With the primary for governor and the next legislative session running on parallel tracks, progressives and moderates alike will be working to derail frontrunner Gov. Kathy Hochul as she navigates an expected barrage of left-leaning bills.
A recent poll has Hochul, a Buffalo native elevated to governor after Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace in August, leading the Democratic pack, with the support of 31% of likely voters in the statewide 2022 race.
With New York Attorney General Letitia James unexpectedly dropping out of the race, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive with his base in Brooklyn, is now Hochul’s closest competitor and is polling at 10%. Fellow Brooklyn progressive former mayor Bill de Blasio and moderate Long Island and eastern Queens Rep. Tom Suozzi both sit at 6%.
While all the challengers are or were elected officials, virtually any move from Hochul during the legislative session that starts in January could draw fire from opponents, with every decision becoming an intra-party partisan litmus test, political analysts said.
“The amount of pressure and scrutiny that the budget is going to be under and all these other social issues and other programs –– the governor’s race will be front and center,” said Peter Kauffmann, a political strategist who worked for Cuomo’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns. “One will define the other. We’re going to see the issues of a governor’s race play out in real time with actual policy and actual pieces of legislation next year.”
And while Hochul, who is set to give her first “State of the State” address on Wednesday, will be forced to take positions on pending issues, her opponents can pick and choose their spots — and also push her to the left or right.
Williams has in the past encouraged leaders in Albany to support a “good cause” anti-eviction bill that would limit rent hikes and guarantee lease renewals, while Hochul has declined to take a position on the measure. Suozzi has said that he believes enacting the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would raise billions via taxing greenhouse gas emission activities, is a mistake, while Hochul has been open to it.
“The idea of having higher taxes just in New York where it makes NY less unattractive that people won’t want to come here, or people won’t bring businesses here is something we have to guard against,” said Suozzi on Capitol Pressroom last month. “We’ve gone too far in New York.”
Liberal Legislation Awaits
A similar dynamic played out in the 2018 governor’s race when actress-turned-activist Cynthia Nixon challenged Cuomo and pledged to legalize recreational marijuana and prioritized fixing the subway system.
Cuomo, who previously opposed legalizing pot, began shifting his stance on both issues as the primary went on: embracing a state report that supported legalization and endorsing congestion pricing to direct more funds to the subway system.
The pandemic slowed down the 2020 legislative session and Cuomo’s scandals stalled 2021’s session. Now, advocates and lawmakers in the increasingly progressive, Democrat-controlled Legislature are eager to push a slew of bills, ranging from housing protections to free college.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-The Bronx) predicted that advocates and some lawmakers will fight to make sure that his single-payer healthcare bill will be “a flashpoint” on the campaign trail.
“[We’ll] put this to all of the gubernatorial candidates, including the incumbent. And I will certainly be making the case that it is absolutely essential for them to have a public position on this because of how Important I believe it is to make sure that every New Yorker has healthcare,” said Rivera. “And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the general public, as they’re making a decision of who to be supportive of, makes this a consideration.”
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) is preparing to rally supporters on Dec. 11 to relaunch support for a bill he’s proposed that would make the City University of New York free for all students. He said the upcoming budget will be the biggest signal of how far Hochul might be willing to go.
“She’s been very public in her comments about reversing the trends that have been reciprocated by her predecessor and changing some of the ways that we divested from some of our public institutions, whether they be public agencies, or public universities, or public hospitals,” said Gounardes.
“The jury is still out on how she’s going to manifest that vision in terms of a governing document in a budget, but I think she’s saying all the right things,” he added.
Meanwhile, de Blasio as a potential candidate has floated a big (and costly) idea: year-round schooling.
Hochul already has had to make decisions that could put her at odds with advocates or create easy talking points for her candidates on the campaign trail. Since taking office in August, the governor has vetoed a bill that would have created a public advocate for consumers who have problems with state utilities. She’s also being urged to increase rental subsidies for the lowest-income families in New York.
Hochul has taken her political journey one election at a time, vacillating between more conservative and more liberal positions in upstate races depending on the contest, always centering herself as a moderate Democrat.
Running for Erie County Clerk in 2007, she was in the rare position of running on both the Conservative and Working Families Party ballot lines, as well as on the Democratic line.
But to win in that race, she also seized a position more typically associated with the Republican Party. Already holding the county clerk’s office by appointment, she fought then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to issue driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and teamed up with another upstate clerk to formulate a plan to arrest undocumented immigrants who applied for them.
In 2011, she became a member of Congress by beating a Republican in a conservative district, campaigning heavily against a private-market voucher option for Medicare.
As governor, she’s also tried to stake out a middle ground on high-profile projects, such as scaling down Cuomo’s plan to build supertall towers around Penn Station, which had drawn community opposition.
In September, Hochul approved the construction of new power lines along the Hudson River to bring more renewable energy to New York City and halted plans to build gas-fueled power plants in Queens. But her Department of Environmental Conservation has delayed making a final decision on whether or not to allow National Grid to expand its Greenpoint gas-transmission facility.
George Arzt, a longtime New York City-based political consultant, declared the balancing act successful thus far.
“Her performance has been praised by many. She’s certainly seen as energetic. You see her everywhere in every part of the state,” Arzt said. “I think that most people think of Hochul as a moderate Democrat.”
Hochul’s campaign also reported raising $10 million since filing to run for a full term and has $11.1 million in her campaign warchest.
“The first test will be the January 15th filing, but I think Hochul has a real edge at this point,” Artz said.
One test of her success: Rep. Lee Zeldin, who has focused on taking jabs at both Hochul and James, redirected his firepower at Williams — saying last month after James dropped out that the public advocate has the best shot at winning the June Democratic primary because of his “far-left credentials.”