'No blindsiding,' Hochul vows, as she takes New York's helm

Marina Villeneuve
Associated Press

Albany, N.Y. — Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York on Tuesday, vowing to bring new energy and urgency to solving immense challenges as she took over an administration criticized for inaction during Andrew Cuomo's distracted final months in office.

Hochul, a Democrat and former member of Congress from western New York, took the oath of office just after midnight in a brief, private event overseen by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore.

At another, ceremonial swearing-in Tuesday morning at the New York State Capitol, Hochul promised a “fresh, collaborative approach” in state government.

“I want people to believe in their government again. It’s important to me that people have faith,” she said.

She noted that she'd already begun speaking with other Democratic leaders who have, for years, complained about being shut out of key decisions and bullied by Cuomo, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“There’ll be no blindsiding, there’ll just be full cooperation,” Hochul said.

Hochul also thanked her “big Irish Catholic” family, including her two children and Bill Hochul, her husband of over 30 years. Her immediate family sat in the front row, wearing masks and spaced slightly apart. Hochul, her daughter and daughter-in law wore white to honor suffragists who fought for voting rights.

Over the next few months, Hochul, who was a little-known figure as lieutenant governor, will have an opportunity to reshape the way power works in Albany, where Cuomo dominated decision-making for years before being felled in a sexual harassment scandal.

For generations, it's been said that all of the real decisions in the state government were made by “three men in a room,” the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.

Now, for the first time in state history, two of those three — Hochul and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins — are women. Only the state Assembly is led by a man, Speaker Carl Heastie.

Hochul met with those two leaders Tuesday morning before making a public address at 3 p.m. Both Stewart-Cousins and Heastie emerged saying they appreciated her “collaborative” tone, and that they were ready to work with her to get out COVID-19 relief funds more quickly to New Yorkers in need.

Cuomo left office at 12 a.m, two weeks after he announced he would resign rather than face an impeachment battle that seemed inevitable after a report by independent investigators — overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James — concluded he had sexually harassed 11 women.

On his final day in office, Cuomo released a pre-recorded farewell address in which he again said he was innocent and portrayed himself as the victim of a “media frenzy.”

Hochul takes over with the state still dealing with crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the coming weeks, she is expected to make decisions about whether to mandate masks for children returning to school — something she's already said she favors.

She will be under pressure to get federal rent relief money into the hands of tenants. Little of the $2 billion set aside by the federal government to help New Yorkers pay off rent debt has been distributed, to date, in the state. Thousands face the possibility of eviction if the state allows protections to expire next week, at a time when a Supreme Court ruling has called into question the legal underpinnings of a state law shielding tenants.

Hochul promised Tuesday to make getting that money out a top priority, saying people shouldn't have to “wait one second longer” for assistance. She also pledged quick action to get money distributed from a new $2 billion state fund intended to benefit unauthorized immigrants who didn't qualify for other types of federal pandemic relief aid.

“The money’s there. These people are not eligible for other forms of assistance and they’re hurting and they're part of the New York family," Hochul said.

Former Gov. David Paterson, who, like Hochul, unexpectedly became governor when his predecessor resigned, said she will need to restore faith in the office.

“There’s going to be some pressure on Gov. Hochul, as there was on me, to kind of restore the values and to restore the conduct and the decorum that bespeaks a governor," Paterson said.

She'll also have to work quickly. Hochul has already said she intends to run for a full term next year, and will have just months to establish herself as the favorite before a spring Democratic primary.

In the meantime, she'll be building an administration — a task that began in the first minutes of Tuesday with the oath of office, hours ahead of the restaging of the event for television cameras in mid-morning.

DiFiore administered the oath in the Capitol in front of a stone fireplace, atop which were placed family pictures.

Hochul, her husband and DiFiore entered the room wearing masks, taking them off when the ceremony began. Hochul placed her hand on a Bible held by her husband, a former federal prosecutor and current general counsel for Buffalo-based food service and hospitality company Delaware North.

Hochul signed a pile of papers — including the oath — using a set of 10 pens dated “August 24, 2021,” while her family stood behind her looking on. She then thanked individual members of her staff, and told them she’d see them tomorrow before she left the room.