Kathy Hochul Can’t Govern Like Andrew Cuomo. Why Would She Want To?

Kathy Hochul Can’t Govern Like Andrew Cuomo. Why Would She Want To?

Kathy Hochul Can’t Govern Like Andrew Cuomo. Why Would She Want To?

The New York governor picked a fight with liberals and the left over a judicial nomination—and she’s losing.

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Profiling New York Governor Kathy Hochul last year, I labeled her the “un-Cuomo.” Admirers and detractors alike gave her credit for a collegial approach to decision-making, pulling in legislators, sometimes even opponents, to confer about her next moves, in a way her disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo never did.

Apparently, she didn’t entirely like the label.

With her unpopular choice and awkward political maneuvering to make Hector La Salle chief judge of the state’s highest court, even supporters are accusing her of attempting a Cuomo-like power play, but without the history of ruthlessness the former governor displayed in his high-profile roles with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, as New York attorney general and then as governor. Starting her first full term—she moved up from lieutenant governor in 2021 when Cuomo resigned over sexual harassment charges— the new governor surprised many Democrats by choosing LaSalle to lead the Court of Appeals, New York’s top court. Although LaSalle would be the first Latino chief judge, which united a fairly broad spectrum of Latino leaders behind him, a coalition of progressive groups, unions, and individual Democrats known as The Courts New York Deserve labeled him “unacceptable,” while naming three other possible nominees “excellent.”

On January 18, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected LaSalle, a former prosecutor, 10-2, with seven senators voting to advance the nomination to the full Senate without recommendation.

“We have no idea what is motivating this poorly thought-through and executed push for the wrong candidate to be chief judge,” one exasperated legislator, who has generally backed Hochul, told me.

Although the governor hired a top litigator and threatened to sue the Senate, insisting that the state Constitution requires LaSalle’s nomination to go to the Senate floor for consideration by the full chamber, majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said that was a nonstarter. “It’s clear that this nominee was rejected and that’s it,” she said. “We have to find a nominee that will be supported by the majority of the Senate and then get on with that.” Hochul could still mount a legal challenge, but her long pause gives legislators and analysts some hope she won’t escalate that way. Observers on both sides are still mystified about how the stalemate got so ugly—and why it is still going on.

Requests for comment from Hochul’s office went unanswered, although an aide referred me to former Court of Appeals chief judge Jonathan Lippman, an ardent LaSalle supporter who disputes the notion that the nominee is conservative. “By any standard, he’s in the mainstream of New York jurisprudence, which is very progressive over the years,” Lippman told me, saying LaSalle has been “victimized” by his opponents.

Three factors seem to have motivated the uprising by left and liberal Democrats against LaSalle: last year’s Court of Appeals-sanctioned pro-GOP redistricting debacle; the demise of the notorious Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a cabal of conservative Democrats who caucused with the GOP to give the “minority” party Senate control, with Cuomo’s blessing; and the role of the left in shoring up Hochul’s floundering November campaign.

Last year, the mostly Cuomo-appointed Court of Appeals upheld the redistricting map that Democrats say was slanted against them and contributed to the party’s losing its majority in the House of Representatives. Outgoing Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a former Republican prosecutor nominated by Cuomo, joined the majority in backing the maps in a 4-3 vote. That decision “is 100 percent” behind the backlash, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal said. The extraordinarily consequential role played by the Court of Appeals is at the top of Democrats’ minds.

It also matters that LaSalle was the first chief judge nomination to come to the legislature since upstart Democrats broke the hold of the IDC in 2018. With a supermajority in the Senate today, Democrats have little incentive to revert to Cuomo-era deference to the governor, let alone to the wishes of the opposition party.

And undeniably, the New York left has been buoyed by its role in helping Hochul pull out a comparative squeaker against Republican Lee Zeldin in November. Although the Working Families Party endorsed Public Advocate Jumaane Williams against Hochul in the Democratic Primary, the group went all in for Hochul in the general, organizing 60 canvasses and phonebanks, sending more than 2 million text messages and blanketing the state with more than 1,000 WFP volunteers, according to party communications director Rafi Mangla.

The governor got 260,000 votes on the WFP ballot line, a hefty contribution to her winning margin of 325,000 (though no doubt some voters would have backed Hochul without the WFP line). Labor was invaluable, too: “There is no other entity in this state or in this country that has the ability to directly connect 2 million people,” AFL-CIO president Mario Cilento said before the election. “Only the labor movement can do that.”

Some see Hochul’s LaSalle pick as a nod to moderates and even Republicans who had a good election last November. She is said to especially resist narratives that cast progressives as “saving” her race, which became unexpectedly close in a state Cuomo won by 1.2 million votes in 2018, dwarfing Hochul’s margin. “I think she doesn’t want to validate the assertion that she owes progressives anything,” one legislator said.

