Kathy Hochul Is the Un-Cuomo

Kathy Hochul Is the Un-Cuomo

New York’s accidental governor has a centrist past, but many progressives say we shouldn’t give up on her just yet.


What a celebration this is!” Kathy Hochul kvelled in mid-February as she accepted the New York State Democratic Party’s nomination for governor, a job she’d been doing ably for six months. A parade of powerful New York women preceded her at the podium: US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, state Attorney General Letitia James, state Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, US Representative Carolyn Maloney, and, finally, the woman who introduced Hochul, former US senator (and so much more) Hillary Clinton. The message: While the state has never elected a woman governor, it has nonetheless elevated some badass female leadership. The steely, diminutive Hochul stepped up to the microphone beaming.

But soon the thrill was gone. After her introductory remarks, Hochul faced hecklers demanding support for tenant protections and the state’s expiring Excluded Workers Fund, a program extending Covid aid to undocumented laborers. “Excluded workers kept this city running!” they yelled. It was hard to hear them; Hochul supporters drowned them out by chanting “Kathy, Kathy, Kathy!” as the governor soldiered on with her speech.

It was the first time I’d seen Hochul rattled. She attempted to press on, then tried to joke: “It wouldn’t be the same without a lot of ruckus—this is who we are!” She didn’t acknowledge the protesters’ concerns.

It was just a moment, and it passed—but it was a moment.

For six months, Hochul had soothed as the un-Cuomo, earning praise largely for what she wasn’t: mean, arrogant, abusive to women (and some men), and often neglectful of state business. Advocates and legislators alike described working in Cuomo’s Capitol as akin to surviving PTSD; one used the term “Stockholm syndrome.” Hochul is almost universally praised as warm, collegial, and supremely competent. But the absence of bullying and fear has also made room for a new spirit of rebellion. “Cuomo would have punched us out personally,” said one individual who helped plan the February demonstration.

While New York’s surging progressive movement pulled even the former governor to the left over his not quite three terms in office, Andrew Cuomo also liked to remind them who was boss. The convention fracas signaled to the new governor that the left wouldn’t be placated by symbolism or lovely meetings with her staff. It wanted results.

A few days later in her office in Albany, Hochul admitted that she’d been flustered during her convention speech. “I was looking at my dad, who was in the front row, and talking about my family,” she told me. “I’m getting choked up here… I really wanted to make sure that was heard. That was the most important part to me: to thank my family. I felt a little bit off that that wasn’t being delivered the way I wanted it to.”

It was a rare moment of vulnerability for a woman who, in a 28-minute conversation with me, used a variety of expressions to describe her toughness—“tough as nails,” “steel,” “battle-tested”—17 times. In the context of the convention, she explained, “I also know that people are watching my reaction. I gotta show: ‘I got this!’”

But does she? Obviously, she meant that in the colloquial sense—that she wouldn’t fold under pressure. But what would it mean to say “I got this” to refer to the near-crushing job of being New York governor? Her supporters say it means that she knows how the state runs and that she has an uncommon empathy for the less fortunate. Her detractors retort that what she’s “got” is support from some of Cuomo’s most powerful donors—in real estate, development, and finance—and that they’ve “got” her. If Hochul is the un-Cuomo, how did she raise an astonishing $21.9 million in her first six months as governor, with a roster of donors remarkably similar to those of her predecessor?

Unbelievably, though, Hochul may also be trying to prove to Cuomo that she’s “got” his office—and he can’t have it back. About a month before the April 7 filing deadline for Democratic primary candidates, Cuomo began running ads claiming that the lack of criminal charges against him exonerated him from charges of harassment—as if only actual criminality is disqualifying. There are rumors he could challenge Hochul as an independent in November.

Progressives already have a champion in the governor’s race: New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who’s been endorsed by the city’s Working Families Party. (Congressman Tom Suozzi of Long Island is running against Hochul from the right.) Hochul says she still plans to vie for progressive votes—and even WFP folks say nice things about her.

