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Transcript: Hochul's first WAMC interview as New York governor

Kathy Hochul tours Plattsburgh DRI sites
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Kathy Hochul tours Plattsburgh DRI sites

New York Governor Kathy Hochul spoke with WAMC's Alan Chartock Monday morning for this week's episode of the Capitol Connection, which airs Thursday at 3 p.m. Here is a transcript of their conversation.

Governor Kathy Hochul, it is a great pleasure to welcome you to the Capitol Connection. I'm so glad you're here.

Thank you, Alan, I'm looking forward to a very interesting spirited, conversation. Overdue, I owed you one. But now we've got a lot to talk about after the budget. So we're going to have a great conversation.

So let me start by asking you what it's like to be the first female governor?

Well, thank you for that question. I try not to think about it much because I'm just acting like a governor period. But that is an extra dimension, which is really exciting for women out there. I actually shouldn't say just women, I can't tell you the number of fathers who come up to me with their little girls or their teenage daughters, who just really want to introduce them and say, this can be you. And I'm really cognizant of the fact that the responsibility I have is to not just succeed, but as women are often having to do in all their professions— they have to exceed expectations. And so I know that weight is on my shoulders. I am working hard every single day to do just that. So when I'm all finished, how many years to come, that people will look back and say there's no question that a woman can handle the most complicated, fascinating place in this country, but known for its rough and tumble politics. And not just my survival but my ability to thrive in this environment, really shows that women are tough enough to do it. But Alan, we govern differently, we govern with the toughness. But it's not about denigrating others or having winners and losers. It's about lifting others up and forging forth a coalition of leaders and people that are with me, and I've lifted up other elected officials and shared success with them. And I'm showing people you know what we can get the job done. But it doesn't have to be so personal and competitive, because people are sick and tired of us fighting each other. They want us to be fighting for them. So I've reestablished new relationships with the legislature, with the city of New York and other places. And I'm going to continue doing just that. So people will see when I'm all done, yep, women can do it. And they do it damn good.

There are so many questions I have out of what you just said. But let me start with this one. Some of that sounded like Andrew Cuomo was somewhere lurking in the background.

I don't know that to be the case. No, this is just being the first, you know, whether you're the first African American woman on the Supreme Court, you know, that everyone is watching you closely. I'm in that same position, regardless of who held these seats before. You know, we know we have a special responsibility to our gender to show that there are no barriers, we can be successful we're just as tough. We're just as smart. We're just as bold and visionary. And as results, people will make their determinations, but I feel very confident that we're doing the right things. And that's what I'm focused on, not what other people say. But I know the responsibly this job better than anybody. As Lieutenant Governor for many years, I learned this state, I've learned all the communities and their needs. I know the people and because of that, I'm really well positioned to lead forth. And we've done just that.

Governor Hochul, now that you have raised the issue of Lieutenant Governor, there is of course that question. You don't have a lieutenant governor right now. Yours quit or was pushed whatever, and isn't there anymore. What do you got in mind?

Well that was an enormously disappointing situation. But in the context of also simultaneously learning about a subway shooting, I was able to prioritize quickly get down to the site of the shooting, suspended other events, so I could be there with the people who were in hospitals, etc. So, I'm very good at compartmentalizing, Alan. So we knew we would have to deal with this. But in the immediacy, I had a focus on people that were hurting in Brooklyn at that moment and the anxiety and why I took the subway that day to show my confidence in it. So now we have to go through a process to find another replacement. And we'll be very thorough. I have a larger team to do vetting. As you know, last time, we were just in a—I was still lieutenant governor when we had to start this—small team and I wish it turned out differently. I wish we had more information at the time but knowing what I do now, yeah, we would have gone in a different direction for sure. But, I can handle this and I also know that people are not focused on it. They want me to name someone as soon as I can. But that'll be after extensive background, and the meantime Andrea Stewart-Cousins who I've spoken with and have a very strong relationship with. She is constitutionally the acting Lieutenant Governor. So the continuity of government continues, we don't miss a beat and we move forward.

Did you ask her if she wanted the job?

