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Susan Del Percio  New York Gov. Kathy Hochul inherits Cuomo's mess — and a historic opportunity

Hochul’s swearing in on Tuesday marks a milestone for New York. But the future is far from certain for Albany’s new boss.
Image: Andrew Cuomo, Kathy Hochul
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul looks toward New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a cabinet meeting at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Feb. 25, 2015.Mike Groll / AP file

At the stroke of midnight, Kathy Hochul became not only New York’s 57th governor, but also its first female governor. And Hochul, the former lieutenant governor, has already announced her intention to run for a full term next year. It’s a strong, gutsy move, showing she is not only ready to take over in Albany — she is committed to staying in Albany.

Hochul is likely to find out sooner rather than later, however, that governing New York is easier than being elected governor of New York.

Hochul is likely to find out sooner rather than later, however, that governing New York is easier than being elected governor of New York. Hochul, a former member of Congress who hails from Buffalo, will have about 10 months to demonstrate that she is capable of running the state. But how she weathers this crisis might not matter if she doesn’t have the political savvy needed to win the Democratic primary next June.

Obviously, Hochul is inheriting a mess, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo having resigned in disgrace following a scathing investigation into reports of bullying and misconduct. But Hochul was never really been part of Cuomo’s inner circle, a fact she has wisely emphasized. While many may imagine the governor-lieutenant governor relationship as a partnership, she actually had very little interaction with the governor’s office when it came to policy decisions or even the state’s Covid-19 response.

Governing New York is a tough job, and Hochul is obviously working hard to set the right tone, promising: “When my term ends, nobody will ever describe my term as a toxic workplace environment.” Hochul must walk a fine line as she attempts to restore the dignity and efficiency of the governor’s office while recognizing the insights of the many talented and capable state employees who had nothing to do with Cuomo culture.

There are plenty of other positive signs for Hochul’s supporters. Many of her colleagues publicly speak highly of her. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said he fully expects her to govern in a “collaborative” manner. She has been described as “normal” by a former congressional colleague, retired Rep. Pete King, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was delighted to have had a “sane” conversation with Hochul last week. For sure, that’s a low bar — but it’s also an encouraging one.

And Hochul will need all the goodwill she can get. New York is facing a surge in Covid-19 cases, fallout from the mismanaged implementation of the rent relief program and crisis after crisis related to the state’s mass transit systems. (Because of these issues’ outsize connection New York City, Hochul has been focusing her lieutenant governor search on metropolis lawmakers.)

Whom Hochul chooses as her lieutenant becomes even more important in the context of 2022. In 2014, Cuomo selected Hochul to be his running mate to balance out his ticket both geographically and politically.

Back then he wanted a moderate, but in 2018, it was reported that Cuomo was considering replacing Hochul because he was facing a progressive challenge from actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. While Cuomo handily won his 2018 primary, Hochul faced a far more difficult primary on her left from New York City Council member Jumaane Williams. Ultimately, Hochul did win, but her margin of victory felt slightly underwhelming given her massive $1.7 million war chest and the support of the Cuomo and state Democratic Party machines.

In a Democratic statewide primary, New York City is critical.

Williams also received the powerful New York Times endorsement and went on to win the citywide race for public advocate in 2019. He hasn’t yet ruled out a run for governor next year. Whether or not Williams throws his hat in the ring, Hochul is likely to face stiff competition, with names like those of state Attorney General Letitia James already floating around.

In a Democratic statewide primary, New York City is critical. Being from upstate New York, she will have to pivot away from her more moderate base to appeal to more progressive city voters.

Some believe Hochul will also have to overcome the public perception that she was too close to Cuomo — or that she may have been aware of his behavior in some way. But a more immediate challenge is that she is a relatively unknown, moderate woman from a more rural region of New York who can’t afford to lose her base to appeal to urbanites. And yet, she can’t go all in on the issues that matter to New York City voters without abandoning her base.

Hochul’s swearing in on Tuesday marks a historic milestone for New York. But the future is far from certain for Albany’s new boss. On the road to being elected to the state’s highest office, Hochul has a New York City problem — not a Cuomo harassment problem.