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A 'Machiavellian Manipulator': Michael Gianaris on Andrew Cuomo's Downfall and What's Next

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Senator Michael Gianaris (photo: NYS Senate)

Last week, with New York’s executive branch embroiled in scandal and former Governor Andrew Cuomo set to resign, State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris appeared on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics Podcast to reflect on Cuomo’s reign and resignation, the political dynamics of Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul taking over as the state’s first woman governor, and policy priorities ahead for the next legislative session.

“There’s a lot of really important substantive things that have been put on hold because the governor’s been distracted by his scandals,” Gianaris told podcast host Ben Max, executive editor of Gotham Gazette, on Friday, August 20, three days before Cuomo’s resignation went into effect.

Cuomo stepped down in the wake of an attorney general’s report which concluded that he sexually harassed or groped 11 women, most of whom were state employees. On Tuesday, Hochul was sworn in as his successor, becoming the 57th governor of New York State.

On the podcast, Gianaris spoke about his work in the state Senate and his relationship with the disgraced former governor. He offered a damning analysis of what he described as Cuomo’s autocratic, tyrannical leadership style, and said Cuomo used manipulative techniques to actively fight against the Democratic majorities in the state Legislature and sought political victories that he could claim solely for himself. And he expressed hope for newly sworn-in Governor Hochul, whose stated willingness to collaborate and consult with others might “correct a lot of the problems” of Cuomo’s administration, he said.

“When you’re dealing with a bully, the way he is,” Gianaris said of Cuomo, “what tends to happen is the bully is very successful until it all falls apart and topples over, and I think that’s exactly what happened here.”

“He finally had done something and these courageous women came forward in a way that really grabbed a hold of public attention and then the flood gates opened, and everyone started saying, ‘I knew this all along,’ Gianaris added. “Well, some of us have certainly been yelling about this for ten years with moderate success.”

After the Attorney General released her report, which also outlined a "toxic" workplace culture in Cuomo’s executive office, Gianaris said that “the behavior finally was so beyond the pale that it penetrated public consciousness,” adding, “it finally got through to people that this is not a good guy that we’re dealing with.”

After “being frozen” for months because of Cuomo’s scandals, Gianaris said, “a lot of business of the state has been held up,” and said he hopes to “get the state back on track” by moving forward with climate change, healthcare and transportation legislation in the next session.

For Gianaris, the sexual harassment allegations are indicative of the “manipulative” leadership style that made Cuomo a “hindrance to the state,” Gianaris said. “You look at the harassment allegation, and that comes from someone who feels so entitled and is so arrogant about their power and their position that he believed he could do anything he wanted to and get away with it,” he said. “Even to this day, even though he’s announced his resignation, he’s still defending his behavior and attacking the courageous women who came forward.”

Gianaris called Cuomo a “Machiavellian manipulator” who worked against his own party to secure political victories that would stand as distinctly his own, and were not born of any collaboration with the legislative branch. He said Cuomo went so far as to fight against his party’s majority in the state legislature to position himself as the mediator between parties. By encouraging fellow state Democrats not to run, withholding support from them, and even offering them jobs outside of the State Legislature – Gianaris said Cuomo offered him a job as head of the Department of Financial Services to get him out of the Senate – Gianaris described how Cuomo helped “facilitate Republican control of the Senate” so that he could “get the credit for overcoming the Republican Senate that he actually helped keep in place.”

Gianaris pointed out that for the last decade, Cuomo has talked frequently about the same three issues that he accomplished under the Republican Senate – passing marriage equality, gun control regulations under the SAFE Act, and a $15 minimum wage. “We have done so much more in the last three years, but those are largely seen as legislative accomplishments,” Gianaris said, referring to the period since the Democratic takeover of the State Senate, and thus both houses of the legislature. He cited the Legislature’s enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), conversation therapy ban, codification of Roe v. Wade, increase in taxes on the wealthy, passage of strong tenant protection laws, and criminal justice reform. “He never talks about [these policies] because these are not things that he can somehow raise his flag and claim that he miraculously convinced Republicans to adopt,” Gianaris said.

Beyond helping to divide the Legislature, Gianaris insisted that Cuomo held back the state’s progressive agenda. “Even in his resignation speech, [Cuomo] said, ‘We are the progressive capital of the nation.’ Well he doesn’t say that he tried to keep that from happening for most of the last decade,” Gianaris explained. “He was against raising taxes, and then we imposed on him in the budget to agree. Even on the day we passed the Green Light law for drivers licenses for immigrants, he was talking about how he believed it might be unconstitutional to try and slow us down and keep us from passing it.”

Despite Cuomo’s bullying, he was always able to maintain deniability, Gianaris said, and no one, aside from the women who stepped forward to tell their stories of Cuomo's sexual misconduct, was willing to stand up to Cuomo’s political tactics or the “huge war chest” of $18.5 million in campaign cash he raised for a potential fourth term run.

“When you’re talking about something as in the weeds as control of the Senate, and he does things in such a manipulative way that you can’t really put your finger on it and say he did this, that, and the other thing, he can deny it,” like he is doing now with the harassment claims, Gianaris said. “There’s things he’s gotten away with for a long time because it was hard to prove and so on, but now that you’ve got multiple women stepping forward with the courage to tell their stories, I think it finally got through to people that this is not a good guy that we’re dealing with.”

At the time Cuomo announced his resignation, he faced an impeachment investigation by the State Assembly, which was examining the sexual harassment complaints against him, as well as several other issues including his administration’s handling of Covid in nursing homes and his alleged use of state resources to promote his pandemic memoir. When Cuomo said he would step down, the Assembly suspended its investigation but still intends to release a report of its findings.

With Cuomo on his way out, Gianaris is somewhat optimistic for Hochul’s time as governor. Hochul, in her first public address on Tuesday, promised to take a “fresh and collaborative approach” and pledged to undo damage done by her predecessor, including by instituting reforms to ethics and sexual harassment regulations.