We haven't had that conversation yet. I just had to deal with the immediacy—I need to know that she's prepared, she's absolutely prepared. In fact, we are together just a few days ago, making an incredible announcement for the city of Mount Vernon, which is one of the most impoverished—the most African Americans in any city north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And for decades, their pleas for help were ignored. Their sewer and their sanitary sewers are disgusting, if you saw the documentaries about it. So I was with her just a couple days ago, announcing $150 million. It was the most powerful event I've done as governor to see the people who work so hard to make this happen, who never dreamed would happen until there was a governor who actually listened to them and got the job done. So I was just with her at that event, it was really important. The largest environmental justice project in the entire nation. Washington had representatives there. They're watching what we do. They know we're fixing a lot of racial disparities from the past. So Andrea and I had a chance to chat there. She's ready, willing, and a strong, strong ally. New Yorkers should feel comfortable at this time right now that we have it under control.

Do you have a criteria, for example, should the Lieutenant Governor, if you're white, be Black?

As everyone sees the administration I put together, I have the most diverse administration, you know, racially, sexual orientation, gender of any administration that has ever come before. So people know, I prioritize that, to make sure that all the voices of New Yorkers are really well represented, and are in positions of power and authority to make up for a lot of years where they were held back. And I feel that they can be the training ground for other individuals. So I will look at all the factors, Alan, but I'm not going to say that there's a litmus test as to what I'm looking for, other than someone who's got the heart of a public servant that I do, who wants to get out there and work just as hard as I did as lieutenant governor, and I got a lot of accolades for the fact that I just was unrelenting in my pursuit of serving the people in that capacity, which now is a record that I can talk about and go forward. So I want someone who's got that same sense of purpose, and really believes in the nobility of public service, and will never denigrate it and respect it. And I'm going to take the right amount of time to get that accomplished.

Governor Hochul, there is a bill to drop Lieutenant Governor Benjamin from the ballot. He's now quit, but of course, there's a question as to whether you're going to be saddled with him running with you when you when you're running for governor the next time. So what do you think about that? Do you think it's a good idea? Republicans, of course, are charging that it just a move to save you from political embarrassment? What do you think?

Yeah, first of all, I'm not thinking about what the Republicans are criticizing. They criticize the breakfast I have every day. So I don't really pay attention to Republican criticism.

What is it?

I have a power bar or an energy drink that sets me up for the whole day. That's how I power through every day, my great energy drink. So let's see what the Republicans have to say about that one. So what I'm going to do is take a look at whatever passes the legislature. This is obviously talked about and initiated by legislators, it's their responsibility if they choose to go down that path. There are some other options. They're limited, of course, I'm not being naive about it. But you know, there are some other options that are still on the table. But this too shall pass. Alan, as my mother used to always say, people thought we'd never get through our first few weeks of establishing myself and there were all kinds of threats from other candidates and would I ever raise enough money. I've had so many milestones that we've had to break through where people said this will be what takes her down, this will not be what has any effect on my ability to get through the election successfully. And as well as governed successfully.

Do you have a shortlist for Lieutenant Governor?

Well, it's down to 20 million people, Alan, it has to be a New Yorker. Well, actually less, I have to segregate out how many are over 18. So we've had a lot of people express interest. They believe that our administration is going to be transformative and that's what I wanted, when you see what we've accomplished thus far. Again, a lot of things that people said we just would not ever get done. And we're proving them wrong every day so I don't mind detractors. I don't mind people that are underestimating me once again, it's happened my entire life. And I say bring it on, we will prove by our leadership but also the results. And I know New Yorkers, Alan, they're not sitting at the kitchen table, worrying about whether a bill gets passed related to the lieutenant governor, they want a governor who just stops the drama, focuses on them not herself, and gets the job done. And I know that and that is why I feel empowered every single day to just get up and knock it out of the park.

OK, Governor, can we talk about the Buffalo Bills, there are some people who think that rebuilding the stadium is going to cost too much and New Yorkers shouldn't pay for it. The people who own the Bills don't even live in New York, what do you make of that?

