While it remains unclear what the bitter chief judge nomination fight will mean for the governor’s relationship with the Legislature, political observers have already begun to speculate on Hochul’s path forward. After months of political grandstanding, the full state Senate rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul's controversial chief judge nominee, Hector LaSalle, on Wednesday.
LaSalle was initially rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. That decision was met with great pushback from the governor and Republican lawmakers. State Sen. Anthony Palumbo filed a lawsuit against Democrats on the committee and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, arguing LaSalle was entitled to a full floor vote per the state constitution. Senate Democrats then convened for a vote on LaSalle, resulting in a 39-20 vote not to confirm Hochul’s nominee and finally putting an end to the monthslong saga.
Eli Valentin, political adviser and professor at The Hispanic Theological Initiative, said governors typically have a “honeymoon phase” in the months after winning an election, and the move to reject Hochul’s nominee speaks to the hardship the governor faces with the Legislature. “The battle is not Democrat versus Republican, but it is progressive Democrats versus a moderate Democrat,” Valentin said.
Valentin asserted the upper chamber is not afraid to push back against the governor. “The state Senate, especially Andrea Stewart-Cousins, does not see the chamber as a rubber stamp that will approve anything that the governor puts forward,” Valentin said. Conversely, George Arzt, a Democratic consultant, asserted the LaSalle rejection was a “momentary setback” for Hochul early on in her first term.
Amid the LaSalle rejection, budget negotiations are also on the horizon. Hochul will have to work closely with the Legislature on several controversial sticking points, including further rollbacks to bail reform, a replacement for the 421-a tax abatement program and lifting the regional charter school cap. Experts concur there will likely be more tension heading into budget negotiations but Hochul’s power over the budget has not weakened. “The big difference between budget negotiations and the judicial nomination is that Hochul holds more power in the budget negotiations. While this was a defeat for the governor, anyone who thinks they can roll her in budget negotiations will be in for a surprise,” Jack O’Donnell, longtime Democratic strategist and lobbyist, said in a text to City & State.
Arzt agreed the Legislature knows they have to work with Hochul. “The Legislature knows they have to deal with her on the budget. Hochul is still a very powerful figure in the state even with the mistakes made early on in the LaSalle nomination,” Arzt said.
Following the rejection, Hochul issued a statement celebrating the full floor vote and confirmed her plans to work toward a new nomination. Many experts also argue Hochul’s next chief judge nominee is a decision the governor cannot take lightly and will impact her political path ahead.
“Hochul can't have two nominees rejected. She will learn from her mistakes and come up with a nominee that the Senate can support,” Arzt said.