“Many of us have had the same relatively positive experience with Kathy Hochul, which is to say she very much seems to be in favor of outreach and collaboration and consultation,” he said. “Now that was all in the context of her as lieutenant governor and in an administration that shut her out of a lot of the important decisions they were involved in. So what she will do once she ascends to this important office remains to be seen.”

[Fighting Covid, Distributing Aid and Changing Albany's Culture: Governor Hochul Outlines Priorities in First Public Address]

But Gianaris was careful not to throw his unequivocal support behind Hochul. Although he thinks Hochul’s personality is promising for executive leadership, he’s not sure where she will land on the substance of issues. “The bigger question for Kathy Hochul in my mind is how she is going to position herself,” Gianaris said, adding, “we have a week and a half before the eviction moratorium runs out. Are we going to go back and do something about that or not? These are the questions that her answers on will help determine how people view her politically.”

On August 12th, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crucial part of New York’s eviction moratorium, which expires on August 31. On top of that, the state has doled out barely any of the $2.7 billion in emergency rental assistance available to New Yorkers struggling to pay rent in pandemic conditions.

Gianaris is unsure if the eviction moratorium will be renewed this month but said, “the Senate stands ready to go and do our work if we have willing partners,” and spoke of the need to change the way tenants must prove loss of income to help them access funding.

Hochul has already announced an overhaul of the state’s rental assistance program that includes protection from eviction for tenants whose applications for relief are under review, bolstered outreach to increase awareness of the relief program in underserved communities, acceleration of the application review process, and a release of county-by-county relief roll out data.

In the meantime, Gianaris is concerned with getting state government running efficiently after weeks of stalling brought on by the distraction of Cuomo’s scandal. “Most notably,” Gianaris said, “we have about $2 billion dollars in rent relief money that hasn’t gone out the door. We are last in the nation for getting that money out.”

There is also the NY HERO Act, which hasn’t been fully implemented because the Department of Health hasn’t certified COVID as a dangerous pandemic. Sponsored by Gianaris with Assembly Member Karines Reyes, and already signed into law by Cuomo, the law requires the Department of Labor and Health to enforce minimum workplace COVID protocols such as social distancing, PPE, testing, and sanitation.

In the coming legislative session, Gianaris hopes to see the implementation of the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Action Act (CLCPA) that aims to reach net-zero emissions in the state by 2050. He also wants to increase access to health care though he noted concerns from public employee unions and finding the money to pay for the program up-front would make achieving universal care increasingly difficult. And he wants to see his antitrust legislation advance, which he said would hold big tech companies accountable and create more competition in the marketplace. That bill has passed the Senate and awaits approval in the Assembly.

Mass transit also needs a revamp because “the governor played games with the MTA for so long that there’s a lot of work to do to get that organization in shape and working for people,”
Gianaris said.

Gianaris said another item “at the top of my list” is getting Governor Hochul to implement the Housing Our Neighbors With Dignity Act (HONDA), recently signed into law by Cuomo, which gives the state funds to purchase distressed properties and turn them into permanent affordable housing.

Gianaris is very supportive of term limits, and said they might have even helped get people like Cuomo out of office sooner. “There comes a point in time when people get stale or out of touch with the people they represent. That was part of Andrew Cuomo’s problem in the last couple of years as his circle got tighter and tighter, and the exposure to whether it's the public or other leaders in government becomes more restricted,” Gianaris said.

When asked if he would consider a run for Attorney General if incumbent AG Letitia James runs for governor against Hochul, who was quick to announce she would pursue the governorship after finishing Cuomo’s term, Gianaris said he would support James’ “historic” candidacy and would wait to hear her official announcement before announcing his own intention. He said he wouldn’t run against her in a potential attorney general primary.


Fighting Covid, Distributing Aid and Changing Albany's Culture: Governor Hochul Outlines Priorities in First Public Address

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Governor Kathy Hochul (Mike Groll/Governor's office)

Newly sworn-in Governor Kathy Hochul said Tuesday she would take proactive measures to fight the spread of the Covid delta variant, quickly distribute federal relief funds and immediately strengthen state ethics and sexual harassment regulations as she seeks to change the culture in Albany that she inherited from disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Hochul, a Democrat, was sworn in earlier in the day, becoming the 57th governor of New York State and making history as the first woman to hold the position. Her predecessor, Cuomo, resigned in the wake of an attorney general’s report that found he had sexually harassed or groped 11 women, most of whom were state employees.

In her first public address on Tuesday afternoon, Hochul outlined her immediate priorities and promised a “fresh and collaborative approach” to achieve them, contrasting herself with her Cuomo, who was known for his bullish and authoritarian tendencies and who oversaw a cutthroat office culture that was described in the attorney general’s report as “toxic,” “hostile” and “abusive.”

Speaking from the State Capitol’s Red Room, Hochul thanked her family for supporting her, and the women’s suffrage movement that paved the way for her elevation to the state’s highest office. And she spoke directly to New Yorkers. “You may not know me, but I know you,” she said.

“I've embraced and internalized the hopes and dreams of 20 million people who share the name, 'New Yorkers.' And I want you to know, you are heard, and I'm ready to get to work as your governor to solve the big problems that this state faces,” she added.

Hochul’s first priority, she said, is tackling the delta variant. As the reopening of schools approaches, she said is working on a state mandate for required vaccinations or a weekly test-out option for all school personnel. She directed the state health department to institute a universal mask mandate for anyone entering a school, and promised to release a series of “concise and consistent” school-related policies later in the week. Later in the day, Hochul announced a new COVID-19 Testing in Schools Program with $335 million in federal funds through the state, and another $225 million that was received by New York City directly. 

