Starting at midnight Tuesday morning, New York will have a new governor — the first woman to lead the state and the first in generations not to hail from New York City or the surrounding suburbs.
It’s not a role Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul anticipated she would be stepping into following a decade of Gov. Andrew Cuomo securely at the helm and then eyeing a fourth term. But the findings of an investigation overseen by State Attorney General Letitia James forced the once all-powerful Cuomo to resign, etching his name in the history books as another politician sullied by allegations of sexual harassment.
“When you look at a lot of our firsts, it’s because of the failures of predominantly white men. And then it’s women and people of color who are like the clean-up people,” said Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University.
And not a small clean-up job, either. “We have not seen a bigger set of challenges, just for the basic governance of the state, than we face today,” said Kathryn Wylde, the head of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business leaders.
Hochul, 62, will inherit a state still struggling to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of new cases creeps higher. She’ll also inherit a city of 8.8 million people that’s some 370 miles away from her home turf in Buffalo, placing Cleveland closer to her home than Manhattan.
And she’ll have to repair the damage of her predecessor, who leaves behind a wake of scandal.
“Kathy Hochul has to come in and heal Albany somehow after decades of corruption and bullying and just a beyond toxic environment on a host of levels — sexual harassment and assault that’s just rampant and out in the open in Albany, and not just with Cuomo but from the culutre,” Greer added.
Cuomo gave two weeks’ notice when he announced his resignation one week after James issued her report on Aug. 3 — propelling Hochul into a sprint to introduce herself to a state largely unfamiliar with her seven-year, largely ceremonial stint as lieutenant governor.
In the lead-up to her big day, the governor-in-waiting has stayed busy, intent on getting one message across: She is not like Andrew Cuomo.
She’s made the rounds on national television, pitching herself as an antidote to the Cuomo years characterized by allegations of intimidation and a toxic workplace.
She noshed on deep-fried cookie dough at the Erie County Fair, courted the notoriously thorny Albany and New York City press corps and toured a public school in Corona, Queens — an immigrant neighborhood besieged by the pandemic last last spring.
Hochul convened meetings with school officials to discuss the upcoming school year, met with some of Cuomo’s longtime rivals — most prominently Mayor Bill de Blasio — and members of New York’s congressional delegation.
And as Cuomo gave a briefing on Saturday about preparations for then-Hurricane Henri, Hochul was on Long Island, working with officials to gird for the storm, which she’ll now have to clean up after.
All the while, she’s juggled meetings with Cuomo administration officials over her transition.
“I have a different approach to governing,” Hochul said at an elementary school on Wednesday, her first New York City news conference following Cuomo’s resignation address a week prior. “I roll up my sleeves, I get the job done because I don’t have time for distractions, particularly coming into this position.”
Among her most pressing items of business come Tuesday:
A brewing housing crisis prompted by the pandemic awaits Hochul the moment she becomes governor.
A state eviction moratorium in place in some form since March 2020 has shielded tenants in financial distress from landlord actions to remove them for nonpayment of rent. But many tenants have been left with a pile of unpaid bills, while some landlords are coming under increasing financial strain.
Hochul will have exactly a week to work with state lawmakers as well as landlord and tenant advocates to come to an agreement over the state’s eviction moratorium before it expires at the end of the month. Hochul will also have to contend with a Cuomo-era rental relief program that’s only distributed a small fraction of the $2.7 billion available before the unallocated money may have to be returned by the end of September to the federal government.
The botched rental relief program is a unicorn where landlords and tenants rights advocates agree on something: that it’s not working and needs major overhaul.
“It was designed terribly and has to be redesigned in some way,” said Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a group that represents mostly small and mid-sized landlords.
“There has to be a similar effort to the effort to get shots in arms — a massive mobilization of educating the public that this program exists,” Martin added.
Intensifying the pressure is a recent decision from the U.S. The Supreme Court that nixed New York’s practice of allowing tenants to self-certify that the pandemic caused them economic hardship.
The Supreme Court’s decision means landlords can begin filing eviction cases in New York courts as soon as Thursday, said tenant rights advocate Cea Weaver, who is campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a statewide advocacy group.
“She’s going to have a lot on her plate,” Weaver added, noting that what Hochul does in the coming days can “really set the tone” for her administration.
Those who apply to the rental assistance program can stave off eviction if the moratorium expires as long as their application is pending, Martin said. And a federal eviction moratorium is in place until October, although it’s narrower in scope than previous measures.
Hochul will have to contend with the flawed rollout of the Excluded Workers Fund, a $2.1 billion program passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Cuomo in April. The law aims to benefit New Yorkers, such as undocumented immigrants, who were ineligible for government unemployment benefits and stimulus checks during the pandemic.
