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L’état, Not Me

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eye on the news

L’état, Not Me

A measure of Kathy Hochul’s success will be people paying less attention to the governor. August 25, 2021
New York
Politics and law

New York has too much government. No, not big government—though there’s plenty of that—but a baroquely elaborate quantity of Very Important Government People. City and state residents have district, county, city, state, and federal elected officials, as well as their would-be successors, constantly competing for attention. In her first address as governor, Kathy Hochul made an excellent start at trimming down this surfeit of outsize government personalities. Her to-the-point speech showed she understands that her new constituents want a period of no-drama peace and quiet.

In the ceaseless hunt for political credit for public works, state officials are always in the weakest position. That’s especially true in New York, where nearly half the state’s population lives in one big city. Voters pay attention to the mayor because he picks up the garbage, runs the schools, and assures (or neglects) public safety. Voters pay attention to the president because presidential politics is always headline grabbing.

But the state? The state’s main functions these days are to serve as a conduit for federal money for education and healthcare to reach localities, to levy state taxes and distribute revenue to localities, and to set broad laws and mandates that local governments then enforce.

None of this commands much public attention. A pre-gubernatorial Andrew Cuomo understood this fact. In April 2002, Cuomo observed that “there was one leader for 9/11: It was Rudy Giuliani. . . . George Pataki . . . stood behind the leader. He held the leader’s coat.” Cuomo was harsh, but right: the world watched the mayor, not the governor, in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11.

But Cuomo was also wrong in not seeing that sometimes, a leader should step back. Imagine how chaotic the post–9/11 days would have been had Pataki tried to counter Giuliani’s press conferences with his own, taken the mayor’s directions to the public and reversed them, and publicly criticized the mayor’s efforts. Competition for the title as leader would have further confused and upset New Yorkers and undermined public confidence. Pataki led by stepping back.

Cuomo did no such thing as the weeks and months of Covid turned into more than a year. From questioning Mayor Bill de Blasio’s authority to close schools to saying he wouldn’t trust a vaccine developed under Donald Trump, Cuomo made it clear in his daily 2020 press conferences that he was in charge.

It’s not to minimize the sexual-harassment allegations that ultimately pushed Cuomo from office to point out that the now-former governor wore out his welcome. Cuomo mastered the dark art of getting public attention so well that he overexposed himself. By the time the first allegations hit last year, state lawmakers, city council members, and even voters had grown tired of him. Even before the first sexual-harassment accusation against him last December—and before specific news had reached the public about the state coverup of nursing-home Covid deaths—Cuomo’s approval rating, by last November, had steadily fallen from its pandemic highs.

Hochul’s job is not only to make herself known to New Yorkers, but also to make sure they don’t get tired of her. Her first afternoon in office Tuesday was a good start. Her inaugural speech was short: just 13 minutes. (Cuomo spoke for 16 minutes in his farewell address and 21 minutes in his resignation speech.)

Hochul quietly outlined a simple, no-frills biography of how her family—not a political dynasty—taught her “resistance,” “perseverance,” “empathy,” and “risk-taking.” Noting that she’s been to every county in New York multiple times, she said, “you may not know me, but I know you. You are heard.” Then, she outlined a few clear goals: “get children back to school,” increase vaccination rates, and deliver long-delayed rental assistance, paid for by the federal government, to tenants behind on their rent. “I want the money out now, no more excuses and delays,” she said. Finally, and naturally enough, she wants better sexual-harassment and ethics training for state workers, as well as more transparency—asking state agencies to “fulfill all [freedom of information law] requests as fast as possible.” Hochul pledged to be “direct, straight-talking, and decisive,” and to take a “fresh and collaborative approach.”

The promises to listen to New Yorkers and their local government officials could be pablum—or real. As she begins to govern, Hochul would do well to support local governments in what they need. On fixing the two-year-old bail-reform law, for example, she should ask city and county leaders what problems the nearly two-year-old regime has created for them, something Cuomo and state lawmakers didn’t do back in 2019. On New York’s congestion-pricing program, she should cede far more authority to city officials in designing and implementing the plan, which is, after all, a tool for traffic management on city streets, a municipal, not a state, job. It may help that Hochul is a former local and county official, both in her hometown of upstate Hamburg and in Erie County—the first governor to have significant local-policy experience since Pataki.

Hochul has already said she’ll run for a full term next year. She will be tempted to use the trappings of incumbency to campaign. For now, she appears to have absorbed the lesson that most of the time, a day during which New Yorkers don’t have to think about their governor is a good day.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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