Though New York’s vaccination rate has been slowly increasing and is at 59%, Hochul also teased additional new vaccination requirements. And she promised to prepare for the mass administration of booster shots, including by potentially reopening mass vaccination sites.

[The Major Challenges and Decisions Facing Kathy Hochul as She Becomes Governor of New York]

Among the issues before Hochul is the state’s shoddy rollout of the $2.7 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund. Both programs have been funded with federal relief aid but have been slow to reach beneficiaries. “I want the money out now. I want it out with no more excuses and delays,” Hochul said. Earlier in the day, she met with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and said they shared her sense of urgency.

Hochul said the state will launch a new $1 million targeted outreach campaign on the rent relief program, that she will hire more staff to process applications and build a team to “identify and remove any barriers that remain.” “And we'll take the same focused approach to our Excluded Workers Fund,” she said.

In a direct response to the circumstances of her predecessor’s resignation, Hochul also announced immediate reforms to the state’s ethics enforcement and anti-sexual harassment policies, and pledged greater transparency in her administration.

She promised “a dramatic change in culture, with accountability and no tolerance for individuals who crossed the line.” She said she will require all sexual harassment trainings be conducted live. She will mandate that state entities review and report on their compliance with transparency laws. She will require her counsel to create an expedited process to complete requests made under the state Freedom of Information Law, and post those requests online publicly. And she promised an executive order requiring ethics training for all state employees, “which shockingly is not required across the board.”

“As I undertake the weighty responsibilities before me, know that I have the confidence, the courage and the ability to lead New Yorkers forward and make New York's women proud,” she concluded. “You'll find me to be direct, straight-talking and decisive. I will not be deterred and I'm willing to be bloodied and marred in the pursuit of doing what's right for the people of this great state.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Cuomo Strikes Defiant Tone in Farewell Address

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Governor Andrew Cuomo (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo struck a defiant tone Monday in his farewell address as he sought to defend his record in office and paint the attorney general’s sexual harassment investigation that prompted his resignation as “unfair” and “unjust.”

Cuomo is officially stepping down at 11:59 p.m., two weeks after announcing that he would resign following an independent investigation which found he had sexually harassed or groped 11 women, nine of whom are current and former state employees. His successor, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, is set to be sworn in as governor at 12:01 a.m. She will become the state’s 57th governor and the first woman to hold the position.

In his pre-recorded final address, Cuomo continued to try to undermine the investigation, which was conducted by independent attorneys chosen by Attorney General Letitia James. “I understand that there are moments of intense political pressure and media frenzy that cause a rush to judgment. But that is not right,” he said. “It's not fair or sustainable. Facts still matter.”

Since the attorney general released the 165-page report, Cuomo and his attorneys have repeatedly tried to cast aspersions on both the investigative process as well as several of the accusers whose accounts were corroborated. On Monday, the governor reiterated his belief that he was the victim of a politicized investigation. “The truth is, ultimately, always revealed,” he said. “The Attorney General's report was designed to be a political firecracker on an explosive topic, and it worked. There was a political and media stampede. But the truth will out in time. Of that, I am confident.”

“I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight this, because it is unfair and unjust in my mind,” he added. But he insisted that he chose to step down to save the state from months of political paralysis. Two weeks ago, he faced the prospect of impeachment by the state Assembly, but the chamber dropped its impeachment investigation when the governor said he would resign. The Assembly intends to issue a report on its findings and the governor still faces separate investigations by the attorney general, a U.S. attorney’s office and several district attorneys.

As he bookends his nearly three terms in office, Cuomo touted a long list of accomplishments including the passage of marriage equality, gun control legislation, increasing the minimum wage to $15, action on climate change and an expansive infrastructure program. “No governor in the nation has passed more progressive measures than I have,” he said.

He also had advice – and warnings – for the next administration. He pushed back against the movement to defund the police, which spread nationally after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. “I believe it is misguided, I believe it is dangerous,” he said of the movement. He argued against higher taxes that he said would drive businesses out of the state and undercut the state's tax base. “We can address income inequality without ending incomes,” he said.

As the delta variant continues to surge, Cuomo called for a statewide mask mandate and for a vaccination proof mandate for private businesses. “Political procrastination is COVID collaboration. We know the choice is between the politically contentious or the medically infectious. You decide which is worse,” he said.

He also urged his successor to be decisive and avoid the pitfalls of bureaucratic inefficiency. “We have developed, over the last decade, a new paradigm of government in this state. A government that actually works, and actually works for people,” he added. “It sounds simple, but it's all the difference in the world. We cannot go backwards.”

It’s unclear what lies in Cuomo’s future out of office. His former top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who also resigned in the wake of the attorney general’s report, said in a Monday statement, “Between HUD, AG & his time as Governor, Andrew Cuomo has spent nearly 25 years in public service. And the way he does it, it’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He looks forward to spending time with his family and has a lot of fishing to catch up on. He is exploring a number of options, but has no interest in running for office again.”

As Hochul takes over tomorrow from Cuomo, she faces several immediate challenges and decisions, and Cuomo concluded his Monday address by wishing her good luck. “I believe she will step up to the challenge. We all wish her success,” he said.

[The Major Challenges and Decisions Facing Kathy Hochul as She Becomes Governor of New York]

Cuomo also took a parting shot at Mayor Bill de Blasio, with whom he has feuded constantly for the last seven years. “Eric Adams will be the next mayor of New York City. I think he’ll bring a new philosophy and competence to the position which can give New York City residents hope for the future,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Major Challenges and Decisions Facing Kathy Hochul as She Becomes Governor of New York

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Incoming Governor Kathy Hochul (photo: governor's office)

Kathy Hochul will become New York’s 57th governor on Tuesday, and the first woman ever to hold the position, as disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation goes into effect and he hands over the reins of state government. Hochul, who has been Cuomo’s lieutenant governor since 2015, will take over the complicated machinery and immense power of state government. She will face no shortage of challenges as she assumes authority over an executive chamber mired in scandal and a state struggling with myriad crises created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and others that pre-dated it.

