Hochul vows swift action as she takes helm in New York

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York on Tuesday and in her first hours on the job sought to bring a new sense of urgency to tackling immense problems that went unaddressed during Andrew Cuomo’s distracted final months in office.

In an afternoon address, she said she was immediately making masks mandatory for anyone entering schools and would work to implement a requirement that all school staff either be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. She said the state would launch a back-to-school testing program to make testing for students and staff more convenient.

“None of us want a rerun of last year’s horrors with COVID-19,” Hochul said. “Therefore we will take proactive steps to prevent that from happening.”

Hochul also pledged quick action to unstick an application bottleneck that has kept federal aid money from flowing to renters who suffered financially because of the pandemic. She promised to get the state ready to distribute vaccine booster shots, when they become widely available, including reopening mass inoculation sites that had previously closed. And she also said New Yorkers “can expect new vaccine requirements,” though she didn’t specify what those might be.

“More on that soon,” she said.

Hochul, a Democrat and former member of Congress from western New York, took the oath of office just after midnight in a brief, private event overseen by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore.

At a ceremonial swearing-in later Tuesday morning at the State Capitol, Hochul promised a “fresh, collaborative approach” in state government. She said she had already begun speaking with other Democratic leaders who have, for years, complained about being shut out of key decisions and of being bullied by Cuomo, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“There’ll be no blindsiding; there’ll just be full cooperation,” Hochul said.

Over the next few months, Hochul, who was little known as lieutenant governor, will have an opportunity to reshape Albany, where Cuomo dominated decision-making for years before being felled in a sexual harassment scandal.

For generations, it’s been said that all of the real decisions in the state government were made by “three men in a room” — the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.

Now, for the first time, two of those three — Hochul and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins — are women. Only the state Assembly is led by a man, Speaker Carl Heastie.

Hochul promised more transparency and ethical conduct in government going forward.

She ordered an overhaul of state government policies on sexual harassment and ethics, including requiring that all training be done live, “instead of allowing people to click their way through a class.”

And she said she would order ethics training for every state government employee, “which, shockingly,” she said, “is not required across the board.”

Cuomo left office at midnight, two weeks after he announced he would resign rather than face an impeachment battle that appeared inevitable after a report by independent investigators — overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James — concluded he had sexually harassed 11 women.

On his final day in office, Cuomo released a recorded farewell address in which he again said he was innocent and portrayed himself as the victim of a “media frenzy.”

Hochul takes over a state still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and struggling to get aid out the door.

Little of the $2 billion set aside by the federal government to help New Yorkers pay off rent debt has been distributed. Thousands face the possibility of eviction after state and federal protections expire.

Hochul also pledged quick action to distribute money from a new $2 billion state fund intended to benefit unauthorized immigrants who didn’t qualify for other types of federal pandemic relief aid.

“The money’s there,” Hochul said. “These people are not eligible for other forms of assistance, and they’re hurting and they’re part of the New York family.”

Former Gov. David Paterson, who, like Hochul, unexpectedly became governor when his predecessor resigned, said she will need to restore faith.

“There’s going to be some pressure on Gov. Hochul, as there was on me, to kind of restore the values and to restore the conduct and the decorum that bespeaks a governor,” Paterson said.

She’ll also have to work quickly. Hochul has already said she intends to run for a full term next year and will have just months to establish herself as the favorite before a spring Democratic primary.

In the meantime, she’ll be building an administration — a task that began in the first minutes of Tuesday with the oath of office, hours ahead of the restaging of the event for television cameras in mid-morning.

DiFiore administered the oath in the Capitol in front of a stone fireplace, atop which were placed family pictures.

Hochul, her husband and DiFiore entered the room wearing masks, taking them off when the ceremony began. Hochul placed her hand on a Bible held by her husband, Bill Hochul, a former federal prosecutor and current general counsel for Buffalo-based food service and hospitality company Delaware North.

Hochul signed a pile of papers, including the oath, using a set of 10 pens dated “August 24, 2021,” while her family stood behind her, looking on.

In a restaging of the swearing-in ceremony at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Hochul thanked her “big Irish Catholic” family. Her immediate family sat in the front row, wearing masks and spaced slightly apart. Hochul, her daughter and daughter-in law wore white to honor suffragists.