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‘Turning the Page on a Long Chapter’: Kathy Hochul's First Month as Governor of New York

covid 19 brief

Gov. Hochul (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Governor Kathy Hochul on Friday marked her first month in office, during which she has responded to several ongoing and new crises, barnstormed the state in public appearances, and sought to begin restoring confidence in state government after nearly three full terms of her disgraced predecessor’s leadership.

Hochul, a Democrat from Buffalo, continues to carve out the rot of Andrew Cuomo’s administration and build out the top echelons of her executive office as she works to put more distance between herself and the man with whom she twice shared the Democratic ticket. And she is laying the groundwork for her own legacy, already significant as the first woman to be governor of New York, with an eye toward winning a full term in next year’s election.

But there are near-term challenges and opportunities for Hochul, and it remains to be seen if she will live up to the many promises she has already made. In her first month in charge, Hochul has appeared to relish the opportunity and realize she has limited time to make her mark, at least in terms of addressing immediate crises and setting herself up to have more time to lead the state. A major piece of the equation will come in January with her first, and potentially only, Executive Budget.

Hochul has come across as determined and collegial, winning high praise from many and cautious praise from some. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach and some don’t trust anyone who was a major figure of the Cuomo administration — however distant Hochul and the former governor may have been, she did travel the state for more than seven years praising him and promoting his agenda as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor.

Hochul has echoed the need for culture change so many in New York politics and government have identified given Cuomo’s way of doing things, and she quickly made progress on several key issues, including getting more pandemic relief money out the door. But she also appeared to falter on Hurricane Ida, not giving the storm its due in terms of early warnings and emergency decisions as it inundated many parts of the downstate region and killed 16 New Yorkers. A review of the state’s preparations and response is ongoing, Hochul has said. 

In her first public address after being sworn in on August 24, Hochul promised a new era in state government, one marked by collaboration, transparency and accountability. She inherited multiple crises from Cuomo, who resigned under a cloud of scandal that included a series of sexual harassment victims, a culture of secrecy and bullying, allegations of misuse of state resources, and more. The Delta variant was surging, the reopening of schools was fast approaching, and the state was failing to quickly release federal relief funds for renters, landlords, and undocumented workers. The Cuomo administration also faced a federal investigation into the handling of covid in nursing homes, and the alleged subsequent cover up of nursing home resident deaths. 

“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,” Hochul said in her inaugural address on August 24.

In her first acts as governor, she directed the health department to issue a universal mask mandate for schools, launched a $1 million outreach campaign to jumpstart the state’s $2.7 billion rent relief program, and announced a series of ethics, transparency, and anti-sexual harassment reforms. She took steps to boost covid vaccination rates, made appointments needed to launch the recreational marijuana industry in New York, and batted away assertions from Cuomo and his camp that he had been railroaded out of office by politically-motivated individuals.

Hochul faced her first crises as two major climate events hit New York within ten days of her taking over. The first, Tropical Storm Henri, hit the day before her swearing in, dropping record-level rainfall on New York City, flooding streets and subways but doing limited damage. But that was followed by Hurricane Ida, which broke those records, wreaking the most havoc in Queens.

Hochul quickly met with local, state, and federal officials to determine the state’s response and preparations for future climate events, including visits to several especially hard-hit areas. She appeared publicly with Mayor Bill de Blasio – who spent years bearing the brunt of Cuomo’s vindictive and adversarial approach – to address the aftermath of the hurricane, further signalling a new cooperative dynamic between the two top executives.

She made national media appearances, met with storm victims, and appeared alongside New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and President Joe Biden, whom she worked with to get quick federal emergency relief approval. Questions do remain, however, about how well both the mayor and the governor reacted to the impending storm.

“Since swearing-in just one month ago, Governor Hochul has hit the ground running to deliver results for New Yorkers,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Hochul, in a statement. “Whether it’s accelerating getting pandemic relief money out the door to struggling New Yorkers, taking smart, science-based steps to slow the spread of the Delta variant, or changing the culture in Albany through higher ethical standards and more transparency, Governor Hochul has swiftly demonstrated her leadership, ability to get things done, and that she will continue to move New York forward.”