“We’ve all been traumatized by Cuomo. She moves very differently politically,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the Working Families Party of New York director, about the new governor. “She has shown real ability to collaborate, to consult.” Hochul even sought the party’s nomination, Nnaemeka noted, while knowing it would surely go to longtime WFP stalwart Williams.

On top of her campaign funds, Hochul has expanded the public coffers thanks to federal Covid relief and infrastructure spending. As 2022 dawned, the state announced that it was sitting on a $7 billion surplus, and Hochul proposed a $216 billion budget. With such means—public and private—at its disposal, what can Hochul’s campaign not do?

For one, it can’t dispel all progressive doubts about her.

“In a way, this is a very progressive moment in New York State, especially in the legislature,” Nnaemeka said. “Will she shift? She already has, somewhat,” she added. “There’s a real willingness to meet with us—but what would it take for the governor to work in collaboration with the left?”

We’re about to find out if that’s possible.

For seven years, Hochul worked tirelessly toward a job almost nobody expected would be hers. With a staff of nine, the Buffalo native traveled the state’s 62 counties for ribbon cuttings, roundtables, and state agency convenings, plus campaign events for Democrats up and down the ballot. It was perfect training to be governor—except her path was blocked by Cuomo, the titanic Empire State narcissist, whose father had served before him and who seemed to perceive the job and its power as his birthright.

In hindsight, it’s impossible to miss that Cuomo, who was eventually brought down by his mistreatment of women, conducted his most open bullying campaign against his female lieutenant governor. He chose Hochul in 2014, telling New York Democrats that she “knows the needs” of upstate and western New York, where she grew up. Then he tried to push her off the ticket in 2018, fairly publicly, and again in 2021, because he thought someone more progressive, ideally a person of color, would be of greater benefit to him. Cuomo almost never included her in his nationally televised Covid briefings in 2020; his book glorifying his Covid response didn’t mention her once.

Hochul ignored Cuomo’s pressure to exit as assiduously as she continued to perform her mostly ceremonial duties. And then she wound up with her boss’s job.

At one time, Hochul had been something of a darling among progressives. After the famed Democratic “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms, she won a special election to Congress in 2011 in a red upstate district by zeroing in on Medicare and other programs the new Tea Party–infused House Republican majority was coming for. The Working Families Party endorsed her in that race, even though she was known as a centrist. First elected to the town board of Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo, in 1994, Hochul gained wide attention as the Erie County clerk in 2007 when she resisted then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s call to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented New Yorkers and threatened to report applicants to the immigration authorities. She also hewed to her party’s center on gun issues and gay marriage.

When Hochul got to Congress, and despite support from the left, she kept to the right, voting to weaken the Affordable Care Act and against toughening the Clean Air Act. The League of Conservation Voters gave her a score of just 68 percent during her time in Washington. Hochul skipped the 2012 Democratic National Convention, as though reluctant to be associated with the Obama-era party brand, and was one of only 17 Democrats to vote to hold US Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over a scandal exaggerated and amplified by the GOP. The National Rifle Association even endorsed her reelection campaign.

Running for Congress established Hochul’s ambition—and toughness. Top Democrats told her not to run. “They sent people to tell me, ‘The cavalry is not coming,’” she said. “I said, ‘Screw this. Nobody will outwork me. I’ll go to every diner, every farm.’” And she was capable of bravery. After her district was redrawn to favor Republicans, she knew her 2012 vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act (despite previous votes to weaken it) and her strong support for reproductive rights would probably doom her reelection that year. In the end, she lost to Republican Chris Collins by less than 2 percent, in a district that Obama lost by more than 12.

Two years later, The New York Times endorsed Tim Wu, a technology lawyer and academic, over Hochul in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. By then, Hochul had changed most of her more conservative positions, and the paper wrote that she showed a worrisome “willingness to shift politically” and “has a deeply troubling record on health reform, gun control and environmental deregulation.”

