New York State In-depth

Why is Governor Kathy Hochul waging war on her own party?

Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his lieutenant governor-elect, former Congresswoman Kathy Hochul campaign together September 8, 2014 in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

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Popular early 20th-century writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs loved to write about lost worlds: strange hidden kingdoms tucked away in the hidden and uncharted folds of the earth, where antediluvian monsters like dinosaurs still stalked, or where the renegade remnants lay of the ancient Egyptians or the Roman civilization continued to be unaware of the passage of the following centuries.

The idea of ​​a lost world may seem fantastic, but it’s real. This lost world even has an exact address: the governor’s mansion in Albany, New York. This is the home of Governor Kathleen Hochul. Although physically residing in 2023, Hochul’s mental universe is a lost kingdom where the 1990s never ended, where the wise policy for a Democratic executive is to triangulate between her party and the Republicans — and where the hitting for the left is to build political credibility. In this lost kingdom, Bill Clinton and Hochul’s disgraced predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, still stand as paragons of smart politics.

Evidence that Hochul lives in a mental Shangri-la can be seen in the political debacle of her nomination from Hector LaSalle for the New York Circuit Court of Appeals. The nomination was bizarre in several ways. Hochul underperformed in her 2022 gubernatorial campaign, winning by a little over 6 percent — in a very democratic state where her predecessor Andrew Cuomo won by more than 23 percent just four years ago. Before the election, the polls were so tight that losing Hochul was discussed as a possibility. To salvage her campaign, Hochul recruited last-minute organizational help from progressives including the Working Families Party and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The left saved Hochul’s political career, but earned no gratitude. On the contrary, after the election, the governor decided to install a uniquely conservative judge, Hector LaSalle. Alexander Sammon wrote in Slate that LaSalle was

the most conservative judge of the options recommended by the state commission on judge nominations, one with a particularly damaging record on two of the most important issues in democratic politics today: abortion and labor. In the case of People v. Bridgeforth in 2014, Judge LaSalle signed off jurors on the basis of skin color, asserting that “dark colored” is not a “constitutionally recognizable class protected under the equal protections clause.” ” That decision was quickly reversed.

Describing the LaSalle nomination, my colleague Elie Mystal said, “Governor Hochul made the classic New York Democrat mistake of promoting a conservative justice nominee who is backed by Republicans against strong objections from their base.”

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Nominating a conservative like LaSalle is the sort of thing Hochul’s predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, did all along. But Cuomo should serve as a cautionary tale for Hochul, not a role model. Cuomo resigned from grace in 2021 after more than 10 allegations of sexual harassment. His personal demeanor aside, Cuomo’s centrist approach to government has already come under pressure, thanks to the increasing strength of the left in New York politics and also the fact that even more moderate Democrats have become more partisan thanks to the pressure of Trumpism.

Hochul’s mistake was trying to rule the high-handed Cuomo way in a political world that no longer has a place for Andrew Cuomo. Her short-sightedness appears to be shared by the mainstream press, which fails to recognize just how much the Democratic Party’s base has changed.

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On Jan. 18, The New York Times reported, “Hochul’s embattled nominee for New York State Chief Justice was defeated Wednesday, an unprecedented rejection that underscores a deep division among Democrats over the direction of the state’s justice system.” The newspaper added, “After a contentious hour-long hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-9 against the nomination of Judge Hector D. LaSalle, whose nomination was adamantly rejected by progressives who saw him as too moderate.” The Times later changed the wording so that “too moderate” became “too conservative”.

The original Times frame of this story as a struggle between progressives and moderates was echoed by others in the paper, such as reporter Nick Confessore, who complained about “the left-libertarian railroading of a Democratic New York court nominee.”

But it wasn’t just progressives or liberals who derailed LaSalle. As Alexander Sammon observed in Slate,

Not surprisingly, LaSalle was quickly condemned by progressives. But opposition was much broader: a number of typically moderate unions have come out strongly against the election, as has the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Many of the 14 state senators who have already said they will not support LaSalle are far from being American Democratic Socialists. And in perhaps the most impressive example of coordinated resistance, mainstream women’s groups across the country have called for LaSalle to be rejected. It is very unusual for these groups to publicly defy an incumbent Democratic governor, especially one they just helped elect.

The real mystery is why the newly elected Hochul, fresh out of a too-close race, is expending so much political capital to push a candidate her own party opposes. Hochul hasn’t just persisted in the nomination and campaigned for LaSalle — including an embarrassing incantation of Martin Luther King Jr. at a church service. She’s also brought on board the National Party’s big gun, House Democrat Chairman Hakeem Jeffries. She’s even now threatening to give LaSalle a full vote in the Senate, one he’s not sure he’ll win. Identity politics’ selling point of portraying LaSalle as a pioneering Latino failed in the Judiciary Committee and may not even work in the entire Senate.

This “LaSalle or Bust” strategy is all the more puzzling given the real risk of going bust. Hochul could easily face a major challenge in the next election cycle. If the party’s left could unite around a candidate, it’s not hard to imagine Hochul losing the primary.

The best explanation came from novelist Joseph O’Neill, who stated in a Twitter thread:

There’s something deadly anachronistic about Hochul. Machine politics has isolated them so much from ordinary Ds (moderates and progs) that they have no idea of ​​the extraordinary personal investments of time, emotion and money they have made to defeat the GOP since 2017. In the world of Hochul, the Albany merry-go-round still spins like it’s 2012. Wall Street donors, machine hackers, and “deal-making” Republicans are their key collaborators. ActBlue does not exist. Indivisible never happened. Trump is a guy to do business with.

O’Neill’s phrase “deadly anachronistic” is apt. It describes not just Hochul, but the entire leadership of the New York State Democratic Party that has hurt the entire national party by underperforming in the midterm elections. Engaged in a constant struggle with the left, New York State Party bigwigs don’t realize that the world has changed. They are trapped in a lost world of Clinton/Cuomo centrism, a world that only exists in their heads.

The tragedy for Democrats across America is that this anachronistic faction wields outsized national power thanks to its ties to Hakeem Jeffries. Hochul and her cronies may live in a lost world, but they can still wreak havoc in the reality we all live in.

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