Kathy Hochul becomes New York’s first female governor at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday morning, replacing her disgraced predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who resigned amid multiple scandals, including a report from the state attorney general that found he sexually harassed 11 women.
A Buffalo native, Hochul served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor since 2015. But the pair were rarely seen together outside of campaign seasons. In her public comments after Cuomo announced he would step down, Hochul sought to stress her distance from the tainted executive as she prepared to take the reins and launch her own bid for reelection next year.
In Hochul’s first remarks as the governor-in-waiting, on August 11, she stiff-armed Cuomo, promising to ditch any of his aides “named as doing anything unethical” in state Attorney General Letitia James’ report as part of her efforts to remake a notoriously noxious executive chamber.
“No one,” Hochul said, “will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment.”
Hochul’s ascent coincides with the final act of Cuomo’s decade-long run in charge of New York state, a period in which he ruthlessly consolidated power and become a national political star. During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, his daily televised briefings won him the adoration of Democrats across the country, who held Cuomo up as the fact-driven antithesis of then-President Donald Trump. But he burned out spectacularly in the months that followed, when a closer look at his handling of the crisis revealed questionable decision-making — most notably his administration’s decision to send Covid-19 patients back to nursing homes — and put a spotlight on his alleged use of state resources to help in writing a triumphal memoir. By early this year, the governor, once believed to be ticketed for a fourth term, was facing mounting allegations of sexual misconduct, which he still denies, and a backlash over the state health department’s underreporting of Covid-19-related deaths in nursing homes.
Facing impeachment in the state Assembly and conviction and removal by the state Senate, Cuomo announced nearly two weeks ago that he would step down. Assembly leaders hit pause on their investigation days later but then backtracked, eventually deciding to complete a report outlining their findings. It has not yet been released.
Stepping out from Cuomo’s long shadow and winning over leaders and lawmakers who clashed with him has been an early priority for Hochul, 62, who will immediately be faced with an onslaught of new and lingering challenges — from rising Covid-19 case rates to speeding up the dispersal of rental assistance and potentially extending the statewide eviction moratorium, which is set to expire on August 31.
Reinforcing old relationships and building new ones with the legislature, which was often treated scornfully by Cuomo, could be crucial to Hochul’s fate — now and as the next election season comes into focus. Following through on her promise to cast out top Cuomo aides would likely be a welcome start, said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.
“I don’t think it’s hard to identify the leading thugs. Everybody in Albany can name them and most of the press corps can name them. They have never been shy about making the phone calls or doing it face-to-face,” Sherrill told CNN. “That’s got to be done. And I think that a lot of it has to do with building up a good relationship with the legislature.”
Hochul will be under pressure to pursue beefed-up ethical standards in Albany and private workplaces across the state. Leading advocates for survivors of sexual misconduct are calling on Hochul to act swiftly — and use her new power to press state lawmakers to take up dormant legislation that would expand oversight and offer new protections for workers.
“At the end of the day, incoming-Gov. Hochul is part of an institution that has so far miserably failed to protect staffers and support survivors when they come forward,” said Erica Vladimer, a co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an organization founded by former state legislative employees. “It’s not a matter of her connection to Cuomo, it’s her connection to the entire institution of state government. She has a major responsibility stepping into the role as governor, but any elected official has a major responsibility to staffers and to survivors.”
Hochul is also facing early questions about a potential conflict of interest concerning her husband, William Hochul Jr., the general counsel and senior vice president at hospitality and gambling giant Delaware North, a company with significant business before the state. In her new job, Hochul controls New York’s Gaming Commission, which regulates a large and growing gambling market.
“Kathy Hochul, who had no power as lieutenant governor to really influence things, will have all the power as governor to be able to greenlight and influence deals between state regulators and state agencies and public authorities and Delaware North,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the good-government group Reinvent Albany. “Bottom line: She’s in a place to make Delaware North a ton of money if she was so inclined, by granting them favorable treatment and putting her thumb on the scale.”
Asked about those concerns by CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” last week, Hochul said she has sought the advice of “outside ethics experts to come up with an ironclad policy, so no one will ever question that there’s any involvement with my husband in anything pertaining to the state of New York.”
“My husband was a federal prosecutor for 30 years. So even when I was in Congress, we’re well-accustomed to keeping our work very separate,” said Hochul, who had previously told CNN the couple would continue its current recusal policy. “He served as Barack Obama’s US attorney for eight years. So no one can touch the integrity with which we have brought to our positions in the past and currently.”
Though the specific ethical questions raised by her husband’s position might vex any newly elevated political leader, Hochul’s situation has been further complicated by Cuomo, who despite having run on a promise to clean up state government presided over a further decline in the autonomy and independence of powerful agencies.
“Under Cuomo, (public authorities and state agencies) have just been crushed over the last decade, so that they become accustomed to just doing whatever they’re told by the governor’s office,” Kaehny said. “That firewall is gone.”
