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News & Issues September 2021


Political clock ticking for new governor

As 2022 race looms, Hochul enjoys ties forged in local visits


New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who took office Aug. 24 after the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, is well known to local political leaders. Courtesy photo



Contributing writer


New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who took over Aug. 24 after the resignation of three-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo, has only a few months to chart her own course before the next election season gets under way.
Hochul has already made it clear she plans to seek election next year to a full term as governor, and political observers around the region say her actions in the coming weeks will be pivotal in determining the caliber of opposition she might face in the June 2022 Democratic primary.

“Basically, every ambitious New York Democratic politician is going to look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this my time?’” said Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College.

Hochul will need to navigate between Democratic factions in a deep blue state, and her reputation as a moderate means she’s likely to face skepticism among the more liberal voters who often make up the bulk of the electorate in statewide Democratic primaries.

“I think she certainly will see some activity from the left,” said former U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh. “That’s where she will get the pushback.”

But Hochul enjoys a deep reservoir of good will among local elected officials and party leaders, with whom she has cultivated ties on her many visits to the region during her seven years as lieutenant governor. Among these officials, she’s seen as more accessible, more likeable and far more willing than her predecessor to consult and share power.

A lawyer by training, Hochul, 63, held several local offices in the Buffalo area and later represented western New York in Congress before running for lieutenant governor in 2014 as an ally of Cuomo. Now, as the state’s first woman governor, she has moved swiftly to set herself apart in tone and style from her predecessor, whose resignation was triggered by a sexual harassment scandal.

Turner called it “an amazing time in New York politics” and compared the shift from Cuomo to Hochul to the change in style when President Harry Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Although he had been expected to seek re-election next year, Cuomo’s political support collapsed last month in the wake of a devastating report by the state attorney general’s office, which concluded he had sexually harassed 11 women, including some members of his staff. In one of her first acts as governor, Hochul announced new sexual harassment and ethics training requirements for state employees.

Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Todd Kerner said he believes the state now is “in good hands” under Hochul.

“I’m glad that she is taking the helm,” Kerner said. “She’s smart. She’s energetic. I was extremely glad to hear that she would not tolerate a toxic work environment.”


Shift scrambles GOP strategy
The upheaval of Cuomo’s departure has shifted local Republicans’ sense of the nascent 2022 campaign.

Warren County Republican Chairman George Ferone said he thinks Cuomo “would have been an easy opponent to beat.” But if Hochul emerges as the Democratic nominee, he added, “I think she will be a formidable opponent.”

For now, Republicans are continuing to focus on attacking Cuomo’s record and behavior, implicitly casting Hochul as his heir. A joint statement last month from 18 GOP chairs in the Capital District and North Country regions urged local Republicans to keep criticizing Cuomo’s “management style” and to make the point that his behavior is “not acceptable for a leader.”
But when asked whether a Republican nominee would fare better against Hochul or some other Democrat, Ferone said Hochul might be tougher to beat.

“She seems to be a centrist,” he said. “She doesn’t seem to be a far-left Democrat.”
Ferone said he does not know Hochul well, but has met her several times at economic development gatherings and grant announcement events, including on one occasion when he accepted an over-sized check from Hochul on behalf of the development group that operates Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls.

“She seemed very pleasant,” he said.
Turner said Republicans undoubtedly will look to capitalize on the political fallout from Cuomo’s resignation. But it still will be tough for the party to win a statewide race, he said. Democrats now control every other statewide office and enjoy large majorities in both state legislative chambers.
“Ten or 20 years ago, … ‘It’s time for a change’ would have resonated,” Turner said. “However, in this time, it’s sort of hard for a state that is as blue as New York to switch over.”

Five candidates are actively seeking the Republican nomination for governor: U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island; Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive who was the party’s 2014 gubernatorial candidate; Andrew Giuliani, who worked in the Trump administration and is the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Derrick Gibson, a podcast host and former boxer from Queens; and Lewis County Sheriff Michael Carpinelli.

