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


2 major challenges dec

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.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.



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