Hochul has publicly acknowledged that additional layers of oversight might be necessary and, as of her swearing-in Tuesday, Delaware North will, according to a Hochul adviser, create a “firewall” that bars her husband from any involvement in state business, restricts his compensation from dealings with the state and puts a process in place to monitor his communications with the governor’s office to assure compliance with the new rules.
Building a government — and a bigger political base
Hochul has embraced progressive leaders during her recent statewide travels and they, in turn, have offered her political space and some kind words ahead of Cuomo’s departure. But that honeymoon is expected to end as left-leaning potential gubernatorial candidates announce their intentions — and dig into her record — ahead of next year’s election.
In 2011, Hochul won a special election to represent New York’s 26th Congressional District, a seat held by Republicans for decades before the resignation of former Rep. Chris Lee. But Hochul lost her reelection bid the next year after the district was redrawn. Her opponent then, former Rep. Chris Collins, would end up resigning in 2019, a day before he pleaded guilty in an insider trading case.
Though her time in Congress was short, Hochul is a veteran state and local politician with deep roots in more conservative Western New York.
A moderate, she has shifted left over the years with the Democratic Party. Back in 2007, during her time as Erie County clerk, Hochul emerged as a vocal opponent of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow for the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. But her position, as she reiterated this month, “evolved” and she ultimately wrote a 2019 op-ed backing the “Green Light” bill shortly before Cuomo signed it into law.
Hochul also received an endorsement and “A” rating from the National Rifle Association a decade ago — before running afoul of gun rights activist groups over her support for New York’s post-Sandy Hook SAFE Act and joining forces with the incumbent governor as he sought a second term in 2014.
Though she was not close to Cuomo, Hochul is likely to encounter criticism over their political alliance, which included her participation in the rollout of the Women’s Equality Party, an organization the governor co-founded — ostensibly as a new vehicle for electing progressive lawmakers who support abortion rights — ahead of his 2014 primary campaign. The party, which endorsed Cuomo and was allowed on the ballot under the provisions of the state’s fusion voting system, quickly dissipated and is widely regarded as emblematic of his cynical political style.
The political ramifications of the Cuomo team’s salt-the-earth departure tactics — illustrated most sharply in a recent op-ed by a top aide and the governor’s grumbling farewell speech — remain to be seen, though they might be a gift for a new executive seeking to distinguish herself from the outgoing administration.
“What is clear is that Hochul is really seeking to define herself as a clear contrast to the governor,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the progressive New York Working Families Party. “She is now seeking to craft an identity that might very well work for progressive and working people in the state. But it does not quite answer the question of what animates Kathy Hochul’s political decisions — who is she accountable to? What drives her?”
On a ticket with Cuomo, Hochul in 2018 defeated a top New York City progressive, Jumaane Williams, who has since been elected the city’s public advocate, by less than 7 percentage points. But Williams, who has been tipped to run against her again — this time for governor — next year, routed Hochul in Manhattan and Brooklyn, underscoring her need to build and shore up support in the city.
Those efforts are well underway. Hochul spent much of Cuomo’s two weeks’ notice meeting with city officials, including Williams. The pair put out a joint statement after their meeting, calling it a “productive dialogue.”
Hochul on Monday morning also announced two high-profile hires: Karen Persichilli Keogh, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and head of global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, has been named the secretary to the governor — a powerful position previously held by Melissa DeRosa, who resigned shortly before her old boss. Elizabeth Fine will be Hochul’s chief counsel after serving as chief legal officer at New York’s top economic development agency.
But Hochul has not yet announced her replacement as lieutenant governor, perhaps the most politically sensitive choice in front of her. She has said the pick will come from downstate, most likely in New York City.
A Hochul adviser told CNN that a decision will come this week. Hochul has spoken to a number of Brooklyn- and Bronx-based leaders, including Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, a state Assembly member and chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. and state Sens. Brian Benjamin and Jamaal Bailey, as first reported in The New York Times.
Bichotte Hermelyn, Bailey and Díaz Jr. all endorsed New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough president, before the June primary. Benjamin, who ran unsuccessfully in the comptroller race, announced his support for Adams earlier this month.
The political calculus underlying Hochul’s eventual choice has become a favorite parlor game of New York politicos. The lieutenant governor is, by law, a mostly ceremonial position — though Hochul’s recent experience underscores the interest in who occupies the office.
Still, the pick is a prime opportunity for Hochul to define her political persona downstate, which could make or break her reelection hopes.
“I really think that she needs a young, energetic progressive person as lieutenant governor. It’s the easiest way, quickly, to reach out to the community that is most problematic for her in the primary,” Sherrill said. “Some of me thinks she’ll want to have a man (on the ticket), but I don’t think that there’s anything terribly politically problematic about having two women. I think that might help her in a primary.”