Hochul remains a little tarnished by that 2014 Times un-endorsement. She has indeed shifted over the years, coming to support gay marriage, drivers’ licenses for the undocumented, and tougher gun safety legislation, though Hochul notes that the sentiments of New Yorkers have also changed. “I had taken a position that has now evolved. And that evolution coincides with the evolution of many people…in the state of New York,” she told reporters after becoming governor.

Senator Gillibrand, a longtime Hochul booster, compares the new governor’s evolution to her own. Both represented red New York congressional districts that hadn’t elected a Democrat for more than a decade—Gillibrand won hers in 2006—and then became statewide leaders. “She has the tension I had as a House member,” Gillibrand told me. “You have a responsibility to lead, as well as a responsibility to represent. When you represent a 2-to-1 GOP district, there are a lot of people who want you to represent, and not lead, on some issues. I suspect she has a more progressive view than her first district on many issues. When she had to represent the whole state, she had to listen to more views.”

Gillibrand saw that in practice when Hochul became lieutenant governor. Given almost no responsibilities by Cuomo, Hochul wrote her own agenda. As Gillibrand recalled, “When I was traveling the state to talk about sexual assault on college campuses, [or] about affordable day care or universal pre-kindergarten or nutrition, summer meals, changing how people got access to food stamps, we’d collaborate—she’d do the state version, and I’d do the federal. We did many events across the state over these last few years. I love Kathy.”

One thing that makes Gillibrand and progressive Hochul loyalists trust her values is her family background. She’s the child of Irish Catholic working-class parents in Buffalo, Jack and Pat Courtney, whose first home together was in a trailer park; her grandfather, uncle, and father worked at Bethlehem Steel. Beyond those working-class roots, the Courtneys were active on myriad social justice issues, supporting civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War through the Christian Family Movement. Devoted to “integration, ecumenism and political activism,” according to a review of its history in the National Catholic Reporter, the CFM was a powerful conduit of Catholic social teaching in the 1960s. America, the Jesuit magazine, saw the organization following in the footsteps of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker program, at least in its ministry to the poor.

At a time of white backlash, when many families like the Courtneys were moving right, not left, their activism put them on the front lines of the battles of the day. And even as they were organizing food and clothing drives for the less fortunate, Hochul’s sister Sheila told The New York Times, the family bought its own clothing at secondhand stores.

“I remember everything from 1968,” Hochul told me. “I remember [the assassination of] Dr. King—my family was devastated—and then losing Bobby [Kennedy] a few months later, and then watching the implosion of the [Democratic] National Convention, rioters in the streets, police shooting hoses at the young people…. And then Kent State—you slaughter kids protesting on a campus? All that really had an effect on me. My family was very involved, trying to integrate housing in Buffalo. They called us commies.” Her father helped lead the local chapter of the CFM-affiliated Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME. One Sunday, Hochul said, “we were passing out [HOME] literature in the back of the church, and they spit at my mother.”

The Courtneys were friends with Daniel and Philip Berrigan, two radical activist Catholic priests (and brothers) known for their direct action opposing not just the Vietnam War but military interventions more broadly. “My parents knew the Berrigans, the Catonsville Nine,” Hochul said, referring to the nine anti-war activists imprisoned after they destroyed hundreds of draft records in Catonsville, Md. “They came to our house; they became our friends.” She said the overall message she imbibed was “We care about poor people.”

But for some, that radical upbringing makes Hochul’s early centrist political posture even more disturbing. An otherwise sympathetic profile in New York magazine last November was topped with a headline that questioned “what, if anything, she believes in.” When asked about her reaction to it, Hochul flinched.

“I thought, ‘You don’t know me.’ They’ll prejudge me based on their perception that everybody has to be defined in a certain way. I defy labels. I’m pragmatic. I have an incredibly progressive heart and soul, but I also know I have to get stuff done. And that means sometimes meeting people where they are, getting them to my side. That does not mean I don’t have core values and beliefs.”