Zeldin, the front-runner, has the endorsements of more than 50 county Republican committees, including Warren County’s, and has received about 80 percent of the weighted votes in those counties, Ferone said.

Ferone said he does not see Cuomo’s resignation as changing the Republican field.
Turner likewise said he doesn’t foresee any new top-tier Republican gubernatorial candidates coming forward.

“Maybe there’s some other mystery candidate out there,” he said. “I’m not aware of any tremendously wealthy Republicans who could self-finance a campaign, but that might be their dream.”


Democrats back off for now
As details of the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo emerged over the course of the year, there had been speculation he might face serious opposition in next year’s Democratic primary. Potential challengers mentioned in news reports included state Attorney General Letitia James, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli or U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Other potential gubernatorial candidates mentioned since Cuomo’s resignation include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and several state senators.

But Gillibrand said Aug. 23 that she will not run for governor.
And New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who lost to Hochul in the 2018 primary for lieutenant governor and had been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, also said he will not run.

Boecher said DiNapoli was keynote speaker at the Warren County Democratic Golf Tournament on Aug. 14 and did not give any hint of interest in a run for governor.

“He focused very heavily on the Biden-Harris rescue plan,” Boecher said.
Owens said the top-tier potential candidates likely will take a few months to see how Hochul handles things before deciding whether to join the race.

Joe Seeman, a MoveOn.org and Working Families Party organizer from Saratoga County, said the question is not whether Hochul will face a primary, but whether she will champion the policies necessary to win a primary.

“I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Seeman said it’s too early to say whether he would support Hochul next year or back a challenger. Among the barometers he will be watching is whether Hochul will call a special session of the Legislature this fall to deal with climate change and other issues. He also wants to see what’s in the state budget proposal she unveils in January.

“The budget next year is a huge indicator of where she stands,” he said.


Strong local ties
The shift from Cuomo to Hochul could have an impact politically on congressional and down-ballot races in the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks, where Republican candidates often prospered by linking Democratic opponents with Cuomo, who was unpopular in these areas even with many rank-and-file Democrats.

Hochul, on the other hand, is well known and generally liked in the region because of her role in leading the state’s economic development efforts as lieutenant governor.
“We have seen more of her in this region than we have ever seen of her predecessor,” said state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake.

Hochul’s years of traveling to events across the state have helped her to cultivate a broad network among local officials of both parties as well as the Democratic rank and file.
“I have 54 photographs of her at events in and around Warren County, which says to me that she knows our area,” said Boecher, the county Democratic chairwoman.

“We know she knows Glens Falls and the region very well,” said Michael Bittel, the president and chief executive of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce and a former Washington County Republican chairman.

To the extent Hochul is seen as a centrist and a consensus-builder, she might be a boon to down-ballot Democratic candidates in the region.

“I hope that she is a uniter and not a divider,” Woerner said. “If that is true, … then I don’t think being associated with her will be a political liability.”

Turner, the Skidmore professor, said the connections Hochul developed in her travels could provide her with a source of behind-the-scenes advisers.

“There are a significant number of female executives from upstate New York, and they are all really close to Hochul,” he said.

Former state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said Hochul’s selection of a lieutenant governor from New York City, ties upstate and downtown together. Hochul chose Brian Benjamin, a state senator from Harlem, to serve as lieutenant governor through next year’s election.


Centrist record in Congress
An indication of Hochul’s relative popularity in the region can be gleaned from results of the 2018 Democratic primary, when she and Cuomo ran in separate races for governor and lieutenant governor. Cuomo carried only Warren County locally while trailing the actress and political activist Cynthia Nixon in Columbia, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Washington counties. Hochul, however, carried all but Columbia County against New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who was allied with Nixon.

Statewide, Cuomo lost 12 of New York’s 62 counties in the 2018 primary, while Hochul lost only five.

