By Sam Lazenby
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been publicly disgraced. The high-profile Democratic politician has had a long and troubling history in New York politics, including allegedly running homophobic campaign posters for his father, bullying those around him, and sexually harassing members of staff. In light of a recent report into the latter offence, Cuomo has resigned. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, next in the line of succession, will take on his role in the coming days, becoming the first woman governor in the state’s history.
Hochul has been involved in public life for over two decades, including as a Hamburg Town Council member and Erie County clerk, before a brief period in Congress. She was elected Lieutenant Governor in 2014 on a ticket with Cuomo, a largely ceremonial position that features no official policy portfolio. In the role she has become known for her packed schedules, attempting to travel to all the state’s counties each year.
Journalist Rebecca Klein argues that Hochul is generally considered a centrist Democrat. Such a position can be traced back to her early political career, in which she represented a conservative-leaning district in Western New York (she will be the first upstate governor since the 1920s). As Erie County Clerk in 2007, she challenged plans to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented people. She ran her second (unsuccessful) congressional campaign on a pro-gun platform, being one of only two New York Democrats to earn the NRA’s endorsement.
However, Hochul’s platform is far more complex than simply being that of a Democrat that conservatives sometimes feel able to vote for. She ran her much publicised congressional election campaign in 2011 on the issue of healthcare, arguing at the time “we can alter the national debate with one election”. She went on to win the seat that had been considered a safe hold for Republicans. She also positions herself as an advocate of women’s issues, founding a transitional home in Buffalo in 2006 for victims of domestic violence, and leading Cuomo’s “enough is enough” campaign to fight sexual assault on campus.
She’s also shown an ability to adapt to her positions. Most notable was her decision to row back her aforementioned position on driving licenses. This may have been a personal moral progression, or perhaps a pragmatic move towards the position of the Democratic elite; it probably shouldn’t be seen as a shift to simply attain more votes, as the bill itself remained controversial in New York among both Democratic and Republican voters. She has also moved towards marijuana legalisation, a hot-topic issue that is popular among much of the Democratic base.
Hochul faces several imminent challenges as she enters office. Perhaps most important are the consequences of a current surge of Covid-19 cases. She has already signalled support for a state-wide mask mandate in schools, a decision that Cuomo had left to local leaders. She also aims to strengthen eviction moratorium legislation, a key issue for the over 800,000 households in New York that are behind on rent.
To achieve her agenda will likely require improved relations with the New York Assembly, which were fractious under her predecessor. There has already been a tone of welcome from several New York congresspeople, with Hochul benefitting from existing ties with the Democratic-controlled legislature, having endorsed, and even personally mentored, a large segment of its newer members.
Finally, Hochul will need to sufficiently detach herself from Cuomo himself. She has already described his actions as “repulsive” and pledged to remove anyone that the New York Attorney General’s report showed to have committed unethical behaviour. However, journalist Luis Ferré-Sadurní argues that she’s retained some nuance, continuing to embrace some elements of the Cuomo administration, such as the $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.
Hochul’s claims that she was unaware of Cuomo’s personal misconduct, as well as a separate scandal regarding the manipulation of Covid-19 data, will be probed in the coming months. The results of such examination could prove pivotal in her bid to retain the governorship in 2022.
Image: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation via Creative Commons