The list of challenges and decisions quickly facing Hochul is extensive, including naming her own lieutenant governor, whom she said will be from New York City and will be revealed soon after she is sworn in. Covid cases are rising due to the Delta variant and while the state’s overall vaccination rate is solid, there are many communities where rates are far too low; New York’s precarious economy and educational reopenings are at hand; several major state programs must be better implemented to help New Yorkers in need; the eviction moratorium is expiring; state government is facing a crisis of confidence; and more.

Hochul is set to address New Yorkers for the first time after being sworn in as governor on Tuesday afternoon. In between, she will meet privately with the legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, two fellow Democrats.

Hochul's elevation to governor comes two weeks after Cuomo announced he would step down, in the wake of a state attorney general report that found he had sexually harassed or groped 11 women, nine of whom were state employees. That was among several scandals that had prompted an impeachment investigation by the state Assembly into the governor along with his administration’s mishandling (and subsequent alleged cover up) of covid in nursing homes, his apparent use of state resources to promote his pandemic memoir, his use of the state health department to give preferential covid testing access to friends and family, and more.

While the Assembly announced it would halt its impeachment process upon the governor’s resignation, but for the production of a report and sharing its findings with the relevant authorities, Cuomo faces ongoing investigations by several district attorney offices, a U.S. attorney’s office, and the attorney general.

In Hochul, many of Cuomo’s detractors now see hope for a change in the state capital. There is a clarion call across the state for Hochul to sweep aside the rot that plagued Albany and the Capitol’s second floor, home to the governor’s office. Cuomo’s victims are among those who want to see the toxic work environment done away with and are calling on her to purge any top Cuomo loyalists that may remain, particularly those implicated in the various scandals that were his undoing. Hochul has said anyone complicit as detailed in the attorney general’s sexual harassment report will be let go if they haven’t resigned and that she is meeting with cabinet members to determine who will be offered the chance to stay, while her team is also meeting with executive chamber staff and bringing in new blood.

“At the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” Hochul pledged at her first news briefing after Cuomo announced he was stepping down.

Hochul will quickly find herself pulled in different directions as elected officials, activists, bureaucrats, and the people of the state express the demands they have for her leadership. And she will of course lay out her own priorities. She has only 16 months in office till she closes out Cuomo’s third term, and just ten months till the next statewide primary election, in which she has quickly said she will be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. Her first — and potentially only — Executive Budget is due in January.

There is hope across the political spectrum, and promises from Hochul herself, that she will bring a new leadership style to running the state, removed from what many Democrats and Republicans alike have described as Cuomo’s autocratic, pugilistic, and abusive style. There is hope, and promise, she will make decisions based on a sense of collaboration, not competition, and facts, not political expediency.

Though Hochul is a moderate Democrat, progressives whose influence has grown have voiced hope that she will be more amenable to them and their agenda than Cuomo, who was often dismissive or combative and found ways to claim full credit for anything he eventually agreed to. Moderates and conservatives believe Hochul may take a pragmatic approach and that even if she does follow a more progressive policy playbook, she will do so with some restraint, mindful of the state’s fiscal health and high tax rates, and true to her roots.

Though she is a Buffalo area native, Hochul has already indicated that she does not intend to give short shrift to the downstate region, home to so much of the state’s population, economic activity, and tax base. Along with appointing a lieutenant governor from New York City she has promised to work collaboratively with the current and next mayors, in what would be a sea change from the relationship between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, where the outgoing governor has been more focused on settling scores and claiming his place in the hierarchy than working collaboratively in the best interests of city residents.

“I'm prepared. That's the job of every lieutenant governor in this country to be prepared on day one,” Hochul said last week on CBS’ Face the Nation. She pledged to run a “completely ethical” administration and change the culture that enabled the governor’s harassment, and promised transparency with regards to data on nursing home resident deaths.

“But...on day one, I'm focused on covid. We have to deal with the fact that the rates are rising,” she said, before mentioning two major new state programs with billions of dollars available for vulnerable New Yorkers. “I want to get money out to people. We have way too much money sitting there that should be going to renters and to landlords who are suffering. And I also want to get the money out for the excluded worker program where people who are immigrants aren't getting any money because they're not documented and that money is sitting there unspent. And I want to get it out to them immediately. So I've got a lot of priorities, but I will absolutely make sure that my administration fully cooperates with requests for data.”

But Hochul will not be able to transform overnight a governing culture where Cuomo has ruthlessly pulled the levers of power and, despite some changes in recent years, the Legislature often operates with a preference for secrecy. Expecting her to do so is setting her up for failure, said Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, a Manhattan Democrat and one of the state’s progressive leaders who has been an outspoken Cuomo critic. “No matter how powerful a single person is...she can’t change a whole culture,” Niou said. “Setting that expectation guarantees that no matter what progress our government makes in the next coming years, it will fall short.”

Hochul has, of course, vowed to eliminate the culture of harassment and intimidation that pervaded Cuomo’s administration. According to Niou, Hochul has met with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an advocacy organization of former government aides who are survivors of abuse that is among more than 100 groups and individuals pushing for the new #NYBOLD Agenda, a legislative package aimed at ending sexual and gender-based violence and harassment. The package is one piece of the larger picture of legislative, budgetary, and other demands being made of Hochul.

Niou hopes that Hochul will support the legislation, but she also wants to see reforms that go beyond curtailing harassment. “Cuomo’s abusive behavior wasn't just limited to sexual harassment. The governor's legacy is a testament to really exceeding authority,” she said. She wants to see greater transparency and accessibility from Hochul’s office. And she wishes for “a much more fair and equitable budget process” with the Legislature, which Cuomo did not treat as a co-equal branch of government.

