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Empire State

Kathy Hochul May Be Worse for New York Than Andrew Cuomo

The New York governor’s promising tenure has been badly diminished by an array of puzzling decisions.

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
New York Governor Kathy Hochul

When New York Governor Kathy Hochul first took office, New York Democrats had reason for hope. Hochul rose to power after a report conducted by the state attorney general’s office found that her scandal-plagued predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, had sexually harassed at least 11 women, triggering his resignation. Cuomo’s fall was all the more striking for having come so soon after the peak of his popularity in 2020, when media outlets crowned him “America’s Governor,” the “King of New York,” and “Crisis Daddy” for his supposedly expert handling of a pandemic that killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers. It was an open secret that he bullied and harassed staffers, reporters, and colleagues, but for a long time he also excelled at shoring up support among and stifling opposition from powerful people.

Hochul represented a chance for a new era in New York politics: She is the first woman to lead the state and has no documented history of abusive workplace behavior. “No one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” she vowed after Cuomo resigned in 2021. Although she shares her predecessor’s centrist, business-friendly politics, even Cuomo’s ideological opponents were initially willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As New York Working Families Party director Sochie Nnaemeka put it in 2022, “We’ve all been traumatized by Cuomo,” whereas Hochul “has shown real ability to collaborate, to consult.”

A year later, that reservoir of goodwill has evaporated. While there’s still no reason to believe that Hochul is as personally loathsome as Cuomo—among other things, she has yet to be accused of calling colleagues at home and threatening to “destroy” them—she has, in less than two years in office, shown herself to be a liability for New Yorkers and her own political party.

Her first major misstep was selecting former state Senator Brian Benjamin as her lieutenant governor. Benjamin resigned less than a year later, once it came to light that federal prosecutors were charging him with bribery, fraud, and falsification of records. The most serious charges against Benjamin have since been dismissed, but prosecutors are appealing that ruling. Two of the five charges Benjamin faced—related to allegations that he knowingly falsified records—were not dismissed. Regardless of whether or to what degree Benjamin is corrupt, Hochul’s poor judgment cost the state and her party. The governor’s office spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees responding to the investigation. And because Benjamin was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, election law barred the party from removing him from the June 2022 primary ballot unless he were to move out of the state, die, or seek another office. A senior aide to a Democratic lawmaker told New York the party considered forcing him into exile.

Benjamin was ultimately removed from the ballot via the comparatively humane avenue of hastily passed legislation. Hochul successfully pressured her Democratic colleagues to change New York law to allow candidates arrested, charged with, or convicted of a crime after being nominated to be removed from the ballot if they don’t intend to serve. More than 30 Democrats voted against the bill, which Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim characterized as “elite impunity” that posed “an existential threat to democracy.” Others defended it on its merits. “I think most voters would prefer not to have an indicted person on their ballot,” Democratic state Senator Liz Krueger said at the time. Yet the fact that the bill was introduced at the governor’s behest and quickly passed created at least the appearance of impropriety. As one lawmaker said after the vote, “We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t a favor for the fucking governor.”

Once she shed Benjamin, Hochul selected Hudson Valley Representative Antonio Delgado as her lieutenant governor, leaving Delgado’s suddenly vacant and newly competitive House seat in jeopardy. Democrat Pat Ryan won the seat in a special election but was then forced by a state court’s rejection of proposed congressional maps—itself arguably a result of Hochul’s strategic failures—to compete for a full term in a neighboring district. Republican Marc Molinaro, who lost the special election to Ryan, then won a full term in Delgado’s redrawn district in 2022.