Well, I encourage everybody to become New York residents if they're not already; it's a wonderful state. I'm happy to walk you through that. This was a major regional priority. They were hoping to have some focus on it before I ascended to this position. But there was a lot of other things going on. So the problem is that the clock was ticking because the stadium that they've been in, was built in 1972 — 100% public dollars, by the way, but again, that was a long time ago. They started having crumbling upper decks, and they knew that it would not be able to hold on for many more seasons. They were very anxious to either find out if they're going to have a new stadium, or look at other cities. And as a Western Yorker, we have lived with this sword of Damocles over our heads my entire life. Are they going to Toronto? Are they going to go to San Diego now? Or are they going to go to Florida? And those conversations are happening in earnest. And so I also knew that this is important to Western New York's identity. And when I'm in New York City, and people ask about I say, just like Broadway is innately part of New York City's image, the Buffalo Bills are part of Western New York's image. So the local legislators—Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Senator Tim Kennedy, our other legislators, Sean Ryan, Pat Burke, everybody knew this had to happen. So how do we make it happen? Alan, I don't want to spend too much time on because I'm sure you have other questions. But let me walk you through quickly. We also knew that there could not be an amount of money from the public that was excessive, they wanted the whole thing paid for by the taxpayers. That was the first position they had, or at least a billion dollars. We said no, that's not reasonable. Let's talk about the state's share. So we negotiated it down to $600 million, which we calculated, when you tax the income tax on the player salaries. And these are very highly paid individuals, God bless them, but they make a lot of money, we would have this paid off by year 22 of a 30 year agreement. I got them to stay for 30 years, which is extraordinary. But by the 22nd year the State of New York is made whole based on income, that if they left—and they would leave if this wasn't done. So it's offset by that. But I also said, the county negotiated their own share. So I was responsible for what is basically 43% of the deal, which is one of the lower contributions, again, the number is high because the cost of stadiums have gone up all over. And so a small market place like Buffalo, it is almost impossible to even think of a city that small, a region that small to have a major league team and it is the only team that plays in New York. So there was a lot of reasons again, a major regional asset. And when I'm in Buffalo, I hear all about why are we spending so much money on mass transit in the city? And what about the Long Island Railroad stations? And what about Penn Station? And what about this— believe me when I go anywhere Alan, anywhere in the state, I'm hearing about the other part of the state somehow getting more, so I feel like the mother of a big family and all the kids are competing, and I can handle it. This is important to Western York, Rochester, and Buffalo. And now we have a lot of major projects I'm really excited to talk about for the rest of the state, but we got the deal done. I'll take the conversation about at any time and just explain to people really what was behind it.

Let me ask you about your affiliations. Are you a Buffalo Bills fan?

I sure am. When I'm in New York City, especially after the last two seasons they've had, I can't tell you the number of— and when I'm walking the streets in Albany and I'm going out to a restaurant— people talk to me. Everybody shows me like a picture of the Buffalo Bills on their cell phone, everybody's showing me like "Yes, they play in New York, don't they?" This is New York's team now. We gotta love our Jets and Giants, of course we do. But we know where they play Alan. So this is a point of pride for New Yorkers, as the team's reputation continues to grow, and I believe they're going to hit the Super Bowl next year. Just like we spent millions and millions of dollars to help lift up Broadway and restaurants in New York City and Javits Center and conventions, Western New York and the North Country they don't benefit from that either. So let's just really recognize that this was an important dynamic. The pressure was on for timing because the stadium is crumbling, they needed clarity. And now we got the deal done for 30 straight years, they're going to be here in the State of New York. That is something to celebrate.

And so when it comes to baseball, who's your affiliation with?

You're just going to get me in trouble, aren't you?

That's what I'm trying to do here. Yes.

Well I will tell you, when you grow up in Western New York, for some reason, even though the Blue Jays are close, and our local team was affiliated with the Blue Jays. I go to a lot of Buffalo Bisons games—that's the minor league team that plays right in downtown Buffalo. So I go to those games. I was just there. They've also been affiliated with the Mets. So I learned a lot about the Mets when they were with the Mets. But a lot of Western New Yorkers are big Yankees fans. I don't want to say I’m torn between a couple of teams. But when I at the Mets games, I love the energy content. That fighting spirit you get in Queens. And I love that bravado that you get when you're at a Yankees game in the Bronx. And I've been to both, I just love sports— love our teams. I'm going to be out there, just like I'm on stages on Broadway celebrating that, I'm going to be out there warming up. I want you to know Alan, I take first pitches very seriously, the most stressful thing I've done as an elected official—and I'm not making this up because I can handle any other stress—was throwing out a first pitch at a Yankees game last summer when they actually played in Buffalo against the Blue Jays. I was so afraid I was going to throw it over just like Dr. Fauci did, because he had just done it a couple of weeks before and I thought I'm going to go viral, I'm going to get clobbered for this. My family was very anxious. I love sports. It's part of our identity. And we have amazing teams in our state, great fans too.

Great. Talk to me about ethics reform. Everybody holds their hands over their noses when it comes to New York State ethics as practiced by our politicians, I know you have some concerns about this. How do you think we can fix it?

