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51% #1675: Kathy Hochul And Being The "First Female"

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul tours Plattsburgh DRI sites
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Kathy Hochul became New York's 57th — and first female — governor on August 24.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul was sworn in as the state’s 57th governor on August 24. Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, resigned under pressure, facing a likely impeachment vote after a state attorney general’s report found he sexually harassed multiple women, including state employees. In this episode of 51%, we discuss New York’s first female governor, and take a look at what’s in store for Kathy Hochul. We also speak with former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift about her experience being her state’s first female governor.

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You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and experiences. Thank you for joining me, I’m Jesse King.

We’re talking women in politics today. Obviously, Kamala Harris made headlines earlier this year by becoming the country’s first vice president. But this kind of history is still being made at the state level: on August 24, Kathy Hochul was sworn in as the 57th governor — and first female governor — of New York.

The ceremony took place two days before Women's Equality Day, and to mark the occasion Hochul wore white, in a nod to the women's suffrage movement. Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, resigned under pressure, facing a likely impeachment vote after a report by State Attorney General Letitia James found he sexually harassed multiple women, including state employees. Now, Cuomo has denied inappropriately touching anyone, and we’ve discussed some of the allegations against him on this show. But today I’d like to focus on Hochul — namely, who is she, what’s in store for her, and what can New Yorkers expect from their first female governor?

To many New Yorkers, Hochul is relatively unknown, despite a decades-long political career. She’s a Buffalo native, and got her start with the Hamburg Town Board in the 1990s. She served in Congress representing the western, 26th District of New York from 2011 to 2013, and she’s been lieutenant governor since 2015. But her relationship with then-Governor Cuomo was frayed, and she largely stayed out of the limelight that came with his inner circle.

On her first day in office, Hochul made a point to introduce herself to New Yorkers, saying she wants to help people believe in government again.

"You'll fine me to be direct, straight-talking, and decisive," said Hochul. "I will not be deterred, and I'm willing to be bloodied and marred in the pursuit of doing what's right for the people of this great state."

Hochul has already instructed the state Department of Health to issue a mask mandate in schools, and in response to the overwhelming scandal that prompted her taking office, she said she will overhaul New York’s sexual harassment training for state employees.

To learn more about her, I spoke with reporter Josefa Velasquez during the transition. Velasquez is a state capitol reporter for The City, a digital news platform in New York City, and she’s been reporting on state politics since 2013.

What has Hochul's political career been like until now?

Her job as Lieutenant Governor is really sort of ceremonial. So that involves, like, her traveling the state, doing things that, quite frankly, the governor doesn't want to do. So, you know, going to talk to a group of Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, going to the opening of a local business talking to union leaders. My favorite one is this appearance she had at a California Pizza Kitchen that involves union members – like, a lot of her experience has been her sitting in a car, traveling around the state. But that had its own benefits. I mean, she has been quietly amassing power and making relationships that Andrew Cuomo, frankly, didn't do. She's quite the people person, which again, is not something Andrew Cuomo’s known for. So as she's doing this – I mean, she's from Buffalo, New York City is a very far place from Buffalo. You're closer to Cleveland than you are to Manhattan, if you live there. So she is going to be facing a lot of things as she comes into this new role.

What are some of the issues that she's going to be facing right away as governor?

She is facing something that I don't think any other governor in the history of New York has dealt with. I was talking to someone yesterday who mentioned that David Patterson – who was Elliot Spitzer’s lieutenant governor, and inherited a major financial crisis in 2008 – that pales in comparison to everything that Kathy Hochul is going to be dealing with. For starters, we have a pandemic going on. The new numbers of COVID cases are rising. We're seeing new cases that we haven't seen in weeks and months. The number of COVID cases now is similar to what it was in the spring. There's an increase recently in hospitalizations from COVID. She's gonna have to deal with, you know, a relatively stagnant vaccination rate, and figuring out how to get the remainder of New Yorkers vaccinated.

And then there's other policy issues like the looming housing crisis that we might be facing in New York. A week after Kathy Hochul becomes governor, New York's eviction moratorium expires. She has seven days to figure out what to do, talking to lawmakers, talking to landlords, talking to tenant advocates, to figure out how do we fix this eviction moratorium – that the Supreme Court just partially deemed unconstitutional. With that, is also a really dysfunctional rental assistance program that has not distributed much of the money that's been allocated, and if that money doesn't get used up by the end of September, it goes back to the federal government. So that is all a lot to deal with, in you know, your first month coming into office. You also have to think about the fact that she is inheriting a state that's been besieged by scandal. She has to come into this role and rebuild trust within New York State government, with the people of New York, who've seen now the last few governors sort of implode. So she has a ton of work ahead of her.

