Albany Agenda

Kathy Hochul’s suburbs-approved State of the State speech

Crime is bad! Housing is optional. The governor shied away from bold proposals that characterized her agenda last year as Democrats fight to win back the House.

Gov. Kathy Hochul finds herself constrained by national politics this year.

Gov. Kathy Hochul finds herself constrained by national politics this year. Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

As Gov. Kathy Hochul wrapped up her State of the State speech on Tuesday, in which she laid out her top priorities for the year, she said New York “will never compromise on our progressive values.” But that assertion came at the end of a speech that seemed tailor-made for moderates in the state, with a large focus on public safety that involved new criminal penalties and a retreat from bold housing proposals that characterized Hochul’s speech last year. 

It was a fitting speech for an election year as Democrats attempt to take back control of Congress and just a month before the Long Island special election that will decide who replaces disgraced Republican Rep. George Santos. In November, New York is taking center stage as Democrats try to flip key districts after 2022 losses contributed to the Republican takeover of the House. Hochul’s speech honed in on public safety, affordability and mental health, but her agenda didn’t include any significant marquee proposals – or even any major underlying theme – that may prove overly controversial in the suburbs ahead of a crucial election cycle. 

Back in 2022, when Hochul first ran for governor, she struggled in every downstate suburb aside from Westchester. Policies out of Albany, particularly around bail reform and crime, helped Republicans win several key congressional seats and take control of the House. “(Republican) Lee Zeldin won my district by 13 percentage points in the last election, so obviously, to put it kindly, there’s room for support for the governor to grow in places like mine,” said state Sen. James Skoufis of the Hudson Valley. Last year, Hochul held up the budget in order to get rollbacks to bail reform, which would likely play well among moderates that Democrats hope to win back, but she also proposed a housing plan deeply unpopular in the suburbs that would have required every region of the state to meet housing construction mandates or have their local zoning laws overridden. “Local control, not Hochul control” became a rallying cry among suburban officials livid with the governor’s pitch. 

Hochul alluded to that criticism during her State of the State speech, which focused far less on housing than last year. “I remember last year, many of the loudest voices in opposition said they believed in local control,” she said of her housing plan from 2023. “Okay, let’s put that to the test.” That test did not involve the suburbs though – Hochul went on to reintroduce parts of her plan from last year that would enable New York City to increase its housing supply. As expected, she abandoned the controversial housing construction mandates after just one year of trying.

Instead, Hochul chose to highlight public safety and crime, including cracking down on illegal pot shops and addressing retail theft in the state. Even Republicans appreciated some of her proposals, though they expressed skepticism over whether the Legislature would enact her agenda. “I was really happy,” Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said of Hochul’s public safety agenda, adding that retail theft is “clearly a problem,” and that he was “glad” she raised the issue.

Skoufis welcomed the priorities that Hochul set for this year, including the fact that she thinned out her housing plan in response to criticism from constituents like his as she left the door open to working with the Legislature to find workable solutions. “I think that she, in a lot of ways, returned home to the issues that make up sort of her bread and butter and make up the thinking a lot of moderates in the Legislature have,” Skoufis. Prior to becoming governor, Hochul was known for her local retail politics, often stumping around the state on such issues for then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo when she served as his lieutenant governor. Her 2024 State of the State retreated from bold, overarching plans and returned more to a grab bag of sundry quality of life issues that directly impact families – concerns over theft at stores, addressing mental health issues, cracking down illegal pot shops, access to swimming pools and child safety online.

“If she wasn’t talking to a moderate suburban audience, who are concerned about crime and the economy – despite the reality of the numbers – I don’t know who else she was talking to,” said Lawerence Levy, executive dean of the National Institute on Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. In addition to public safety, Hochul touted “holding the line” on new taxes and highlighted certain affordability measures she rolled out before her speech, including new consumer protections, eliminating insulin copays and expanding disability leave. 

Although Hochul herself spoke about the historic nature of some of her proposals, none stood out as cornerstones for her 2024 agenda. Even her decision to roll out individual proposals before the speech – a change from the past two years – set a tone for a series of smallish pitches rather than an overarching theme that may ultimately prove disadvantageous in the upcoming elections. “I think that there’s no question that her eye is to November 2024 in that speech,” state Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said. He added that he thought the address was “a lot of small ball” for a speech that usually serves as a governor’s wish list and an opportunity to present their big ideas for the year. 

“I think it lacked the pizazz of the past,” said Albany communications consultant Joe Bonilla. He said that early focus on public safety was indicative of an attempt to shore up her more conservative bonafides, but didn’t express confidence that it would ultimately make much of a difference in the moderate suburbs that Democrats need to win. “It's like having chili with no seasoning,” Bonilla said. “Yeah, it's chili, but it isn't going to hit the spot.”

But others see Hochul’s messaging as a prudent play. Basil Smikle, a Democratic consultant and former executive director of the state Democratic Party, said Hochul was “smart to be more strategic, more focused on issues that bring in, rather than alienate the suburbs.” He said that with New York as a key battleground in the fight for Congress, he expects that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries “is and should be a lot more engaged in making sure that policies and politics coming out Albany are aligned” in a way that doesn’t alienate New York City constituents, but also don’t negatively impact Democrats in the suburbs. Hochul is working directly with Jeffries and Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand to co-lead the statewide campaign to win back House seats.

And Skoufis wasn’t the only suburban lawmaker who felt Hochul struck the right tone. “The governor’s approach right now with the State of the State is the right approach,” said state Sen. Kevin Thomas, who is running for Congress on Long Island this year. He added that her focus on the middle class, supporting law enforcement and consumer protections is smart and important issues to focus on. “I am really happy about what she presented.”

Hochul’s speech and agenda did, however, receive pushback and criticism from some on the left, including lawmakers. “The housing plan has some big holes in it – all she proposed was a developers dream, but left out protections for tenants in existing homes,” state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris told reporters directly after the governor’s address. Hochul’s plan included pushing for a new tax break for developers to build more affordable housing and some regulatory changes to encourage housing growth in New York City. “Everything she proposed puts money in the pockets of the richest New Yorkers, big developers. We need a more comprehensive plan than that,” Gianaris said. 

On the public safety side, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who has carried several high-profile criminal justice reform bills, said he appreciated Hochul’s focus on the issue, but that he has “a slightly different approach that includes the entire ecosystem of public safety.” Hochul’s agenda referenced new and increased criminal penalties for domestic violence, retail theft and hate crimes, and additional funding for prosecutors and law enforcement, which Democrats in the Legislature have resisted in the past. Myrie said the state should take a “holistic” approach to crime like lawmakers did to drive down gun violence. “Law enforcement has a role, that’s important, but it’s also important for us to put the resources into our communities,” Myrie said.

Some of the strongest criticism came from immigrant advocates after Hochul did not address the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers entering the state. The asylum-seekers are placing enormous strain on New York City as officials take steps to remove them from overburdened shelters. The governor said she would address the political hot-button issue in her budget proposal she will present next week. She similarly said that solutions to the state’s roughly $4 billion deficit will come with the budget after not outlining any plans in her State of the State. 

Hochul’s decision to exclude two such major – and politically fraught – issues facing the state underscored the idea that her State of the State speech was meant to avoid making waves. But even with an address focused on “how we provide a better life for New Yorkers,” as she put it after dismissing the fiscal concerns for a later date, Hochul still has tricky political waters to traverse ahead of the election she likely can’t avoid.