ALBANY, N.Y. — The resignation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and ascension of his low-profile lieutenant, Kathy Hochul could scramble the field of Democratic hopefuls eyeing a gubernatorial run next year.
Hochul’s incumbency, beginning in just 12 days, will dramatically alter the 2022 race for governor, potentially forestalling runs by many rising Democrats who had grown interested in taking out the scandal-scarred Cuomo.
Hochul, should she run, will have less than a year to build a record of accomplishments to show off to primary voters, close pathways to prospective rivals within the party, and stand up a campaign apparatus with an eye toward the general election. But others who had envisioned defeating an accused sexual harasser would instead face a history-making woman.
Hochul, 62, hinted at a run Wednesday, leaving open-ended when her term would end during her first public appearance in Albany since Cuomo said he’d step down. She appeared poised to build her own agenda, declaring, “I have a vision.”
New York Democrats are already starting to pencil Hochul in.
“Knowing Kathy Hochul as I know her, I would be as surprised as one could be if she would decide, after becoming the governor, that she didn’t want to keep the job,” Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chair and formerly ardent supporter of Cuomo, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Jacobs said he has not yet spoken “in direct terms” with Hochul about her plans for 2022, and implored Democrats to cool their heels. Any one trying to jump into a primary during the tumultuous transition period would send some “not particularly tasteful” messaging about personal ambition rather than what’s good for the state, he said.
“Everybody is impatient when patience is exactly what’s needed,” Jacobs said. “People are going to have to see how she does over the next two and a half, three months. And then people can determine whether or not they think that they have an appropriate rationale to make a challenge or not.”
A Hochul candidacy could portend a different slate of candidates interested in running than if Cuomo were on the ballot, or give advantage to others who were already thinking about it. Progressives are looking to potential gubernatorial bids from women such as Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Westchester), popular Democrats from the state’s Congressional delegation — or even Attorney General Tish James, whose devastating report about Cuomo’s alleged misconduct led to the governor’s planned resignation.
Hochul has served as a county clerk, member of Congress and, for the past six-plus years, lieutenant governor. But she is still an unknown quantity to much of the broader public, due in part to her personal political style and a conscientious effort by the Cuomo administration to limit her portfolio and profile.
Hochul, in the past, has staked out moderate policy positions that angered the left.
Fourteen years ago, she vowed to have undocumented immigrants arrested if they applied for a driver’s license in the offices she controlled as Erie County clerk, going out of her way to oppose the proposal by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer. She walked that back in 2018, about three years after becoming lieutenant governor.
Since taking statewide office, any divergence from Cuomo on hot-button issues has often been tough to decipher. She notably has come around, as did Cuomo, on legalizing adult-use marijuana.
“For the left, I always thought, be careful what you wish for. Gov. Kathy Hochul is not more progressive than a Gov. Andrew Cuomo,” said one longtime Democratic consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity due to their ties to multiple New York elected officials.
“It’s possible that, in hopes of getting party support, unions [and] donors, we see a new Kathy Hochul,” said the consultant, who has advised both progressives and moderates. “But it’s going to be very difficult to primary a sitting woman governor who‘s just replaced someone who resigned because of allegations of sexual harassment.”
Most urgently, Hochul will have to quickly staff up, name a lieutenant governor, beef up on policy advisers — and purge some remnants of the Cuomo administration. She said Wednesday she will clear out aides who were featured prominently in his administration and, as such, the attorney general’s report.
“No one who is named with doing anything unethical in the report will remain in my administration,” Hochul vowed to reporters at a press conference Wednesday in the state Capitol.
Hochul’s decisions may even have downstream effects for other elected offices. It could also matter for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is on the ballot next year and could face a primary challenge from the left.
Some previous governors have tried to maintain a regional balance between upstate and downstate with their lieutenant governors, and Hochul has additionally promised to make racial and gender diversity a top consideration in her staffing decisions.
She also comes to power at a trying time for the state, given the ongoing risk posed by the pandemic — and the Delta variant in particular — gun violence, another abnormal school year and long-standing concerns about the state’s fiscal condition.
That could provide her the opportunity to re-establish her political profile now that she is no longer in the shadow and introduce herself, to both voters and donors, on her own terms.
“I think it’s clear that Governor Cuomo and I have not been close, physically or otherwise,” she said.
Recent examples with parallels for Hochul to draw upon in New York are scarce, but one could be that of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, once a little-known upstate Democratic moderate who was unexpectedly elevated to her current position in the Senate. Gillibrand has since evolved as the party shifted left, repeatedly won elections and built a national profile.
Like Hochul, the timing of Gillibrand’s ascent in 2009 came somewhat unexpectedly. Then-Gov. David Paterson — himself a former lieutenant governor elevated by the resignation of Eliot Spitzer — decided to appoint Gillibrand to fill the seat left by Hillary Clinton, who became secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
Several high-profile Democratic politicians contemplated running against Gillibrand in the 2010 special election, but none ultimately did — a sign the incumbency label matters, even for newcomers. Gillibrand cruised to victory in the primary and then a November general election.
“Kirsten did the work and was able to build true relationships,” said Gregory Smiley, Gillibrand’s 2018 campaign manager. “Kathy Hochul has an opportunity to do that, and in order to do that she’ll have to build out her circle with people who are vetted and have a track record of leading through partnership, rather than confrontation.”
Hochul’s political record does have some vulnerabilities that other contenders, Democrat or Republican, could seize on.
Her brief congressional career came to a close when she narrowly lost to Republican Chris Collins — since disgraced — in 2012 after the district lines were redrawn in the GOP’s favor. More recently, she ran 12 points behind Cuomo when she beat 2018 Democratic primary challenger Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate. Williams, a progressive, painted her as little more than a mouthpiece of the governor and his agenda.
Hochul will also have to quickly fortify her established relationships with the Democrat-controlled Legislature ahead of a session with electoral implications.
There are existing ties there, especially because Hochul has endorsed — and for some, personally mentored — a large chunk of the newer members.
Every seat in the Senate and Assembly will be up for election, and many vulnerable Democratic lawmakers will likely be staving off primary challenges from the party’s ascendent left wing or Republicans looking to chip away at their supermajorities, a compelling incentive for Hochul and the Legislature to devise a path forward together.
“Andrew Cuomo had his heavy hand on a lot of the Democratic Party apparatus in New York, and this should allow for more voices to gain more prominence, and that’s a good thing,” the state Senate’s Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris (D-Queens) said.
Bill Mahoney contributed to this report.