How much do we know about Hochul’s stances on broader issues?

I don't think we necessarily know that much. I mean, she propelled into sort of politics when she was at Erie County executive, and she was anti-immigrant. She had stated that if New York allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, she would call the police on them. And that stance changed in 2014, when she ran as Andrew Cuomo’s number two, and she's become much more progressive as the Democratic Party has moved leftward. It remains to be seen, like whether or not she embraces the more progressive wing of the party, or she governs more as a moderate.

Aside from the obvious – Hochul has said that her work environment will never be described as “toxic,” and that any staffers named in the attorney general’s report won’t be working for her – but aside from that, how can we expect Hochul to lead differently from Cuomo?

I mean, right off the bat, she says that she's going to govern completely different from Cuomo. She's doing things that the governor I don't think has done period. That includes meeting with the New York City mayor, who has had a famously tumultuous relationship with Cuomo. She's already met with the New York City public advocate who ran against her in 2018. So right off the bat, she's trying to repair some of these relationships. And it’s so funny, someone mentioned to me the other day that like, when things get really terrible, that's when women get brought in to lead and fix things. And there will be some sort of honeymoon period for her. Everyone wants her to succeed at this point, like, no one is sort of actively rooting against her in a way that they were actively rooting against Cuomo, because there was so much animosity towards him. She has more interpersonal relationships with people than her predecessor.

Hochul has already said she plans to run for a full term in 2022. What does that field look like right now? And what can she do to improve her odds over the next year?

She will almost immediately have to start running a campaign. That's because New York has now moved up its primary days to the summer. So you're going to start seeing people declare their candidacy for governor in the winter, before the year ends. You're going to have to raise millions of dollars to do that, and to her disadvantage, because she's from Buffalo – she’s the first governor in like generations to not be from New York City or the surrounding suburbs. There are rumors that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to run. There has been the possibility that Letitia James might run too, although she has not said publicly. So she's up against a lot.

And then going back to Cuomo, what issues and questions still remain with him?

So I feel like the report was just the tip of the iceberg. There are now several investigations into possible criminal actions by Cuomo and members of his staff, you know, local district attorneys, they're looking into some of these sexual harassment allegations – there could be charges brought up against him. There's also the issue of his administration's handling of nursing home deaths during the height of the pandemic, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District is also investigating those. There is an investigation over the Tappan Zee Bridge and whether or not it is faulty. And we also have to think about the fact that Andrew Cuomo has been a prolific fundraiser, so that he’s sitting on $18 million. A decent chunk of that will probably go to legal fees. But what's he gonna do with that money?

Personally, you’re someone who has been outspoken about the importance of equal access in the press, particularly with women. What is your assessment of reporting during the Cuomo administration? And what are your hopes with Hochul?

The Capitol reporters that cover the Cuomo administration, or just cover politics in general in New York, are male. My experience covering the whole administration, the governor tended to take men more seriously. You know, it's a lot harder to distinguish yourself when you're in your early 20s, mid 20s, as a woman, when you're surrounded by men who are twice your age and have done this job twice as long as you have. And now I'm hoping that Kathy Hochul realizes that there is value in giving reporters equal access and equal opportunity. Not just women, too, but non-white reporters. You know, the political coverage tends to come from people who are white, there's very few Black, Latino, Asian reporters that cover the governor, or cover politics in general. There's ethnic media all over the state that haven't been given the same level of access either. And that's something to be mindful of. I mean, New York is a hub for immigrants. They're just as invested in the future of this state as someone who was born here.

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With the swearing in of Kathy Hochul, the U.S. tied its record for the most active female governors at one time - a whopping nine of 50, but still. Hochul has peers, past and present, whose stories she can look to as she navigates her first few months.

Among them is Jane Swift, who was the first female governor of Massachusetts from 2001 to 2003. Now, Swift and Hochul come from different sides of the political aisle (Hochul a Democrat, Swift a Republican), but their paths to the governorship have their similarities: Swift was lieutenant governor when then-governor Paul Cellucci was appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada by then-President George W. Bush. During her tenure, Swift would guide Massachusetts through the fiscal crisis that followed 9/11, and became the first acting U.S. governor to give birth while in office.

