Josefa Velasquez, THE CITY
In her first day in office, the state’s 57th governor moves to rebuild trust damaged by secrecy and sexual harassment under Andrew Cuomo. On her agenda: cleaning up Albany, speeding up rent and worker aid — and vaccine mandates.
Kathy Hochul made many vows following her swearing-in as New York’s 57th governor Tuesday — all based on rebuilding broken trust in government.
Her task looms large after the collapse of her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo — an epic downfall spurred by a state attorney general investigation that found he sexually harassed colleagues and deployed other state staff to derail women’s complaints.
“A new era of transparency will be one of the hallmarks of my administration. To me, it’s very simple,” said Hochul, the first woman to lead the state. “We will focus on open, ethical governing that New Yorkers will trust.”
The former lieutenant governor vowed to “change the culture in Albany.” She asked New Yorkers to have faith in her leadership — and her willingness to take the heat for tough decisions — as she confronts a long list of Cuomo-connected challenges.
Among them: government integrity, sexual harassment in state agencies, stalled tenant and worker aid programs, and a persistent pandemic roiled by battles over masks and vaccinations.
Hochul’s most immediate moves concern the state’s schools, as staff and students ready to return to class with the super-transmissible Delta virus variant still spreading.
“None of us want a rerun of last year’s horrors with COVID-19,” she said in a recorded speech from the state Capitol in Albany. “Priority number one: We get children back to school and protect the environment so they can learn and everyone is safe.”
Behind de Blasio on Schools
Mirroring moves already made by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Hochul announced a universal mask mandate for anyone stepping inside of a school — and a new requirement that all school personnel either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested for the virus weekly.
That leaves her one step behind de Blasio, who on Monday announced that he would be requiring all New York City public school employees, including teachers, administrators and building staff, to have at least once dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27.
Yet Hochul’s school actions are more aggressive than some Cuomo was willing to take. The former governor had claimed he lacked the legal authority to impose a statewide mask mandate.
Hochul also announced Tuesday that the state Department of Health will later this week supply policies to help schools reopen safely — measures many local officials sought but that Cuomo health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker had previously declined to provide.
“They’ll be concise and consistent, giving the school districts what they have been asking for,” she said.
On the heels of the federal government fully approving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine Monday, New Yorkers can expect new vaccination requirements, Hochul announced, promising more details “soon.”
And Hochul left open the possibility of reopening shuttered mass-vaccination sites to get New Yorkers a booster shot of the vaccine.
‘No More Excuses’
Confronting the pandemic’s ongoing economic toll, Hochul promised to quickly remove roadblocks to two state-run aid programs designed to help some of New York’s neediest.
“I am not at all satisfied with the pace of this COVID relief getting out the door. I want the money out now with no more excuses and delays,” Hochul said.
The federally funded, $2.7 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program has been plagued by a cumbersome application process and has distributed a mere fraction of the money so far. What’s more, many who could benefit don’t know about the aid — a problem Hochul set out Tuesday to fix.
The state will be launching a campaign to inform New Yorkers about the rent program and hiring more staff to review applications, Hochul pledged.
With a state eviction moratorium due to expire Aug. 31, the brewing housing crisis dominated the closed-door discussion between Hochul and the leaders of the Legislature Monday afternoon, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) told reporters afterward.
“We want to make sure that no one is evicted from their home. But we also want to make sure that people who need the assistance can get the assistance,” Heastie said. “It has to be a two-pronged approach. But how we get there? I don’t know the answer yet.”
Also under discussion is what to do about the state’s eviction moratorium, which was largely nullified by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said at a news conference that it was “premature” to offer her support for extending the moratorium, citing ongoing discussions between the Legislature and governor’s office on next steps.
“We support people staying in their homes and we support doing what must be done in order to make sure that happens. But again, the conversation began in earnest this morning. But I can again assure people that we are focused like a laser,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Hochul said she plans to take the “same focused approach” to the Excluded Workers Fund, a $2.1 billion program signed into law by Cuomo in April that provides financial assistance to New Yorkers who were ineligible for government unemployment benefits and stimulus checks during the pandemic, such as undocumented immigrants.
The fund, which opened earlier this month and will begin distributing funds starting in September, has proven more challenging to access than anticipated.
Cuomo’s Department of Labor added a requirement that workers have to prove they’ve lost 50% of their earnings to qualify for assistance — a difficult task for people who are self-employed or largely work in the cash economy.
‘Unleash the Power of Women’
Promising to usher in a new era of government following Cuomo’s implosion, Hochul vowed to “get this state working again — focused without distractions.”
“That begins with a dramatic change in culture, accountability, and no tolerance for individuals who crossed the line,” she said, directing an “overhaul of state government policies on sexual harassment and ethics.”
Hochul said she plans to direct state entities to review their compliance with state transparency laws and issue a report. She added that she plans to have her counsel “come up with an expedited process to fulfill” requests for public records and make them available online.
Also in her sights is a law Cuomo signed in 2018, requiring that employers make staff take annual sexual harassment training.
The AG’s investigation found evidence that Cuomo himself flouted that law, finding that a staff member, Stephanie Benton, signed a 2019 certificate of training on his behalf and calling into question whether her took the training in subsequent years.
Hochul said Tuesday that she will make sure state workers get the annual training in person, and can no longer take it online.
“It’s our time to unleash the power of New York’s women and make sure that any barriers to success and opportunity are eradicated once and for all,” said Hochul, who didn’t mention Cuomo by name during her speech.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.