New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandals will give New York its first female governor: the under-the-radar politician Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat.
Cuomo announced his resignation Tuesday, effective in two weeks. That came after an investigation by the state’s attorney general found he sexually harassed multiple women, and as impeachment proceedings against him were ramping up.
Now the state constitution says Hochul will take over for the remainder of his term, which ends in 2023. She could decide to run for the spot herself.
Hochul has been by Cuomo’s side for six years as his No. 2, but she’s largely been outside of his inner circle in part because the nature of her job is more ceremonial than political.
Popular among New York Democrats, Hochul has a résumé stacked with local, state and national political roles — and that résumé has been affected several times by men who behaved or would later behave badly. At the top of that list is Cuomo.
As the attorney general accused Cuomo of harassing 11 women, Hochul condemned her political ally: “I believe these women,” she said in a statement after the report was released. She initially stopped short of urging Cuomo to step down, but immediately after he did, she said in a statement she agreed with his decision. Her name was not mentioned at all in the report.
Hochul isn’t as well known downstate in New York City, but she’s a Democratic Party insider. And perhaps most important for New York Democrats, she’s controversy-free. She started her political career as an aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, an icon of New York politics, working in Erie County.
Later, Hochul represented in Congress a relatively conservative district in Western New York, though she supported liberal priorities such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
She won a special election to fill that seat, which was vacated by Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., who resigned in 2011 after he allegedly sent a flirtatious email and a shirtless photo of himself to a woman on Craigslist. It was a somewhat unlikely seat for a Democrat to win; Hochul was the first Democrat in four decades to do so.
When New York redrew its congressional districts after the 2010 census, making her district even more conservative, she lost her 2012 reelection bid to Republican Chris Collins. (Collins became a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, and he later resigned and pleaded guilty to insider-trading and false-statements charges).
In 2014, Hochul rebounded politically, joining Cuomo in his bid for a second term as his running mate. They won together again in 2018.
The reaction to Hochul’s elevation amid Cuomo’s downfall was largely, publicly positive. “I have full confidence that Lt Gov. Hochul will establish a professional and capable administration,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement, adding that he spoke to Hochul on Tuesday.
“I know our state is in good hands with Lt. Gov Kathy Hochul at the helm,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, who oversaw the investigation into Cuomo. When the governor’s race opens up in 2022, Hochul and James would both be serious contenders if they decided to run.
In New York, the lieutenant governor position is a “non-office,” in that it carries little power, said Basil Smikle, the former executive director of New York’s Democratic Party. Hochul used it to mobilize Democrats behind Cuomo’s agenda and court liberal Democrats who sometimes felt scorned by Cuomo. “She’s very thoughtful,” Smikle said, adding she will have an opportunity to bring in new voices to policymaking because of the relationships she’s built.
Hochul’s profile has grown among voters since the start of the pandemic, when Cuomo became a national star for his frank briefings on the coronavirus. She served as a television surrogate for him, defending the administration’s decisions on when to close schools and how to reopen them, its rules for maskless dining in restaurants and the state’s vaccine distribution strategy.
“If you follow what we’ve been doing since the very beginning, it just breaks my heart to know that the rest of the country, the entire United States could have had the same infection rate as us … 1% or less,” she said last fall, defending the Cuomo administration’s response while attacking Republicans at the federal level.
Before Cuomo’s scandals, her political future seemed destined to be his No. 2 again as he geared up to run for a fourth term next year.
This won’t be the first time New York diversified its leadership because of scandals.
In 2008, David Paterson became New York’s first Black governor after Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned over a prostitution scandal. At the time, Cuomo was the state’s attorney general.
While Paterson rose from lieutenant governor to serve out the rest of Spitzer’s term, it was Cuomo who became the dominant force in New York politics when the 2010 election rolled around. Now, Cuomo is the one who faces the harsh light of scandal.
And New Yorkers are going to get an entirely different tone of leadership.
“I imagine the [state] Senate and assembly would like to work with her [over Cuomo],” Smikle said. “She is a thousand times more collegial. They like her better.”