Well, we've had a good start, there's always more to do. And I'll say that right from the get go. But we knew that we had to have an ethics commission—which is now known as JCOPE—one that work differently. And I found that there were a lot of reasons that they are held back from really being able to do their job. There were very high voting requirements before they can make a decision, you had to have eight of the members vote yes, instead of a majority. So that was a problem. Also, they weren't subject to the Open Meetings Law and FOIL, even the votes. I thought that was a problem so we got that changed in the budget. Also, we had improved training for staff and notice to victims, and a lot of information— we want deadlines on findings to be reported, and also how they're selected. When you think about the fact that this is a body, that's watching the chicken coop, and actually you're letting the foxes pick the members. I think the members are doing the best they can but they come from an environment where people don't have a lot of trust, when you have direct appointees coming from the people that are supposed to be observed and have their actions monitored by the Ethics Commission. So we talked about having at least another layer of detachment, I first wanted to have the law school deans or their designee be able to be involved in being members. But, I had to get this through the legislature. This had a lot of concerns raised about doing anything at all, which I said we have to deliver. And let's get something done, let's make a difference. And so now the recommendations on members can be put forth to the law school deans or their designee. So there's at least another screening process. You can't have such a close relationship, because we saw how that worked before. So there's a whole history there that I'm sure you've covered plenty of times, I know everybody else has. We have a lot to do to restore people's faith. But I said this when I first became governor on August 24. I said my number one job is to restore people's faith in government once again, and it won't happen overnight. I'm supposed to change an entire culture that has been embedded in Albany for a long time. But you know what, I'm out there trying every single day and it starts with the oversight commission which is the our new ethics and lobbying commission which will be ramping up—and I thank the legislators for their help on putting that together. But we have a way to go and it's not finished yet. We're not finished.

Talk to me, Governor, if you will, about budget negotiations behind closed doors. It used to be, of course, three men in a room. Now it's two women and a man in a room—that's some progress. I'm wondering whether there's a way to open this up a bit more?

Well, we put out our budget—I think it was released on January 18. Certainly, there's an opportunity for the legislature to have hearings on every part of it, those hearings should be reviewed by the public and the media. And they can have all the scrutiny they need during that, what is a first draft of a blueprint going forward. And we worked very hard on that, again, we had since the beginning, literally September, when we had to deal with hurricanes and I had to get 400 bills signed before the end of December and look at all kinds of issues. And then to work on our very first State of the State and a first budget, we got the job done. But we also know that we're in a compressed timeframe, I'm literally working on the next year's budget right now and our state the state right now to make sure that we have a thoughtful approach. Now we'll have the benefit of time for next year. So that is what we didn't have before. But I agree, I want to restore people's faith in the process, but we put out information most of it early on, so it can be studied review. But when it really gets down to the give and take of me representing the state, all New Yorkers, and I'm working with our legislators who represent their conferences and their interest and their constituents. We got the job done. And people thought we couldn't get it. You read all sorts of speculation and criticism, will I be up for the task? Or am I going to get rolled over? Will there be any policy in there? Because I wanted policy. Yes, we got the job done. We have a transformative budget, it is also going to be able to be fiscally responsible. And we're excited about some bond rating changes coming out surely. But we also have the ability to pay for our budget all the way through 2027. With very small, if any, out year gap. I was very concerned about not overspending just because we have a one-time surplus, you'll see in our budget, much of what it is, in terms of the high numbers, those are just this year alone, because we had one time money from the federal government. So we didn't invest in programs with that money that's going to be needing the resources going forward, because that would not be fiscally responsible. And so a lot of it was immediate rent relief, or immediate concern about people's utilities being behind because of the pandemic and all those other programs. So you'll see a different budget next year, because we're going to work within our means we are not raising taxes. And again, there was a lot of pressure to consider by some sectors of even my party, the far left side of the party wanted taxes raised. And I said, you know what, we have to set aside money in reserves, I have to be ready. If we end up a year from now two years down the road, if we get another pandemic, and the virus is vaccine resistant and we literally start over again, I have to be able to know that New York can take care of itself. We can pay for the vaccines that can pay for test kits, we'll be able to pay for all the extra staffing, pay for real support for nursing homes, because I can't count on the federal government to bail us out anymore. I just can't. So I needed to set aside money that other forces wanted to be spent this year. I said no, we know we have. Like any family has to balance their budget and think about the future. That's why this budget is transformative in its scope, and helping in health care and education and infrastructure and child care, the climate, we have such extraordinary measures to help protect our climate. But we're not going to do it in a way that cripples our ability to take care of ourselves and be ready for future challenges, whether it's hurricanes, whether it's viruses, or whatever comes my way. We've seen it all this year. And if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger, Alan and no one stronger than I am to tackle the future tasks and future challenges that come our way.

