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Hochul: 'I want people to believe in their government again'

Gov. Kathy Hochul takes the oath of office in a ceremony at the State Capitol Tuesday, Aug 24, 2021
Mike Groll
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul takes the oath of office in a ceremony at the State Capitol Tuesday, Aug 24, 2021

The first female governor of New York state said she wants to change the culture at the Capitol and institute a “fresh, collaborative approach.”

“I want people to believe in their government again,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday. “Our strength comes from the faith and the confidence of the people who put us in these offices, and I take that very seriously.”

Hochul, who was officially sworn in as the state’s 57th governor at midnight Tuesday, also held a ceremonial inauguration about 10 hours later in the State Capitol's Red Room as her husband, father, children and siblings looked on.

She became the first governor from upstate New York in over 100 years after her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, became mired in multiple scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment, and stepped down.

“This is an emotional moment for me, but it’s one that I’m prepared for,” said Hochul, who was dressed in white — the color worn by the suffragettes.

She takes over after 10 years of Cuomo in office. He resigned rather than face an almost certain impeachment and conviction in the State Legislature.

State Attorney General Letitia James found that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women – and in one case, sexually assaulted a woman -- and presided over an office rife with intimidation and bullying. He’s also under federal investigation for potentially covering up nursing home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been accused of improperly using staff to help him write and edit a $5 million memoir.

Later, in a brief address introducing herself to New Yorkers, Hochul said her top priority is to take proactive steps to get the rising infection rate of the COVID-19 delta variant under control.

When schools open in a couple of weeks, anyone entering a school will be required to wear a mask — a directive she is mandating the Department of Health to issue — and there will be strict vaccination mandates.

“We need to require vaccinations for all school personnel, with an option to test out weekly, at least for now,” Hochul said.

Earlier this month, Cuomo’s health commissioner failed to provide guidance to schools on health and safety policy, but Hochul said that later this week she will release a number of school-related policies.

The mask and vaccination mandates roll into another priority for Hochul — increasing the state’s vaccination rate. Hochul said New Yorkers can expect more vaccination requirements now that the Food and Drug Administration has fully approved the Pfizer vaccine and is expected to fully approve the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“More on that soon,” she hinted.

She noted that the state will likely be restarting its mass vaccination sites around New York to more quickly provide needed booster shots this fall, a third priority for the new governor.

New York’s eviction moratorium, enacted earlier in the pandemic, ends August 31. Though the state received over $2.7 billion in federal aid for tenants and small landlords, only around $109 million has been given out so far. Hochul said she will be assembling a team to expedite distribution of the funds.

“I am not at all satisfied with the pace that this COVID relief is getting out the door,” Hochul said. “I want the money out now. I want it out with no more excuses and delays.

“If you apply and qualify for this money, you will be protected from eviction for a solid year.”

The governor also noted that she will fix delays for handing out other aid, including the excluded workers fund, which is aid for workers that are not eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits.

The governor said she will also act to make state government a safe and ethical workplace, and will require in-person sexual harassment training, and instruction in ethical practices for every single state employee.

Earlier Tuesday, Hochul met with the Legislature’s Democratic majority leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Stewart-Cousins also broke a glass ceiling when she became the first woman and first African American woman to lead the Senate. She said for the first time, Albany’s legendary three-men-in-a-room decision making process — consisting of the governor and the two legislative leaders — will be made up of two women and an African American man.

Kevin P. Coughlin
Office of the Governor
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins look on as Gov. Kathy Hochul is sworn in at the State Capitol on Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

“(It’s) Hopefully inspiring to so many people who had never been aspiring, frankly, to be in the ‘room where it happens,’” Stewart-Cousins said.

Heastie said the diversity of New York’s new leadership sends a message.

“I’m a father of a young 12-year-old daughter,” Heastie said. “I want her to believe that she can do anything in the world, and she won’t be restricted by the fact that she was born a girl.”

Heastie said he’s always had a great relationship with Hochul and looks forward to working with her on priorities like the ongoing pandemic and helping tenants get the assistance they need to remain in their homes.

Neither leader committed to any specific actions or changes, saying the talks with the new governor are just beginning.

Hochul was Cuomo’s chief cheerleader during her six years as lieutenant governor, traveling across New York state to promote his policies, often at several events in one day.

Despite that, Hochul was never part of Cuomo’s inner circle. She was left out of his daily televised COVID-19 briefings during the height of the pandemic.

Hochul said she was unaware of the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo until the women went public with their accusations. She condemned Cuomo after the attorney general's report.

Hochul announced two key appointments to her administration — Karen Persichilli Keogh, who worked for former U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and current U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, will be chief of staff. Elizabeth Fine will be chief counsel. Fine will move from her position as counsel to Empire State Development.

Hochul has said there will be “turnover” among Cuomo’s former staff, and anyone implicated in bad behavior in the AG’s report will be out of a job. She’s asking for a 45-day transition period to continue interviewing potential new staff and making final decisions.

Meanwhile, Cuomo, during his final hours in office, made several public appearances, presiding over storm briefings to alert New Yorkers about the potential dangers from tropical storm Henri, and giving a farewell address 12 hours before his planned midnight exit. He used his last speech as governor, in part, to continue to deny the accusations against him, saying the attorney general's report was political instead of factual.

“The attorney general's report was designed to be a political firecracker on an explosive topic. And it worked. There was a political and media stampede,” Cuomo said. “But the truth will come out in time. Of that, I am confident.”

James stands by her report, saying the women’s claims were corroborated by a “mountain of evidence."

Cuomo also offered “advice” to his successor on pandemic policy going forward and recounted what he believes were his major accomplishments in office, including renovating major airports and revitalizing Buffalo.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.