to remove him.

“That caused me to step back and consider if my vigorous support ought to be rethought,” Mr. Butts said.

He wasn’t the only influential Black minister to voice concerns about Ms. Hochul’s posture toward Mr. Bragg. The Rev. Al Sharpton called Ms. Hochul’s remarks an “overreach.”

The governor has since said that critics should give Mr. Bragg “some slack.”

Mr. Williams has criticized Ms. Hochul on her remarks about Mr. Bragg; her affordable housing proposal, which he deemed to be too modest; and her support for Jay Jacobs, the chair of the state Democratic Party, who drew fire in October when he compared an endorsement for India Walton, the former Democratic nominee for mayor of Buffalo, to one for David Duke, a neo-Nazi. Ms. Hochul called Mr. Jacobs’s remarks “very disturbing” but did not call for his ouster.

Ms. Hochul is still clearly the front-runner in the Democratic primary for governor; she is expected to draw strong support from women and her Western New York base and is likely to see significant support in November from Black voters, 55 percent of whom view her favorably, the Siena poll released Monday found.

Mr. Harvey, the campaign spokesman for Ms. Hochul, said that she has built on her longstanding relationships with the Black community by implementing policies relevant to it. Ms. Hochul has declared racism a public health crisis; proposed a $200 million fund to make the marijuana industry more equitable; and boosted the Interborough Express, a new rail line that would help bring service to poor people of color in transit deserts in Brooklyn and Queens.

The governor has also held at least two news conferences with Mayor Eric Adams to announce measures to help reduce crime and homelessness in the subways; announced an expansion of anti-violence efforts; and proposed allowing those with a marijuana conviction to be the first to obtain retail licenses to legally sell the drug as part of a social equity push.

Mr. Benjamin, the lieutenant governor, said that his relationship with Ms. Hochul demonstrated her interest in issues confronting the Black community.

“This is not a governor who has treated Black people as an accessory,” Mr. Benjamin said in an interview. “I think she is going to be very compelling when people start paying attention.”

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