Glad to hear. Governor, on redistricting. Is this a fair process? I mean, you got two houses and a Democratic governor. Could they have done any more to help themselves win elections?

I saw the lines when they were done being drawn and were in the media. I said I need to be detached from this process, which is what was important for me. So I was not engaged in this. And yes, we can always do better in this space when I was a member of Congress one of the reasons I did not go back— I lost the second year by 1.4%— Alan, I'll get over that someday. But that was the most Republican conservative district in the state. It was redistricted a year ago. And the lines were made in my district even more conservative. So yes, there's always going to be a better way to do it— other models that other states, we saw California take a pass out in a different way a few years ago. I'm not sure that worked out so well. So we're going to keep working with our good government groups. And I brought them to the table very early on in my administration. And they're absolutely delighted about some of our early initiatives, again, responding to FOIA requests early, instead of burying them and hoping they go away and having people watch for them and be able to pull them out and have the second floor, say yes or no. We've been very thoughtful in how we can engage with groups who have ideas, the League of Women Voters and others, and I used to be president of my local league a long time ago. I know how important good government actually is. But as well as the perception of good government. People have to have faith in their government, or democracy breaks down, and that's not happening under my watch.

Was that a shot at Governor Cuomo?

I'm not taking shots at anybody.

Let's talk about bail reform. We only have a couple of minutes now. But a huge question here about the uptick in crime and gun violence. And it has caused consternation between members of your own party, in other words, Democrats. Should people who can't afford bail, should they, I know that you have had a little bit of a more centrist position on this than others have. So what do you make of it?

I think my position was the right one to take, that we had to do a lot of negotiations. Again, this was an issue that many people are very passionate about. And I will always stand by the fundamental premise behind bail reform. As Lieutenant Governor, I traveled to state in areas that were not welcoming, with this idea. I spoke about it at Chambers of Commerce and in places that people didn't understand it. And I said, there is no system of justice. If two people accused of the exact same offense. One goes, and again, this is a lower level offense is what I always used to say, lower level offense, one goes home to their job or back to school, their families take care of them because they have money. Someone without the resources, or the support system, they're sitting in jail, they could be sitting in Rikers Island, which is a hellhole. So that was unfair something needed to be done. But what we saw, that there were crimes that should have been bail eligible or remand eligible that were left out and I'm talking about some serious gun charges. So we added factors that judges should consider. We added more crimes back under bail eligible as opposed to those who are sent home without anything, any requirements that they have to meet a threshold. We changed some loopholes on discovery because the prosecutors were saying, listen, all of our cases, a lot of our cases are being dismissed, because of a technicality. And so we worked with prosecutors and public defenders brought them together at the same table, worked through this. So now the statewide District Attorney Association, said that they support what we've done to help deal with that. Repeat offenders. Alan, how often are we hearing about repeat offenders? Those people that are walking into stores and clearing the shelves, day after day after day, and they could do it, and only getting basically a parking ticket and appearance ticket as a result. And hate crimes, you wouldn't believe the battles over putting hate crimes in there. And I spoke at a hate crimes rally just a couple of days ago, literally the day after the shooting in Brooklyn. I went out there with Asian groups and Jewish groups and said we toughened the law, we have your back we are fighting for you. But on the other hand, I'm going to continue to protect individual rights. We don't want to head toward mass incarceration. And that's why we liberated the whole cannabis process to give people in those communities that have been hard hit before an opportunity to start getting some of the proceeds. So it's a very balanced approach.

I don't want to interrupt but I want to say I only have a minute left and I want to ask you, should ex-President Trump be prosecuted?

That's a curveball. We were talking about the state budget. In my judgment crimes were committed. Yes.

Well, that's pretty impressive. Our guest has been New York Governor Kathy Hochul. Governor Hochul I really appreciate your coming on. You are really terrific to do it. Thanks so much for joining us.

All right. Thank you. Talk to you soon. Bye-bye.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.