ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Kathy Hochul takes the helm of a state government desperate to get back to business after months of distractions over complaints that her predecessor abused his power and sexually harassed female employees.
At her ceremonial swearing-in Tuesday at the New York State Capitol, Hochul thanked her “big Irish Catholic” family, including her two children and Bill Hochul, her husband of over 30 years. Her immediate family sat in the front row, wearing masks and spaced slightly apart. Hochul, her daughter, and daughter-in-law wore white to honor suffragists who fought for voting rights.
Hochul, a 62-year-old Democrat who grew up near Buffalo in Hamberg, will serve a 16-month term in Albany. “I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders and I’ll tell New Yorkers I’m up to the task. And I’m really proud to be able to serve as their governor and I won’t let them down,” Hochul told one of her hometown Buffalo television stations, WGRZ, as she left the Capitol early Tuesday morning.
She has vowed to move the state past the “distractions” marked by the final months of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure, who long defied calls for his resignation from a majority of elected New York Democrats until the threat of impeachment became real.
Hochul’s ascent to the top job was a history-making moment in a capital where women have only recently begun chipping away at a notoriously male-dominated political culture. She faces questions about whether she’ll change the culture of governance in New York, following a Cuomo administration that favored force over charm. She has said that she wasn’t aware of sexual harassment allegations and didn’t work closely with Cuomo, and has promised no one will ever call her workplace “toxic.”
“I have a different approach to governing,” Hochul said Wednesday in Queens, adding, “I get the job done because I don’t have time for distractions, particularly coming into this position.”
Hochul has spent the past two weeks meeting with state and local officials preparing to lead an administration facing scathing criticism for inaction in the distracted final months of Cuomo’s term: from sending out COVID-19 rental aid too slowly, to failing to mandate masks at schools as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge, to slow-walking the legalization of recreational marijuana sales to adults.
Left-leaning advocates and lawmakers want to extend New York’s eviction moratorium beyond August 31. Landlord groups say New York must get the money out the door instead of loading tenants and landlords with more debt.
COVID-19 has made a comeback, with new cases up nearly 1,370% since late June. Hospitalizations are climbing even as schools prepare to go back into session. Big decisions lay ahead on whether to mandate masks or vaccines for certain groups, or whether to reinstate social distancing restrictions if the state’s latest wave of infections worsens.
Last week, Hochul said the state can mandate masks at schools once she’s governor—a contrast with Cuomo, who’s said he lacks that authority. She called the legalization of pot sales “long overdue” and cheered estimates of $300 million in eventual annual revenue.
The economy remains unsettled. Jobs lost during the pandemic have been coming back, but unemployment remains double what it was two years ago. New York has also struggled to get federal relief money into the hands of tenants behind on their rent because of the pandemic, releasing just 6% of the budgeted $2 billion so far. Thousands of households face the possibility of losing their homes if the state allows eviction protections to expire.
Hochul promised Tuesday to make getting that money out a top priority, saying people shouldn’t have to “wait one second longer” for assistance. She also pledged quick action to get money distributed from a new state fund intended to benefit unauthorized immigrants who didn’t qualify for other types of federal pandemic relief aid.
“The money’s there. These people are not eligible for other forms of assistance, and they’re hurting, and they’re part of the New York family,” Hochul said.
Hochul says she’ll pick a New York City Democrat as lieutenant governor, and plans to run for governor herself in 2022. Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs praised her as a “formidable” candidate. “She’s very experienced and I think she’ll be a refreshing and exciting new governor.”
Hochul is also expected to detail how she’ll prevent any conflict of interest from her husband’s job as general counsel for Buffalo-based Delaware North since 2016. The company operates New York casinos and lobbied state officials for the recent passage of mobile sports betting.
Delaware North also has $49 million worth of concessions contracts with the State Thruway Authority and a state park, and runs concessions at Buffalo Bills’ Highmark Stadium. The Bills want taxpayers to help cover a $1.4 billion new stadium.
Delaware North spokesperson Glen White said the company’s not involved in talks with state officials. Watchdog groups say Hochul’s husband should step down to prevent the perception of a conflict of interest. White said Brian’s “been extremely careful not to have any direct interaction” in New York matters.
Hochul is the state’s 57th governor. She’s also the second to take over for a governor who resigned amid scandal: David Paterson took over in 2008 for Eliot Spitzer, who resigned over a prostitution scandal.
She once represented a conservative Western New York district in Congress for a year and has a reputation as a moderate. Hochul lost reelection to Congress in 2012 and ran in 2014 as running mate for Cuomo, who long delivered wins with support from moderate and left-leaning New Yorkers.
Yet Cuomo has also touted himself as a bulwark against his party’s left wing, which he said wants to defund the police and demonize businesses, and boasted of making government effective in his years in office. He cited his work battling the COVID-19 pandemic, passing same-sex marriage, paid family leave, gun control, and an eventual statewide $15 minimum wage.
“I tried my best to deliver for you,” Cuomo said. But his political support collapsed in the wake of an independent investigation overseen by the Attorney General’s Office that found Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women, including a state trooper on his security detail and an executive assistant who said he groped her in his official residence.
Cuomo, 63, delivered his resignation letter without fanfare Monday, and his future plans are unclear. He formally stepped down in a 15-minute farewell speech. He claimed that the report from Attorney General Letitia James was “designed to be a political firecracker on an explosive topic.”
“Kathy Hochul will become governor,” Cuomo said. “And I believe she will step up to the challenge. We all wish her success.”
Some critics jumped on Cuomo’s remarks as self-serving. Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, a fellow Democrat, tweeted he had a hundred million opportunities to improve as a leader and “Chose himself every time. Goodbye, Governor Cuomo.”
Hochul announced the planned appointments Monday of two top aides: Karen Persichilli Keogh will become Secretary to the Governor and Elizabeth Fine will be Hochul’s chief legal counselor. She has said she’ll sign an executive order to keep current Cuomo-era employees for 45 days while she interviews potential hires. But she’s vowed not to keep anyone found to have behaved unethically in the investigation, which found Cuomo staff unlawfully retaliated against a former aide once she said Cuomo sexually harassed her. She will need to quickly build her own team of advisers to steer the administration for at least the next 16 months.
Cuomo denies that he touched anyone inappropriately. Even so, he faces potential criminal investigations for touching women without their consent, and state and federal probes for minimizing the COVID-19 death toll among nursing home residents and using state resources to write a $5 million COVID-19 leadership book deal amid the pandemic.
Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, released a statement saying the governor was exploring his options for his post-gubernatorial life but had “no interest in running for office again.” But Cuomo’s resignation won’t end his legal problems. The new governor will decide whether to keep paying for lawyers to defend Cuomo’s administration in those probes.
An aide who said Cuomo groped her breast has filed a complaint with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. Separately, Cuomo was facing a legislative investigation into whether he misled the public about COVD-19 deaths in nursing homes to protect his reputation as a pandemic leader and improperly got help from state employees in writing a book that may net him $5 million.
The switch in leadership happened in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Henri, which narrowly missed Long Island on Sunday but dumped rain over the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley.