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OPINION: New York’s Governors: Changing Hands and Challenges

By Robert Megna


Since February 2020, New York’s leaders have been consumed with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Leadership worked to address the immediate public-health emergency and subsequent economic fallout. New York now enters the recovery and rebuilding phase in which it must evaluate its response to the public-health emergency, learn from the lessons revealed about inequality, and invest in infrastructure that will enable resilience in future crises.

As New York enters this rebuilding phase, it welcomes a new executive in Gov. Kathy Hochul. The governor and her team face significant challenges in navigating New York’s COVID-19 recovery. 

Transitions in modern New York history

Since the 1980s, New York has seen five gubernatorial transitions that fall into two types. Three of these transitions — Hugh Carey to Mario Cuomo, Mario Cuomo to George Pataki, and George Pataki to Eliot Spitzer — represented the end of long tenures. The other two transitions (Eliot Spitzer to David Paterson, and David Paterson to Andrew Cuomo) were unconventional transfers of power that happened in a relatively short timeframe after brief tenures. The transition that occurred in Albany on Aug. 24, from Andrew Cuomo to Kathy Hochul, was a unique hybrid of these two circumstances.

Non-traditional transitions of gubernatorial power in New York have become a more common occurrence in recent years. Gov. David Paterson came to office suddenly in the wake of the scandal prompting the resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer. After less than a full term, Paterson declined to be a candidate and Andrew Cuomo was elected governor in the next general election. These transitions of power over a short interval, while different, both featured the replacement of a governor facing potential legal problems and the evaporation of political support from his own party. In each case, the succeeding governors faced the immediate task of restoring public confidence in state government and distinguishing themselves from their predecessors, in terms of both policy substance and political style.

In contrast to these abrupt changes in power, most of the recent gubernatorial transitions in New York have followed long tenures by the departing governor. These more traditional transfers of power have their own idiosyncrasies. Republican Gov. Pataki took office after a close election in 1994, replacing the three-term Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. In turn, Democratic Gov. Spitzer replaced the three-term Gov. Pataki. In both cases, these long-term incumbent governors had built the state bureaucracy around their political and philosophical beliefs over multiple terms. Incoming administrations had to figure out what needed to change, what staff to keep, how to evaluate state-agency performance and develop a reform agenda, all while ensuring government continued to function.

The current transition

In addition to the challenges presented by assuming the governorship following scandal by a long-tenured executive, new Gov. Hochul faces the daunting task of steering the state through the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis and rebuilding the state economy. Given that lieutenant governors in New York historically have not been close to the day-to-day government operations and have few staff to keep them up to speed on critical issues, Hochul will need to rely in many cases on the executive and agency staff in place under her predecessor. However, as a result of the circumstances surrounding the governor’s departure, many of the senior leaders that could have facilitated the transition have already departed and cannot be engaged.

These issues are further exacerbated by former Gov. Cuomo’s management style. By relying on a relatively small set of advisors in the conduct of his major initiatives and day-to-day operations, he was able to tightly control messaging and management of key policy issues. This approach also had the effect of distancing state agencies that were not on the cutting edge of the governor’s priorities.

As a result of these dynamics, Gov. Hochul’s team is essentially starting from scratch in evaluating and engaging agency personnel and operations that were not the immediate focus of the previous administration. While she simultaneously leans on and assesses her inherited personnel, the governor will also need to bring in new staff and offer a “seat at the table” to outside voices. Such an approach will allow the governor to make her own imprint on policy and differentiate herself from her predecessor. Choices to bring in experienced political aides Karen Persichilli Keogh and Elizabeth Fine as secretary and counsel to the governor, respectively, reflect an early focus on balancing the Albany–New York City–Washington dynamic, which will be instrumental to achieving her objectives.

Transition priorities

Perhaps most importantly, Gov. Hochul will have to confront the power dynamics in Albany. Cuomo was a master at using the strong executive powers constitutionally granted to the governor in New York to keep tight control of the budget process in the state. With the scandals he faced in 2020-21, the dynamic shifted and the legislature exerted much more influence over the adopted budget. After a string of court cases enshrining the strong executive powers (most recently, Silver v. Pataki) and years of Gov. Cuomo flexing them, the legislature will likely be reluctant to return to a more passive role in budget making. Further, much of what was done in the fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget has put the state on a budget course that will be difficult to substantially alter — at least, before Gov. Hochul faces the voters for reelection in 2022. The new governor may benefit from seeking other areas of the policy map to create positive changes in the lives of New Yorkers.

Three potential avenues for thoughtful leadership and engagement are the state’s workforce, local-government affairs, and revitalization of the upstate economy. Bringing a renewed sense of purpose to the state workforce is an area that seems particularly ripe for positive change. The governor has already said she will not oversee a toxic work environment. This will entail more than a professional workplace in the governor’s office. It requires getting the state bureaucracy back to a respected place in the state where worker contributions are valued and visible, making the crucial role of public service clear to the people of the state. Hochul’s remarks during her swearing-in ceremony reflect this:

“I also want to thank the hundreds of thousands of state workers who I have such respect for and I look forward to letting them know that I will represent them with my heart and soul as well. They are the face of government in many, many communities, and I have my utmost respect for all of them,” she said.

Improving relationships with local governments would also be a prime area to advance and yield better policymaking. The new governor, perhaps more than any recent executive, knows the power of local governments — how they work, the problems they face, and how the federal system moves money to them, an issue of critical importance given the tremendous flow of pandemic-related assistance to local governments occurring right now. She can become a vital voice for improving the services and performance of local government. Being a former Congressperson, Hochul is also in a position to advocate directly to Washington, D.C. in ways that will benefit the state and its localities.

Finally, given her Buffalo roots, the new governor may be well-positioned to address chronic issues facing upstate New York. Years of large demographic and economic changes in the upstate population contrast with years of relative prosperity downstate. Rather than burying these problems and pretending they are less severe than they are, Gov. Hochul has a chance to find expanded ways to help the upstate economy. As lieutenant governor, Hochul co-chaired the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs) and was involved in the downtown-revitalization initiatives. Will those programs be continued, rebranded, or otherwise altered? Bringing the state as a whole more in alignment, both politically and economically, would be a significant achievement for a new governor.

Robert Megna is president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public-policy think tank founded in 1981 that says it conducts “cutting-edge research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the problems facing New York State and the nation.” Megna has had the opportunity to observe and/or participate in every New York gubernatorial transition since Mario Cuomo took office in 1982.

Editor's note: This commentary was reprinted with some modifications. The commentary in its original form can be found on the Rockefeller Institute website.



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