There is, as Hochul mentioned, the more immediate business on her plate: battling the ongoing pandemic as the Delta variant spreads, avoiding a mass eviction crisis, distributing relief funds to tenants and “excluded workers,” largely undocumented immigrants ineligible for prior federal and state unemployment aid, preparing for the reopening of schools and universities, and more.

"Andrew Cuomo's scandals caused distractions that resulted in serious policy failures, including failing to certify covid-19 as a public health emergency as part of our NY HERO Act, failing to get rent relief money out the door, and botching administration of the Excluded Workers Fund,” said Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I hope Governor Hochul addresses these issues swiftly, and begins to focus on serious efforts to deal with New York's mass transit and affordable housing crises, while restoring faith in government by respecting and working better with all branches of government.”

Despite vaccination rates ticking upwards in New York, the Delta variant of COVID-19 has led to a surge in cases. On Thursday, August 19, the seven-day average was 4,380 new positive cases across the state, causing concern as businesses reopen, localities prepare for the new school year, and the economy continues to recover. Hochul has indicated she will seek a statewide mask mandate for schools through the health department, but she will have major decisions to make as to what degree she wants to pursue or order covid vaccine mandates.

“Governor Hochul, and all of state government, obviously face a continuing, even growing challenge from COVID,” said Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs his chamber’s health committee. “At the same time, she's dealing with transitioning to a new administration and learning the ropes of the governor.”

As Gottfried noted, the state health department has seen an exodus of top officials over the course of the pandemic as they chafed under Cuomo’s leadership. Hochul will have to rebuild that brain trust, Gottfried said. “People ask me, what do I think she'll be like as governor? And I’ve said, we don't know and frankly, I don't think she knows because she's never been there before,” Gottfried said. “In recent decades, presidents have included vice presidents in the actual running of their administration. I don't know that any New York governor has ever done that [with their lieutenant governor].”

“I have served with eight governors and they all seem to use the same training manual. I think Governor Hochul may well bring some real change, which would be very welcome,” Gottfried added.

Gottfried is also hopeful that Hochul will embrace legislation he has pursued for years including that to create a single-payer health care system under the New York Health Act and eliminating the Medicaid cap enacted under Cuomo’s first term. It is unlikely, though, that Hochul would support the New York Health Act, which has seen no movement even under Democrats controlling both chambers of the Legislature and majority sponsorship in both, especially just before an election, but moves to strengthen health care coverage could be in the offing.

As part of restoring overall strength at the health department, Hochul will importantly decide the fate of Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, who has been next to Cuomo at the center of the firestorm around the state’s handling of covid, especially nursing home safety and transparency.

It is among the many key staffing decisions Hochul must make with little time at hand and much to do. Other essential choices will be for budget director and secretary to the governor, two positions where Cuomo’s top aides had immense power and been among his small inner circle. Budget Director Robert Mujica’s fate is unclear while Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa has announced her resignation alongside Cuomo.

But there are many cabinet-level positions to decide, as well as larger staffing of the governor’s offices and executive chamber, state authorities, boards, and more.

As Politico New York reported on Friday, Hochul’s team has begun interviewing Cuomo staffers to determine who will remain in her administration. The New York Post reported that Hochul’s chief of staff, Jeff Lewis, has reached out to executive chamber employees, asking if they wish to remain with the administration, saying that individual meetings would be happening soon, and indicating that most would be asked to stay on.

Patrick Orecki, director of state studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, said Hochul will have to face the challenge of “degraded public trust and accountability in State government.”

“There are many gaps already, but completing required financial reporting and providing transparent data on the uses of extraordinary federal funds are priorities,” he said in an email.

Orecki also noted that Hochul will soon have to take stock of state finances. If revenues continue to be strong, “The most prudent responses would be to save excess revenues for a rainy day or to walk back recent tax increases. At the moment, the State is nearly three weeks late in releasing its quarterly update to the financial plan, and that should be released expeditiously to clarify the State's current fiscal condition and uses of extraordinary federal funds.”

“New Yorkers should see that government can be an instrument for good, not just an instrument for power,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party, a left-wing organization that has had a complicated, largely antagonistic relationship with Cuomo.

Nnaemeka said Hochul not only needs to show “collaborative governance” but also structural change. Nnaemeka called for strengthening state ethics regulations and enforcement, a slew of progressive priorities that languished under Cuomo including the New York Health Act and greater investments in climate justice, and reforming the budget process, which is currently heavily weighted in the governor's favor. “That I think is something that would demonstrate a real shift in leadership after the rule of Cuomo,” she said.

Hochul faces crucial decisions at the MTA, which runs New York City’s subways and buses and the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter railroads. Cuomo recently named, with legislative approval, Janno Lieber as the chair and CEO of the MTA, and his fate in the role will be up to Hochul.

Along with the chair and CEO, the governor appoints five of the 21 members of the MTA Board. Among the members appointed by Cuomo are Mujica, Larry Schwartz, and Linda Lacewell. The latter two were named in the attorney general’s report as being involved in an effort to retaliate against one of Cuomo’s accusers. Lacewell, a longtime Cuomo aide and loyalist, is also superintendent of the state’s Department of Financial Services and is stepping down August 24 along with the governor, creating another major opening. She is stepping down from the MTA as well, while Schwartz’s future is unclear, as is Mujica’s.

The MTA continues to struggle financially as ridership has yet to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels and though the authority received a lifeline in federal stimulus funds, it is in dire need of new revenue for both operating and capital expenses. One potential stream, congestion pricing, which is supposed to bring in $1 billion annually and then be bonded for another $15 billion, stalled under Cuomo, who was ever reluctant to embrace it. There is a new agreement between the MTA and federal officials, but it makes implementation unlikely before 2023.

But overall, Hochul’s central task at the MTA is similar to that with state government writ large: instilling a different culture and ensuring more functional, effective government focused on the needs of New Yorkers, not one person’s power. 