Then there was Hochul’s championship of a deeply unpopular Buffalo Bills boondoggle in last year’s budget negotiations. Wary of forking over hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to a massively profitable private enterprise, at least 20 Democratic state lawmakers opposed the deal, as did 63 percent of all voters, 60 percent of Democratic voters, and 68 percent of upstate voters. Hochul’s husband, Bill, is senior vice president and general counsel at Delaware North, the company that operates concessions at the Bills’ stadium. Hochul has said she and her husband have “developed a very strong internal ethics among ourselves,” but not everyone finds that reassuring. Asked about the deal in Buffalo a year ago, Governor Hochul implied that Western New Yorkers were happy with it: “People tend to like what’s in their area.” Yet 65 percent of the 57 Western New York voters who responded to a Siena Research Institute poll opposed the deal.

Democrats across the ideological spectrum believe Hochul’s lackluster gubernatorial campaign further contributed to the state’s disastrous showing in the 2022 midterms (Democrats exceeded expectations nationally but lost four key seats in deep-blue New York). When she was elected in 2022, Hochul’s margin of victory—the narrowest of any New York governor in three decades—was disturbingly slender for a Democrat running against a Trump-backed Republican in a heavily Democratic state. She won by less than six percentage points; Cuomo won the 2018 gubernatorial race by more than 23. As former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Sean Patrick Maloney said when he lost his seat in 2022, it’s hard to win when certain voters “are voting against the top of the ticket by double digits.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hardly a Maloney ally, suggested around the same time that Hochul’s underwhelming performance was the result of having failed to put forth a positive vision for New York.

Hochul’s nearly two-month-long bumbling and ultimately doomed attempt to install Hector LaSalle as chief judge of New York’s highest court further alienated many in her party. Hochul stuck with LaSalle despite hearty opposition from organized labor and her Democratic colleagues in the legislature, who were skeptical of LaSalle’s judicial record—he once defended the private company Cablevision’s right to sue an individual union member and ruled in favor of an anti-choice “crisis pregnancy center”—and urged the governor to choose someone else.

Hochul went to considerable lengths on LaSalle’s behalf despite the chorus of rejection—sometimes to cringeworthy effect. Earlier this year, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Hochul likened opposing LaSalle’s nomination on the basis of these rulings to “judging people by the color of their skin.” Once it was finally clear LaSalle wasn’t going to pass muster, Hochul nominated the liberal-leaning Rowan Wilson instead. Wilson’s confirmation sailed through in a little over a week, an anticlimactic end to a saga most saw as an unnecessary self-inflicted wound. In this case, Hochul came off looking worse than her predecessor. In true bully fashion, Cuomo avoided picking fights he couldn’t win.

Though she hasn’t been in office for as long as he was, it’s increasingly apparent that Hochul is just as committed as Cuomo to overriding the popular will when it suits her—and less willing to forge even temporary alliances with progressives. Cuomo’s strategy was to outmaneuver and undermine progressives whenever possible and, when that failed, do everything in his power first to weaken and then to claim credit for any policies he was ultimately forced to back.

He has consistently overstated his role in legalizing same-sex marriage in New York; as is true of every progressive policy he ever supported, he advocated for marriage equality only once it had clear majority support and he stood to benefit politically. In 2019, he worked to gut New York’s landmark climate bill behind the scenes, only to take full credit for the comparatively toothless version that finally passed. That same year, he said he would sign New York’s single-payer health care bill if the legislature were to pass it, but “no sane person will pass it.” And after years of impeding the Reproductive Health Act by propping up a cadre of conservative state senators who blocked progressive legislation, he finally signed it into law in 2019—sporting a vibrant pink tie, no less—when it was enormously popular to do so.

In tense negotiations with the legislature over this year’s state budget, which was due on April 1 and is now the latest it’s been in more than a decade, Hochul has shown little of the collaborative spirit for which she was praised a year ago—and none of Cuomo’s capacity to deliver. An Assembly source told the New York Post that Hochul and her team “don’t know what they want” and “many lawmakers feel she is incompetent.” Her insistence on personally reviewing every decision, no matter how minute, has also reportedly hampered this year’s process.

