New York’s Governors: Changing Hands and Challenges

By Robert Megna

Rockefeller Institute President Robert Megna has had the opportunity to observe and or participate in every gubernatorial transition since Mario Cuomo took office in 1982. For that transition he was serving as a fiscal analyst in the New York State Senate. When George Pataki took office, Megna was director of tax studies in the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance, where he saw how staff changed at the agency level. He eventually worked for the Pataki administration as a unit chief in the NYS Division of the Budget. When Eliot Spitzer was elected, Megna was involved with the preparation of transition materials for the incoming administration. Under Spitzer, he was appointed tax commissioner, the position he held when David Paterson took office. Governor Paterson appointed him to the position of budget director. He held that office during the transition from Paterson to Andrew Cuomo. Megna’s career also includes executive leadership positions at SUNY, the NYS Thruway Authority, and the NYS Canal Corporation.

Since February 2020, New York’s leaders have been consumed with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Leadership worked to address the immediate public health emergency and subsequent economic fallout. New York now enters the recovery and rebuilding phase in which it must evaluate its response to the public health emergency, learn from the lessons revealed about inequality, and invest in infrastructure that will enable resilience in future crises.

As New York enters this rebuilding phase, it welcomes a new executive in Governor Kathy Hochul. The governor and her team face significant challenges in navigating New York’s COVID-19 recovery. But this is not the first time New York has had to recover from crisis. The state has managed the New York City’s Fiscal Crisis of the 1970s, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and the Great Recession that emerged from the financial sector. Each of these defining moments tested leadership as they made challenging decisions about the future of the state.

The Rockefeller Institute of Government is preparing Behind the Fiscal Curtain, a series of conversations with the leaders who were part of New York’s response to these significant fiscal challenges in New York’s modern history. The goal of these panels is to explore the past, present, and future of fiscal policy in New York. Panelists will examine the immediate response to the crisis they faced, the longer-term impacts of the decisions made at the time, and the characteristics effective leaders demonstrate when managing a crisis. Finally, they will be asked, given their experience, what advice they may have for the state’s new governor in managing the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and associated economic fallout.

To set the stage for these discussions, I discuss the transition that Governor Hochul is currently managing. I explore how it is similar and different than previous transitions in modern New York history and the priorities that the new administration will need to address. We invite you to join us over the coming months as we discuss these challenges and opportunities with the leaders that have lived through them before.

Transitions in Modern New York History

Since the 1980s, New York has seen five gubernatorial transitions that fall into two types. Three of these transitions—Hugh Carey to Mario Cuomo, Mario Cuomo to George Pataki, and George Pataki to Eliot Spitzer—represented the end of long tenures. The other two transitions (Eliot Spitzer to David Paterson, and David Paterson to Andrew Cuomo) were unconventional transfers of power that happened in a relatively short timeframe after brief tenures. The transition that occurred in Albany on August 24, 2021, from Andrew Cuomo to Kathy Hochul, was a unique hybrid of these two circumstances.

Non-traditional transitions of gubernatorial power in New York have become a more common occurrence in recent years. Governor David Paterson came to office suddenly in the wake of the scandal prompting the resignation of Governor Eliot Spitzer. After less than a full term, Governor Paterson declined to be a candidate and Andrew Cuomo was elected governor in the next general election. These transitions of power over a short interval, while very different, both featured the replacement of a Governor facing potential legal problems and the evaporation of political support from their own parties. In each case, the succeeding governors faced the immediate task of restoring public confidence in state government and distinguishing themselves from their predecessors, in terms of both policy substance and political style.

In contrast to these abrupt changes in power, most of the recent gubernatorial transitions in New York have followed long tenures by the departing governor. These more traditional transfers of power have their own idiosyncrasies. Republican Governor George Pataki took office after a close election in 1994, replacing the three-term Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo. In turn, Democratic Governor Spitzer replaced the three-term Governor Pataki. In both cases, these long-term incumbent governors had built the State bureaucracy around their political and philosophical beliefs over multiple terms. Incoming administrations had to figure out what needed to change, what staff to keep, how to evaluate state agency performance and develop a reform agenda, all while ensuring government continued to function.

The Current Transition

In addition to the challenges presented by assuming the governorship following scandal by a long-tenured executive, Governor Kathy Hochul faces the daunting task of steering the State through the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis and rebuilding the state economy. Given that lieutenant governors in New York historically have not been close to the day-to-day government operations and have few staff to keep them up to speed on critical issues, Governor Hochul will need to rely in many cases on the executive and agency staff in place under her predecessor. However, as a result of the circumstances surrounding the governor’s departure, many of the senior leaders that could have facilitated the transition have already departed and cannot be engaged.

These issues are further exacerbated by Governor Cuomo’s management style. By relying on a relatively small set of advisors in the conduct of his major initiatives and day-to-day operations, the former governor was able to tightly control messaging and management of key policy issues. This approach also had the effect of distancing state agencies that were not on the cutting edge of the governor’s priorities.