One of the most pressing issues facing Hochul is the looming eviction crisis resulting from the scheduled end of the state’s eviction moratorium and recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a crucial part of the state’s efforts to prevent evictions and get billions of dollars in relief money to tenants and landlords. She has said it is a top priority.

Activists note that people may begin getting evicted just two days after Hochul takes office and are calling on her to immediately institute additional protections for tenants. “She should call the Legislature back to session, she can force them back into session and work with them to pass an eviction moratorium that wouldn't be vulnerable to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All.

Weaver said emergency housing issues should be the top priority for Hochul, calling on her to also streamline the $2.7 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). The program, which is being funded with federal stimulus aid, had only distributed about $99 million to 7,072 households by the end of July, despite having received more than 168,000 applications by then, according to data from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The state must distribute all those funds by September 30 or return them to the federal government. By August 13, the department had received 165,460 applications for back rent, 133,032 applications for prospective rent and 33,808 applications for utility arrears.

The state must distribute all those funds by September 30 or return them to the federal government. Those whose applications are being processed by the state also cannot be evicted for one year.

Hochul, in response to the decision, said she would work with the Legislature “to quickly address the Supreme Court's decision and strengthen the eviction moratorium legislation.”

As a housing activist, Weaver also wants Hochul to improve on Cuomo’s poor record on homelessness. “Homelessness like frickin’ exploded under Andrew Cuomo and if she wants to turn the page on his housing crisis, she can really invest in permanent rental assistance, expand eviction protections to cover the state, and work with the Legislature to pass good cause [evictions],” she said.

As Hochul has pointed out, she will also have to oversee the distribution of the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund, created in the state budget to assist undocumented immigrants and those workers who could not receive other federal or state government assistance through the pandemic. Though the fund was created in the budget deal in April, applications did not open till earlier this month and there are concerns among activists about its requirements and implementation.

There are many other demands, decisions, and tasks in front of Hochul, including related to CUNY and SUNY; implementation of the legalization of adult-use marijuana; expansion of child care, an issue she has worked on; rethinking the state’s economic development programming, which she has also been directly involved with; next steps around meeting the state's ambitious green energy goals and implementing relevant programs; what to do about major Cuomo infrastructure priorities that are not very far along; how involved to get in the state’s legislative redistricting process; and much more.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Max Politics Podcast: Michael Gianaris on Andrew Cuomo's Resignation and What's Ahead in New York Politics

Senator Michael Gianaris on Post-Cuomo New York Politics

Senator Michael Gianaris (photo: NYS Senate Media Services)

August 20, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: Senator Michael Gianaris on Post-Cuomo New York Politics

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and deputy leader of the State Senate, joined the show to discuss Governor Andrew Cuomo's downfall and reign, what's next in New York state politics, legislative priorities and dynamics, his own political future, and much more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Michael Gianaris on Andrew Cuomo's Resignation and What's Ahead in New York...

Max Politics Podcast: New York's $2.1 Billion Excluded Workers Fund

New York's $2.1 Billion 'Excluded Workers Fund' is Open

An Excluded Workers Fund rally (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris' Office)

August 20, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: New York's $2.1 Billion 'Excluded Workers Fund'

Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa and Bianca Guerrero, campaign coordinator of the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, joined the show to discuss the state's $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund that was created to help New Yorkers who lost work and income due to the pandemic but were ineligible for other state and federal unemployment aid. The state is now taking applications for the available grants, but there are challenges.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: New York's $2.1 Billion Excluded Workers Fund

LISTEN: Kathy Hochul In Her Own Words

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Soon-to-be-Governor Kathy Hochul (photo: governor's office)

Kathy Hochul, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor about to become New York's 57th Governor and first woman to hold the position, has been stepping further into her own after the resignation announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo. As Hochul becomes Governor on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, she will define herself anew as the most powerful state government leader, free of the trappings of the Lieutenant Governor position, largely seen as a key functionary for the Governor and his or her administration.

Over nearly two terms, Hochul has been a loyal lieutenant to Cuomo, even as they have clearly not been close and the governor has regularly been disrespectful of her, including publicly encouragining her to leave their ticket in 2018 to run for her old congressional seat, largely sidelining her during state budget negotiations and the covid response, and not once mentioning her in his covid book about leadership. Hochul has persisted, travelling the state promoting major administration initiatives, especially related to economic development, and championing key causes, like child care and women's empowerment. There is no record of her saying a cross word about Cuomo or even flubbing an administration talking point as she's visited all 62 counties of the state each year as Lieutenant Governor.

But in past interviews and debates, Hochul has talked about her background, her politics, her approach to the government roles she has held, the Cuomo-Hochul administration record, and more. Below is a sampling from Gotham Gazette of Hochul in her own words, including an in-depth discussion about her personal story and political history in a June 2018 podcast interview at her Manhattan office and her 2018 primary debate against challenger Jumaane Williams, as well as two other podcast and radio interviews on the Max & Murphy show hosted by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy of City Limits. In some instances, like during the debate, you can clearly hear Hochul sticking closely to her careful approach to being Cuomo's lieutenant; in other instances, you get a better sense of Hochul defining herself as a person and a politician.

To better get to know the incoming Governor of New York, listen to her in her own words:

Read more: LISTEN: Kathy Hochul In Her Own Words

'A Much More Powerful Presence Than Was Appropriate': Tom DiNapoli on Andrew Cuomo's Reign and Resignation

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Comptroller DiNapoli, right, & Governor Cuomo (photo: governor's office)

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the self-described “steady hand helping the state move along” throughout more than a decade of scandal and turmoil in New York politics, is expressing optimism about the change of leadership expected when Governor Andrew Cuomo resigns and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul becomes the state’s 57th Governor.