Two appellate court decisions in particular raised progressives’ concerns about LaSalle. One allowed a private company, Cablevision, to sue individual labor union members; another protected a so-called “crisis pregnancy center” from what LaSalle called “prosecutorial overreach.” In New York magazine, respected city political reporter Errol Louis insisted that the cases had been cherry-picked and distorted by the judge’s opponents, that he had followed precedent and was joined by other Democrats in both decisions.

But the brief against LaSalle was broader than that. The magazine City and State New York labeled LaSalle “one of the most conservative judges in the appellate courts,” finding that “he frequently dissent[ed] from majority opinions that reversed criminal defendants’ convictions, even in cases where other judges found that the police overstepped their authority.”

And while Hochul conferred with labor leaders about the seven judges screened and recommended by the state Commission on Judicial Nominations (she was legally bound to choose one), she went ahead with LaSalle even after the state AFL-CIO and individual unions came out against him. The judge “has unfortunately shown a willingness to put the interests of corporations ahead of workers which is disturbing in a state with a long history of supporting workers’ rights,” federation head Cilento said in a statement. At his confirmation hearing, LaSalle pushed back on that, recounting how he “walked the picket line with my abuelita.”

Given labor’s opposition, Senate Judiciary Committee member Jessica Ramos finds Hochul’s decision particularly odd. “Union activity is flourishing in New York right now,” says Ramos, who is the chair of the Senate Labor Committee, and she wants to see a chief judge with a better pro-labor record.

The clash has definitely been an old guard vs. the upstarts conflict. When the appellate court judge accepted a previously scheduled award from the New York State Bar Association on January 20, he received multiple standing ovations from a crowd that seemed irate that one of their own had been treated so shabbily. The generational divide is particularly apparent among Latinos. “This is really hard for the Latino community right now. My generation is saddled with student debt, can’t get married, can’t buy a house,” she told me, and they’re seeing union organizing as one of their ways out of that dead end. “The baby boomer generation, when they did make it, they focused on establishment machines of their own.”

Former chief judge Lippman still insists that the constitution requires that Hochul’s nominee be considered by the full Senate. At this point, given the enmity between the governor and Senate leaders, many observers believe Hochul would lose that battle, too. “Let the chips fall where they may,” Lippman told me. If LaSalle prevailed, it would only be with strong support from Republicans. “Is she really going to make those of us who broke up the IDC go back to our districts and say the chief judge was chosen by Republicans?” asks Ramos, who defeated IDC member Jose Peralta in 2018. “That shit’s not gonna fly.”

For her part, Hochul insists she won’t go back to the list of recommended nominees to pick one of the three progressives and liberals deemed “excellent.”

“I chose the best person from a list of seven,” Hochul said defiantly, sounding Cuomo-esque.

When I profiled Hochul last year, I gave her the benefit of many doubts, at least partly because of her family background. The radical Irish Catholic Courtneys were active on civil rights, union rights and housing issues in Buffalo in the 1960s and ’70s, at a time when so many other white Catholic ethnics were joining the backlash against racial progress. I’m sure there was some identification there—we were both liberal Irish Catholic New York girls, roughly the same age. “I remember [the assassination of] Dr. King—my family was devastated,” she told me. To those who questioned where her political values lay, she retorted, “I have an incredibly progressive heart and soul.”

Hochul told that story in a different light this year on King’s birthday in a Brooklyn Baptist Church—making it about the left’s attacks on Hector LaSalle.

My household knew the story of Dr. King. In fact, I did a book report on him when I was a little girl while he was still alive. When he was gunned down, assassinated, my family sat there and held hands and wept. How could this be? How could this man of God who taught us about nonviolence and social justice and change, and not judging people by the color of their skin, or one or two cases out of 5,000 cases decided….

Dr. King called upon us to be just and to be fair and to not judge people. And that has not been afforded to an individual named Judge Hector LaSalle. And I know in my heart that we’re better than that. We don’t want to be judged ourselves, do we?

My colleague Elie Mystal called Hochul’s appropriation of King’s legacy “a special kind of tasteless.” I can’t disagree.

The LaSalle mess reminded me of something else about my time with Hochul. In her 28-minute conversation with me last year, she used the word “tough,” or various synonyms for “toughness,” 17 times, about herself. It seemed a little bit telling: Following a governor renowned for his toughness—some would call it bullying—could she measure up? Or would she be rolled by the state’s power brokers and business titans? By her GOP opponent Lee Zeldin or New York City’s mercurial Mayor Eric Adams? Or by leftist upstarts feeling their new power, thinking they could call the shots?

With LaSalle, she certainly stood up to those leftist upstarts, as well as to mainstream Democrats troubled especially by LaSalle’s rulings on labor.

Hoylman-Sigal hopes the governor abandons her plan to sue the state Senate to bring LaSalle’s confirmation to the floor and returns to her un-Cuomo governing style. “She has a lot of allies in the Senate still. We’re all pulling for her as governor, including her agenda as outlined in the state of the state address,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ll get back on track.”

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