ALBANY, N.Y. – Suddenly propelled to lead New York, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed Wednesday to set a better tone in state government after the sexual harassment scandal that spurred Gov. Andrew Cuomo's resignation.
“Nobody will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” Hochul said in her first news briefing after the Democratic governor announced his resignation.
She said there would be no place in her administration for any Cuomo aides who were implicated in unethical behavior by the state attorney general's investigation of his behavior toward women.
Hochul, a 62-year-old Democrat from western New York, is set to become the state's first female governor in two weeks, following a remarkable transition period in which Cuomo has said he will work to ease her into a job that he dominated during his three terms in office.
Hochul has had a political career spanning from a town board to Congress, and as lieutenant governor, she has spent much of her time crisscrossing the state for ribbon-cuttings, announcements and other events. Still, she is unfamiliar to many New Yorkers, and she took the opportunity Wednesday to reintroduce herself and assure them: "I’m ready for this.”
“I’m more prepared than anyone could possibly be for this position,” Hochul said.
While championing such Cuomo-era accomplishments as laws raising the minimum wage and requiring paid family leave for millions of private-sector workers, Hochul strove to put distance between herself and the governor. She said she didn't spend much time with him and hadn't been aware of any of the alleged improprieties later described in state Attorney General Letitia James' report.
Cuomo announced Tuesday that he would step down rather than face a likely impeachment trial after James, a fellow Democrat, released a report concluding he sexually harassed 11 women. One accused him of groping her breast.
Cuomo, 63, denies that he touched anyone inappropriately and said his instinct was to fight back against claims he felt were unfair or fabricated. But he said that with the state still in a pandemic crisis, it was best for him to step aside so the state’s leaders could “get back to governing.”
Hochul purposely kept a modest profile as lieutenant governor in a state where Cuomo commanded — and demanded — the spotlight.
Hochul shares some of Cuomo's centrist politics but is a stylistic contrast with a governor famous for his love of steamrolling opponents and holding grudges. She's well-liked by colleagues, who say voters shouldn't confuse her quiet approach under Cuomo with a lack of confidence or competence.
“People will soon learn that my style is to listen first, then take decisive action,” she said.
Before sharing a ticket with Cuomo, she was a county clerk who opposed the idea of allowing unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses — an idea that would become law during Cuomo's administration. Asked Wednesday about what is known as the Green Light Law, Hochul said her position “has now evolved, and that evolution coincides with the evolution of many people” in New York.
“I’m proud of supporting that law,” she said.
It remains to be seen how involved Cuomo will be in state government over the next two weeks, or how he'll manage handing over authority — something he has rarely ceded during his time in office.
His circle of advisers has shrunk, but his closest aide and policymaking partner Melissa DeRosa — a familiar face at Cuomo's side during his televised coronavirus briefings — will remain until his departure, after having announced her resignation from the administration Sunday.
For days after James' report came out last week, Cuomo insisted to those close to him that he could weather the storm, but even his closest outside advisers told him it would be impossible.
Cuomo was privately frustrated that few people were willing to defend him publicly and pressed his attorney and remaining advisers to question his accusers' credibility, according to a person with direct knowledge of the governor’s final days in office. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private, sensitive conversations.
Cuomo decided he would resign after DeRosa quit, the person said.
By late Monday night, Cuomo told a small number of his closest advisers that he was planning to resign, the person said. But Cuomo had kept the announcement very close, opting not even to tell other senior Democrats in New York.
Leaders in the state Legislature have yet to say whether they plan on dropping an impeachment investigation that has been ongoing since March, and which had been expected to conclude in the coming weeks.
In addition to examining his conduct with women, lawyers hired by the state Assembly had been investigating whether the administration' manipulated data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and whether Cuomo improperly got help from his staff writing a book about the pandemic.
Republicans have urged the Democratic-controlled legislature to go ahead with impeachment, possibly to prevent Cuomo from running for office again.
Peltz reported from New York. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report from Washington.
This story has been corrected to remove an erroneous reference to Hochul speaking in the same room where Cuomo had his coronavirus briefings.