Appearing recently on the Max Politics podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max, DiNapoli discussed Cuomo’s decade-plus as governor, their contentious relationship, his reaction to the scandal that brought Cuomo down, how his office is helping Hochul with the transition, whether he is going to run for Governor himself in 2022, and more.

During the August 13 conversation DiNapoli also acknowledged that the joint investigation between his office and the office of State Attorney General Letitia James related to possible misappropriation of state resources by Cuomo and his administration related to the Governor’s pandemic book and priority covid testing early in the pandemic is ongoing. This, after James’ office closed out its inquiry into a long list of allegations of sexual harassment by Cuomo, the damning findings of which led to his resignation.

DiNapoli had called for Cuomo to step aside back in March when the accusations had become numerous and an apparent distraction, saying that while an independent investigation took place, the state needed stable leadership. DiNapoli said on the podcast he never witnessed or heard anything about Cuomo’s inappropriate and unlawful behavior toward women. He did of course acknowledge some familiarity with the other major findings in the report: that Cuomo has run an administration rife with bullying, intimidation, and secrecy, a “toxic” and “abusive” culture as explained by former members of the executive branch who spoke with investigators hired by James, though he said he did not know the full extent as outlined in the report.

Having served alongside four governors and three attorney generals, not to mention becoming Comptroller because his predecessor resigned amid scandal, DiNapoli said the Cuomo resignation was not something unfamiliar to him, but also unique. “There’s a part of me that’s almost like, ‘Oh well, here we go again.’ But there's another part though, I think there’s something a little different about this, in some ways more monumental,” said DiNapoli, one of four elected statewide state-level officials, in a job meant to provide checks on the executive branch especially as the state’s chief fiscal officer. All four positions are currently held by Democrats. Hochul will soon get to appoint her Lieutenant Governor.

“Whatever analysis you have on Cuomo’s tenure,” DiNapoli said, “he certainly was a very dominant figure in state government over the past decade, really maximizing the power of what in New York is already a very powerful role as Governor.” The magnitude of the power shake-up created a “huge vacuum,” DiNapoli explained. “We’ll get through this, but whenever you have this kind of reshuffling, and this is such a huge reshuffling, happening right before a pivotal election year where everything is up, all the legislative seats, all the statewide offices, I think we’re in for a bit of a rollercoaster for the year ahead,” DiNapoli said of the looming 2022 elections.

“The distraction at the top of government made it harder for there to be a focus on making sure we were operating in the smoothest way possible,” DiNapoli recounted, adding that he had urged Cuomo to step aside back in March to allow government to continue without having to deal with months of drama in an important period of leadership. Directing his team, DiNapoli said, “We still are dealing with tremendous issues with the economy, with public health, you mentioned the rent program…So what I have said to my folks is that we need to just do what we do well, which is to stay focused on the work of government.”

The comptroller said he had had a brief conversation with Hochul, who is set to be sworn in as Governor at midnight Monday night, or 12 a.m. Tuesday August 24, and that he’s made his office and its experts available to her and her team during the transition. He expressed great optimism about her leadership and the change of style and tone, including a far stronger sense of collaboration among officials, that she will usher in.

DiNapoli’s relationship with Cuomo has been more than contentious, and while the nature of the Comptroller-Governor relationship is always tense at times, as designed constitutionally, Cuomo’s and his team’s repeated attacks on DiNapoli over things like audits went beyond the pale, in typical Cuomo fashion.

“I never really understood it. I remember after many calls with him in 2006, I endorsed him when he was running for AG,” but “everything shifted as soon as I became state comptroller,” DiNapoli said on the podcast. “I don’t know whether I was viewed as a rival, I don’t know why he would have thought that I was sitting there plotting and planning to take him on, to run against him or anything like that, I never gave any indication of that.”

“We had a really difficult time when he was Attorney General and that really was a very contentious, privately contentious relationship,” said DiNapoli. During Cuomo’s first run for the governorship, he did not endorse DiNapoli, who was seeking his own first statewide election after having been an Assembly member from Long Island appointed by the Legislature to the position of Comptroller during that 2009 vacancy. “It was the first time in my memory that the top of the state ticket did not endorse a running mate on the ticket. It was embarrassing frankly,” DiNapoli recounted.

Regarding what he said was a relatively small, inconsequential audit a few years ago, DiNapoli said Cuomo “got all wiggy” when asked about it at a press conference. DiNapoli recalled Cuomo saying, “That’s the comptroller’s opinion. The comptroller tells his auditors what he wants them to write and then they write the audit.” This was an utterly false characterization of the audit process, DiNapoli explained, saying, “I mean it’s total nonsense! Our auditors are civil service, I don’t know if they are Republicans or Democrats, they do a professional job, I back them up because they are calling it as they see it.”

“The problem with him, and not just him, but some of his team, they seemed to just enjoy the sport,” DiNapoli said of the larger culture in Cuomo-world. “They enjoyed the sport of accusing you, they enjoyed the sport of that nickname that I don’t repeat that they used in describing certain anatomy related to squirrels, as I recall. That’s like bad boy locker room nonsense. They had too much fun doing that.”

“We didn’t answer in kind. I mean I pushed back, I stood my ground, I think I protected the office,” said DiNapoli. But at the end of the day, DiNapoli said, “I also understood what the power relationship was. We did not have a lot of cards to play, so to me the best defense was stick to the merits of the issue.”

Cuomo’s hostile relationship with other actors in New York politics like Mayor Bill de Blasio became harmful to New Yorkers, most notably during the pandemic. That relationship also had a long history. DiNapoli said he did not have a lot of answers about why he and others didn’t call Cuomo out more, and that it’s quite reasonable to ask, other than the major power imbalance and Cuomo’s penchant to make people pay for crossing him.