As a result of these dynamics, Governor Hochul’s team will essentially be starting from scratch in evaluating and engaging agency personnel and operations that were not the immediate focus of the previous administration. While she simultaneously leans on and assesses her inherited personnel, the governor will also need to bring in new staff and offer a “seat at the table” to outside voices. Such an approach will allow the governor to make her own imprint on policy and differentiate herself from her predecessor. Choices to bring in experienced political aides Karen Persichilli Keogh and Elizabeth Fine as secretary and counsel to the governor, respectively, reflect an early focus on balancing the Albany-New York City-Washington dynamic, which will be instrumental to achieving her objectives.

Transition Priorities

The new governor is the first in the past century who does not have a residential tie to downstate New York. Given that approximately 70 percent of the state’s population resides in the downstate region of New York City and surrounding counties, she will need to demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the region’s needs and concerns as well as a capacity to deal with its political class. Further, as a public official previously representing Western New York, she will have to balance consistency of prior policy stances with the need to represent a broader, statewide constituency to win the approval of downstate voters and politicians. Her announcement of Senator Brian Benjamin, a downstate senator, as lieutenant governor, and Kathryn Garcia, former commissioner of NYC’s Department of Sanitation, as director of state operations, is an early indicator of her political acumen and her understanding of the importance of downstate to her governorship.

Perhaps most importantly, Governor Hochul will have to confront the power dynamics in Albany. Governor Cuomo was a master at using the strong executive powers constitutionally granted to the governor in New York to keep tight control of the budget process in the State. With the scandals he faced in 2020-21, the dynamic shifted and the legislature exerted much more influence over the adopted budget. After a string of court cases enshrining the strong executive powers (most recently, Silver v. Pataki) and years of Governor Cuomo flexing them, the legislature will likely be reluctant to return to a more passive role in budget making. Further, much of what was done in the fiscal year (FY) 2022 Budget has put the State on a budget course that will be difficult to substantially alter—at least, before Governor Hochul faces the voters for re-election in 2022. The new governor may benefit from seeking other areas of the policy map to create positive changes in the lives of New Yorkers.

Three potential avenues for thoughtful leadership and engagement are the State’s workforce, local government affairs, and revitalization of the upstate economy. Bringing a renewed sense of purpose to the State workforce is an area that seems particularly ripe for positive change. The governor has already said she will not oversee a toxic work environment. This will entail more than a professional workplace in the governor’s office. It requires getting the State bureaucracy back to a respected place in the state where worker contributions are valued and visible, making the crucial role of public service clear to the people of the state. Hochul’s remarks during her swearing-in ceremony reflect this:

I also want to thank the hundreds of thousands of state workers who I have such respect for and I look forward to letting them know that I will represent them with my heart and soul as well. They are the face of government in many, many communities, and I have my utmost respect for all of them. 

Improving relationships with local governments would also be a prime area to advance and yield better policymaking. The new governor, perhaps more than any recent executive, knows the power of local governments—how they work, the problems they face, and how the federal system moves money to them, an issue of critical importance given the tremendous flow of pandemic-related assistance to local governments occurring right now. She can become a vital voice for improving the services and performance of local government. Being a former congressperson, she is also in a position to advocate directly to Washington in ways that will benefit the state and its localities.

Finally, given her Buffalo roots, the new governor may be well positioned to address chronic issues facing upstate New York. Years of large demographic and economic changes in the upstate population contrast with years of relative prosperity downstate. Rather than burying these problems and pretending they are less severe than they are, Governor Hochul has a chance to find expanded ways to help the upstate economy. As lieutenant governor, Hochul co-chaired the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs) and was involved in the downtown revitalization initiatives. Will those programs be continued, rebranded, or otherwise altered? Bringing the state as a whole more in alignment, both politically and economically, would be a significant achievement for a new governor.

Conclusions

Transitions are best viewed as opportunities to move policy in new directions and build political support for a well-articulated agenda. They are an opportunity to bring to the table the policymaking groups and segments of the political world who have been marginalized or felt their issues have gone unaddressed. The new governor can re-shape the political tent to both gain support for her policies and build coalitions of voters needed to move an agenda forward. As the governor considers staffing in coming months it is important to bring new and talented people into State government. These new voices will bring their own new ideas to the policy arena and help ensure the new governor is able to adapt and adjust to the always rapidly changing world in Albany.

Finally, the whole first year of a term is the real period of transition. It is a chance to truly evaluate existing staff and place them in positions most suited to their talents. The new governor and her team will find that staffing that seemed appropriate initially will not work out. It is not uncommon to see some staff turnover until these things have time to adjust. The same will be true in how the new governor chooses to structure her office. Titles are just that because each governor defines the role of secretary, chief of staff, and counsel to suit their own purposes and this trickles down to all subordinate staff. This has been true in all transitions that have occurred over the last several governors and is the natural outcome as a new leader takes on the responsibilities of being the most important elected official in the state.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Megna is president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government

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