“We are now on Day 25 of budget negotiations and everything we’re hearing says that [Hochul’s signature housing policy proposal] is out,” Nnaemeka of the New York Working Families Party told The New Republic. “And I think that really came from a lack of politicking, a lack of coalition building, a lack of desire to bring something home that can actually transform people’s lives in a real way.” Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at the tenant advocacy group Housing Justice for All, had a similar take. It was, she said, “a massive failure of the governor to refuse to hear what the legislature needed in order to pull her plan across the finish line.… I think there is a real path to a housing plan that could have worked for everybody and she wasn’t down to play ball.”

On April 27, the governor announced that a deal had finally been reached. Her biggest victory was yet another change to the state’s bail laws—one Democratic legislators and criminal justice reform advocates have denounced as regressive, unnecessary, and unrelated to public safety. Governor Hochul said the change merely removes a standard “which many judges have said tied their hands.” The governor’s perspective on this appears to have evolved; when the New York Post ran one of many stories criticizing the state’s bail laws in 2022, a Hochul spokeswoman told the paper, “The notion that judges’ hands are tied is simply not supported by facts nor the data.” Hochul’s latest change to the bail laws has earned praise from the Post, Republicans, and conservative Democrats.

The budget also increases the number of charter schools, expands eligibility for childcare assistance, and makes modest increases to the minimum wage. What it doesn’t do is address New York’s affordable housing crisis, increase taxes on the superrich, or protect the nearly half of New York State residents who rent their homes from massive rent hikes or unjust evictions.

Michigan, which has been trending Democratic but, according to its popular Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, is “not a blue state,” provides a useful contrast. When Democrats took control of the legislature in 2022, they vowed to bring “cha-cha-cha-changes” to the Great Lakes state—and, so far, they’ve abundantly delivered. Michigan recently became the first state in more than half a century to restore power to workers by repealing its anti-union right-to-work law. In recent months the governor and Democratic lawmakers have passed legislation to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers and restore tax exemptions for pensioners, expand protections for LGBT people, increase gun safety, and repeal a 1931 abortion ban.

As Michigan State Senator Kristen McDonald Rivet recently explained, Michigan Democrats hope to show that voting Democratic yields progress by “moving on real issues that people care about and doing it very aggressively with Democratic power.” She added that Democrats were “really demoralized” after Trump won, “and suddenly we are seeing people coming to party meetings again.… The Democratic trifecta in Michigan has mobilized Democrats in a way that I haven’t seen in a really long time.” It’s not the mere presence of Democratic majorities that has spurred this newfound enthusiasm, but the fact that, in the words of another Michigander, Democrats in the state are “far more aligned and far more progressive, and there are no conserva-Dems in the state Legislature.”

Reversing deeply unpopular GOP policies is of course easier than enacting progressive change. But it’s clear that Michiganders are benefiting from the policies they voted for, and Michigan Democrats are benefiting from delivering for their constituents. By contrast, the state Democratic Party in New York, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by two to one, is in shambles, and neither Hochul, the de facto party boss, nor Jay Jacobs, the ineffectual party chair she has steadfastly defended against calls for his ouster, seem to grasp that basic political math. “Just so all New Yorkers understand,” said Hochul earlier this year, “nothing I do in a budget is driven by politics, elections, outcomes.” That is cold comfort to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers struggling to stay in their homes and those who share Weaver’s belief that “[the governor’s] inability to play ball and to negotiate with the legislature on the sort of minimal tenant protections they want to do is perilous for the Democratic Party.”

“What we saw worked in other parts of the country [in 2022] was a clear, bold vision connected with people’s daily lives and experiences,” Nnaemeka said. “That message did not come through from the governor or seem of interest to the state Democratic Party, which continues to spend most of its narrative capital on castigating and deflating everyone to the left of it.… [Right now] Albany is governing to the right of where the people are. But there’s also tremendous energy and potential to the left, in the Democratic base of young people, students, activists, people of color, tenants, etc., who really want to see examples of the government having their back.… In a place like New York, we can and should actually be leading in this moment.”