ALBANY, N.Y. – Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York on Tuesday and in her first hours on the job sought to bring a sense of urgency to tackling big problems that went unaddressed during Andrew Cuomo’s distracted final months in office.
In an afternoon speech in which she laid out her initial priorities, the Democrat promised swift action to improve COVID-19 safety in schools, a fix for broken aid programs for people hit by the pandemic and improved government ethics.
Hochul said she was directing state health officials to make masks mandatory for anyone entering public or private schools. Her administration will also work, she said, to implement a requirement that all school staff statewide either be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
“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.”
Hochul pledged quick action to unstick an application bottleneck that has kept federal aid money from flowing to renters who suffered financially because of the pandemic. She said she's readying the state to distribute vaccine booster shots, when they become widely available, including possibly reopening mass inoculation sites. And she said New Yorkers “can expect new vaccine requirements,” though she didn't specify what those might be.
“More on that soon,” she said.
Hochul, a former member of Congress from western New York, took the oath of office just after midnight in a brief, private event overseen by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore.
At a ceremonial swearing-in later Tuesday morning at the State Capitol, Hochul promised a “fresh, collaborative approach” to government. She said she had already begun speaking with other Democratic leaders who have, for years, complained about being shut out of key decisions and of being bullied by Cuomo, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“There’ll be no blindsiding; there’ll just be full cooperation,” Hochul said.
Over the next few months, Hochul, who was little known as lieutenant governor, will have an opportunity to reshape Albany, where Cuomo dominated decision-making before being felled in a sexual harassment scandal.
For generations, it's been said that all real decisions in the 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 — Hochul and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins — are women. Only the state Assembly is led by a man, Speaker Carl Heastie.
Hochul, her daughter and her daughter-in law all wore white to her ceremonial swearing-in Tuesday to honor suffragists who fought to get women the right to vote.
On her first day, Hochul said she was ordering an overhaul of state government policies on sexual harassment, including requiring that all training be done live, “instead of allowing people to click their way through a class" online. And she said she would order ethics training for every state government employee.
Cuomo left office at midnight, two weeks after announcing he would resign rather than face an impeachment battle that appeared inevitable after a report overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James concluded he had sexually harassed 11 women.
On his final day Monday, Cuomo, who denies the allegations, released a recorded farewell address in which he portrayed himself as the victim of a “media frenzy.”
Over the spring and summer, the embattled Cuomo administration struggled to get pandemic aid out the door. Little of the $2 billion set aside last winter by the federal government to help New Yorkers pay off rent debt was distributed. Thousands face the possibility of eviction after state and federal protections expire.
Hochul also pledged quick action to distribute money from a new $2 billion state fund intended to benefit unauthorized immigrants who didn't qualify for federal pandemic relief aid.
“The money’s there," Hochul said. “These people are not eligible for other forms of assistance, and they’re hurting and they're part of the New York family.”
Republicans wished Hochul luck, but questioned why she hadn’t met with GOP leaders Tuesday.
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in schools is a “laudable goal,” but pushed back on the idea of statewide mandates.
“I would strongly urge Gov. Hochul to learn from the mistakes we witnessed over the course of the pandemic. New Yorkers do not need an extension of the heavy-handed, blanket mandates that used a one-size-fits-all approach and virtually eliminated all local decision-making authority,” he said.
The leaders of groups representing teachers and superintendents voiced support for universal masking in schools. New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said the union also supported Hochul’s move to require regular testing for unvaccinated staff, but said it is “critical that educators continue to have a voice in the implementation of vaccine requirements and other COVID policies at the local level.”
New York City this week announced a mandatory vaccination policy for all school staff, with no way to opt out through frequent testing.
Former New York Gov. David Paterson, who, like Hochul, unexpectedly became governor when his predecessor resigned, said one of her tasks will be to restore faith in government.
“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 have to work quickly. Hochul has already said she intends to run for a full term and will have just months to establish herself before a spring Democratic primary.
In the meantime, she'll be building an administration — a task that began in the first minutes of Tuesday with the oath of office, hours ahead of the restaging of the event for television cameras in mid-morning.
DiFiore administered the oath in the Capitol in front of a stone fireplace, atop which were placed family pictures.
Hochul, her husband and DiFiore entered the room wearing masks, taking them off when the ceremony began. Hochul placed her hand on a Bible held by her husband, Bill Hochul, a former federal prosecutor and current general counsel for the food service and hospitality company Delaware North.
Hochul signed a pile of papers, including the oath, using a set of 10 pens dated “August 24, 2021,” while her family stood behind her, looking on.