The relationship with the mayor was just one of many things that Hochul set out to repair in the wake of Cuomo’s departure. The former governor left the state Health Department in shambles, with a mass exodus of top officials and experts during the course of the pandemic. The state’s ethics watchdogs, long under Cuomo’s thumb, had all but ceded their duties. Authority over, and responsibility for, the state-run MTA varied on the whims of the governor, who took credit for its successes and deflected blame for its failures, prioritizing his own political image over the best way to ‘run a railroad.’

Hochul faced challenging decisions on all those fronts and more, including personnel. She’s toward the tail end of the 45-day review period she announced for making decisions around major appointments and nominations, some of which she has already made. She has pledged to revamp one state government ethics watchdog, JCOPE, with new appointments and less political interference.

This past week, she accepted the resignation of two more controversial Cuomo allies in powerful positions, New York State Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, both of whom had been mired in scandal related to prioritizing Cuomo’s image over serving New Yorkers.

Hochul swiftly filled out some of her top ranks. She appointed Karen Persichilli Keogh as secretary to the governor, the chief executive’s top aide, and Elizabeth Fine as her counsel. She picked Manhattan State Senator Brian Benjamin to be her lieutenant governor, and made a number of other appointments and nominations, while also bringing some of her top staff from the lieutenant governor’s office with her.

“She’s put some terrific people in place who have hit the ground running. That’s important,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a business group.  

A number of top Cuomo loyalists do remain in their positions pending Hochul’s ongoing review. Larry Schwartz, once Cuomo’s secretary to the governor who became a volunteer “vaccine czar” last year and continues on as an MTA board member, has not resigned from the board, despite being implicated in the state attorney general’s report on Cuomo’s pattern of sexual harassment. State budget director Robert Mujica, the architect of Cuomo’s tightly controlled budgets over the last several years and also an MTA board member, has also kept his position so far.  

Hochul has been reviewing cabinet positions and meeting with elected officials, making a slew of announcements, including on renewable energy projects for Climate Week, and appearing at events like the Buffalo Bills season home opening game. She's been speaking at Syracuse University and Harlem churches, giving remarks at rallies with activists and labor unions, greeting national and international figures, and generally appearing to squeeze as much into every day as possible, sometimes tweeting about her late-night meals from Shake Shack or a neighborhood diner.

“I'm not sure when she's sleeping or how she's getting it all done, but she is,” Wylde said. “Within a few weeks, she really has made a formidable effort to respond to issues that were of great concern to New Yorkers and get them moving.”

In a September 16 appearance on MSNBC, as she assessed her own performance, Hochul pointed to the various crises she has had to handle, including the two climate emergencies. “Really most of that was in my first two weeks on the job, and I realized I do have the experience and confidence to handle it and that people in New York are willing to give me a chance,” she said. “This is turning the page on a long chapter and a lot of people, particularly in state government, are feeling liberated again.” 

“I'm excited about the potential to transform not just state government, but more importantly, people's image and perception of their state government,” she added. “I want them to trust their leaders once again, and I'm committed to making sure that that happens under my watch.”

Though Cuomo may have received an honorary Emmy award (later rescinded) for soothing a distressed public with his daily press briefings during the pandemic, his administration was marked more by obfuscation, opacity, and a war-like footing with most other entities, from the press to legislators. Hochul has said her administration will be the opposite and given early indications she’s following through, though there is much still to prove.

In at least some ways, she’s shown her style to be very different from Cuomo, including that “she doesn't make hour-long speeches,” Wylde noted. “She focuses on brevity, clarity, and I don't think there's a spin involved. For someone who had to quickly take charge. I think that she's been honest and clear in her communication and I don't get any sense of an attempt to manipulate public opinion.”

Wylde added, “It’s nice when women are in charge. Women are able to multitask, are pragmatic and just want to get stuff done.”

In a Siena College poll released September 14, Hochul was viewed favorably by 42% of New York voters and unfavorably by 17%; 41% said they either did not know her or did not know enough about her. A majority, 52% of voters, said she will be more collaborative than Cuomo, against 18% who disagreed; 74% of voters were excited about Hochul becoming the first female governor, against 16%.

Hochul clearly knows she needs to introduce herself to more New Yorkers and that she has a chance to make a good all-important first impression. She’s regularly taken pains in public appearances to discuss her background, noting repeatedly that she was a local government official for many years, mentioning her brief time in Congress, and discussing her humble roots. From reproductive rights to a clean environment, she has sought to connect with New Yorkers, offering that a number of issues are “personal to me” and offering biographical examples.

