Heard Around Town

Why is Gov. Kathy Hochul calling Cynthia Nixon?

The new governor is systematically paying attention to people her predecessor often ignored – or ran against.

Why is Kathy Hochul on the phone with Cynthia Nixon?

Why is Kathy Hochul on the phone with Cynthia Nixon? lev radin/Shutterstock

Gov. Kathy Hochul has worked hard in recent weeks to demonstrate how she is a different type of governor compared to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. One strategy has involved reaching out to longtime critics of his such as the actress Cynthia Nixon, a 2018 primary rival who has also been a high-profile activist on education policy. Hochul said their discussion centered on education funding and how she agreed with Nixon that the state needed to maintain funding increases for public schools following a 15-year fight between activists and Cuomo. “I think people should know what we're doing, and it's part of my transparency, so I let her know,” Hochul said at a Wednesday press conference when asked about the Tuesday phone call by City & State. 

A phone call with Nixon – the former running mate of Hochul’s likely 2022 gubernatorial opponent New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams – is one of many meetings and phone calls that the governor has held in recent weeks on issues like nursing homes, school funding and ethics reforms. This includes a Tuesday meeting with Assembly Member Ron Kim of Queens and Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean on COVID-19 in nursing homes as well as a previously unreported meeting last week with good government groups like the New York Public Interest Research Group on reforming the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. 

“As part of Governor Hochul’s commitment to change the culture in Albany and restore trust in government, our administration has been working to proactively solicit feedback from advocates, stakeholders, and impacted communities on a range of issues facing New Yorkers,” Hochul spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays said in a statement. 

Nursing home advocates brought a list of policy requests for the governor for a meeting that arose from a chance encounter between the governor and Kim on a New York City street two weeks ago. “It was night and day,” said Kim – who infamously was the target of Cuomo’s wrath earlier this year over nursing homes. “At this meeting, there was full recognition of some of the mistakes.” While the governor did not commit to supporting advocates’ various demands such as the establishment of a bipartisan investigation into COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, she did apologize for how the state has handled the issue – a notable contrast to the defiant attitude Cuomo and his administration had on the issue. Dean said in a statement that the meeting represented a “small step in the right direction” by the administration. 

Hochul was also all ears – though equally noncommittal – about supporting a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the state’s much criticized JCOPE ethics watchdog, which critics say is too beholden to governors. “When new governors come in, they want to shake the place up,” New York Public Interest Research Group Executive Director Blair Horner, whose group had no meeting with Cuomo for years, said about the meeting last week with good government advocates at the governor’s Manhattan office. “Not surprisingly they reach out to reform groups to see what we think.” The discussion last week centered on a proposal that would allow members of the judiciary, rather than a governor or legislative leaders, to appoint a majority of the commissioners to oversee a new state ethics body. 

The phone call to Nixon is not the only one that Hochul has made to longtime Cuomo critics on education policy. Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for a Quality Education, said that she had no idea how the governor got her phone number, but she was pleasantly surprised to get a call from Hochul Tuesday morning. “This is really different,” Gripper said of Hochul reaching out to express her support for continuing funding increases for local school districts. “We had a really contentious relationship with the previous governor.” That included fighting him for nearly a decade on whether the state owed billions to school districts per a 15-year-old state court decision on a lawsuit that had now-state Sen. Robert Jackson of Manhattan (who Hochul said she has also reached out to) as a co-plaintiff. Cuomo eventually conceded defeat on the issue earlier this year, when the new state budget included billions in new school funding, but Hochul’s support of continuing these funding increases was something new. 

This appears to all be part of a broader effort by Hochul to distance herself from Cuomo, a man she loyally served for years as lieutenant governor, as she gets ready to run for a full term in office next year. “My guess was she was trying to shore up the opposition – you know folks who can be loud and would likely (support) a more progressive candidate for governor,” Gripper said of her own interpretation of why Hochul reached out to her and Nixon considering their past battles with Cuomo. Nixon did not respond to requests for comment.

Not every longtime Cuomo critic has gotten a chance to meet with Hochul yet. Her top staffers met with criminal justice activists last month to discuss legislation aimed at addressing predatory court fines, according to Katie Schaffer, director of organizing and advocacy at the Center for Community Alternatives. Parole reform advocates are in the process of scheduling a meeting with the governor, according to TeAna Taylor, co-director of policy and communications with the People's Campaign for Parole Justice. The Sexual Harassment Working Group, an organization established by former legislative staffers, also has yet to get a meeting with Hochul personally to discuss legislative priorities – though a meeting did happen with her staff after she became governor, according to Erica Vladimer, a co-founder of the working group. “I'm hoping this is the first of many conversations to have with the Second Floor,” Vladimer said in an interview. “We do anticipate this being an actual working relationship and something that will carry over to the new legislative session.”

With reporting by Rebecca C. Lewis.

This article has been clarified to reflect the status of a proposed meeting between Gov. Kathy Hochul and advocates of parole reforms.

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