Jumanne Williams, left, & Kathy Hochul (photos: @JumaaneWilliams & @KathyHochul)
New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams in January announced that he was running for lieutenant governor, posing a Democratic primary challenge to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. While doing so, Williams took aim at both Hochul and her partner in government and running-mate, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Williams criticized from the left Cuomo’s policies and management, while saying that Hochul has done little to hold the governor accountable, and promised to if elected transform the role of lieutenant governor into something of a public advocate at the state level.
Williams’ vision for the role is in stark contrast to Hochul’s. The incumbent, finishing her first term in the statewide post, argues that the lieutenant governor’s job is to work hand-in-hand with the governor. The two positions are decided together as a ticket in the general election, of course. But for primary nominations, candidates are selected separately by voters. So as Cuomo faces a challenge from his left by Cynthia Nixon, Hochul is attempting to fight off Williams, who has cross-endorsed with Nixon.
Hochul is running on what she cites as a record of accomplishment over nearly four years working with Cuomo, who is seeking a third term. Cuomo’s first-term lieutenant governor was Robert Duffy. Along with a variety of policy achievements under Cuomo, Hochul also cites her work on several issues, including economic development and fighting the opioid epidemic. Williams is running on not only his vision to reinvent the role, but his record of activism and legislation in the City Council, especially on housing and criminal justice reform.
Throughout the race, which appears to be wide open, (though a Siena poll released Monday shows Hochul with a 43-21 percent lead), with more than a third of likely voters undecided, the two candidates have attacked each other on several fronts, debated Cuomo’s record and outlines diametric visions for the office. Hochul and Williams participated in just one televised debate, hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network, while Hochul backed out on a promise to debate on NY1. (She has appeared at a variety of forums and made several media appearances to answer media questions).
With the Thursday September 13 primary vote fast approaching, a guide to the hotly-contested Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor:
Role of the Lieutenant Governor
Jumaane Williams seeks to reimagine the lieutenant governor role as one akin to that of New York City’s public advocate. In addition to presiding over the state Senate, one of the lieutenant governor’s constitutional powers, Williams thinks the lieutenant governor should hold the governor’s feet to the fire.
Too often, Williams says, the lieutenant governor “does what the governor says to do,” as he said during the lone debate of the primary. Cuomo, Williams claims, has “put on a progressive cloak,” while not truly pursuing a progressive agenda and governing as a “corporate Democrat.” He wants what he views as mostly a ribbon-cutting, ceremonial position to be one that takes the governor to task when the lieutenant governor sees that “the emperor has no clothes.”
“I believe the lieutenant governor should be the eyes, the ears, and the voice of the people of the state of New York,” he said at the debate, as opposed to the eyes and ears of the governor.
Hochul, however, says she is proud of partnering with the governor — a role she says should be carried on through the next term and not to be reinvented in Williams’ image. “This state is better served when you have the two executive officials, the governor and lieutenant governor, working in partnership,” she told reporters after the debate.
She also believes she is better qualified to step in as governor if needed due to the governor’s departure from office. “The role of lieutenant governor is to be experienced and prepared to step in as governor should the need arise,” she said during the debate, arguing that she is “uniquely” ready having served with Cuomo for the current term.
Williams has criticized Hochul for traveling the state to do ribbon-cutting ceremonies, while Hochul said ribbon-cuttings mean something “new and good” is happening for New Yorkers, and argues her role has been more full-scale than what the Council members describes.
Resume and Accomplishments
The son of Grenadian-born immigrants, Williams comes from an activists background — something he speaks about often on the campaign trail. After working at a local school, he served as executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors — a group that advocates for tenants, helping them “build and effectively wield their power” to fight for their rights and preservation of affordable housing. In 2009, Williams was elected to the City Council, representing Brooklyn’s District 45, which includes neighborhoods such as Flatbush, East Flatbush, and Midlands. During the last Council term, 2014-2017, Williams was its most prolific lawmaker, enacting 15 bills, second only to then-speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Williams’ top legislative achievements include a bill to rein in the New York City police department use of stop-and-frisk and create the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, and a “ban the box” policy forbidding employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until an initial offer is made. He also chaired the committee on Housing and Buildings and has been frequent critic of the city’s relatively new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, arguing that the numbers it sets do not create affordable enough housing for low-income people. Last month, Williams told Jacobin he now characterizes himself as a democratic socialist.
