As Gov. Kathy Hochul walked down the aisle ahead of delivering her State of the State address Tuesday, she clasped hands with state Sen. Jim Tedisco.
In actuality, Tedisco said he was requesting a meeting on the St. Clare’s pension crisis, but the image of the candid conservative senator smiling alongside the Democratic governor demonstrates the fears many progressive Democrats have about the ways in which Hochul will govern.
The party’s most liberal members believe Hochul will provide disastrous concessions to Republicans. Meanwhile, Republicans fear Hochul will commit to overspending or over-regulating in a way that they see as catering to her party’s far-left factions.
In reality, Hochul is trying to appeal to both sides. The agenda Hochul outlined in her first State of the State speech since being elected New York’s first female governor offered some olive branches to Republicans as well as some promises that should appeal to progressive Democrats.
The approach, which isn’t surprising for a moderate 64-year-old governor from western New York, could be a lesson in compromise. Or, it could simply leave many New Yorkers wanting more, and ultimately result in Hochul searching for more votes in 2026.
Hochul’s speech, with its preference for governing down the middle, follows her victory in the closest New York State governor race since 1994. Was the 2022 race so close because Republicans turned out in droves or because Hochul failed to adequately mobilize progressive voters? It’s clear Hochul doesn’t want to commit totally to either theory, and that could eventually cost her.
The New York State Democratic Committee, wanting to deflect blame for the poor performance in November, recently put out a report diagnosing the 2022 elections as being a result of strong Republican turnout. It pointed to the fact that while nearly 48% of registered Democrats turned out, nearly 63% of Republicans turned out.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, Hochul’s State of the State laid out an agenda addressing the very issues – crime and affordability – that her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin relentlessly stressed during the campaign.
“If New Yorkers don’t feel safe in their communities, if they can’t afford to buy a home, or pay their rent, then the dream seems out of reach for them,” Hochul said. She later added: “My No. 1 priority has always been and always will be keeping New Yorker’s safe.
In addressing crime and affordability, Hochul put forth some ideas that should garner Republican support. For instance, while not delving into specifics, Hochul said bail reform as written “leaves room for improvement” and leaders have to “make sure the law is clear for our judges and what their rights are.”
Republicans have held up bail reform, albeit misleadingly, as a major cause of increased crime in recent years, saying judges don’t have enough discretion when it comes to retaining people accused of crimes.
In addition, Hochul likely appealed to Republicans by expressing an openness to tax incentives for developers to build affordable housing. That openness came as part of her New York Housing Compact, with a goal of building 800,000 new homes over the next decade. Such tax incentives don’t sit well with progressives.
“We know that more tax breaks and subsidies for wealthy developers and corporate real estate have not delivered—and will not deliver—the kind of long-term stability that working families need,” New York Working Families Party Director Sochie Nnaemeka said in a statement after Hochul’s speech.
But even as Hochul appealed to independents and moderate Republicans, she undoubtedly made gestures aimed at progressives, too.
For instance, Hochul called for continued investments in access to childcare – a $7 billion, four-year investment that Hochul said only 10% of eligible families have taken advantage of since the assistance was implemented last year.
And, in an agenda item that drew one of the strongest ovations of the afternoon, Hochul announced tying the state minimum wage to inflation. Afterward, New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento issued a statement applauding the proposal, saying: “This is an opportunity for New York to break the cycle of infrequent increases that lead to the minimum wage being insufficient. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation will allow workers and employers to have predictable and reliable increases in the future.”
But even if Hochul drew some praise from the left and the right, her speech also garnered dissatisfaction and skepticism from both sides.
Tedisco, a Republican senator, said: “Our state needs a major course correction in its agenda because people are voting with their feet and escaping from New York in droves,” his post-speech statement reads. “Even the governor has recently acknowledged this fact.”
And Schenectady Republican mayoral candidate Matt Nelligan, who said he was more optimistic than usual ahead of the speech because he believed the governor would tack back to the middle, came away feeling pretty meh.
“I thought it was fairly pedestrian,” Nelligan said via text. He liked some of what he heard on proposed credits to help working families pay their utility bills, but he was concerned that a proposal to end the sale of fossil-powered heating equipment by 2030 will force utility bills upward in an unsustainable way.
In truth, New York’s progressives have recently been giving Hochul a harder time than the state’s Republicans. Union leaders are frustrated with Hochul’s failure to support striking New York City nurses, and many progressives are upset at her nomination of Judge Hector LaSalle to serve as chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, because they claim his ruling record doesn’t adequately support labor groups or abortion rights.
After Tuesday’s speech, the Working Families Party was left underwhelmed.
“While many of Governor Hochul’s proposals speak to the struggles facing working New Yorkers, we need more from our leaders in Albany this year. The housing and affordability crises, which have developed over decades of underinvestment and have been exacerbated by the pandemic, must be met with solutions that meet the scale of the problem,” Director Nnaemeka said in a statement.
Progressives argue that a complete embrace of their agenda would draw enough voters to create a winning coalition. Though it’s worth pointing out that even if Democratic turnout was down last year from highs of 54.7% in 2018, it was still above the 31% in 2014 and nearly 35% in 2010, suggesting that mobilizing throngs of additional Democratic voters may be a tall order.
Then again, relying on moderate Republicans to embrace Hochul at the ballot box may not be a good strategy, either. As Jay Bellanca, of the New York Progressive Action Network, said ahead of Hochul’s speech, attempting to appeal to Republicans may seem like a good idea after a close general election, but, if a voter favors Republican priorities, “they are going to vote for the real Republican.”
We can go back and forth all we want about what caused New York’s gubernatorial election to be the closest in decades, but it seems clear that both factors are at play: Republicans turned out and the progressive base wasn’t as motivated as it could have been.
That leaves Hochul in a conundrum. As she outlined in her speech, there are likely some sensible outcomes that can come from a moderate approach with broad appeal – whether it’s preventing fentanyl from ending up on New York’s streets or investing in care for people dealing with chronic mental health issues. But will those outcomes be sufficient?
Hochul concluded her speech by saying she is fortunate to live in a home once occupied by one of the greatest thinkers and leaders of our time named Roosevelt: Eleanor Roosevelt.
“We will build a new world, and we will be courageous,” Hochul said, an homage to Roosevelt’s demands to go forward with bravery. “We will do the hard things, the necessary things, to lift up and support New Yorkers and clear a path for them to realize the New York dream. That is my promise to the people of New York.”
The problem is, if Hochul promises too much to too many New Yorkers and fails to make enough hard choices, there may be an awful lot of New Yorkers who question just how bold and courageous Hochul’s vision for the state truly is.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.