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Hochul sworn in to become NY's first female governor

Mike Groll
Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Kathy Hochul takes the oath of office at midnight Tuesday to become the first female governor in state history

Kathy Hochul was sworn in as New York’s first female governor at midnight Tuesday after a disgraced Andrew Cuomo resigned to avoid impeachment by the State Legislature.

Hochul faces multiple challenges, including rising COVID-19 rates due to the delta variant of the coronavirus and stagnating vaccination rates, as well as a looming eviction crisis.

She 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 state Attorney General Tish James' report found that he harassed 11 women -- and in one case, sexually assaulted a woman -- and led an office rife with intimidation and bullying.

One day after Cuomo announced his resignation, Hochul promised that she would run the state differently.

“No one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” Hochul said in her first public appearance on Aug. 11.

Hochul, who describes herself as someone who listens first, then takes decisive action, will be leading the state’s efforts to grapple with the spread of the delta variant among unvaccinated and younger New Yorkers, including school-aged children.

Earlier this month, Cuomo’s health commissioner failed to provide guidance to schools on health and safety policy. Hochul said she will act swiftly to develop safety protocols. And she said he believes the commissioner has the power to impose mask mandates in school, if necessary.

“Mask mandates is something that the department of health has the authority to call for,” Hochul said. “I believe that we will need mask mandates for children to go back to schools. And that will have to be universal, it will be statewide.”

New York’s eviction moratorium runs out Aug. 31, and the state has been awarded over $2 billion in federal aid to help tenants pay back rent. But a recent report by the state comptroller found that as of mid-August, only $108.8 million has been distributed. Hochul said she will speed up the process, but said there is a longer time period for the money to go out.

“I know we are facing a crushing deadline,” Hochul said on Aug. 18. But she said there is a “one-year window” for applicants to receive the money.

As Hochul prepared to take over as governor, she announced two key appointments. Karen Persichilli Keogh, who has worked for then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, will be chief of staff. Elizabeth Fine will be chief counsel. Fine is currently counsel to the state’s Empire State Development authority.

Hochul has said there will be "turnover" among Cuomo’s former staff, and anyone implicated in bad behavior in the attorney general’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 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.

Cuomo continues to face several criminal investigations, including for allegations he groped a staffer, a federal probe into how he handled nursing home policy during the pandemic, and an investigation by James over whether his aides improperly helped him write and edit a book, for which he was paid $5 million.

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.