New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) outlined her vision for the state and its future in her first major address on Wednesday, promising to restore trust in government after a scandal pushed her predecessor from office and pledging to reinvigorate the state’s economy.
“What I am proposing is a whole new era for New York,” said Hochul in the annual State of the State speech, delivered to a largely empty chamber due to the ongoing pandemic.
Hochul said the time of unproductive rivalries between the governor and other elected officials in New York was over. “We’ll fight like hell — not for turf, not for credit, but for New Yorkers,” she said.
Hochul, 63, is the first woman to serve as governor of New York. For years, she stood in the shadow of former governor Andrew M. Cuomo, one of New York’s most dominant — and domineering — politicians.
That changed in August, when Cuomo resigned after a state investigation found that he had sexually harassed 11 women and taken steps to retaliate against an accuser. This week, the Albany County district attorney declined to prosecute a charge of forcible touching against Cuomo.
A native of the Buffalo area who served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Hochul has focused in recent months on combating the coronavirus pandemic and separating herself from the previous administration.
Wednesday’s speech marked a crucial opportunity for Hochul to step into the spotlight and articulate her priorities to voters. She announced plans to increase the number of health-care workers in New York, accelerate an existing tax cut and invest in wind energy.
Hochul has less than a year to persuade the state’s voters to make history. If she emerges from the Democratic primary contest in June and wins the general election in November, she would be the first woman elected governor in the state and the first governor elected from Upstate New York in a century.
A relative unknown to voters, Hochul has emerged as an energetic campaigner and fundraiser. She has crisscrossed the state to attend events and appear with legislators in their districts, often wearing a distinctive necklace that reads “vaxed,” part of her push to get New Yorkers vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Later this month, Hochul will present her initial budget at a time when state revenue has exceeded projections. The coming weeks “will give us our first in-depth look at how she views things from an ideological perspective,” said Michael Gianaris, a Democratic state senator. “I know what she believes about handling covid, but I don’t know how she views allocations of resources.”
Lawmakers say Hochul has already initiated a dramatic change in tone and conduct in a state where Cuomo’s decade in office was marked by a climate of intimidation, something that coexisted with significant policy achievements.
Gianaris recalled that if he received a call from Cuomo or his staff, “it was to be yelled at.” By contrast, Gianaris said his recent interactions with Hochul — both in person and during a half-dozen phone calls — have been cordial and collaborative.
“It’s a whole different world,” said Alessandra Biaggi, a Democratic state senator who once worked for Cuomo and later clashed with him. She said the Cuomo administration’s approach to working with lawmakers was about how to “play games and make people sweat.”
Her initial experience with Hochul has been the opposite, Biaggi said. She described a recent collaboration with the governor’s staff on a bill to create bike lanes on bridges controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “There was just real work,” said Biaggi. “It sounds so ridiculous.”
“It was always personal” under Cuomo, Biaggi said, “whereas this is very professional.”
Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, declined to comment.
While Hochul served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor for six years, their relationship was chilly. “It is no secret that the governor and I are not close,” she said in a television interview last year.
Cuomo reportedly tried to remove Hochul from their joint ticket in 2014 and 2018. More recently, he had sought a post for her in the Biden administration to choose a new running mate ahead of a planned fourth term.
Hochul has overseen the departure of senior officials considered key Cuomo allies, including Jim Malatras, the chancellor of the State University of New York, whose resignation takes effect next week, and Howard Zucker, the state’s former health commissioner.
Even Hochul’s choice of venue for the speech was a break with her predecessor. Cuomo had shifted the annual event out of the legislative chamber and into a cavernous convention center in Albany.
By delivering the address at its traditional location, Hochul was sending a signal to lawmakers, said Bob Bellafiore, an Albany communications consultant and formerly an adviser to New York Gov. George E. Pataki. “That’s part of the message — ‘I’m not Cuomo, I respect who you are.’”
William Barclay, a Republican Assembly Member who serves as the minority leader, said Hochul’s speech was “playing it safe” at a time when the state needs decisive leadership. There wasn’t a lot “that people would be opposed to,” Barclay said, expressing surprise that there weren’t any bolder initiatives.
Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York state director of the liberal Working Families Party, praised Hochul’s support for clean energy and the elimination of a tax break for real estate developers. But she called on the governor to “go big” to meet the scale of the crisis facing the state’s families.
Hochul has worked to “dissolve the combative relationship” between the governor and legislators that was a feature of Cuomo’s tenure, Nnaemeka said. But “what’s the road map, what’s the vision?”
In Wednesday’s speech, Hochul said she would move to limit statewide officials to two terms and prevent them from earning outside income. The step would require a constitutional amendment and direct approval by voters. She will also replace the existing ethics watchdog — largely considered toothless — with a new entity.
Hochul is considered the front-runner in the governor’s race. While some once believed Hochul would be “easy to knock off” in the Democratic primary, she has proved formidable in winning endorsements and raising money, said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant in Albany. Hochul also has made “very few mistakes that anybody can point to with the public.”
Hochul received a political gift last month when New York Attorney General Letitia James, considered her main opponent in the Democratic primary, dropped out of the race.
Now her primary challengers include Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), a congressman from Long Island. Former New York mayor Bill de Blasio told supporters last month that he is also “very seriously” considering running.