De Blasio’s extended and revolutionary 2015 criticism of Cuomo “unleashed a fury from Andrew that destroyed whatever functioning relationship they might have had,” according to DiNapoli. “Fast forward to what we just went through with covid and how in so many cases, the dysfunction between the two of them hurt the people of the City of New York.”

DiNapoli recounted how Cuomo was able to gain power by serving as the Democratic mediator for a vulnerable Republican majority in the State Senate, which Cuomo helped prop up to ensure he would remain extremely powerful brokering deals with the Assembly’s Democratic majority.

Both Cuomo himself and others in his sphere made Cuomo “into a much more powerful presence than was appropriate, and maybe that’s a lesson for whoever becomes governors down the road, maybe it’s a lesson to look again at how we structure the executive branch vis-a-vis the Legislature,” DiNapoli reflected. Additionally, the comptroller said, “There was a whole power structure in New York that was very much behind him as well, and I think that was a very strong enabling force. When you’re sitting on $20 million, not just this year, but in other years, politically, who could take that on?”

“Maybe folks should have said more often, ‘the emperor really doesn’t have clothes.’ On the other hand, given the power that the emperor had all those years, the ability for him to get away with really undercutting your ability to do your job, which is really what he kept inflicting on Mayor de Blasio, it's a tradeoff,” DiNapoli said.

“It’s not a new notion that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” DiNapoli told Max. With an accommodating Legislature and friendly newspaper editorials around elections, DiNapoli said “it just reinforced [Cuomo’s] own view that in some ways the governorship had to be an imperial role rather than a democratic role. It ended up being his undoing.”

Through this tumult, DiNapoli remains firm in his conviction that his team will continue to keep government running smoothly in a time when the public health crisis is still looming large. DiNapoli said short-term, his job will be “keeping the operations of government functioning smoothly, making sure the bills are paid, the checks get out, and more longer term, looking at the difficult time we’ve been going through and how we can through our audit and our research work contribute to making government work more efficiently and effectively.”

With state finances stable and offices opening back up more amid widespread covid vaccination, DiNapoli said his auditors would be able to reengage with their investigations into the Department of Labor’s handling of unemployment during the pandemic as well as the management of infection rates in nursing homes, among other more long-term work that is more possible when the state is not in a constant emergency situation.

With Cuomo almost out, DiNapoli envisions a much more constructive relationship with the Hochul administration and a more productive government. “We’ve cleared the decks in terms of the distraction, let’s all focus on government for now,” DiNapoli said. And while Cuomo “tended to not want to engage when we made recommendations, sometimes very belligerent when we would produce an audit that was really meant to be helpful and try to improve government operations,” DiNapoli said, “I’m hoping with a new administration, there will be more openness to look at some more recommendations.”

DiNapoli campaigned for Hochul during her successful run for Congress a decade ago and calls her a friend. “She is a very fine person. A very smart person, she’s been certainly a friend and a colleague in government for many years,” said DiNapoli. A new administration might bring much needed change as New York continues its pandemic recovery.

“I hope it will be a reset in terms of tone,” DiNapoli said, “a reset in terms of civility, atmosphere, opportunity to in a more united way, a less hard-charging way, confront the continuing public health emergency, to confront the fact that our economic recovery is still uneven, that there are a lot of families and people who are hurting out there, and that we need to have a concerted effort to look out for those who are being left behind.”

With a focus on “doing a good job as comptroller,” DiNapoli said he hasn’t taken time to consider the possibility of his own run for governor in 2022, and said he most likely will be running for reelection as state comptroller. Either way, he plans to be on the ballot in 2022.

“I’d be certainly less than honest and probably less than human if I didn’t say I’m pleased when people write articles and they mention me as a possibility [for Governor], everybody has a little bit of an ego. Certainly after 20 years in the Legislature and 15 years as state Comptroller, I think I know something about what you need to have New York State run.”

Hochul has quickly said she will run for a full term as Governor in next year’s election, with the primary in June.

For now, DiNapoli wants to focus on giving “Kathy Hochul the opportunity to settle things down, to settle in. We need her to be successful with this transition,” he said, “and let’s give it all a few months to see what the lineup is for next year.”

[Listen to the full conversation on Max Politics: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli on the End of the Cuomo Era and What’s Next]

Max Politics Podcast: Tom DiNapoli on the End of the Cuomo Era and What's Next

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New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (photo: Office of the NYS Comptroller)

August 13, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: Tom DiNapoli on the End of the Cuomo Era and What's Next

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli joined the show to discuss Governor Andrew Cuomo's resignation announcement and tenure, what he is hopeful about moving forward, his relationship with presumptive next governor Kathy Hochul, whether he may run for governor in 2022 himself, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Tom DiNapoli on the End of the Cuomo Era and What's Next

Max Politics Podcast: Reflections on Andrew Cuomo's Reign, with Rebecca Katz

Max Politics Podcast: The Progressive Battle Versus Andrew Cuomo

Andrew Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

August 11, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: Reflections on Taking on Andrew Cuomo

Rebecca Katz, founder of New Deal Strategies, a top advisor to Cynthia Nixon's 2018 gubernatorial campaign, and a former member of the de Blasio administration, joined the show to discuss Andrew Cuomo's reign and downfall.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at "Max Politics."

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Reflections on Andrew Cuomo's Reign, with Rebecca Katz

Max Politics Podcast: Getting to Know Future Governor Kathy Hochul

Max Politics Podcast: Getting to Know Future Governor Kathy Hochul

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (photo: Gabriel López Albarrán/Governor's Office)

August 11, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: Getting to Know Future Governor Kathy Hochul

As Kathy Hochul is set to become New York's 57th Governor, and first woman to hold the position, reporters Anna Gronewold of Politico and Bob McCarthy of The Buffalo News joined the show to discuss her background, ascent, first press conference as presumptive next Governor, and what's next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at "Max Politics."

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Getting to Know Future Governor Kathy Hochul

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