New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's first address in her new position Tuesday afternoon was a short one. However, it was long in content, with significant policy initiatives like a statewide mask mandate for schools, an extension on the state's eviction ban and more transparency from officials.
Hochul spoke for nearly 12 minutes, 15 hours after taking the oath of office to replace departed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal and a near-certain impeachment trial. Much like her predecessor and former running mate, she was direct. However, she also pledged her administration would be open and transparent.
The state's 57th governor cited New York's 33rd governor in acknowledging her place in history.
The Buffalo native cited Teddy Roosevelt's “Citizenship in a Republic” speech in her remarks. Specifically, she cited its most famous passage about the man in the arena “marred by dust and sweat and blood” compared to “timid souls” who don't know either victory or defeat.
“For the first time in New York history, a woman will enter that arena as governor, as I undertake the way, the responsibilities before me know that I have the confidence, the courage, and the ability to lead new Yorkers forward and make New York's women proud,” Hochul said.
With less than a year before a potential Democratic gubernatorial primary, there's not going to be a lot of time to learn or recover from defeats. And if she is the Democratic nominee next year, she'll likely face Republican Long Island U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin in a race state GOP officials have been targeting the race for months.
Zeldin tweeted Tuesday morning that she should fire state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker “if she is serious about transparency and accountability,” and he started calling it the “Cuomo-Hochul” administration in an effort to anchor her to the highly unpopular former governor.
She admitted she may not be as well known as Cuomo, who carried a national presence even before his daily COVID-19 briefings last year. But she said she knew New Yorkers through her travels across all 62 counties every year and the stories she's heard from residents.
“As a result of all this, I've embraced and internalized the hopes and dreams of 20 million people who share the name New Yorkers,” she said. “And I want you to know you are heard, and I am ready to get to work as your governor to solve the big problems that this state faces.”
And there are major problems before the state right now. While she addressed racial concerns and job growth, she spent most of her time on topics that have dominated New York in the last 18 months – the COVID-19 pandemic and the investigations into the Cuomo administration.
With schools set to open across the state, Hochul will seek to avoid the increases in COVID-19 caseloads occurring elsewhere in the country and leading to school district shutdowns.
After saying last week that she believed a mask mandate was necessary, she announced she was ordering the state Department of Health to implement a “universal” requirement for anyone entering a school facility.
In addition, she also said the state will need to require vaccinations for all school staff but added an opt-out clause for individuals to undergo weekly testing.
“To accomplish this in New York, we need partnerships with all levels of government, and I'm working now on getting this done,” Hochul said. “New York is launching a back-to-school COVID-19 testing program to make testing for students and staff widely available and convenient.”
The testing option is not something New York City is considering in its vaccine mandate for school workers, nor was it an item Cuomo mentioned in his farewell address Monday. However, her policy won quick approval from New York State Teachers United.
Union President Andy Pallotta said Hochul “brings a breath of fresh air” to the state capital.
“We support universal mask-wearing as part of a layered mitigation strategy that also includes robust COVID testing, contract tracing, proper ventilation and other strategies recommended by public health experts,” he said in a statement. “We also support the governor's move to require regular COVID testing for school staff who are not yet vaccinated. It's critical that educators continue to have a voice in the implementation of vaccine requirements and other COVID policies at the local level.”
She said more she'll announce more education policies later this week, and she told New Yorkers to expect more vaccine mandates in the wake of the federal government's full approval of the Pfizer vaccine for individuals age 16 and older. In addition, she said she's working to secure booster shots for fully vaccinated residents and locations where those doses will be available.
Another COVID-19-era issue will remain a priority as well, that's the state's eviction ban ruled partially unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court justices earlier this month.
With the state program set to expire in a week and the potential for thousands and thousands of eviction cases to flood state courts, proponents have called for another extension.
Hochul called for renewing the program, with anyone approved for rental assistance protected from face eviction for a year.
New York has been among the least successful states in delivering federal aid to renters and landlords in a quick fashion, a finding that left the new governor perturbed. She's not alone, as she added Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, share her urgency.
“I want the money out now,” she said. “I want it out with no more excuses and delays.”
While some COVID-19 policies will remain the same or slightly reworked, Hochul pledged her administration will work markedly different from her predecessor, whose term was filled with criticism about the lack of transparency and a toxic environment where the brash Cuomo would often seek to intimidate people – either privately or publicly.
One immediate change in policy will be to require all sexual harassment training to take place in-person, so people can't just “click their way through a class,” she said. Ethics training, something she found surprising as it's not mandatory for all state workers, will also be required.
The call to reform ethics and sexual harassment policies was welcomed by several lawmakers and advocates. Erica Vladimer, who represents the Sexual Harassment Working Group, tweeted that the Albany-based group of former legislative staffers seeking reforms stands ready to work with her and included a link to the group's six-bill policy agenda.
“The @NYSenateDems are already on board, and I'm sure with a little encouragement, @NYSA_Majority will be, too,” Vladimer tweeted.
Hochul also wants freedom of information requests to be handled more expeditiously and for all state agencies to conduct reviews to ensure their compliance with transparency laws.
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