ALBANY, N.Y. — Kathy Hochul had just been sworn in as the governor of New York and was about to get her first chance to work with state lawmakers after calling a special session at the Capitol.
There was little to fight over; Democrats agreed on what they needed to do. Yet when a Hochul aide emailed a top legislative staffer asking about scheduling details, the response came back harsh and fast: “None of your business,“ he effectively replied.
He was instinctively responding to the Cuomo administration’s penchant for one-upping the Legislature on big announcements, he explained in an interview, speaking anonymously to discuss the private exchange. But Cuomo, of course, was gone, and so were most of his top advisers. The staffer quickly apologized.
“I was thinking, ‘oh, they’re trying to f— us and they’ll come back and change the timing tomorrow,'” he said, “And then I realized, they legitimately wanted our advice.”
The encounter is indicative of life after Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August. Following more than a decade of rule by threat and fiat, the former governor has left behind a replacement who wants to “change the culture of Albany.” Hochul, who ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Cuomo in 2014 and 2018, has promised to build an administration that runs on collaboration and respect. She already has purged many of her former running mate’s top advisers, from the Cabinet level on down.
But the Democrat, a former lawmaker, is hardly the first leader in New York to make such a pledge. And whether any one person, even a governor, can invent a new way to grind the sausage in a capital seemingly impervious to change is an open question.
Few doubt Hochul’s intentions, at least not yet. But many wonder if muscle memories developed during the Cuomo years — and earlier — can be retrained any time soon. If a new way is indeed possible, it would require nearly everyone in the state’s political sphere to collectively give it a try.
“I think this is the big stress test of this wider ecosystem of New York and beyond,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish, a managing director at Mercury Public Affairs. “It‘s a conscious decision: Are we going to play by the rules that we’ve all kind of played around or are we going to make new rules?”
The new governor, for all the house cleaning she’s done, was quickly criticized after naming a former Cuomo appointee to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a panel charged with rooting out wrongdoing at the top levels of state government. A day later, Hochul said the choice was a necessary short-term fix and vowed to “turn upside down” the entire structure of government.
That’s something that should be done in tandem with lawmakers, said state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Westchester), the chamber’s ethics chair. She had immediately called out Hochul’s appointment as “concerning“ once it was announced.
“One person alone won’t be able to effectively change the culture of Albany, but it does begin at the top,” Biaggi said in an email the following week. “We can’t shift culture without legislation that actually addresses the structural impediments to a functioning ethics system. I am glad the governor is dedicated to addressing these issues — we need a real partnership between the Executive and the Legislature in order to get this done.”
It’s not just Hochul’s direct actions that matter. The previous administration had cultivated a habitat of harassment, bullying and micromanagement detailed in several news reports and finally an investigation from Attorney General Tish James in August. That report led to Cuomo’s resignation.
So far, Hochul’s Albany is focused on rectifying some of the flaws associated with her predecessor. She said transparency would be a “hallmark” of her administration and that she’d seek out ways to fulfill public records requests — which were often held captive for months and years under Cuomo — as quickly as possible. Her counsel and top aide this month sent a letter to all agency heads requiring them to review and revise the ways in which they are meeting the state’s transparency laws.
And she has vowed to make the Capitol’s second floor, where her office is located, a safe workplace.
“No one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” Hochul told reporters shortly after learning of her promotion. “No one who was named doing anything unethical in the [attorney general’s] report will remain.”
Some of the people most associated with Cuomo’s brand of aggressive politics have already resigned. Aides Rich Azzopardi and Melissa DeRosa are gone. So are top officials and longtime Cuomo allies like Department of Financial Services head Linda Lacewell and state Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro. Health commissioner Howard Zucker, who was associated with Cuomo’s now-contentious Covid-19 policies, announced his resignation last week, and the following day several other agency heads and Cuomo appointees were reportedly asked to resign.
A personnel purge makes a point, but insiders say they realize the new governor would be making a mistake if she simply got rid of all top-level people who worked for her predecessor, many of whom have the experience she needs to keep New York running. Even new hires are more likely than not to have some ties to Cuomo, who had been in Democratic politics for the better part of four decades.
Hochul set up a 45-day period on her first day in office to evaluate the roles of top Cuomo administration personnel she inherited. Many Executive Chamber staff, especially those in not especially prominent positions, were likely to stay on in some capacity, Hochul’s Chief of Staff Jeff Lewis said in an August memo.
