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Andrew Cuomo’s downfall paves the way for Kathy Hochul to make history

When Kathy Hochul is sworn in, she will make history as the first woman to serve as New York’s governor.

By: New York Times |
August 11, 2021 2:05:01 pm
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul with Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a news conference in New York, Jan. 24, 2019. (Benjamin Norman/The New York Times)

Written by Dana Rubinstein

In two weeks, New York will get a new governor: Kathy Hochul, a daughter of western New York who has risen through public life on the strength of her geniality and work ethic, and amid the fallout of male politicians resigning in disgrace.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that he would step down, following a state attorney general’s report that found he had sexually harassed at least 11 women, many of them state employees.

He will formally leave office in 14 days, at which point his long-serving lieutenant governor, Hochul, 62, will take his place. Should she run in next year’s election for a full term, as expected, she will have the benefit of being the incumbent candidate.

When she is sworn in, she will make history as the first woman to serve as New York’s governor. That her ascension came by way of a man’s downfall is a testament to the state’s long history of male political dominance, and its equally long history of male misbehavior, something that has become a growing political liability amid shifting social mores around power and gender dynamics.

It is only recently that women have begun to assume the highest offices in the state, and as often as not, they have done so after the men who came before them resigned in disgrace.

“Why is it that these women are the second step? Why weren’t they there in the first place?” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, who argued that New Yorkers’ reluctance to elect women to higher office showed that the state was not nearly as progressive as it purports to be.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who represents a district in Westchester, noted that Andrea Stewart-Cousins became the first female majority leader of the state Senate only recently. Both Stewart-Cousins and Letitia James, the state’s first female attorney general, took office in 2019.

“This is the next step, the grander step, the big step,” she added, “but it’s been an evolution in the last several years and a good one.”

Kathy Hochul delivers a victory speech after she won a special election for the House of Representatives, in Amherst, N.Y., Tuesday, May 24, 2011. When she is sworn in, Hochul will become the first woman to serve as governor of New York. (Michael Appleton/The New York Times)

Hochul’s political agenda and the composition of her Cabinet remain in the planning stages. Hochul, a Democrat, said little to reporters Tuesday, issuing a statement via a spokesperson that asserted her readiness for office. She plans to hold a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

“As someone who has served at all levels of government and is next in the line of succession, I am prepared to lead as New York state’s 57th governor,” she said.

Hochul (pronounced HOH-kuhl) grew up as one of six children in an Irish Catholic family in Hamburg, a town outside Buffalo. Her parents began their married life in a trailer while her father got his college degree. Her father ended up running an information technology company, while her mother co-founded a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse.

She would go on to graduate from Syracuse University, earn a law degree from Catholic University of America, and enter private practice. Before long, she started working for the government, first as an aide to Rep. John J. LaFalce and then for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

She ultimately returned to western New York and jumped into local politics, first as a member of the Hamburg town board and then as Erie County clerk, where she gained national prominence for challenging Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s bid to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants without legal status.

In 2011, opportunity struck, in the form of a congressman named Christopher Lee, a Republican who resigned after he sent a woman a shirtless photo of himself that ended up on the internet.

Hochul won the ensuing special election in one of New York’s most conservative districts, playing on fears that Republicans would eliminate Medicare. The next year, after reapportionment made her district even more conservative, she lost her seat to Chris Collins, a Republican who would also later resign in disgrace.

In 2014, Cuomo picked Hochul to be his running mate, in an apparent effort to bolster his support in western New York.

During his resignation speech, Cuomo expressed confidence in Hochul’s ability to govern.

“Kathy Hochul, my lieutenant governor, is smart and competent,” Cuomo said. “This transition must be seamless. We have a lot going on. I’m very worried about the delta variant, and so should you be, but she can come up to speed quickly.”

Now, Hochul is tasked with rapidly assembling a Cabinet, developing an agenda, and grappling with the remaining two weeks of Cuomo’s tenure.

On Tuesday, before he resigned, Cuomo’s office alerted Hochul to what was coming. After his speech, he called her personally, according to a senior official. It is unclear what they discussed.

In recent days, Hochul has been asking allies about their recommendations for positions in her Cabinet. She is looking to create a Cabinet that is diverse and geographically balanced between upstate and downstate, a person who has spoken with her said.

She has also brought on two seasoned national political hands as consultants, Meredith Kelly and Trey Nix. And she has been consulting with Jeffrey H. Pearlman, her former counsel and chief of staff, who served as counsel to David Paterson when he became governor after Spitzer resigned amid revelations that he had solicited prostitutes.

“Obviously we’re still here at the tail end hopefully of a global pandemic, and I think that’s her No. 1 priority,” said Jeremy Zellner, the chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee, and a friend of Hochul’s. Zellner added that Hochul faced a range of other challenges as well, from unemployment to gun violence.

“I think she’s got her work cut out for her,” he said. “But I would say there’s no one better suited to step in now than she.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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