As a statewide official for more than seven years with a busy schedule and the knowledge that she could become governor at any moment, Hochul was in some ways very much ready to hit the ground running. But in other ways Hochul has given indications of a fairly steep learning curve -- she’s correctly pointed out, sometimes to give herself cover, that she was not part of Cuomo’s inner circle. While she is particularly familiar, for example, with state economic development policy, which was central to the portfolio Cuomo assigned her, she has not been intimately involved with the MTA.

But Hochul has pledged to quickly get up to speed where necessary and repeatedly offered that she will listen to experts on the various issues, including those she plans to appoint. Her positive relationships with officials across the state have appeared to pay initial dividends. Her commitment to allow more local decision-making while giving state support to county, city, and town officials has been music to many ears.

“Kathy Hochul enters the job as a very different and distinct person...from Governor Cuomo,” said Christine Quinn, former speaker of the New York City Council and once a staunch Cuomo ally who is CEO of WIN, a nonprofit homeless shelter provider for women and children. “She has a commitment to transparency, a bottom-up government, a very much participatory government.”

Quinn praised Hochul’s first few weeks on the job and her response under crisis. “I think she's done a great job. She’s on the ground, connecting with people and marshalling all of the resources of the agencies of the state,” she said.

Though there may be significant exceptions, the central differences between Hochul and Cuomo may not be stances on the issues, but on management, style, and personality. Like her predecessor, Hochul is a moderate with progressive impulses, a “Biden Democrat,” as she recently told The New York Times, naming another moderate who has been moving left with the party.

Hochul has in some cases fulfilled the demands of activists where Cuomo showed intransigence. After nearly a dozen detainees died this year in the Rikers Island jail complex, including three this month, Hochul rushed to sign into law the Less is More Act. Approved by the state Legislature in June, the legislation restricts the detention of parolees on technical violations, and led to the immediate release of 191 detainees while paving the way for others to be let go or not re-incarcerated in the first place in the future. 

Meanwhile, Hochul has also been vocal about her opposition to the “defund the police” movement while also saying she is having conversations about the decriminalization of sex work.

She has said that while she may not support every project Cuomo put into motion, she also plans to go big on infrastructure, and she’s been clear about her readiness to work with business leaders as she seeks to revive the state’s economy.

“No matter the size of your business, I need you to survive because you're the identity of New York that people create jobs and opportunities,” she said at the Business Council's annual meeting on Friday. “You are who we are as New Yorkers. Your success means the success of this entire state. So count me in as an ally, someone who's going to be there for you, who will fight for you to make sure that we do not lose out to any competition, whether it's in the space of cannabis, where I believe there's thousands and thousands of jobs and new industries, to be created that were not even focused on.”

“Hochul’s been very self-assured and competent out of the gate,” said Neal Kwatra, founder of Metropolitan Public Strategies, a consultancy, in a phone interview. “She's been a very proactive governor in the first few weeks and months, and I think she's had a pretty steady hand. I would give her very good reviews in the early innings here.”

Kwatra said Hochul’s already shown a drastically different form of leadership “exemplified in her outreach to other elected officials, her embrace of sharing the spotlight if you will. That has been probably a concerted effort and strategic to show a clear break and I think it's been fairly successful so far...I think she's trying, and I think successfully showing, a different kind of governing approach and culture.”

“I think politically she's done an excellent job in her first month because she's establishing herself as a new ‘normal’ governor who's not engaged in histrionics and bluster and bullying and grandiose pronouncements,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit good government group, drawing a clear distinction between Hochul and Cuomo. 

“From a watchdog perspective, I wouldn't grade her as highly,” he said. “She set a very, very high bar for herself by saying that she wants to make ethics and transparency a high priority...That's great. But Cuomo also said that when he was running for governor. Not only did he say that, he published an entire detailed campaign book, a 100-page policy document on it.”

“She’s created an expectation around ethics reform and transparency but not yet been able to match her actions to her words,” Kaehny said, pointing out that Hochul’s incipient administration is already facing conflicts of interest questions. Hochul’s husband, William Hochul Jr., is general counsel and senior vice president at Delaware North, a Buffalo-based gambling and concessions company which has millions in state contracts. Her top aide, Karen Persichilli Keogh, is married to Mike Keogh, a partner at Bolton St. Johns, one of the top lobbying firms in the state. Delaware North was previously a client of the firm from 2019 till February 2021.

