What to Know
- Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York in a midnight swearing-in ceremony shortly after Andrew Cuomo's resignation took effect
- She has vowed to clean house and inherits major challenges, from the ongoing COVID crisis to crime, pot legalization and budget battles
- The 62-year-old Democrat from western NY is relatively unknown outside of the state's political circles, and she is certainly not a household name like her predecessor.
Gov. Kathy Hochul directed New York state's Department of Health to institute universal masking for "anyone entering our schools" on Day 1 in office and said new vaccine requirements for New Yorkers would be "coming soon."
In her first public address as the 57th governor of New York, the first woman to helm the state in its history also made good on a promise she had made earlier in the day to weigh in on teacher vaccination mandates separately imposed in New York City and New Jersey a day ago.
Hochul called for a COVID vaccination mandate or weekly test-out option "at least for now" for all school personnel statewide. She said she is working with partners at all levels of government, as well as key stakeholders, to make that happen and plans to lay out a series of school-related policies later this week that will be "concise and consistent, giving the school districts what they have been asking for."
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The New York State United Teachers said in a statement that they support universal mask-wearing as well as Hochul's call for regular COVID testing for school staff who are not yet vaccinated.
There are a few high priorities for her administration, Hochul said: Combatting the delta variant, getting New Yorkers direct aid quicker, and "beginning to change the culture in Albany" being chief among them.
The Democrat described getting children safely back to school amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, considering the grave threat posed to the unvaccinated by the delta variant, as her top priority.
"We need to require vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly. To accomplish this in New York, we need partnerships with all levels of government and we are working now on getting this done," Hochul said.
New York is using $335 million in federal funds to launch a back-to-school testing program to make testing widely available and convenient for students and staff outside of NYC, she said. In the city, $225 million has already been directed for a testing in schools program there.
In a press release, Hochul detailed how all K-12 students will be able to make appointments for testing at 115 drive-through Rite Aid locations.
She noted that she had been in talks with experts, consultants, politicians and others "for months" to devise an initial strategy on COVID as the various controversies and fallout surrounding her predecessor earlier this year mounted.
As the incoming governor, Hochul had hinted at a return for statewide mask mandates in schools, saying it is her "opinion" that everyone in schools, students and staff alike, should be wearing masks.
She didn't have the authority to implement the rules then but she does now.
The need to boost vaccination rates and ensure safety for those not yet eligible are critical to securing the success of the state's immediate and far-off future, Hochul said, calling it her second priority. She didn't elaborate on the details of the "new vaccine requirements" she discussed at the top of her brief remarks — other than there would be more info "soon" — but said the FDA's full approval of Pfizer's regimen paved the way for new standards around vaccination in New York.
"None of us want a rerun of last year’s horrors with COVID-19," Hochul said. "Therefore we will take proactive steps to prevent that from happening.”"
Watch the entirety of her initial address in the player below.
Hochul said her third priority is to prepare the state for COVID booster shots that will be coming, to make sure those doses are "available and are distributed quickly and reliably." She said she spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci last week, and given how both agreed that vaccinated individuals get the booster, she would consider reopening mass vaccination sites across the state.
Hochul's first public address lasted less than 11 minutes, conciseness she alluded to at her ceremonial swearing-in earlier in the day as she quipped, "You'll soon learn brevity is the hallmark of my administration."
Less than 12 hours earlier, she seized the reins of a state battling multiple ongoing crises that is desperate to get back to business after months of distractions over various controversies involving Andrew Cuomo that ultimately forced his downfall.
Hochul — who was legally sworn in as the 57th governor of New York in the day's first minutes, with her husband, children and their spouses by her side — had vowed to make major changes — both to the culture in Albany and the COVID response.
Hochul is also under pressure to get federal rent relief money into the hands of tenants. Little of the $2 billion set aside by the federal government to help New Yorkers pay off rent debt has been distributed to date in the state and thousands face the possibility of eviction if the state allows protections to expire.
The new governor described rent relief as one of her major priorities, saying she needed to get money out the door for quick application approval and deploy more people to assist in the crisis to help ensure people are aware they have resources.
"I want the money out, and I want it out now. No more excuses and delays," she said, adding that she had met with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in order to get it done quickly, which also involves her hiring more staff to process applications.
Hochul said that all New Yorkers who apply and qualify for the relief will be protected from eviction for a year.
