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Cuomo leaves Kathy Hochul, New York’s first woman governor, holding some heavy baggage

August 10, 2021, 11:59 PM UTC

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned Tuesday morning following allegations that he had sexually harassed nearly a dozen women and obscured nursing home death tolls related to COVID-19. The three-term governor announced his intentions to step down within the next two weeks amid a swarm of calls for his resignation from powerful political figures like President Joe Biden and impending impeachment proceedings in the State Legislature.

The announcement marks the likely end of a political dynasty that began with Cuomo’s father, Mario, who also served as New York Governor for three terms. Both Cuomos had presidential ambitions but neither were able to make it out of Albany. 

It also marks the beginning of a new legacy for New York, before August ends, Kathy Hochul, 62, Cuomo’s current lieutenant governor, will become the first woman to lead the Empire State in its 244 year history. Hochul, who hails from Buffalo will also be the first governor from upstate New York in over 100 years. She will serve out the rest of Cuomo’s third term, which ends in December of 2022. 

Unlike her boss, Hochul is not a household name (many have had to learn how to pronounce it this week) and has largely remained in the background of Cuomo’s burning star since she assumed her role six years ago. Still, she’s known for keeping a grueling schedule of attending various ceremonies throughout New York State (she’s visited all 62 counties), supporting the small businesses of upstate New York, and helping elect down ballot allies into local office. 

“I agree with Governor Cuomo’s decision to step down. It is the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers,” Hochul said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”

In turn, Cuomo praised Hochul and said she would be able to pick up on important work around COVID-19 and its Delta variant immediately. “Kathy Hochul, my lieutenant governor is smart and competent,” he 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.”

Hochul has also been walking a fine line as she watched Cuomo grow more deeply entrenched in controversy. Sources say she has been discreetly building relationships with powerful New York legislators and agency heads for months, asking them for their advice and forging plans for her eventual takeover. She has reportedly not spoken to Cuomo since February, their last joint public appearance was at a briefing in Buffalo in January. 

Hochul, who chairs the National Lieutenant Governors Association and is known to support women who want to run for office, will likely be held partially responsible by state Republicans for Cuomo’s actions around nursing homes and the toxic workplace he allegedly created for the women who worked under him. 

“It’s impossible to believe that Ms. Hochul was unaware of this dynamic in the Executive Office. This is a natural line of inquiry, and we expect members of the news media to pursue it,” said Gerard Kassar, the chairman of the state’s Conservative Party, at a press conference.

But those close to Hochul say her leadership style could not be more different than Cuomo’s. She’s been described as down-to-earth, genial and generous with her time. She also publicly condemned Cuomo’s actions last week calling them “repulsive & unlawful,” adding, “I believe these brave women and admire their courage coming forward.”

Hochul began her career in politics as a Hamburg town councilmember followed by nearly four years as Erie County clerk, where she gained national attention for opposing then-governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. She then teamed up with another county clerk to create a plan to arrest undocumented immigrants who applied in their counties. In 2018, she claimed that she was representing the people of Erie and not her own views on the matter. 

Other factors have led progressive Democrats to worry about her reign as governor. She ran for office along four party platforms: Democratic, Independence, Conservative, and the Working Families Party, and received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association in 2012. 

But she’s proven herself as a powerful and rare politician who finds appeal across party lines. In 2011, she ran in the deeply red U.S. House special election in 2011 for New York’s 26th Congressional District and won. The seat, ironically, was vacated by Republican Representative Chris Lee, after reports surfaced that he was soliciting women on Craigslist.

While in Congress she fought hard to stop a bill that would privatize parts of Medicare, but lost her reelection bid the following year. From there she went to work for Buffalo-based M&T Bank as vice president of government relations until she was tapped by Cuomo to be his second in command in 2014. 

As lieutenant governor, she has proven herself to be a great fundraiser and defender of the role. “I really don’t appreciate having the role I’ve undertaken on behalf of the people of New York denigrated in such a way to say it’s simply a ribbon-cutting role,” she said in a 2018 debate. “I’m sorry, when a ribbon is cut, that means something good and new is happening. … I’ve been able to cut ribbons on new factories in places like downtown Buffalo, which was given up as lost and hopeless my whole life.”

Whether or not Hochul takes those skills on the campaign trail and runs for reelection next year remains to be seen, but she’s already brought on Meredith Kelly, who has worked for Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, and longtime campaign strategist Trey Nix on as advisers, indicating she’s getting ready for a fight.

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