Delaware North, Kaehny noted, is the concessions vendor for the current Buffalo Bills stadium as the Hochul administration now negotiates the possibility of a new stadium. “The Hochul administration has kept complete secrecy around the negotiation and around the terms of the deal,” Kaehny said.  

The Bills have proposed a new $1.4 billion stadium, funded through a public-private partnership where the state could cover up to $1.1 billion of the cost. The report commissioned by the team has not been released to the public or reporters who have requested it through the state Freedom of Information law. 

On Wednesday, September 22, Hochul promised that a separate study was underway and would soon be completed and publicly released. “We are waiting for the results of a study that's been underway for a number of months now and I think that will come out in the next couple of weeks,” she said. “We're studying all the options."

The Buffalo native has also repeatedly stressed her emotional attachment to the Bills and has said she is working to make sure they stay put. “I'm a parent of a big family, I love all my teams, but the Bills are staying and I'm very excited about cementing their future in the next few months. Let's just get that done,” she said in her Business Council speech.

Well before those remarks, Reinvent Albany was among several good government groups that called on Hochul to institute a conflict avoidance plan and release it to the public. As questions were quickly raised when she took office, Hochul said in an August interview on CNN’s State of the Union that she had asked outside ethics experts to create an “ironclad policy” for her administration. “So no one will ever question that there's any involvement of my husband in anything pertaining to the state of New York,” she said.

No such policy has been made public as of yet.

Kaehny also criticized Hochul for appointing James Dering, a Cuomo ally, the acting chair of JCOPE just prior to a vote before the board on a matter directly relating to Cuomo. “That created a storm of unhappiness and rightly so,” he said. Asked by reporters, Hochul said JCOPE needed someone familiar at the helm and that she had no relationship with Dering herself. She also re-committed to an overhaul of the troubled ethics agency.

Kaehny said it’s hard for the public to give Hochul or her administration the benefit of the doubt after Cuomo “destroyed” the public trust in government. “Hochul inherited an extremely politicized executive branch where Cuomo spent ten years populating these agencies with loyalists, and that's a big challenge,” he said. “It's hard to just pretend that everything will be normal now. She has to earn the public's trust, and let's not forget the really fundamental fact is, she was lieutenant governor during all of his misdeeds and reign of terror and whatnot….She was in his administration. She represented their policies and programs.” 

New York Republicans, who’ve been focused on trying to win the 2022 governor’s race for several years as their main path back toward greater political relevance in the state, have quickly labeled Hochul as a continuation of the Cuomo regime. “Kathy Hochul is so desperate to avoid a Democrat primary, she's gone even further to the radical left than Andrew Cuomo,” said Nick Langworhty, chair of the New York State Republican Party, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “She may be a nicer version of Cuomo but beware the wolf's in sheep's clothing as she poses an even greater threat to taxpayers and the safety of all New Yorkers.”

When Hochul took over from Cuomo, one of her priorities was to fix the mess his administration made in trying to hide data on the covid toll in nursing homes. Even as the federal investigation into that continues, she promised to be more open and to provide all the data that the Legislature and the media had been requesting for more than a year. 

Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who battled the Cuomo administration on the nursing home issue, said he has seen no difference in Hochul’s response. “She has not even communicated, or acknowledged the problem in her first month, and that for me is a major problem,” he said. 

“All the families and the workers want to have an opportunity to present themselves and what they’ve gone through during this pandemic and start working together to try to fix a broken system. But she has not made an effort,” added Kim, who some believe is eyeing a run for statewide office, possibly lieutenant governor, in next year’s election. “In fact, she’s gone out of her way to avoid having tough conversations with me...This is something that’s really appalling.”

Hochul has taken some steps to address the nursing home scandal. Last month, she said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that her administration would “continue working to identify principals involved in those decisions'' as she builds out her team. She also immediately ordered the release of health data that more accurately reflects the actual death rate from covid, including in nursing homes, and she accepted Zucker’s resignation. Much more is being asked of her on the issue, however.

“She’s good, if not even better, at identity politics,” said Kim. “...Beneath all the recent headlines and press conferences and announcements and pictures that we're seeing on social media, nothing has changed at all,” he said. “She’s going to the same power brokers that made Cuomo and she’s trying to cut the same deals that propped up Cuomo for many years. And that is a sign that she’s playing the same game, she’ll fall into the same traps....Every decision is about loyalty to her and garnering as much support for her reelection.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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