Gov. Kathy Hochul has been making quite a few moves in recent weeks to secure her political position for next year. She has been raising big money and announced her intent to run for a full term in office even before ex-Gov Andrew Cuomo officially stepped down on Aug. 24. She has an expected running mate ready to go for the coming campaign. Her message? “I'm going to be the best damn governor this state has ever seen,” she told MSNBC Wednesday morning. So begins her campaign for the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor.
While the unexpected incumbent from Western New York is undoubtedly enjoying a honeymoon period as the first female governor in state history, she nonetheless faces a tough electoral landscape next year, especially if high-profile candidates like state Attorney General Letitia James jump into the race for governor. Hochul has already made it clear she’s doing all she can to position herself favorably going into primary season. Her selection of state Sen. Brian Benjamin of Manhattan as lieutenant governor offers Hochul a way to start connecting with the downstate voters of color she will need to win four more years in office, but other factors will likely prove much more important as she builds her brand as governor in the coming weeks.
Benjamin could help Hochul in a few different ways. As a three-term legislator, his experience in Albany could help Hochul work with elected leaders like state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Ties to the Manhattan political establishment might help her win key endorsements next year. His support of criminal justice reforms like closing Rikers and ending solitary confinement could help Hochul appeal better to the left wing of her party. Becoming the second Black man to serve in New York as lieutenant governor also underscores the historical significance of an administration headed by the first female governor in state history. “He’s a bridge builder who can also open the door for her to Black and brown communities,” political consultant Lupé Todd-Medina, a member of City & State’s advisory board who has worked for Benjamin in the past, said in an interview. “(But) what people should focus on is the fact that she brought really great talent to the executive branch.” If it all works out well, Benjamin could be Hochul’s running mate next year.
Hochul’s clear attempts to court downstate voters have not been limited to her choice for lieutenant governor. She was hardly best known for her interest in public housing during her two terms as lieutenant governor, but she now claims it was a key sticking point between herself and Cuomo. “I thought we should have done more with the New York City Housing Authority,” she told The New York Times. “I think there’s still an opportunity. So many people are living in squalor.” The political upside of delivering long-awaited improvements to notoriously neglected public housing is obvious. Hundreds of thousands of people live in NYCHA housing, and nearly 90% of them are Black or Latino. Showing an interest in public housing via the media ought to help Hochul a bit considering that nearly two-thirds of her constituents apparently know little about her at all. Recent appearances with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and her tour of a Queens school have similarly given her a chance to talk up how much she cares about the five boroughs.
Now that Cuomo has gotten out of the way by signaling that he will not run for a fourth term next year, Hochul could become the candidate to beat. She outraised James, who has yet to say whether she will use the money she is raising for either a gubernatorial run or reelection as attorney general, in the latest campaign finance disclosures and can lean on the powers of incumbency in the months ahead. How she performs on key issues like COVID-19 and rent relief will be key to unlocking a path to victory next year, according to Bruce Gyory, Democratic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “The old conventional wisdom that an upstater can’t win a Democratic primary could take a hard fall this year if she is successful in melding the bully pulpit with substantive achievements,” he said in an interview.
What difference Benjamin makes remains to be seen. His background includes some unflattering coverage of his fundraising for his 2021 campaign for New York City comptroller that run counter to Hochul’s promises to make state government more ethical than ever. His fourth place finish in the race suggests any expectations that he can single-handedly bring Hochul a significant portion of New York City’s Black votes next year are misplaced. No running mate can do that. Hochul likely knows this based on how badly Cuomo did with upstate primary voters when she was running by his side. “The only thing that delivers anything is a television set, a lot of cash and an argument that’s overwhelming,” Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said in an interview. “It's all going to be about her – and nothing else matters.”
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