The Buffalo-born Hochul began her career as an aide to then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was a member of Hamburg’s Town Board and went on to be the County Clerk of Erie County Clerk and after that as a member of Congress. Representing a heavily-Republican western New York district in the House for one term, Hochul has touted votes on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to advance women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights as evidence of her ability and willingness to take bold, courageous action to stand up for her beliefs regardless of political ramifications. She believes that her votes for Obamacare, as the ACA is known, cost her the seat in Congress, something she says she wears as a badge of honor.
After her losing her congressional seat, Hochul took a job at M&T Bank as a lobbyist. Not long after, Andrew Cuomo's first-term lieutenant governor, Bob Duffy, decided against running again, and Hochul was added to the ticket.
During her time as lieutenant governor, Hochul has touted her efforts in economic development programs, particularly in struggling parts of upstate New York, heading advocacy for the governor’s “Enough is Enough” program to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, and, as chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, fighting the opioid epidemic. Throughout the campaign, she has boasted of the impacts of the Cuomo administration's economic development investements, while distancing herself and the governor from the corruption convictions that have involved those programs and two top Cuomo aides.
“Today, as the only woman in statewide office, I feel a special responsibility to continue using this platform to fight on these issues because I’ve done it before,” Hochul said on the Max & Murphy podcast of her work on women’s issues.
Additionally, Hochul says she helps get certain programs over the finish line and then travels the state to promote them and help with their implementation. She has called herself the “advancer in chief” for her role moving Cuomo administration programs forward.
Lines of attack and controversies
During the campaign Williams’ past statements on same-sex marriage as well as reproductive rights have been criticized in Hochul’s campaign commercials and beyond. While he did tell Politico New York in 2013 that he is “personally not in favor of abortion" and “[I] personally believe the definition of marriage is between a male and a female” (though he added the “government has to recognize everybody's relationships as equal”), he has for years stressed that he has no legislative record of opposing women’s reproductive rights or LGBT rights.
In August, the race heated up, featuring a roughly week-long back-and-forth over a Hochul ad pointing out Williams’ past financial troubles — he is in foreclosure over a home mortgage that ballooned to over $600,000 after he had leveraged the original loan in part to help him open a restaurant that failed, and he owes back state business taxes of roughly $10,000 — in turn sparking accusations from the Williams camp and others that the ad was racially insensitive and classist. Williams said the ad reflected that Hochul was out of touch with cash-strapped New Yorkers, and argued that his struggles have helped him become a better legislator. Hochul’s ad questioned whether Williams was fit to help oversee the state’s massive budget given his personal financial issues.
Williams, for his part, has levied his broader attacks on Hochul as an out-of-touch establishment Democrat, and has specifically pointed to her record on gun control and her opposition to the state’s efforts to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented New Yorkers last decade, when she was Erie County Clerk and pledged to report undocumented immigrants to the authorities if they came to her clerk’s office for a license.
On the Max & Murphy podcast earlier this year, Hochul said she regretted how she handled the matter.
“I wish I had not gone that route at the time, I really do, because I realize it was hurtful to people and that was not my intent,” she said. “I don’t think you can question my commitment to [immigrants] in a larger context.”
During an appearance on Max & Murphy last week, Hochul said she has disavowed her prior pro-gun positions.
“My position changed, I’m very proud that when I ran for lieutenant governor, the NRA was working against my race. I have today an F rating. I wear that proudly. And I have supported the SAFE Act from the very beginning, since its inception,” she said. “So I took positions way back. I said I rejected those and I’m very proud to say I stand with the governor and protect the SAFE Act, and even enhance the SAFE Act.”
Overall, Hochul has been endorsed by many major and minor establishment figures, while more a number of left-leaning candidates and officeholders are backing Williams. Cuomo has endorsed Hochul and Nixon has endorsed Williams. Hochul is also linked up with Letitia James, who is running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, while Williams and AG candidate Zephyr Teachout have cross-endorsed. Williams has garnered the backing of many of his City Council colleagues, though some in the body are behind Hochul or sitting it out.
Hochul has a long list of labor unions and political clubs behind her, as well as women’s rights groups, while Williams has several progressive groups, highlighted by the Working Families Party. On Monday, Williams received the support of Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Hochul has received the backing of the editorial boards of the Buffalo News and Newsday, while Williams is backed by the New York Times editorial board.