One example she offers is abortion. “When I ran for town board, they said if I didn’t take the [New York] Right to Life [Party’s] line, I’d never win. I said, ‘I’m not doing that.’” She won anyway. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Hochul’s GOP opponent in her 2011 race, and again, she won. State Senator Liz Krueger, an abortion rights crusader and friend of Hochul’s, told me, “I have no concern about reproductive rights with her.”

As another example of her values, Hochul points to the Jails to Jobs initiative she unveiled in her State of the State address in January, which she said would refocus the corrections system on rehabilitation, restore state funding for college study, provide resources for job training, and connect people leaving prison with employment. “Nobody in upstate New York wants me talking about that,” she said. In fact, Hochul has gotten pretty high marks overall from progressives for the way she’s handled the polarizing issues of criminal justice—or at least she did until the middle of March, when she released a proposal to toughen the state’s landmark bail reform legislation.

Weeks after taking office, Hochul won plaudits for signing a progressive parole reform bill as well as the so-called Lower the Age legislation, which takes children under 12—the age had been 7—out of the juvenile justice system and instead treats them with community-based care, except those charged with homicide.

Yet only days after she announced her Jails to Jobs plan, Hochul faced a right-wing backlash as issues of crime, guns, and public safety exploded in a series of horrendous violent acts, mainly in New York City. In just two weeks in January, a teenage Burger King worker was shot and killed in Harlem; an Asian woman was pushed to her death in front of a subway train in Times Square; a New York police officer was shot and wounded in the Bronx; a baby was hit in the face by a stray bullet, also in the Bronx (she lived); and a detective was shot making a drug arrest in Staten Island (he lived too). The very next day, two NYPD officers were shot while replying to a domestic violence complaint in Harlem. One died immediately, the other in the hospital a few days later.

It felt like the bad old days, only it wasn’t, despite what the local media breathlessly reported. Yes, there were 488 murders in New York City in 2021, up from 319 in the last full year before the pandemic. But that’s still less than the 673 in 2000, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and far below the worst year for murders, 1990, when the number was 2,245. Major felonies—including murder, rape, armed robbery, and other violent crimes—jumped modestly in 2020 and 2021, but again, they remained at just over half the number of the Giuliani days. Major crimes continued to rise in the first two months of 2022, but murders declined, year over year, for the bloody month of January—by only one, though if you’d read New York City media, you’d have thought the toll had skyrocketed.

The carnage was unnerving, but so were the politics. Hochul stood between the city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, an ideology-defying Black former cop elected on a tough-on-crime platform, and the state’s two top legislative leaders, Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who are also Black. The pair had pushed through several criminal justice measures, including bail reform, which recognized the unfairness of a two-tier system that let nonviolent offenders with resources get parole while awaiting trial, even as low-income suspects got jail indefinitely. Meanwhile, Manhattan also elected its first Black district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a career prosecutor who had nonetheless run on a platform of seeking alternatives to incarceration.

In his first days in office, Bragg issued a memo to his district attorneys appearing to urge leniency for gun possession if the accused had committed no other crime. (Allies said he’d intended it as a draft for discussion and refining.) The memo immediately got to the media. Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post called on Hochul to fire Bragg—she technically has that authority—and Suozzi, her centrist primary opponent, made the same demand. Suozzi’s very first TV ad targeted Bragg, almost as if he were running against the Black DA, but it was clear he was painting Hochul as soft on crime. (His later ads did that directly.)

After a private meeting with Bragg, Hochul defended him. “He needs to do his job, and he’s doing it right now,” the governor said at a press conference. “You judge by the balance. I mean, you’re going to see, again, someone who’s been on the job a very short time—I cut some slack.” She also resisted calls by Adams, Suozzi, and others to go after the new bail laws.

That is, until March 17, when the Post obtained a memo in which Hochul proposed to restore bail for more categories of crime, especially gun crime, and to give judges more discretion to impose bail if a defendant had multiple arrests and appeared to be a “danger” to public safety.

