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Larry Donnelly: Exit Cuomo, enter Kerrywoman Kathy Hochul

Our columnist reflects on the New York governor’s fall from grace and looks at the career of the woman who will replace him.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IN A 2002 piece for Salon, the political website based in the United States, current CNN anchor Jake Tapper reflected upon the New York Democratic gubernatorial primary. 

Andrew Cuomo, who had been a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet, was initially the heavy favourite in that race, but wound up badly trailing the state’s mild-mannered comptroller, Carl McCall, and withdrew before ballots were cast to avoid humiliation.

Tapper sought to assess why Cuomo had fallen so far short in his quest.  It did not help that the party’s elected officials and activists just could not warm to the man. There was nary a person acquainted with the son of the respected three-term New York governor, Mario Cuomo, who would vouch for the then-44-year-old’s character.

‘They know him’

As McCall said when asked why so few of his rival’s former colleagues from a posting as Secretary for Housing and Urban Development backed him, “they know him, what can I tell ya?  Having worked with him, they’re not very supportive.”

Tapper summed up the prevalent sentiment forthrightly: “the regrettable fact for Cuomo was that, to a sizeable number of voters, he seemed like an a**hole.”

Even as a deliberate non-follower of my neighbouring state’s affairs – see Boston born-and-bred scepticism of all things New York for an explanation of a political indifference that is unusual for me – I could not escape hearing the universally negative stories about Andrew Cuomo from those who had encountered him.

Accordingly, it was with bewilderment that I viewed the subsequent rise of his political star and long tenure as the Empire State’s chief executive. Arrogant, brash and combative beyond belief, I just couldn’t see his appeal as a politician.

That the pandemic made him a much bigger figure and prompted speculation in a temporarily fawning media regarding a future presidential run, was equally mystifying.

I put it down to his being an ideal foil for Donald Trump and the perception that New York was dealing well with Covid-19.  The latter, which did not comport with reality, was engendered by his robust and effective communication style in an unprecedented period.

The fall

It all unravelled rapidly as multiple women emerged with disturbing accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct over many years against Cuomo. Despite plenty of calls from within the Democratic Party for him to step aside, Cuomo appeared determined to brazen it out and, while apologising, asserted that “sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I mean no offence and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”

His position was untenable, however, after the release of a report commissioned by New York Attorney General Letitia James. This found that the governor had groped, kissed and made inappropriate comments to 11 women.

There was a loud clamour for him to go and impeachment proceedings were in the offing. The last straw came when his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who had trenchantly defended her boss and tried to discredit the women he harassed, abruptly quit.

Even as he went, Cuomo did so with no grace. Professing to take responsibility for his actions, he nonetheless insisted that there was no ill intent behind them and that they were misunderstood. He indicated that he would still resign, though, because “it’s not about me, it’s about we.”

To be blunt, New York Democrats had him sussed two decades ago.

While almost no one has shed a tear in the wake of Cuomo’s undignified exit from public life, Irish onlookers are delighted that the granddaughter of Kerry emigrants, Kathy Hochul, will assume his role. The Buffalo native has been serving as lieutenant governor since January 2015. She is a proud Irish American (her maiden surname is Courtney) who frequently touts her ancestry and references her family’s struggles as they chased their dreams in the US.

First woman, conservative-leaning

A Democrat, Hochul was a lawyer and a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill prior to successfully campaigning for local offices. In 2011, she won an open congressional seat in a solidly Republican district by a narrow margin. She probably owed that triumph to an independent candidate linked to the Tea Party movement, who took 9% of the vote, and she was defeated in a bid for a full term in 2012.

Early in her political career, and owing to an extent to the fairly conservative territory she represented, Hochul identified as an “independent Democrat.” She disagreed with the issuance of driver’s licences to undocumented immigrants.  She also opposed gun control measures and was actually endorsed by the National Rifle Association. She has pivoted leftward since, yet continues to be labelled a centrist Democrat.

It is expected that Hochul, soon to be New York’s first female governor, will endeavour to be elected in her own right next year. She will not receive a free pass in the Democratic primary. Among those with ambitions is James, the high profile attorney general. No matter where Hochul situates herself these days, ascendant progressives will assail past stances that aren’t in keeping with the present zeitgeist. Some liberals will consequently look askance at her.

That said, the advantages incumbency bestows should not be underestimated. Hochul is a shrewd politician who has crisscrossed New York as lieutenant governor and formed alliances and built strong relationships with key Democrats in rural and urban areas of what is a vast and diverse state. Crucially, she has maintained a healthy distance from Andrew Cuomo.

She will not be easily beaten. In her words, “like all good Irishmen and Irishwomen, I love a good fight, especially if it’s for the people of my beloved state.” Without getting carried away, Ireland and Irish America can benefit tangibly and intangibly from Hochul’s becoming the governor of one of the most Irish states in the US.

She wears her heritage on her sleeve and – whether it is in furthering business ties, expanding educational exchanges or ameliorating the plight of many thousands of our undocumented in New York – this country will have another powerful friend its politicians and diplomats can call on. This is particularly significant in an era when Irish influence in America has been widely described as on the wane.

Even this detached Bostonian will be watching Kathy Hochul – from Buffalo, but of Kerry – with great interest.

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Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.  His upcoming book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – will be published by Gill Books on 15 October and can be pre-ordered here https://www.bookstation.ie/product/the-bostonian/.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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