Her final priority was to establish a "dramatic change in culture" within the state government, noting that she will be directing an overhaul of the sexual harassment and ethic guidelines in Albany. Hochul wants training done live and in-person, "instead of allowing people to click their way through a class."
Hochul pledged a "new era of transparency" in her administration, which includes: directing state entities to review and issue a public report on their compliance with transparency laws; finding an expedited process to fulfill FOIL requests and post when they are completed online; and signing an executive order that would require ethics training for every employee in the state government — something she said "shockingly is not required across the board."
A signal of her emphasis on transparency came later, as in her first daily COVID data release, Hochul listed both the state's total death count (43,415) and the much-higher count from the CDC (55,395), which includes nursing home deaths. The latter number was one the former Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose to to highlight.
As for "one particular big thing" she'd like to accomplish as governor, Hochul said at that morning ceremony, "I want people to believe in a government again. It's important to me people have faith," and discussed the "spirit of collaboration." In her later address, she said she has "reached out my hand in friendship to many elected officials who too, are eager for a new relationship with the state."
She mentioned she had spoken with President Joe Biden late Monday as the transition of power became official. The two discussed Henri relief, primarily, she said.
She also said she had spoken with Mayor Bill de Blasio Monday and knew ahead of time about the city's vaccine mandate plans, pledging the two would have a far less acrimonious relationship than the one de Blasio shared with her predecessor.
"This is an emotional moment for me but one that I've prepared for -- and I look forward to continuing the work we have to do," Hochul said.
Hochul is relatively unknown outside of New York political circles, and she is certainly not a household name like her predecessor. She has spent years on the road as the friendly face of the previous administration, visiting the far-flung coffee shops and factory floors of each of the state's 62 counties for countless ribbon-cutting ceremonies and civic cheerleading events.
But her newest stop is the state Capitol of Albany, and people who know Hochul say the former congresswoman is ready.
"To those New Yorkers who have yet to meet me, I say this: You may not know me, But I know you," Hochul said. "I've walked your streets, met you at diners, supported your small businesses, listened to farmers, engaged local officials and worked to revitalize long-neglected towns."
Her ascent to the top job is a history-making moment in a capital where women have only recently begun chipping away at what was long a male-dominated political culture. For generations, it's been said that all real decisions in the NY state government were made by “three men in a room" — the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.
Now, for the first time, two of those three most powerful figures in New York (Hochul and Stewart-Cousins) are women, with Heastie remaining the only man. In addition to that, the state's top prosecutor (Attorney General Letitia James) and the chief judge who oversaw the official swearing-in ceremony (Janet DiFiore) are also women.
"Today is a historic day for New Yorkers with the swearing in of our first female governor, Kathy Hochul. I congratulate Governor Hochul on this incredible accomplishment and wish her well in her new role building on the progress of our great state. I look forward to continuing to work with her and the entire incoming administration.," James said following the midnight ceremony.
Hochul met with Stewart-Cousins and Heastie Tuesday morning before her address. Both emerged saying that they appreciated her “collaborative” tone and that they were ready to work with her to get COVID-19 relief funds to New Yorkers in need more quickly.
Former Gov. David Paterson, who, like Hochul, unexpectedly became governor when his predecessor resigned, said she will need to restore faith in the office.
“There’s going to be some pressure on Gov. Hochul, as there was on me, to kind of restore the values and to restore the conduct and the decorum that bespeaks a governor," Paterson said.
She'll also have to work quickly. Hochul has already said she intends to run for a full term next year, and will have just months to establish herself as the favorite before a spring Democratic primary.
While she said that it is time for the state to "look forward with a powerful sense of optimism and determination," Hochul also added that "it will not be easy. And we have a lot of work to do."
Hochul has not yet named a lieutenant governor, but has said she plans on making it someone from the New York City area. That announcement should come soon.
In concluding her address, she referenced a speech that she said is one of her "favorite inspirations" by another famous New York governor: Teddy Roosevelt.
"It speaks of the man in the arena who is marred by dust, sweat and blood, stark contrast with the timid souls on the sidelines. Today, for the first time in New York history, a woman will enter that arena as Governor," Hochul said. "You will find me to be direct, straight-talking and decisive. I will not be deterred, and I'm willing to be bloodied and marred in the pursuit of doing what's right for the people of this great State. My friends, I invite you to join me in this fight for our future."