The Post, of course, praised the plan, while advocates reacted with outrage. “The Legislature must reject outright any bail rollback proposal, including a ‘dangerousness’ provision, from Governor Hochul that will only increase jail populations, disproportionately impacting Black and brown New Yorkers,” Marie Ndiaye, the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s decarceration project, said in a statement.

“Proposing rollbacks to hard-won civil rights victories…is submitting to disingenuous and racist fearmongering,” said the Working Families Party’s Nnaemeka, who had been optimistic about working with Hochul when we’d talked earlier.

Several bail reform backers in the state legislature told me they hadn’t gotten a proposal from Hochul and didn’t want to comment on the plan. “I haven’t seen anything [from her office] yet,” Krueger, who’s also a staunch bail reform proponent, told me a day after the fearmongering New York Post article.

Diplomatically, Krueger shared where she thinks Democrats broadly agree. “People are very concerned about dangerous people in the streets,” she said. “I’m concerned about dangerous people in the streets. But I don’t believe the data shows a connection with bail reform.”

In fact, a few days after the news of Hochul’s proposal broke, Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller, released a study finding no correlation between the state’s bail reform and rising violent crime—which is spiking in cities across the nation, whether or not they’ve implemented criminal justice reforms. Hochul basically agreed in an op-ed explaining her position: “Blaming bail reform for the increase in violence that cities across America are facing isn’t fair and isn’t supported by the data.” But she went on to propose that more crimes become “bail eligible,” including gun crimes by juveniles and crimes by repeat offenders.

Mayor Adams, not surprisingly, released a statement applauding Hochul’s move: “The governor’s proposal includes significant steps, which I have advocated for, that would make New York safer, while not undoing important reforms.”

With Hochul’s shifts on bail, some criminal-justice reform advocates worry that Adams is prevailing in a contest between him and progressives for influence. But Krueger predicted that “there will be a compromise,” adding: “We all want to get guns off the streets and make sure there’s less gun violence.” How far Hochul moves in either direction on that compromise might tell us whether she’s more concerned about losing support on her left or right flank.

Progressives also wonder about Hochul’s campaign war chest, which is brimming with cash from many of Cuomo’s once-loyal donors. (This is also what makes many doubt that the disgraced former governor can launch a comeback bid.) Hochul’s backers include Stephen Ross of the Related Companies, the developer (and Donald Trump supporter) behind the bloated Hudson Yards project in Manhattan, and Steven Roth of Vornado Realty Trust, which has a huge stake in Hochul’s lavish Penn Station redevelopment plan; both maxed out (at $69,700) for her, as did some of their companies’ executives. There are various Tishmans, Rudins, and Speyers (names that adorn big buildings all over New York City), whose combined contributions top $400,000; the family behind the mega commercial real estate firm RXR Realty; and the company presiding over large projects with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was rather an embarrassment of riches for Hochul, coming after only a few months in office. Sure, incumbents rake in cash, but what did these wealthy and powerful people assume they were going to get from the brand-new governor?

Critics say that they expect comparable pro-developer policies. In Manhattan, they’ve blasted a Cuomo-era plan to provide enormous tax breaks—potentially to some major Hochul donors—to build 10 towers with 18 million square feet of office space in the workaday, somewhat seedy neighborhood surrounding the new Penn Station. The state is sacrificing tax revenue it needs, these critics charge, for office space that, post-Covid, it doesn’t.

Progressives have also questioned some of Hochul’s appointments, with special concern reserved for two. She tapped Adrienne Harris to head the Department of Financial Services, whom Cuomo’s 2018 challenger Cynthia Nixon has called a “fox in the regulatory henhouse” after statements by Harris that seemed to support weaker financial regulations; Harris also had a seat on the board of the online for-profit LendingClub, which was sued by the Federal Trade Commission for its essentially predatory lending practices and forced to pay $18 million in damages. And Hochul kept on Cuomo’s budget director Robert Mujica, a former fiscal director for the state’s Senate Republicans, whom one advocate described as Cuomo’s “architect of austerity.” Krueger, the state Senate’s finance committee chair, flatly told the New York Post, “If I were governor, I would replace Rob Mujica.”

