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COVID, Economy, Scandal Residue Among Challenges Hochul Faces As Incoming Governor

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at the re-opening of Coney Island. Hochul, who will be governor when Andrew Cuomo’s resignation becomes effective Aug. 24, said she’s ready for the job. (Photo: Bill Miller)

WINDSOR TERRACE — Kathy Hochul, who will become the next governor of New York on Aug. 24, will have to hit the ground running as she will be faced with several daunting challenges as soon as she takes office.

Chief among them is getting a handle on COVID-19, specifically the Delta variant, which is threatening to return the state to the days of mask mandates, business shutdowns, quarantine directives, and other preventive measures.

Hochul said she is not ruling out the idea of instituting vaccine mandates. 

“I’ll be looking at the possibility of mandates, but not saying they’re in or out until I know all the facts,” she told CNN on Aug. 15.

During her first press conference since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Aug. 10 announcement that he was resigning, Hochul sought to reassure New Yorkers that she is ready.

“I want people to know that I’m ready for this. It’s not something we expected or asked for, but I am fully prepared to assume the responsibilities as the 57th governor of the state of New York,” Hochul told reporters the day after Cuomo said he would be stepping down.

Hochul, who hails from suburban Buffalo, said she will likely pick a lieutenant governor from New York City.

“Even though I’ve spent thousands of hours in New York City and I’m well familiar with the challenges, I want someone who lives there,” she told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

As the state’s chief executive, Hochul will be tasked with rebuilding the state’s COVID-battered economy and dealing with messes left behind by departing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said Brian Browne, a political science professor at St. John’s University.

“I would say COVID is number one. The numbers aren’t looking good. She really has to dive head-on into COVID and get more people vaccinated,” Browne said. “Cleaning up the New York state economy is important, too. But they’re all intertwined. The economy is linked to COVID. We have to bring jobs back, bring businesses back. I think also keeping people from fleeing New York State is a priority. She has to make New York the Empire State again.”

Hochul is inheriting messes from her predecessor that she will have to handle. A COVID-related nursing home scandal hangs over Albany like a cloud in the waning days of the Cuomo Administration. Attorney General Letitia James released a report in January which found that Cuomo undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents by as much as 50%.

And Hochul will have to clean house and eliminate the “toxic” work environment in the executive chamber, Browne said.

The report issued on Aug. 3 by the state attorney general that led to Cuomo’s resignation detailed a work environment created by the governor that was rife with sexual harassment claims and intimidating threats of retaliation against those critical of him.

As New York’s first female governor, Hochul is well-positioned “to start opening up the windows, letting the sunlight in, and really cleaning up the mess that we call the New York State Capitol,” Browne said.

Hochul indicated that she’s getting ready to make a clean sweep. “There will be turnover,” she promised. 

One of Hochul’s first tasks Browne noted, should be to introduce herself to New Yorkers across the state. 

“She has to politically establish herself. She has been traveling the state and she has been elected statewide already, but in many ways, she’s an unknown entity,” he said.

However, Browne noted, the incoming governor does have experience in government at the local, state, and federal levels.

“I think she’s [got] a clean slate. She’ll have a honeymoon period,” he said. “The fact that she’s the first woman governor makes her a trailblazing glass ceiling breaker, which I think will help. She’s not new to politics. There will be a learning curve, but it’s not like she’s a complete rookie.”

Hochul, who grew up one of six children in an Irish-Catholic family, holds pro-abortion views. She was endorsed by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) when she ran for Congress 10 years ago and was a supporter of the Reproductive Health Act, the 2019 state law that expanded abortion access in New York.

Hochul earned her law degree from Catholic University and started her career in public service as a member of the town board in Hamburg, New York, where she grew up.

She served as Erie County clerk and won a special election to Congress in 2011. A year later, she ran for re-election and lost. In 2014, she was picked by Cuomo to be his running mate when he ran for re-election as governor.