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NY gubernatorial candidate talks crime, calls for change at Albany pizza shop

Congressman Lee Zeldin at Paesans.png
Karen DeWitt
Congressman and GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin stopped by Paesan's Pizza in Albany Friday.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin visited a pizza shop near the New York State Capitol in Albany Friday to discuss concerns over rising crime. The shop’s owner says the crime rate in his neighborhood may force him to close the location.

Frank Scavio and his family run Paesan’s Pizza, a popular spot just blocks from the State Capitol and governor’s mansion. Scavio, a first generation Italian immigrant, stood in the upstairs one room apartment where he lived, along with five other family members, when they began the business three decades ago. Now he says he’s worried about how to stay open.

“I just want to sell pizzas,” Scavio said.

“In 30 years, I’d never think I’d have all these people standing here asking me about how to save my business,” he added, gesturing to the group of candidates, aides and reporters gathered in the small space. “Not in a million years.”

The pizza shop is a favorite of present and former college students who live in the area, including GOP candidate for governor Lee Zeldin, who attended the State University at Albany and Albany Law School.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that I was one of those 4 a.m. customers here,” Zeldin joked.

Zeldin, now a congressman representing parts of Long Island, came for a slice of his favorite — chicken parmesan pizza — and to talk about concerns over crime.

Scavio says he no longer stays open late. He says since the pandemic began, students in the neighborhood left during the COVID lockdowns, and crime has gone up. He now shutters his doors at 8 p.m., fearing for the safety of his staff.

“You name it: murder, shootings, everything,” he said. “It’s scary.”

Zeldin says if he’s elected governor, he plans on January 1 to declare a crime state of emergency in the state, and issue executive orders rescinding all of the recent criminal justice reforms approved by Democratic governors and the Democratic-led state legislature. They include bail reform, which ended most forms of cash bail, Raise the Age, which no longer treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, and laws that make it easier for prison inmates to become eligible for parole.

“The laws on day one that we are talking about here are going to be suspended,” said Zeldin, who noted the suspension would last 30 days. He says he would then work with the legislature to change the laws.

Zeldin says his opponent, Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, has not done enough to fight crime. Hochul in April convinced the legislature to amend the state’s bail laws to make more crimes eligible for bail and to give judges more discretion to hold defendants pre-trial.

In a statement, Hochul campaign manager Jerrel Harvey says Zeldin has “no credible plan on public safety," or to address gun violence, and he says the congressman’s proposal for the executive orders shows he doesn’t understand “the basics of governing or democracy."

Scavio, when asked by reporters, could not say whether the recent bail reform laws and other criminal justice law changes have contributed to the increasing incidences of crime in his neighborhood, though he points out that Albany County’s District Attorney, David Soares, a liberal Democrat, has cited the changes as contributing to increased crime. Scavio says he’s willing to work with politicians from both parties to come up with a solution, saying he’s met successfully with Albany’s Democratic Mayor Kathy Sheehan, and its police chief.

“We’re trying to do right. This is a problem that just keeps on growing, and it’s not just in Albany. It’s across the state, it’s across the country,” he said. “The community needs to step up and really contribute, because this is not going to be solved by one person.”

He says he and other business owners are also struggling with inflation and staffing shortages, and they are asking for help from elected leaders — and they don’t care what party they belong to.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.