'I’m up for the challenge': Hochul discusses her first two months in office and what's next
ALBANY - In her still new office on the second floor of the state Capitol, Gov. Kathy Hochul has a large framed sign across from her desk from 1917 that encouraged New Yorkers to support a woman's right to vote.
The measure passed that year, making New York the first state on the East Coast at the time to grant women full suffrage.
And the poster is a daily reminder of another historic moment: On Aug. 24, Hochul became the first woman to serve as New York governor when she succeeded Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned amid scandal.
"It is incredibly humbling," Hochul said in her office Monday in an interview with the USA TODAY Network New York.
Hochul said she meets moms and little girls and makes a point to tell the girls: "You can be a governor, too. Because this is a woman governor.' They don’t know what a governor is, but that hits me. Because my presence here is sending a message that there’s nothing a little girl can’t do."
With a little more than two months on the job, Hochul has sought to be a calming, steady hand for state government after the tumultuous final months of Cuomo's 11-year tenure, which ended with a slew of sexual harassment allegations against him.
And she's done that: The Buffalo native has cleaned house of most of Cuomo's top appointees, vowed a new era of transparency in state government and has continued to tour the state with the same packed schedule she had for seven years as Cuomo's lieutenant governor.
Polls have shown she is gaining popularity, and she's avoided any major missteps that could have easily derailed her early days.
That's not to say she hasn't faced obstacles or stayed clear of controversial measures: She installed a mask mandate in schools on her first day on the job and stuck to a vaccine mandate for all health care workers that led to 3% of the workforce to be laid off.
Her immediate goal, she said, was to bring stability to state government and rebuild relationships with state agencies, local leaders and business across New York.
The hope, she said, was "to stop the drama of the day on what’s coming out now. People in this building, in state government, just wanted a reprieve from all of that. And they wanted to know that they were going to be working in a culture that was very different."
Even if she has steadied the tumult left in Cuomo's wake, Hochul's challenges ahead are immense.
She'll need to navigate the uncertain waters when vaccines become available for children and whether she will impose a vaccine mandate in schools.
Hochul will have to put together a robust agenda for 2022 that can win over the Democratic-led Legislature. And she'll have to address New York's worker shortage while trying to revive an economy in New York City and upstate that is struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels.
She will also have to do it all amid running for a full, four-year term next year against Attorney General Letitia James, who helped bring down Cuomo and announced her run for governor Friday, and a host of other candidates wanting to be the next governor.
Hochul shrugs off the competition, citing her lengthy career in politics. She quickly notes this will be her 13th election.
"I’m not fazed by elections," she said matter-of-factly.
"I understand politics more than most. What I can do is govern with strength and compassion and heart and vision. And I believe that the voters will reward that on Election Day."
Steadying state government
When Cuomo announced Aug. 10 he would resign rather than face a certain impeachment trial in the Legislature, Hochul was thrust into a maelstrom.
Cuomo prided himself on being a pugilist politician who governed with a heavy hand, perhaps most apparent during the pandemic when all decisions on COVID testing, safety mandates and vaccines came from him and his tight cadre of advisers.
Hochul was not one of them, allowing her to distance herself from the scandals — which also included undercounting COVID deaths in nursing homes — that led to Cuomo's downfall.
Instead, Hochul, 63, used her time as lieutenant governor since 2014 to build her own alliances across New York, often having a half dozen public events a day and doing the retail politics in small communities that Cuomo regularly eschewed.
"My knowledge of state government and also of local government has really helped in this situation," she explained. "So there was no sense of ‘what do we do now.’ It was like I know what to do now. I need to stabilize government. I need to calm everybody down and walk in the door and let them know it’s a whole new day."
Hochul will have to demonstrate that all year: Her political opponents are already hinting they will try to tie her to Cuomo's tarnished legacy.
“The culture that created, enabled, and empowered Andrew Cuomo and his administration, and others like him, is still there," New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said Sept. 28 when he announced an exploratory committee to run for governor.
"Andrew Cuomo’s Albany is still there."
To Hochul, it's a new Albany — one she wants to convince voters of.
"We’ve shown there are no barriers to anyone achieving what they want to achieve. And I’ll have to demonstrate that through an election. I’ll get through an election; we will be successful, and we’ll hopefully have many terms because I believe people are ready for a whole change."
What's next for Hochul's agenda
With a COVID vaccine likely available soon to children aged 5-11, Hochul could face pressure to enact a vaccine mandate in schools. She said she did so for health care workers to ensure the safety of staff and patients.
It was the most divisive decision she made since taking office.
"People wanted me to cut slack, have a testing opt out," she explained. "Why can’t we do this? I said no, because you could test negative one day, contract it the next day and spread it to a patient, and you’re not going to know for another week. It was just too risky for me."
She said it's too soon to know whether she will require COVID vaccines in schools, saying she would first like to see how well it does on a voluntary basis with broad access to the shots in schools and through pediatricians.
"I'm not averse to it," she said of a vaccine mandate. "But I also believe in local power. I just don’t want such heavy-handed government from Albany anymore. I was on the receiving end of that the most of my life."
Hochul started her elected political career in 1994 as a member of the Hamburg Town Board, then she was elected Erie County clerk in 2007. She won and lost a seat in Congress, then signed on with Cuomo in his second term.
She makes working with local officials a hallmark of her tenure, which has largely been a record of being a moderate upstate Democrat. In fact, she's the first upstate governor since the 1920s.
Cuomo was often at odds with municipalities; Hochul wants to be a partner, and her schedule is still full of events and ribbon cuttings that often might be left more to a lieutenant governor.
But Hochul said it's still important for her to visit communities large and small.
"I’m just redefining the role. It’s much more engaged. Because for me, I need to know what people are thinking," Hochul said.
She will give her first State of the State in January, then look to have a budget deal by the April 1 deadline.
"This will be a chance for them to see my vision for the state, but it won’t be my vision alone. It will be my vision in collaboration with speaking to elected officials and stakeholders and businesses," she said. "It will be their ideas that come forth. And then they’ll feel part of it."
Hochul said the state needs to revisit the $8 billion a year it spends on economic development to ensure it is being spent wisely and producing jobs — which it has failed to do on a grand scale.
She supports the $700 million a year that goes out through regional economic councils to communities, but said the awards were too controlled by the governor's office.
"You have to prioritize how the money is spent, and the regional economic councils were a strong vehicle to do that, but it then ultimately came to the second floor," she said, referring to the location of the governor's office in the Capitol.
As a western New Yorker, she backs using public funding to build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills or upgrading the current one. There is a study being done by the state to determine the best options, which she said will be released in the coming days.
"The Buffalo Bills are an important part of the western New York identity. And I will do nothing to change that," she said.
Another goal: Getting the state's recreational marijuana program underway after it was stalled for months under Cuomo.
But Hochul reiterated she's up for the challenges: both in office and in running for her own term.
"I have something to prove. Women are held to a higher standard. At every single rung of my career, I’ve been underestimated, told I can’t do it. Just as women are in various professions," she explained.
"And I have a responsibility to not just hit that standard, but surpass it."
Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
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