The concern that Hochul shares Cuomo’s bent toward austerity, even though the state is flush with Covid aid and other federal dollars, helps make the battle over the Excluded Workers Fund so bitter. Ironically, one of Hochul’s biggest progressive challenges to date comes from what might have been her most tangibly progressive moment. As the pandemic-driven federal eviction moratorium expired last summer, progressives held a sleep-in on the steps of the US Capitol begging Congress or the Biden administration to do something—and Hochul did something.

Brand-new on the job, and without much staff, “I called the legislature back,” the governor recounted, and extended eviction protections into January. She and her small team had enough experience to know that billions of dollars meant for Covid relief—including help for tenants, landlords, and undocumented workers—had never been disbursed by the Cuomo administration.

“My predecessor had nearly $2 billion that, over the summer, because of the distractions, never got out to the people,” Hochul said. (That’s as close as she came to discussing her “predecessor” or his “distractions” during our interview.) Hochul won high praise from advocates for struggling New Yorkers for those quick moves. “She sprang into action,” said Angeles Solis, the director of worker organizing for the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York. Solis lauded Hochul for her “quick, effective handling [of the crisis]. She was like, ‘Let’s get the money out the door and let agencies partner with advocates to do it right.’”

Public agencies and advocates worked so well together, Solis said, that the money went quickly, and an estimated 75,000 New Yorkers who were eligible for help couldn’t get it when the fund ran dry in October. The Fund Excluded Workers Coalition began lobbying Hochul to create a new pot of relief money: They’re asking for $3 billion and have been staging sit-ins, fasts, and protests over the past six months. So far, Hochul has balked, committing to only $2 billion in new pandemic relief, to be spent at the legislature’s discretion.

Advocates aren’t happy. “Legislators must not give in to the Hunger Games set-up of allocating one pot of money for ‘pandemic relief’ and making communities fight against each other to show their needs are a priority,” Make the Road New York’s co–executive director Theo Oshiro told me.

As it happens, it was Solis—the Make the Road leader who still credits Hochul for assisting the excluded workers neglected by Cuomo last year—who helped organize the protest at the Democratic state convention and who was up front, closest to Hochul. Without my bringing it up, Solis shared what it meant to “disrupt the nomination of New York’s first female governor.” She had shouted a simple question, Solis said: “‘You say you will fight for women, but will you fight for working-class women?’ And she didn’t answer. It was disappointing. Of course, it had to be unsettling for her to face,” Solis added. “But she didn’t answer the question.”

The confrontation isn’t over. In mid-March, roughly 1,000 people organized by the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition trekked 150 miles from New York City to Albany, hoping to press their demands into the state budget.

For her part, Hochul insists her differences with progressives are minor. She praised the Working Families Party, for instance, noting that “I had their endorsement when I first ran for Congress, in a seat no one thought we could win.” She went on, “I’m going to need them in November. I’m gonna do what I need to win big, and the Working Families Party is an important part of that coalition.”

It might be a measure of progressive optimism about Hochul that advocates have been so tenacious on the excluded workers issue. A governor steeped in Catholic social teaching might be expected to eventually listen. On the other hand, as a western New York politician “who didn’t have the greatest track record on immigrant concerns,” Solis said, Hochul might be listening to “rising anti-immigrant rhetoric” from conservatives.

Most of the progressives I spoke to held out the hope that, despite her war chest, her centrist past, and her recent disappointing moves on bail reform, Hochul is worth trying to work with. She is compassionate and capable of change, and could still put New York’s vulnerable communities light years ahead of where they were under Cuomo. Most progressive activists have endorsed Jumaane Williams, or will. But most expect Hochul to win, both in the June primary and against whatever Trumpy Republican she faces in November.

Solis, for one, still believes Hochul can make the right decisions on the most important issues for low-income New Yorkers and the undocumented. “We felt hope and an opportunity for partnership” when the first female governor took office, she said. Hochul “still has the opportunity to lead. She can still bring this home.”

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