I recently spoke with Swift about any advice she might have for Hochul’s term.

How would you describe your rise to power compared to Hochul’s?

Clearly we both became governor with the departure of a governor. I think the difference is that Governor Cellucci, he departed under his own terms, and was happy to move on to a new professional challenge. And that creates, you know, I think some challenges when I became governor, as folks were not always happy that he had left. And he left a very high functioning team. I think it may be easier for Governor Hochul to take over, as many folks believe there was a need for a transition of power in New York. And because some of the issues that led to her taking over the governorship had to do with gender issues, she has a natural mandate to address some of the shortcomings of the previous administration.

And what was your initial reaction when you found out you were going to be governor?

I was, I think, like many people, very honored, it is huge privilege to lead a commonwealth or a state. But also it's a daunting job. I, like Governor Hochul, have served in other elected positions. So I felt ready from a policy perspective. But I think you can never quite be ready for all of the attention and the weight of responsibility that settles on your shoulders. The good news is, I was pleasantly surprised with just how many people are willing to step up and lend their expertise, to help be successful. One of the things that I have read she is very focused on – which I think is exactly the most important first step – to assemble your own team to make sure that you have the right people, both the subject matter experts who can help you deal with a wide array of issues that a governor has to deal with, but also the people who you can trust. And I think it is critically important to have people not only that you can trust and confide in, but people who will tell you the things sometimes that you don't want to hear. Folks who you have a strong enough relationship and confidence in, that they can give you bad news and tell you things that perhaps no one else wants to tell you.

In terms of political issues, what were some of the biggest things that you tackled as governor?

So I was hoping to concentrate on an issue that I've continued to work on throughout my entire life, which is educational excellence. But unfortunately, several months after becoming governor, the events of 9/11 really shifted the focus of my time as governor to be about restoring strength to our economy, stabilizing the public's finances, and balancing our budget, as well as making sure the safety and security issues at our airports in our port and for all of our citizens were addressed. So one of the things that Governor Hochul I'm sure will realize is we certainly are in a crisis right now with COVID: there may be issues that emerge that you could have had no opportunity to predict. And that is both one of the challenges, but also a real opportunity in governing.

Overall, what was your experience like as governor? Was it hard being the state's first female governor?

Being first can be hard. The governor will be asked questions that other male governors don't get asked. But what's most important is that the symbolism of having a woman in that role has already created enormous importance and excitement to young women and girls, certainly throughout New York, but frankly, throughout the country. I'm the mother of three daughters in college. And because we live right over the border and watch a lot of Albany-based television, my daughters have noticed that there's a female governor in New York, and even though their mother served in that role, it's exciting to them to see another woman as governor. So for all the pressures of going first, and having perhaps some questions be asked of you that others don't answer, there's also this tremendous privilege of being able to inspire the next generation of leaders. I would also tell her to enjoy it. The opportunity to make an impact and improve the lives of the people in her state is just an unparalleled opportunity to make a difference. And I'm sure she will find that it is deeply, deeply rewarding.

You said there's some questions that Hochul might be asked as being the first female governor. What kind of questions are those?

Well, there's been a ton of research that often, when women are in political leadership positions, we focus more on what's called the three H's: hair, hemlines, and husbands. So, you know, there will be people who will pay too much attention to wardrobe, looks, and her family life. And it's important that the governor shift that focus right back to the important issues of what she's trying to achieve for families in all of New York – not on, I'm sure what is her own wonderful family life.

How do you feel we can better support women in government or women in just the workforce in general?

One of the things that I have always challenged individuals is, if you're asking a question that may have gender overtones, maybe run through your head first, “Would I have asked Governor Cuomo that same question?” And if the answer is no, then don't ask the question. One example I always give is, seldom do we see stories written about whether or not men are disappointed or supportive of a particular decision that a governor made. But often, when you're the first, there will be these stories about, “Oh, how do women feel about that?” Which most of the time is not done to be supportive, and is often trying to drive a wedge among a voting constituency, or just prolong a bad story. Hopefully, we'll get to a point where a woman taking over office is not a first, right? It'll be a third and a fourth. I would love to see us have parity, where we talk about a woman's platform rather than the historic nature of their ascendance. That will also help the women in those roles, to have other women to look to as allies to work with. So just having it be a normalized experience, to have women in these high level leadership roles, will be a wonderful day.

