Amid a dire national political climate for incumbent Democrats, New York’s accidental governor Kathy Hochul faces the real possibility of defeat. Lacking much in the way of charisma or retail political skills, governing a state in slow-motion fiscal collapse with spiraling crime and public disorder, Hochul appears on the verge of a historic defeat, with tightening polls showing only a few points separating her from her Republican opponent, Congressman Lee Zeldin. New York’s “blue state model”—a thick social-services infrastructure, funded by high taxes and empowered by a highly politicized public-sector union complex—appears in danger of rejection by an electorate asking if all that expensive government is really worth the price.
In the 20 years since a Republican last won statewide office, Democrats have established near full-spectrum dominance over politics in New York. The 2018 state senate elections wiped out the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of centrists who shared power with Republicans, and gave the mainline party a legislative supermajority. Since then, New York State has served as a kind of laboratory of hard-left governance. Criminal-justice reform in 2019 eliminated bail for almost all offenses short of rape and murder. As significantly, but attracting less attention, reforms to the process of criminal discovery have led many overburdened and under-resourced prosecutors not to file charges against suspects, even with a high likelihood of culpability.
At the same time, an empowered legislature pushed through new rules on rental apartments that appear to have worsened New York City’s “housing crisis,” which has officially existed more or less continuously since World War II, and which extensive regulation has so far failed to abate. A 2019 law eliminated the gradual exit of regulated apartments from “rent stabilization” guidelines and capped the amount that property owners could raise the rent when tenants—sometimes after many decades—vacated units; it also limited the extent to which the cost of expensive rehabilitation could be passed on to new residents. As a result, the number of regulated apartments sitting empty, either awaiting renovation or new tenants, appears to have grown significantly, as renting them under existing law would be uneconomical.
Kathy Hochul came to power following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo under circumstances that remain as baffling and opaque as a power struggle in the Chinese Politburo. Accused of various improprieties that vaguely amounted to a pattern of boorish, awkward behavior, Cuomo confronted demands for impeachment, the momentum for which seemed driven by political considerations never quite made clear to the public. None of the promised criminal prosecutions of his supposedly lascivious actions ever came about, likely confirming suspicions that his enemies had confected the whole affair.
Hochul was picked from obscurity to run as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor in 2014. Her service as clerk of Erie County was undistinguished until, after her departure, the discovery of $800,000 in uncashed checks in unopened mail. She won a special election to Congress in 2011, following her predecessor’s own sex scandal, and served for 18 months before losing her reelection bid. Hochul worked as a lobbyist for a regional bank until Cuomo, facing a significant primary challenge from leftist law professor Zephyr Teachout, chose her to firm up his support among women. Many believed that Hochul was selected because of her willingness to toe the party line, to serve as a cipher, and not to rock the political boat by saying or doing anything without Cuomo’s approval.
Hochul’s 14 months as governor have been marked by an extraordinary amount of sleaze and evident grift, even by the low standards of New York State. She appointed Harlem state senator Brian Benjamin as lieutenant governor; he had to resign within six months after the federal government indicted him on charges of bribery and wire fraud. Hochul then engineered a massive state expenditure of $850 million to her hometown Buffalo Bills to build a new stadium, the largest such munificence in the history of professional football. (Hochul’s husband is a senior executive at the firm that manages concessions, dining, and retail for the Bills.) Hochul also awarded a $637 million no-bid contract, under existing “Covid emergency” provisions, to a campaign donor to provide at-home virus test kits at retail cost.
Graft and louche ethics could be overlooked, perhaps, if Governor Hochul were doing a bang-up job in other respects. She’s not. New York State continues to have one of the nation’s worst unemployment rates, and New York City—where Hochul needs to overperform electorally to make up for an anticipated rout upstate—is doing even worse. The subway, under Hochul’s control, is still running at about three-fifths of its pre-pandemic ridership. The system has seen nine murders so far this year, up from an average of one or two in most years; violent crime generally has soared. The governor’s energy policy, in a state with some of the highest energy bills in the nation, advances the green approach that proposes to eliminate carbon-based energy prior to the availability of renewable alternatives.
New York had deep structural problems before Kathy Hochul stumbled into power. Rural upstate resembles something out of a 1960s VISTA documentary about Appalachia, while Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo are among the nation’s leaders in child poverty. The state is losing population, and a growing number of well-heeled financial services companies are relocating to states with more favorable business climates. If ever there was a year for a Republican to win statewide election, then, 2022 would be it. But either way, New York must awaken from its torpor and deal with its precarious reality before it enters a vortex of irreversible decline.
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