Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and this week New York made history with the ascension of Kathy Hochul as the first female governor in the state’s history, a milestone made a tad bittersweet by the circumstances surrounding it: she assumes office after the resignation of predecessor Andrew Cuomo over a sexual harassment scandal. That the first woman in the position got there because her former boss was accused of creating an unsafe space for other women is an irony not lost on anyone. Still, as much as the symbolic aspects of Hochul’s rise have been exhaustively documented and discussed, the more salient question for us is who exactly is Hochul, and what can we expect of her?
We’ve already seen a definite tone shift, using the new Hochul administration’s first daily Covid-19 briefing to report a significantly higher death tally than what the Cuomo administration had been using, based on additional sources of data that had long been thought to present a more accurate picture. That small change in approach already highlighted a shift toward transparency and away from Cuomo’s efforts to control the narrative around his administration, with a particularly sharp point given the separate scandal involving Cuomo officials’ efforts to obscure Covid-related nursing home deaths.
She’s a longtime public servant, having spent years occupying important but low-profile positions in local government in her home base of Erie County. By any definition, she’s a cautious and centrist Democrat, having even moved to the left from her days as essentially a conservative, including a now-infamous 2008 call to have undocumented immigrants arrested if they attempted to apply for driver’s licenses under a program that was considered by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. (That executive attempt was brief and ultimately failed, though as of late 2019 undocumented immigrants can apply for licenses after the legislature passed a bill to that effect.)
To better get the lay of the land, we return today to our popular series: Epicenter publisher and URL Media co-founder S. Mitra Kalita asks me a bunch of questions and I do my best to answer conversationally and without sounding too much like a political analyst.
Any questions about New York elections and politics? Reach us at NYCelections@url-media.com
Ok, did you see the image of Gov. Hochul last week eating pastries with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio? How do you think they will get along?
Hochul’s little photo op with the newly laid back and Hawaiian shirt-wearing mayor is probably more of an image builder and ‘screw you’ to the former governor, who had an unseemly schoolyard-bully relationship with de Blasio. Many of us in the press would chuckle over the extent of the animosity between the two men—who, many forget, had worked together at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under former president Bill Clinton, where a young de Blasio was part of then-Secretary Cuomo’s handpicked team—and the frequency of the petty sniping. We have to remember, though, that this was ultimately not a good thing for New York, and their inability to have an effective working relationship undoubtedly harmed the people of this city in real and measurable ways.
From the MTA to affordable housing to disaster response, the neverending squabble hamstrung the ability of the state and the city to work together and solve problems of governance. Hochul seems to be saying those days are over. That model of men with big egos publicly clashing and relishing in political combat is to be a thing of the past, relegated to the dusty museum shelves where it belongs and replaced by a forward-thinking, technocratic, public-spirited, and practical governance. That’s her play, and it’s probably a good one; no one was really happy about the Cuomo-de Blasio battle, and it wasted a lot of time that could have been better spent, say, preparing for the eventuality of a health crisis. She’ll get along with de Blasio because, fundamentally, that’s part of her job.
Of course, that relationship isn’t the most important one here. De Blasio is out in a few months, and the all-important question is about Hochul’s relationship with (presumptive) mayor Eric Adams. That’s a little more of a question mark. The two haven’t had much reason to engage publicly up until now, and there’s not a lot of history to draw on. Early indications are good enough, with Adams having recently called Hochul a “professional” and a “steady hand.” For Hochul’s part, it would make sense to work collaboratively with Adams, especially going into her reelection campaign for next year’s June Democratic gubernatorial primary. If she can show that she’s a no-nonsense executive who can work well with the New York City mayor (kind of a low bar to clear, but here we are) that will set her up in a positive contrast to her predecessor.
Should we fear her record on immigration or you think she’s woken up a bit?
If anything, I would imagine that her past anti-immigrant stances will make her more likely to support immigrant rights now. The driver’s licenses fiasco is probably the most glaring scarlet letter in her political life so far, and while she’s since apologized for it and supported the recent licenses bill, she knows that she has to continually prove herself to the increasingly progressive New York City voter base and outer-borough immigrant voters in particular if she wants to hold on to her position. Immigration rights groups and community organizations are watching very closely, and they will not hesitate to bring the publicity hammer down if she veers too close to any of her previous stances.
The first big test on this front will be her administration’s handling of the Excluded Worker Fund, a $2.1 billion pool set aside by the legislature to provide economic assistance to people who did not otherwise qualify for unemployment benefits, which in practice basically means undocumented workers. She has already hired more staff to process applications for rent relief, making the rapid disbursement of critical funds a centerpiece of her early tenure, and an immediate measure of her commitment to immigrant New Yorkers will be if she pursues the distribution of worker assistance with the same gusto.
You recently joined us on a URL panel about covering Black politicians and what’s needed next. Hochul is our first female governor. What does the Albany press corps look like and how should or does gender affect coverage of her?
The Albany press corps features a number of dedicated women who themselves drove the coverage that ejected Cuomo; to name but a few, there’s THE CITY’s Josefa Velasquez, Spectrum’s Susan Arbetter, Politico’s Anna Gronewold, and New York Post reporter and Legislative Correspondents’ Association president Bernadette Hogan. Having these women digging into Cuomo’s conduct was no doubt determinative in his fall, and they will no doubt be as dogged in covering Hochul.
My guess is that Hochul will emphasize the historic nature of her rise to the governorship for a few days and then largely ignore it, preferring to highlight her ability to work with lawmakers of all political stripes and move things along without all the bullying, suspicion, and need for dominance that characterized the Cuomo administration. There are definitely optics advantages here, including blowing up the notion of “three men in a room”— the longtime moniker for the speaker of the Assembly, the Senate majority leader, and the governor, who for much of New York’s history were white men who would gather in smoky rooms to decide the future of the state (several of whom have landed under federal investigation or conviction in the past two decades, but that’s a story for another time). Now the speaker is a Black man, the majority leader is a Black woman, and the governor is a white woman.
It is all but certain that someone, somewhere will roll out tired sexist coverage tropes around temperament or focusing on what she’s wearing or something, but I don’t think that type of thing will have much cache in 2021 Albany.
Do we know who Hochul’s allies are?
The most important allies she can possibly have are the aforementioned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both of whom are keeping their cards close to the chest so far. They seem to have a decent enough relationship, but it’s a balancing act. Both Heastie and Stewart-Cousins are downstate legislators who have to manage large Democratic coalitions that include everything from socialist New York City legislators to suburban moderates around the state. Hochul’s own political home is in western New York, and the job of lieutenant governor isn’t necessarily one that’s conducive to building out strong political alliances; ultimately, it’s largely ceremonial, so while she has indeed traveled all over the state and met with local and state leaders of every kind, these weren’t conversations she was having from a position of direct influence.
One significant ally now is State Sen. Brian Benjamin, a progressive northern Manhattan policymaker who is reportedly Hochul’s pick for her own lieutenant governor. It’s a smart choice, and Benjamin will help the new governor make inroads with the New York City progressives with which she critically needs to build relationships.