The fund, which opened earlier this month, has proven more challenging than expected to access. Cuomo’s Department of Labor added a requirement that workers have to prove they’ve lost 50% of their earnings to qualify for assistance — a difficult feat for people who are self-employed or largely work in the cash economy.
The Department of Labor declined to say how many people have applied for the program so far, stating that metrics will be available in the future.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), who sponsored the Excluded Workers Fund legislation, told THE CITY Thursday that she and Hochul have already been discussing remedies to the program.
“When we’re talking about the immigrant community, she has the most immediate and most important opportunity by cooperating with us on the Excluded Workers Fund and making sure that it is as comprehensive and inclusive as possible,” Ramos said. “There are issues of transparency and accessibility that we’ve already begun discussing.”
A new surge of COVID-19 cases also awaits Hochul. Most COVID infections in New York are now spurred by the super-contagious Delta variant of the virus.
While widespread vaccinations and improved medical treatment have helped make fatalities less common than they were in prior pandemic waves, 22% of New York State adults remain unvaccinated — putting it on Hochul to come up with a plan to persuade hold-outs.
The new increase in cases also coincides with the start of the school year, leaving educators, parents and students wondering whether in-person classes will be disrupted.
Cuomo Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker declined to provide state guidance on school reopening, leaving local districts to figure out how to interpret federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations and decide policies on masks, distancing, quarantines, vaccinations and more.
While Cuomo has stated that he lacks the legal authority to impose a statewide mask mandate on schools, Hochul has already indicated that some kind of requirement is on the horizon.
“In a matter of days, I’ll be able to say we will have mask mandates,” Hochul said Wednesday.
An equally daunting task is rebuilding trust in state government — especially its oversight of health care.
The Health Department has seen high-ranking departures amid evidence that Zucker helped the Cuomo administration absolve itself from responsibility for nursing home deaths after requiring facilities take COVID patients discharged from hospitals.
Zucker’s agency also went to great lengths to conceal the true number of nursing home deaths.
Both efforts came as Cuomo was writing a $5.1 million pandemic memoir extolling his managerial success. Federal prosecutors are investigating the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home deaths.
Hochul has set out to make it clear that she will govern differently from her predecessor, telling reporters in Albany following Cuomo’s Aug. 10 resignation address that “no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment.”
She said she will clean house of any Cuomo administration officials that were implicated in “doing anything unethical” documented in the attorney general’s report and planned to spend the next 45 days selecting who will join her administration as cabinet members and senior officials.
Some Cuomo loyalists have already announced that they’re leaving cabinet positions as soon as he departs. Among them: the head of the Department of Financial Services, Linda Lacewell, and the secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, who were implicated in the AG’s report for allegedly helping discredit one of the accusers and who may have violated the executive chamber’s own harassment policies as well as state laws.
And while she faces a host of issues that need immediate attention from the outset, Hochul’s also likely to get a bit of a honeymoon period, observers say.
“She’s really kind of the antithesis of Cuomo. She’s going to be given some time to kind of get her legs under her. But how long does that last is to be determined,” said Peter Kauffmann, a political strategist who worked for Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns in 2010 and 2014, when Hochul was selected as the governor’s running mate for his second term.
“She’ll have the honeymoon to be able to set a new tone. Maybe she can do something governmentally to show a change substantially from the Cuomo years and then it’s going to get very real,” Kauffmann said.
“She’s got to be able to express clear direction in an era of total uncertainty,” Wylde said. “And you have to be almost a magician to do that.”
Readying a Run
Adding to the pressure is the 2022 gubernatorial race, which Hochul says she plans to compete in.
While a calendar for the upcoming election year has yet to be released, a 2019 shift to earlier primary schedules in New York means the run is really just months away, in June 2022. That means Hochul will have to start fundraising and campaigning for a four-year term almost immediately.
“I think she does one of two things: Either she starts campaigning hard and fast or she lets the good work she’s done speak for her campaign,” Greer said.
Hochul’s still-unnamed choice for lieutenant governor can also help shoulder some of the campaigning, Greer added, a strategic decision that could help the Buffalo native gain political backing.
Hochul already declared that she’ll select a number-two from New York City, an area she’ll desperately need support from as a downstate outsider.
Three names have emerged to the top of the list for the next LG: State Sens. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan) and Jamaal Bailey (D-The Bronx) — the head of the Bronx Democratic Party and a protege of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — as well as outgoing Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
The mountain of decisions condensed into a tight timeline may work in Hochul’s favor, said Kauffman.
“When you take a step back and understand the challenges she’s facing, as daunting as it is in one respect, it also creates an atmosphere where people do want her to succeed and we’re all vested in her success,” he said. “We’re all going to be in this pulling for her. The fresh start in Albany is a good story line.”