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How Weak Is Kathy Hochul?

She barely won re-election then her pick for the state's top judge was rejected by the New York Senate Judiciary Committee. Also, don't throw rocks and can states and locals get along?

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS)
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How Weak Is Kathy Hochul?: If your year is off to a bad start, you’ve probably still done better than Kathy Hochul. New York’s Democratic governor barely won re-election in November and she’s started her first full term in disappointing fashion with a disastrous judicial nomination.

Hector LaSalle, Hochul’s pick as the state’s top judge, was rejected by the state Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Labor unions and reproductive rights groups had complained about LaSalle’s earlier rulings that they said were unfavorable to their causes, but Hochul stuck by him. “She ignored all the signs – and there were overt signs – that this nomination was in trouble and likely to fail,” says Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “She violated the prime rule of politics, which is you have to count the votes before you make a decision on a nomination or a program.”

Even in the wake of defeat, Hochul’s office moved to hire a former state solicitor general, thinking about a lawsuit to force the full Senate to vote on LaSalle. Even in the unlikely event the governor could win her argument in court, it would only serve to inflame greater anger among senators. “This ongoing attack makes it clear that there are those that don’t accept the Senate’s role in this process and will not be happy unless we simply act as a rubber stamp,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “This is a dangerous infringement of the separation of powers.”

For some, LaSalle’s nomination carried an unfortunate echo of Hochul’s earliest appointment in terms of her vetting skills. Brian Benjamin, her first lieutenant governor, stepped down last year after only a few months on the job, having been charged with bribery and fraud in a campaign finance case. (Some of the charges against him were dropped last month.)

Hochul’s weathered some other missteps, but her biggest failings have been purely political. New York’s congressional redistricting map – dubbed the “Hochulmander” – sought to give Democrats 22 of the state’s 26 House seats. It was tossed out by the state’s top court for being too nakedly partisan. In the end, Democrats lost four House seats in New York – enough to sway control of the entire body. Many Democrats blame the governor for those defeats, since she barely won after taking her own race too much for granted and ignoring the key crime issue until the very end of the campaign.

Stewart-Cousins has stated recently that she has a good relationship with the governor, despite the LaSalle fight. The governor of New York possesses too much formal power to think about writing her off, says Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “She has an enormous amount of power in the budget,” he says, “and that’s the thing that’s coming up next.”

Reeher says that choosing LaSalle was an effort on Hochul’s part to signal to moderates and upstate voters that she learned a lesson from the campaign and won’t give in to the New York City progressives who dominate the party’s legislative ranks. That may be so, but LaSalle’s apparent defeat doesn’t make her job of navigating the differences between moderates and progressives in her party any easier. If she hopes to overhaul the state’s 2019 law eliminating cash bail under most circumstances, for example, she’ll likely lose. “You’ve emboldened the opposition,” Muzzio says. “They’ve been successful in stopping you in an important political effort. They’ve got the tailwind and I don’t think they’re going to let up.”

Hochul took office in 2021 riding the winds of goodwill. She is the state’s first female governor and, importantly, she is not Andrew Cuomo, the often-feared but never-loved Democrat who was forced to step down in the face of multiple complaints of sexual harassment and having used state resources to carry off a multimillion-dollar book deal.

But Hochul failed to set a new tone by putting teeth into ethics laws, an effort notoriously derailed by Cuomo. She’s scored some wins, certainly, but her missteps – and her apparent inability to read the mood of the Legislature and her own party’s allies – has put her in a rough spot. “It’s obvious she’s weakened,” says Gerald Benjamin.

Benjamin is a longtime observer of New York politics – SUNY New Paltz named its public policy center after him. “I’ve been studying New York politics all my life,” he says. “Maybe I’m not thinking hard enough but I can’t think of a governor who was in a less felicitous situation than she is now.”
Phoenix, Ariz. The metro area contributes a majority -- 73.6 percent -- of the state’s GDP. (Shutterstock)

Can States and Locals Get Along?: The Biden administration has put forward several big-money programs that depend on regional efforts, including its infrastructure and climate bills and the CHIPS and Science Act. But many states and their major cities haven’t been getting along too well lately.

Twenty-two states are governed entirely by Republicans now, with Democrats controlling the governor and legislature in 17 other states. The lack of divided governments is at a historic low. In red states, that’s sometimes translated into hostility toward cities run by progressive Democrats. “State and local tensions are hardening,” Amy Liu and Peter Rezk write in a new report from the Brookings Institution. “Over the past decade, states are preempting local decision-making more frequently and more harshly. Partisan culture wars are dominating state legislative sessions and prompting states to exert control over multiple policies that were once determined locally.”

Liu, who’s serving as the interim president of Brookings, was a co-founder and longtime leader of the Brookings Metro program, which frequently points out that metropolitan areas are the main economic engines in states. The new report underscores that point. In 2020, metropolitan areas made up more than 50 percent of GDP in all but four states (Vermont, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming). In 18 states, a single large metro accounted for a majority of the economy. (The report includes a state-by-state look at metro shares of the economy.) Liu and Rezk note that urban and rural economies are linked, with metros generating tax revenues that benefit rural areas, while rural residents find customers and jobs in neighboring metros.

Still, many states seem to go out of their way to punish large cities. “This power dynamic — in which predominantly rural and exurban state lawmakers limit local problem-solving in large cities — makes it challenging for local leaders and their business allies to create the conditions for inclusive economic growth and revitalization,” Liu and Rezk write.

They argue that states and localities should use the trillion-dollar federal programs as a chance for a reset. States could direct federal money toward projects and programs designed to benefit entire regions, following the template of the $1 billion federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge grants. This wouldn’t solve everything. Still, local leaders from neighboring jurisdictions often find that the mere act of applying together for outside grants opens up channels of communication that lead to other, homegrown cooperative efforts.

Don’t Throw Rocks: People shouldn’t call their coworkers bad names. The Allegheny County, Pa., Council, however, has accepted that it does happen sometimes.

Bethany Hallam, who serves on the council, called Judge Elliot Howsie a “prick” at a recent meeting of the Jail Oversight Board, which they both serve on. On Tuesday, the council voted down a resolution to censure Hallam, 10-3, with two abstentions. Patrick Catena, the council president, didn’t condone Hallam’s remark but noted that “those meetings are frustrating” and said the board has been a “disappointment.”

DeWitt Walton was among those not voting. “People that live in glass houses should not throw rocks," he said. “I’ve called some folks names and I will do it again.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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