All of this creates anxiety for those doing work in the Capital who are left to wonder where old and new loyalties will ultimately lie, especially as the contentious state budget season approaches early next year.
Some familiar faces who advanced Cuomo’s cause and showed up at the table as trusted advisers during his popular pandemic briefings in 2020 — such as Budget Director Robert Mujica and State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras — still hold vital governmental roles but have not been specifically named as complicit in any unethical behavior.
Mujica, a former staffer for Senate Republicans who has steered Cuomo’s powerful budget process since 2015, was in attendance for the three-way legislative leaders meeting Hochul held with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie after her swearing in on Aug. 24, two individuals in attendance said.
Last Friday, Hochul hinted that the budget czar was unlikely to be axed in the near future.
“He has been working with our administration,” Hochul said following an unrelated event in Lake Placid on Sept. 24. “To date I am still evaluating positions, but he is working very hard with us to chart the future going forward, so I believe he’ll be with us for some time.”
Privately, lobbyists in Albany don’t know what to make of all the changes — or how to operate now, said one Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are unconvinced that Hochul’s staff is any less retaliatory than Cuomo’s. With so many of the same people in place, the strategist said, it still feels like the same town, still accustomed to running “on fear.”
“But I don’t think that’s what she wants,“ the strategist said of Hochul. “And if you fire everyone, we have no government.”
Further holding some back from fully converting to a new culture is that Cuomo hasn’t gone entirely silent. Azzopardi has remained in the former governor’s employ as spokesperson, repeatedly bashing James’s investigation and reportedly working to undermine Hochul’s new administration. Last week, Cuomo’s campaign account blasted subscribers with a Newsday op-ed from a lawyer who worked for the administration of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo‘s late father, in which the attorney compared the younger Cuomo’s resignation to a “coup.”
It’s not lost on political veterans that a vow to upend the state Capitol is hardly a new one.
Cuomo himself promised to “restore honor and integrity to government, with tough new ethics standards” in the first page of a 2010 campaign document called “Clean Up Albany: Make it Work.”
Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the so-called “sheriff of Wall Street“ when he was state attorney general, ran for governor in 2006 on a not-so-modest campaign motto: “On Day 1, everything changes.” He handed out “Day One” knit hats and long-sleeved T-shirts at an early morning run on inauguration day, and said of rainy weather, “We’re washing away the dirt and the grime.” Spitzer resigned barely a year into office amid a prostitution scandal.
And, on the other side of the Hudson River, Jim McGreevey promised to “change the way business is done in Trenton” as he declared victory in New Jersey’s 2001 gubernatorial election. McGreevey resigned in late 2003, similarly scarred by scandal.
“It won’t be difficult for me,” Hochul said on CNN in August. “Everyone who’s known my career over 27 years in elected office knows that I have very high ethical standards. I will go in there and literally say, ‘It’s a whole new day.’”
Hochul press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said in an email that the governor is using a 45-day transition window — ending the second week in October— “to build the best team to lead the state forward.”
“Since day one, Governor Hochul has led swift, decisive action to cultivate a safe and respectful workplace, and we are exploring all ways to deliver accountability, transparency, and open, ethical governing that New Yorkers will trust,” she said.
One of the dangers in making such sweeping promises has been that they are premised on the idea that Albany (or, in McGreevey’s case, Trenton) is unique from any other place where money, power and moral imperatives clash, said a longtime lobbyist who has witnessed the past two dozen legislative sessions from public, private and non-profit sectors.
“I have worked in a lot of spaces, and I have heard no less than three state leaders claim they will change Albany,” said the person, who has also worked in Washington. “But the planet Albany is not different from the rest of the world. In fact, not only is Albany not different, it is not even the worst in my experience.”
Hochul’s pledge also sounds familiar to Blair Horner, the executive director of the good government organization New York Public Interest Research Group. The culture of the state Capitol has changed as leadership has, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, Horner said. The accusations that ultimately felled Cuomo, for example, would likely not even have not been taken seriously just a decade earlier, he said.
Albany politics will always be “elbows-out, intense combat,” and younger staffers will model their standards on the behavior of the top dog, which can ultimately determine whether the line is crossed. But lasting culture change depends on something more than the personality in charge, he said, and requires changes in law — coupled with unbiased enforcement.
“I think all new governors come in saying they’re going to change the culture,” Horner said. “Every governor comes in as a reformer and, after a while, they become the status quo.”