The Kathy Hochul honeymoon is coming to an end. It’s New York, after all, and few politicians glide above scrutiny or avoid agita. For many months, it was good enough for Hochul to be not-Cuomo; smiling and shaking hands, taking everyone’s phone calls, and offering encouraging words.
Hochul was a conservative Democratic representative and eventual Andrew Cuomo ally who shifted left with her party as she rose to power, recently pitching an executive budget as governor that was generous by the vindictive standards set by the Cuomo years. Lawmakers who had warred with the predatory Cuomo for a decade were glad—in the words of one state senator—that Hochul was not a “garbage-human sociopath.”
But Hochul, in an apparent alliance with Eric Adams, the pugnacious new mayor of New York City, has made her first decisive move against progressives in Albany. Last week, the New York Post leaked news that the governor is seeking to significantly weaken the state’s bail and criminal justice laws in her proposed $216 billion budget, which is due at the beginning of April. In particular, Hochul wants to give judges far more discretion to order cash bail, dealing a blow to a law many reformers championed in 2019, when Democrats in the state legislature dramatically limited the cases in which money could be used to keep defendants in jail. Hochul also wants to try minors accused of gun possession in criminal court, which would undo another reform passed several years ago.
It’s common for governors and state legislators to pack policy proposals into the budget, rushing changes in before the start of the new fiscal year. In this negotiation process, the governor enjoys a great amount of leverage, and it was in these battles with the legislature that Cuomo most reveled in his clout. Passing bills outside the budget is much harder than cramming them into a massive omnibus document.
Progressives and socialists in the state legislature immediately denounced Hochul’s proposals and vowed to vote against the budget if they were ultimately included in the final version. “Now, rank-and-file state legislators had to learn from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post that the final weeks of budget negotiations will be upended by these reactionary, fear-driven proposals,” tweeted Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher, a Brooklyn member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Both legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, shot down Adams, a former police captain, when he made a pilgrimage to Albany recently to ask state lawmakers to roll back these criminal justice reforms. Without much evidence, Adams has blamed changes to New York’s bail laws and the age of criminal responsibility for the spike in gun violence that has come during the pandemic. Hochul has been more muted, but she made it clear in her budget proposal that she is siding with Adams and a raft of fearmongering conservatives.
Will Heastie and Stewart-Cousins hold the line against Hochul? Moderate Democrats from the suburbs and upstate could war with their more liberal city counterparts, demanding changes to bail in what is expected to be a trying reelection year. Stewart-Cousins and Heastie, while facing down their restive moderate factions, will also contend with tremendous pressure from city-based activists if they give ground to the new governor.
What makes the fight over bail so galling, though, is how fact-free it remains. The rise in violent crime, beginning in 2020, is a serious matter, and one progressives must reckon with and not hand-wave away. But it is, in every sense, a national problem, plaguing many large American cities. The causes are complex, not readily reduced to soundbites. The crime spikes have come in many localities that made no changes at all to their criminal justice laws. New York State greatly reduced its reliance on cash bail in 2019; many other states did not.
Plus, a recent analysis from the city comptroller’s office showed that a change to bail laws isn’t driving the crime spike. Pretrial rearrest rates remained nearly identical before and after bail reform, according to the analysis.
Hochul is facing Democratic primary challenges from her left and right. Jumaane Williams, the progressive New York City public advocate, is running on a ticket against Hochul with the prominent activist Ana María Archila. A Democratic representative, Tom Suozzi, is trying to defeat Hochul from the right, claiming she isn’t tough enough on crime. Meanwhile, a competitive Republican primary is underway, and the candidates include Lee Zeldin, a Trump acolyte in Congress. Hochul, if she triumphs in June, would be a strong favorite in November in a one-on-one matchup against a Republican, though the midterm environment is expected to be very difficult for Democrats.
Looming over all of this is the potential for a Cuomo comeback. The disgraced former governor is running television ads and visiting churches, claiming that “cancel culture”—and not his own repeated sexual harassment and assault of women—ended his political career. Petitions for the Democratic nomination are due in early April, giving Cuomo very little time to get on the ballot. But the fear among Democrats is that he can mount an independent bid, with more than the $10 million he has left in the bank, sabotaging Hochul in the fall. A three-way race could very well deliver the governorship to a Republican.
In Hochul’s calculus, pivoting right on criminal justice could help bolster her numbers in the suburbs and upstate for a primary and general election. She should remember, though, that Democrats in the state legislature were able to perform well in 2020 as the GOP demagogued around bail reform. Republicans will trot out the same playbook under more favorable circumstances and hope a red wave washes more of them into power.
For the institutional left, the coming weeks will be incredibly important. Hochul, who has raised more than $20 million, has many powerful interests in her ear telling her to take the fight to progressives in the name of winning elections. Hochul lacks Cuomo’s zeal for combat and punishment. But she is emerging, slowly, as an obstacle to a movement that has been ascendant in New York. How far she’s willing to go will depend on how determined her opposition will be, and whether Democrats will cave to screaming tabloid headlines. It’s about to get loud.