WEIGHING IN – Under a literal glass ceiling late Tuesday night, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared victory as the first woman elected governor in New York, promising to lead with “strength and compassion.”
With the pairing of those two words, the 64-year-old Hochul, like so many women of her generation, vowed to do it all. In her first full term as governor, Hochul is going to have to be a multifaceted leader.
The roughly 5-point margin in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election was much closer than predicted a few months ago. In several polls leading up to Election Day, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin inched closer, hammering home a message about spiking crime and his belief that the governor’s policies are too soft.
Hochul’s narrow victory – it was the tightest New York governor’s race since 1994 – shows that Zeldin’s message resonated with many voters. Not only did Zeldin receive strong support in Long Island and parts of New York City, he made notable gains upstate. In Schenectady County, for example, Hochul edged out Zeldin by fewer than 600 votes, while President Joe Biden won the county by nearly 12,000 votes in 2020. In addition, Republicans appeared to perform well in New York Congressional races, including defeating Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney. They also gained seats in the state legislature.
Compare New York’s results to the national picture, and it’s clear New York Republicans have compiled something worth looking at.
Democrats across the country had a better-than-expected night, largely winning on issues of abortion and election integrity. But in New York, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1, a Republican gubernatorial candidate loyal to Trump – and one who voted not to certify results in the 2020 Presidential election – ran a competitive race. That points to the fact that there is New York GOP messaging that Hochul should heed. Crime has to rise to the top of the list.
Crime statistics can be difficult to analyze, in part, because they can be distorted in a way that conflates localized data with a broader trend. Still, it’s hard to deny that even as the overall crime picture in New York State remains murky – and is understood to be below the elevated numbers in the 1990s that led, in part, to Republican Gov. George Pataki’s tenure– violent crime is something that must be addressed.
Of course, Zeldin’s campaign message no doubt contributes to New Yorkers’ perceived public-safety anxiety. When you hear, over and over, the same sentiments about streets being unsafe, you’ll inevitably start to believe some of it, even if the images don’t match what you see outside your living room window. Still, if New Yorkers say they feel unsafe, the compassionate response is to acknowledge the feeling and work toward a solution.
That’s why Hochul’s focus on crime can’t simply be an 11th-hour campaign strategy. It must be a true commitment.
In addressing crime, Hochul should listen seriously to voters’ concerns, including concerns about bail reform. Judges, prosecutors and members of law enforcement have consistently said that restrictions on cash bail have hindered their ability to ensure public safety.
Even within Hochul’s party, leaders such as Albany County District Attorney David Soares have been critical of bail reform laws.
Hochul’s administration needs to take yet another look at the issue, and any further action must weigh what’s being said with what the data actually shows.
If Hochul is willing to meaningfully engage on bail reform, Republicans must then acknowledge the role guns play in crime. They must be willing to discuss in good faith how to crack down on illegal firearms and reconsider where, exactly, they think concealed carry should be allowed.
Both sides must also come to the table on police reform, which inherently requires a balance of strength and compassion. Let’s not get mired in the semantics of “defunding the police,” and let’s start talking about tangible, meaningful adjustments to law-enforcement strategies that can make the system more just.
Politicians and parents, such as Hochul, know it can be hard to get everyone to sit down at the table. In a diverse Democratic party, Hochul has already had to marry divergent interests to build a winning coalition. Her last-minute campaigning with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was likely just as important to her victory as earlier appeals to moderates worried about the health of our democracy.
As governor, Hochul has to remain resolute about meeting the needs of all New Yorkers – and that goes beyond crime. Hochul, from Buffalo, must care as deeply about the farmers in the Mohawk Valley as she does about the office workers commuting to the city from the Hudson Valley.
On Tuesday night, Hochul said she’s “not here to make history. I want to make a difference.”
To make a difference for every New Yorker, the state’s first woman governor will pretty much have to do it all.
Frankly, it’s going to require leadership that’s truly historic.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.