Owens said Cuomo’s unpopularity in many rural areas stemmed from the Safe Act, a gun control law the governor pushed through in 2013 after the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut.
“I don’t think there’s going to be the visceral disliking” of Hochul that Cuomo faced, he added.
After Hochul won an upset victory in a May 2011 special election to represent a western New York congressional district, she received a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association in 2012. But she lost her re-election bid that year in a redrawn district that had become more favorable to Republicans.

Later, when she ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 as an ally of Cuomo, Hochul said she supported the Safe Act.

“I think a lot depends on how she handles the Safe Act,” said Owens, who worked with Hochul in the House on common interests such as Canadian border and employment issues. “If she doesn’t make it an issue, I think it will be more neutral.”

Hochul had a generally centrist record in the House. Although the NRA gave her its highest score, her rankings on the scorecards of other conservative groups were low. She received a 16 percent score from the Club for Growth and 10 percent from Heritage Action for America, for example.

She received an 89 percent cumulative score over two years from the AFL-CIO, and 60 percent from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In 2012, her second year in office, she received a 54 percent score on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard, the second lowest of any Democrat in New York. (Owens, at 51 percent, was the lowest.)

Seeman, the Saratoga County organizer, said progressives recognize that politicians have evolving stances.

“We won’t hold anything against somebody for their past policies if their policies are changing,” he said.

Turner, the Skidmore professor, saw a parallel in the record of Gillibrand, a local congresswoman who was appointed to the Senate in January 2009 to fill the vacancy when Hillary Clinton resigned to become U.S. secretary of state.

Progressives initially were skeptical of Gillibrand, who had a conservative record on gun control and immigration as a House member. But Gillibrand shifted her positions and received broad-based Democratic support in her statewide Senate races.

Understanding local-level politics
Before Hochul won her congressional seat, she served in elective office as the Erie County clerk and as a town councilwoman in Hamburg.

Woerner, the local assemblywoman, said that experience gives Hochul a perspective that Cuomo lacked.

“This is a woman who comes out of local government,” Woerner said. “Her predecessor really had no use for local government. They were out of the loop in decision making.”
Bittel, the chamber president, also saw that as an advantage.

“What really impresses me about the governor is that she has served at every level of government,” he said.

Woerner said she was encouraged that Hochul, at her first press conference after Cuomo had announced his intention to resign, hinted she would take a more collaborative approach with the state Assembly and Senate.

At the Aug. 11 press conference, after a reporter asked whether she would direct the Assembly to continue an impeachment inquiry against Cuomo, Hochul responded, “I’ve been in this business long enough to know that it is not in the purview of the New York state governor to dictate to the New York state Assembly what acts they should take with respect to anything, particularly impeachment.”

In May, Hochul visited Lake George to help celebrate the renaming of the former West Brook Road as Elizabeth O’C. Little Boulevard, in honor of the region’s longtime state senator.
Judy Calogero, a former state housing commissioner in Republican George Pataki’s administration who now serves as chairwoman of the Glens Falls Industrial Development Agency, attended the event and said Hochul “spoke from the heart, and with no talking points or notes, and helped to make that special event for Betty very moving.

“I was impressed, and I wish her well,” Calogero said. “I think most people here will be watching closely and looking forward to some positive change.”

Little, who retired at the end of 2020, said she and Hochul had appeared together at numerous economic development announcements and publicity events over the past eight years.
“I’ve been with her since the first time she went snowmobiling at Tug Hill,” at a winter tourism promotion event in December 2014, Little said. “She probably has been in more parts and more events in New York state than any other lieutenant governor.”

Little and Hochul were co-chairs of the New York State 100th Anniversary Suffrage Commission, established in 2015.

Owens, the former congressman, predicted Hochul’s approach to government will be like that of one of her early political mentors, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat who represented New York from 1977 to 2001. Hochul was an aide to Moynihan early in her career.
“His was an exceptional mind, and I think that she will have that same thoughtful approach,” Owens said.