ALBANY — As Kathy Hochul began her second term as lieutenant governor in 2019, she shared her playbook on succeeding in the male-dominated domain of politics.
“I’ve often been called an iron fist in a velvet glove, which I take as a compliment,” Hochul said in an Instagram video. “I embrace the strengths and assets of my femininity but also, I won’t back down from a fight.”
Hochul, 62, was sworn in as the first woman governor in New York state on Tuesday, giving her an opportunity to put her philosophy into practice on the state’s grandest political stage. But things have changed since 2019: For the first time, women will outnumber men at Albany’s upper echelon of power. She will join Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), the first woman to lead a legislative chamber in Albany, in high-level talks with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
Hochul’s ascension has unfolded in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal as well as a more general reckoning about sexual and cultural politics in Albany and elsewhere. And it comes after a new generation of women politicians has made its mark in Albany not only by confronting the capital’s infamously masculine culture, but by assailing Hochul’s predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. Younger, progressive legislators such as Alessandra Biaggi (D-Westchester), Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) and Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) made their mark in Albany by directly challenging Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, and the culture that he personified. It was an almost unheard-of breach of protocol, but now it feels like a foreshadowing of the sort of change the new governor represents.
And yet, Hochul still must manage the weight of being “the first woman,” with big expectations and a meager timeline for a complete change in gubernatorial culture she’s promised.
During brief remarks following a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, Hochul named “changing the culture of Albany” alongside combating Covid-19 and getting direct aid to New Yorkers as her most-immediate priorities.
“I’m looking forward to a fresh collaborative approach,” she said. “That’s how I’ve always conducted myself. It will be nothing new for me, but it is something I’m planning on introducing to the state Capitol.” The delivery was pure velvet. The words were made of iron.
Hochul’s inauguration, which took place about 173 years and 188 miles away from the first women’s right’s convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., paves the way for a different style of state leadership, notably the erasure of the notorious “three men in a room” dynamic of closed-door clashes among the governor and legislative leaders.
The term mostly ceased to apply in 2019, when Stewart-Cousins became Senate majority leader. Now, with Hochul as governor, Stewart-Cousins has company, and the cliche seems to belong to another era. It will be two women and a man in the room when she and Hochul negotiate state policy with Heastie. “Carl said to me, completely joking, ‘Well, now I guess I’ll be the minority in the room,’” Stewart-Cousins said in an interview Monday.
On Tuesday, Heastie said that new dynamic is “good for us as a country, as a state, as a people.”
“I’m a father of a young 12-year-old daughter and I want her to believe she can do anything in the world and she won’t be restricted based on the fact that she was born a girl,” he told reporters following Hochul’s swearing-in. “I think it was a strong message to send and I’m OK being the only guy.”
When she took over the Senate, Stewart-Cousins recalled the power dynamic in the Capitol changed in ways both “seen and unseen.” For one, Cuomo seemed to call fewer leaders' meetings, she said with a laugh. But she said that she and Heastie also focused on points of agreement, which is “always a lot better than having to show up in an adversarial stance.”
That’s something she expects will be amplified with Hochul, with whom she connects over their previous roles in local government and who “has always extended a hand of friendship,” she said.
“She’s going to be breaking a huge glass ceiling and her attention will be on doing the absolute best she can for New Yorkers,” Stewart-Cousins said of Hochul, who served a term in Congress a decade ago. “But because she’s the first, people are going to scrutinize her and her performance that much more.”
Many of the top staff who typically join the leaders' meetings to hash out the final details of major state policy decisions will also be women. Hochul has appointed Karen Persichilli Keogh — an alum of both Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Sen. Hillary Clinton — as secretary to the governor, the most-powerful unelected official in state government, and Elizabeth Fine — who is executive vice president and counsel at the state’s economic development agency — as her counsel.
Already in the mix are LouAnn Ciccone, secretary to the Speaker and Heastie’s senior policy advisor, and Shontell Smith, Senate majority counsel and Stewart-Cousins’ chief of staff — both of whom are key figures in their respective chambers.
“We know there was a certain way things were done in Albany forever. And even cracking one-third of that equation by electing Andrea Stewart-Cousins has had a huge impact,” Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris (D-Queens) said on Monday. “So I feel like the state is about to take its first step in a long time to more civil and respectful government that will have substantive impacts, in addition to just the style changes.”
But it’s neither fair nor accurate to suggest that because women generally spend less time looking for confrontation, they must always agree or are inherently more civil, said Stephanie Miner, a former mayor of Syracuse (and the first woman to hold the office) who also ran a brief third-party challenge to Cuomo in 2018.
“The reality of politics is it's a forum for ambitious people who believe that they are correct,” Miner said. “And we are going into an election cycle. But it doesn't have to be an authoritarian, dictatorial model.”
“My experience is that women are more collaborative,” she added. “But that’s because of how few get to the executive level, and also because the way that women normally get there is after a crisis. We've seen that they have to figure out how to put the pieces back together and instill trust. One of the ways you do that is by listening to people and asking for people's opinions.”
Certainly Hochul has a number of crises to counter — Covid-19 variants are driving case numbers, schools face continued uncertainty about safety mandates, Cuomo’s rapid downfall has sparked intraparty instability even as she tried to garner support for a term in her own right next year.
The continued stereotypes that surround women — research shows they are typically viewed as more ethical and trustworthy than men — can be a double-edged sword by creating unrealistic expectations when they’re elected or promoted, said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to advance women's political representation.
“There’s a danger in expecting any woman to come in and clean up a situation,” she said. “We’ve definitely seen some glass cliffs here — she only has a finite amount of time in this term and there’s only so much that anyone can do coming into this situation with multiple crises.”
It’s a situation relatively few have navigated before her. Hochul is the 45th woman to become governor in the United States and the ninth currently in office. Of the 44 who came before her, a quarter (11) got there by being lieutenant governor or some other first-in-the-line position. Six of those have gone on to win election to the governor’s office in their own right, including three in office now: Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat, and Republicans Kay Ivey of Alabama and Kim Reynolds of Iowa.
The pressure that comes with being a trailblazer can be profound, but there's also satisfaction in being seen as a role model by other women and girls, Hunter said. The foundation's research shows that when most people are asked to picture a governor, they still have an “imagination barrier” — they think of a man, Hunter said.
“For some voters, simply seeing a woman doing the job allows them to internalize that a woman is capable of holding that position,” she said.
It will be difficult, but vital, to both cheer and criticize Hochul as a politician outside of her historic role, said Alexis Grenell, a Democratic political operative and longtime Cuomo critic who has been writing about gender and power for nearly a decade.
“Whenever you’re the first, there’s a lot on your shoulders — with gender or with race — it becomes a burden that also makes it hard to evaluate that person individually rather than a reflection of this landmark event,” she said.
Grenell says that Hochul’s administration offers an opportunity to rethink the top-down way Albany has operated for decades — a style that ultimately played a part in Cuomo ‘s undoing.
“It’s really more an unlearning of an abusive form of toxic masculinity and decoupling it from the notion of leadership,” Grenell said. “We may finally have that opportunity to see the shifting of what leadership can look like apart from a male gendered vision that was unfair to both men and women.”
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