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Will Kathy Hochul's pragmatic ambitions pay off? We'll see | Ed Forbes


Kathy Hochul drops references to Buffalo in conversation regularly — the Kensington Expressway here, the Skyway there and Canalside over there — though many of her constituents have probably never heard of those places.

In her first press conference last summer, she gave the first question to Tom Precious, longtime Albany bureau chief for what she called "my hometown Buffalo News."

She's an avid Bills fan and is surely as crestfallen as the rest of the Mafia is this week after the heart-wrenching loss at Arrowhead Stadium.

Her budget address was accompanied by slides that included photo after photo of her hometown, the state's second-largest city — a destination most New Yorkers have still never seen. 

But don't be fooled, downstate readers, Hochul is not a parochial product of a distant upstate province. She's a savvy operator who's surrounded herself with experienced hands who've played hardball in Albany, New York City Hall and Washington. And upstate readers, it would seem her agenda aspires to touch every corner of the Empire State.

And our governor is self-aware in mutl-faceted ways:

  • Politically, she knows she has to circle Democratic wagons across the state in order to secure election in her own right come November. She seems well on her way on that quest with her campaign war chests holding record sums near $22 million and firm support from Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chair. Still, she knows she has to win over downstate suburban voters to succeed in her June primary, where she faces challenges from Rep. Tom Suozzi, the centrist Long Island Democrat and Jumaane Williams, New York City’s progressive public advocate. 
  • Practically, she knows she must marshal command of a highly complex state whose many regions face vastly different challenges and opportunities. Again, she's seemingly well-equipped. Having worked as a primary conduit between the Executive Chamber and the Cuomo administration's regional economic development councils, Hochul has toured the state up and down. As governor, she's been everywhere, too — one day finds her at the farmers' market in Saranac Lake and another on the sidewalks of SoHo. In her recent state of the state and budget addresses, she laid out an agenda that addresses — and funds in many cases — everything from investments in infrastructure, education and health care to property-tax relief and efforts to stem the opioid and gun violence crises. 

On both fronts — as a candidate and as governor — Hochul appears poised for potential success. 

Her approval ratings have hovered near 50% and, in the primary race, she leads her rivals by more than 30 points. Flush with federal COVID-relief dollars and better-than-expected tax revenues, Hochul's $216.3 budget plan for 2022 aspires to reset New York and its regionally-driven economy on surer footing as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

In her budget address, Hochul made her aspirations clear as she summoned Franklin Delano Roosevelt's leadership as governor during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

"He embraced those times of crisis for what they were: A chance to reimagine the future while correcting the mistakes of the past," Hochul said. "We must now have the same foresight and resolve to do the same."

Can Hochul meet the moment and lead the state forward into a period of stability — or even growth? Can she solve real problems like rising gun violence and the relentless flight of wealth to low-tax states?

Can her dyed-in-the-wool upstate centrism beat back a downstate Democratic movement that's focused squarely on a progressive agenda at every level of government? Can policies that work for middle-class taxpayers and small businesses right the tide?

That remains to be seen. 

Amid that backdrop, the USA TODAY Network New York's Editorial Board — comprised of editors who represent our newsrooms in every corner of the state — met with Hochul last week. 

In a marathon session, we asked candid, probing questions about Hochul's agenda, how she expects to execute it and how she intends to survive politically.

Here are some key takeaways:

Economic stability first 

Of course, the reality of the pandemic — and emerging from it — transcends Hochul's top priorities. Hochul wants New York's health care system, struggling now to manage the Omicron wave with exhausted, shrinking staffs, to stabilize.

"We saw our health care system literally brought to its knees," the governor said. "I'm still sending National Guard to hospitals in Rochester and other places around the state to help them because they're in desperate straits — nursing homes as well."

Hochul's budget invests $10 billion in health care workers, including wage increases and bonuses and investments in professional development. 

"We keep saying they're our heroes," Hochul said, adding, "We have to give them a lifeline."

Small businesses are also top priorities for Hochul, she said. 

"I've always been a believer that we have to keep them strong because our small towns and particularly our urban areas, they rely on the dynamic of having small businesses and entrepreneurs and little mom-and-pop shops," Hochul said.

Hochul also cited her budget's investments in agriculture, property-tax rebates and basic infrastructure. And she heralded her commitment to fiscal discipline. 

"I'm not going to commit us to any long-term spending without the resources to back it up," she said. "You need to have rainy-day reserves. We'll have the largest reserves in the history of the state of New York because I want to be sure we're conservative — I can't bank on that there won't be another crisis."

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Transparency

We were sure to ask Hochul about our network's efforts to focus on transparency in all levels of government across New York, building on our reporting on police disciplinary records. We also shared our concerns — many held by our readers, too — that the pace at which state and other government agencies responded to Freedom of Information requests are simply too slow. 

Hochul told us she'd directed state agencies to move faster. 

"My first week on the job, I said, 'I no longer want to hear that FOIA requests or being ignored or shuffled off,'" the governor said. "I literally moved people my first weeks on the job to be targeted to areas where there were backlogs and I said, 'clean 'em up.' ... We have so much work to do to restore people's trust in their government — because that trust had been shattered. ... We are not going to be the roadblocks."

Hochul also cited her proposal to eliminate the Joint Commission of Public Ethics and replace it with a panel of ethics experts nominated by New York state law school deans. 

Public safety and social justice

Hochul's budget would invest $224 million in targeting gun violence. We asked her how efforts to amplify public safety — as New York grapples with rising shootings and other crime — impact the state's commitments to social justice and the racial reckoning. 

"Well that's the balance that is very important to strike, Hochul said. "But right now, there is an unease, there's an anxiety that was not there before the pandemic hit. New York state and New York city in particular, was one of the safest cities in America in February of 2020. If you polled people in New York state, I don't think public safety would have been top of mind."

Hochul acknowledged George Floyd's death and the imperatives of improving police and community relationships, but said "there's still a long way to go."

But the pandemic, she said, exposed fragility across race and class in New York. Crime and domestic violence have spiked in the last two years and now, Hochul said, people don't feel safe in their previously safe and stable downtowns and residential neighborhoods. 

"We have to deal with the sense that people don't feel comfortable in their streets, especially in places like Rochester and Binghamton," the governor said. "They're just nervous. They're nervous when their kids are going off to school. They're nervous when they go to the grocery store. That is something that — whether it's based on a true increase or not, your perception very quickly becomes reality."

Hochul said "we have to let people know we are investing in two sides of the equation" and then pointed to expanding SNUG outreach programs in upstate cities and then said she was laser-focused on expanding New York State Police programs that target the illegal gun trade, which she said channels weapons along the Interstate 81 corridor into the southern tier and then across upstate and the Hudson Valley. 

"Crime has been a problem forever, but right now we're seeing the stress of this pandemic on people's well-being and their insecurities," Hochul said. "But we also have to make sure we don't ... have a whipsaw effect on communities of color that have already been suffering them most through this pandemic."

We'll keep a close eye on how Hochul manages this very, very delicate balance. Public safety and social justice prevail at once in New York. 

Ed Forbes is a senior editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing opinion for news organizations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in the Northeast, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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