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5 challenges facing Hochul as she becomes NY's 57th governor

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a vaccination

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a vaccination site at Jones Beach in Wantagh on Jan. 21. Credit: Newsday via Getty Images/Raychel Brightman

ALBANY — When Kathy Hochul becomes New York’s 57th governor, she’ll be faced immediately with an array of challenges.

She’ll need to make a break with her soon-to-be-former boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who said he’ll resign, effective Aug. 24, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations and the threat of impeachment.

And she’ll have to take the reins of many governmental functions, continuing some and changing others. The Long Island power grid, marijuana, eviction moratoriums, public transit and the Buffalo Bills are just some of the policy decisions she’ll be handed.

Here’s a look at five challenges greeting the incoming governor.

Set a new tone

Hochul is set to take over from a governor who was known for his bullying style. Even if Cuomo completed much of his agenda, he did so in a top-down approach that left him almost no allies in the 213-member State Legislature — which is why they had the votes to potentially impeach him.

Setting a new tone will be crucial — not only regarding sexual harassment and the workplace, but also in working with other political players.

"The Legislature has got to believe she is going to work with them and they won’t go through the same bullying they did with Andrew Cuomo and his attempts to usurp their authority," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant. "She’s got to portray herself as opposite in style from her predecessor — cooperative and congenial, instead of dictatorial."

To many progressives, Hochul "is seen as being loyal to the governor — which makes her job a challenge," said Christina Greer, a Fordham University political scientist.

Hochul sought to distance herself immediately from Cuomo in her news conference Wednesday.

She noted it was well-known in politics she wasn’t close to Cuomo, promised turnover in key staff positions and vowed a new environment.

"At the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will describe my administration as a toxic work environment," Hochul said.

Responding to COVID-19

New York is in better shape than other states, but staying on top of the pandemic still rates as job No. 1 for its elected leaders.

Hospitalization and infection rates are up sharply. The delta variant of the virus is spreading. The rate for New Yorkers fully vaccinated is still below 60%. Schools are grappling with figuring out their own mask and distancing policies.

Hochul will have to oversee many decisions about all of these — as well as how to work with county health departments, which Cuomo largely sidelined as he took sole control over almost all pandemic decisions.

Which points to another issue here: To what extent will Hochul keep authority within the executive branch of government at the exclusion of the legislative branch?

Cuomo took control early on in the pandemic so he would be able to make snap decisions as infections skyrocketed. But over time, lawmakers criticized his style as "one-man rule."

Staffing

State government is a sprawling enterprise with thousands of employees. The overwhelming number of them will stay right where they are, even with a new governor.

But Hochul will face key decisions in filling out a cabinet of commissioners and communications officials.

It’s all but certain the inner circle of Cuomo’s will go when he does. Hochul will want to bring in her people for senior positions — the people to be with her on a daily basis on the "2nd floor," political parlance for the location of the governor’s offices inside the State Capitol.

For example, will Hochul retain Dr. Howard Zucker as state health commissioner? He has the hands-on experience with all of New York’s pandemic response. But he also has the baggage of being the face of Cuomo’s controversial nursing home policies.

When Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in 2008, David Paterson brought in his own core of 2nd floor advisers, but largely left commissioners in place to make a smooth transition.

A new lieutenant governor

In 2008, Paterson won a court fight giving a governor the authority to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. Who will Hochul select?

Hochul’s decision will involve not only selecting someone to do the job and support the administration but also perhaps someone who could help her chances to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year in what’s expected to be a wide-open campaign.

She’s promised a decision within two weeks.

Undo or continue Cuomo initiatives

Cuomo will leave with an array of initiatives in limbo, some legislation facing deadlines and some facing opposition. Hochul will have a chance to make change, if she wants.

For instance, will she undo Cuomo’s plan to restructure management of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority? Or his rebuilding plan for the area around Penn Station? What about transit service problems?

Sheinkopf said Hochul would be wise to put together her own MTA panel, not only to address lingering issues but also because downstate transit "impacts a region she’d need to win" a 2022 gubernatorial primary.

Another: What to do about the stalled rent relief program and the state’s eviction moratorium?

Cuomo had problems setting up the program meant to help those who couldn’t pay rent during the pandemic. Very little of the $2.4 billion in federal aid New York received had gone out to tenants and landlords by the start of August and yet the eviction moratorium ends Aug. 31.

Some legislators already are proposing extending the moratorium another two months. Hochul will have to determine whether that’s necessary, if the flow of money can’t be improved.

Marijuana and online sports betting regulations aren’t sorted yet. The Buffalo Bills want $1.4 billion in taxpayer funds to build a new stadium.

And some lawmakers want Hochul to revisit the contract between the Long Island Power Authority and PSEG Long Island; Cuomo had intervened in contract talks, resulting in a renewed agreement between the entities. Some legislators still want LIPA to become a fully public utility without a private grid operator.

Finally, by the end of the year, she’ll have one important decision that won’t have to be negotiated with the Legislature: She’ll get to appoint a new judge to New York’s highest court, the first non-Cuomo selection in more than a decade.

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