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As Swift mentioned, who Kathy Hochul picks to be on her team will be incredibly important. In one of her first tasks as governor, Hochul tapped her replacement as LG, choosing Democratic State Senator Brian Benjamin from the 30th District in Harlem, perhaps in a bid to bridge that Buffalo-New York City gap that Josefa mentioned earlier.

What that means is that some of the top spots in New York state government right now are held by women and people of color: there’s Hochul, Benjamin, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Attorney General Letitia James, whose report, of course, kick started this whole thing.

So, so what? Why is this all a big deal?

Well, it comes down to representation, and the diversity of perspectives in our government. In case you missed the title of this show - women make up more than half the U.S. population. 2020 Census data demonstrates the country is becoming increasingly diverse. But according to the latest numbers from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, women make up only 26.7 percent of today’s Congress. The number of women in office at the state and local level is higher, but only slightly, at 31 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively.

Still, those numbers are slowly but surely rising, according to Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York.

How do you see the current landscape for women in politics? And what do women bring to the table?

I'm not one that buys into these kind of innate differences in leadership styles of men and women. Because I've certainly seen in my own career, that it runs the gamut. Men can be as collaborative, and compassionate, and empathetic as the descriptive words that people like to use and stereotype about women. I think the biggest quality women bring to the table is the desire to prove themselves, because very often they are the first to do it, or one of the first to do it. Donald Trump was the best advertisement to motivate women to run for office that we have had in decades. We had nurses, and teachers, farmers, who had never run for office, never even been politically active at the local level, who were driven to be a counterweight to Donald Trump. And they ran for office, and many of them won. And we're now at a point where we're really starting to hit that 30 percent Golden Rule – that’s generally when minority groups hit 30 percent, they really start to have influence in power in a larger group. So it's a slow and steady progress.

What has changed is that a larger percentage of those figures are women of color. For instance, 37 percent of the 23 percent of women mayor's in the U.S. are women of color. So that's real progress. on that end. You can take some cities as an example, in New York City – for the first time, the City Council is going to be, when all of the newly-elected are sworn in, in January of 2022, it's going to be women majority. And this is after a number of years where women's representation in New York City Council really was stuck at 9, 10, 11, 12 women out of 51.

So what do you see as some of the barriers to having more women in elective office?

You know, it really is a pipeline issue. We have to think about why politics isn't always attractive, not just to women, but to men as well. It's a tough decision to make, it's a tough road, and as an industry it’s ruthless. You think about what you have to do: you have to ask all your friends for money, it's a 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. job, when you're running for office. When you get into office, you've got to turn around and do that again, in a matter of months – you know, within 13 months, you've got to start planning your next campaign, for many positions, from state legislatures to Congress. And a lot of people do not win on the first try. So there are things that we can talk about changing about elected office that would make it more attractive for people, because there are a lot of really talented people who would make exceptional legislators who aren't going to do it, because the calculus just isn't worth it.

So what are some of those things that we can do to increase accessibility?

One of the biggest changes that we could make, and it's one that New York City has implemented, is campaign finance reform. And many other countries do this: every candidate has the same amount of money, you're not raising outside money. It's an equal playing field. The public gets to know candidates through the public access of television and the airwaves. That would be a much more attractive way of running – and a more democratic way – of running elections. Is it working perfectly here in New York City? No, not yet. But if we can create a level playing field for all candidates, that would really diversify the pool of candidates that we now have. And let me give you example: here in New York, Liuba Gretchen Shirley ran for Congress on Long Island, and she had two small kids. And she did something that had never done before. She petitioned the Federal Election Commission to add childcare costs as an allowable expense of campaign funds. She became the first person in history to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on childcare. And since then many people have, not just mothers but fathers as well. I mean, that is something that I had never heard about before this mom of two decided she wanted to take a chance to run, and got in it, and realized the biggest barrier for her was childcare. You say to yourself, gosh, if women would have been in politics in larger numbers for more years, this would have come up in the past, and we would have had this already as a rule established long ago.

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That’s a wrap on this week’s episode of 51%. 51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio — that theme underneath me right now, that’s “Lolita” by Albany-based artist Girl Blue. A big thanks to Josefa Velasquez, Jane Swift, and Sonia Ossorio for sharing their time and experience. Thanks to our story editor Ian Pickus, our executive producer Dr. Alan Chartock — and, of course, you for tuning in. If you like what you’re hearing, check us out on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @51PercentRadio. And you can find episodes new and old at wamc.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Until next week, I’m Jesse King for 51%.

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast, "A New York Minute In History."
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