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Op-Ed: Kathy Hochul Isn’t a Mystery—She’s a Republican

A failed attack on climate standards is the latest in a line of Hochul initiatives cheered by Republicans.

Daniel Atonna Apr 18, 2023

On March 29, nine members of Congress made what The New York Times called a “rare show of force” against Governor Kathy Hochul. Led by Jamaal Bowman, Democrats ranging from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Dan Goldman publicly called for the governor to include the full version of the Build Public Renewables Act, a transformative climate and green jobs bill, in her budget.

The Governor currently seeks to include her own sabotaged version of the bill, which removes provisions to guarantee union labor, shut down the most polluting plants in Black and brown neighborhoods, and mandate that New York actually builds renewable energy (instead of just saying it could). Without these elements, the bill will not just fail, but lose New York significant federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Hochul has repeatedly drawn clear battle lines between herself and New York Democrats: from voters, to state lawmakers and now to Democrats in Congress.

Hochul responded by trying to sabotage the state’s existing climate law, considered a national model, with technical tweaks that would ultimately stall New York’s transition off fossil fuels. The climate movement hit back, drawing national attention, revealing almost $500,000 worth of fossil-fuel industry donations and making the governor drop the plan.

This isn’t the only crisis of the Governor’s first elected term. Hochul has repeatedly drawn clear battle lines between herself and New York Democrats: from voters, to state lawmakers and now to Democrats in Congress. Each time, baffled onlookers have asked questions that amount to, “Why is Kathy Hochul acting like a Republican?”

Looking at her history, the answer might be simpler than anyone wants to admit.

•   •   •

Kathy Hochul first ran for local office on both the Democratic and Conservative Party lines, then rode the anti-Obama backlash to a career as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

What “the most conservative Democrat” looked like a decade ago is very different from today. As DREAMers began to make national headway, Hochul boasted that she would arrest any undocumented immigrants who came to her office. And in the same year that the nation mourned victims of the Aurora Theater and Sandy Hook shootings, Hochul proudly became one of the only Democrats with an “A” rating and endorsement from the National Rifle Association.

After losing her seat in 2012 to a futher-right Republican, Hochul returned with a liberal rebrand as Andrew Cuomo’s “upstate” running mate. But since the office of lieutenant governor offers few chances to influence policy, there is little from her time in that office on which to judge how genuine this transformation was.

Hochul’s road to Governor provided similarly few chances to define herself. She was appointed after Cuomo’s resignation, then ran a primary against a candidate whose personal crises largely kept him from campaigning. In the single competitive election for Governor Hochul has faced for Governor, she mainly tried to tie herself to national issues, especially abortion, in a campaign so uninspired she nearly lost to Lee Zeldin, an ultra-right quasi-fascist who, despite holding hugely unpopular views in New York, gained ground by actually appearing to believe what he was saying.

But once beginning her first elected term as Governor, Hochul about-faced. Her first major move was to nominate Hector LaSalle, an anti-abortion and anti-union judge, to the state’s highest court position. The move turned what is normally a quiet, rubber-stamp confirmation process into the first of several crises that would reach national uproar, until a coalition of every non-GOP force, from moderate building trades to the socialist left, handed Hochul an unprecedented defeat.

Rather than back down, Hochul then turned the state budget process into a similar crisis, refusing to negotiate anything until winning so-called “bail-reform rollbacks” uniformly opposed by Democrats in the legislature. 

The overuse of terms like “rollback” and “reform” obscures the human cost of the policy Hochul now seeks above all else: the removal of civil rights protections that will result in more Black and brown people being thrown in jail without a trial, often for years. And on bail, Hochul isn’t negotiating — she’s filibustering, refusing to let basic state functions like a budget proceed until she hurts who she wants to hurt. A move reminiscent of how Republicans have governed since her days in Congress under President Obama.

Between the attempt to force through an anti-abortion judge to the highest court, openly flouting Democrats in Congress while pushing climate denialist policy and her prioritization of the same discriminatory actions campaigned for by the right-wing opponent she ran against, the journalists covering Hochul would do well to remember the old newsroom saying: “three is a trend.”

•   •   •

In New York, voter policy preferences and actual votes are so uniformly left that even 2022’s “off year” for Democrats resulted in Democratic supermajorities in both chambers. Chambers that, carrying out the will of the vast majority that put them there, have opposed Hochul’s measures.

So to find who Hochul really aligns with, just look to her supporters: Republicans. When the state Senate passed BPRA in full in January, the only opponents were Republicans spewing climate denial. When legislators tried to stop Lasalle, it was Republicans who tried to sue to get him to the floor. And bail? The ever-growing list of civil-rights erosions Hochul seeks are just about the only thing the New York GOP can even get quoted on.

The overuse of terms like “rollback” and “reform” obscures the human cost of the policy Hochul now seeks above all else: the removal of civil rights protections.

Wealthy donors can explain some of Hochul’s actions. But even Andrew Cuomo saw the way the wind was blowing and passed a fracking moratorium — Hochul is openly trying to undo even laws he passed in order to allow more gas. And as much as Lee Zeldin tried to set the state’s agenda with a maniacal focus on bail, Hochul defeated him. Why adopt his far-right priority as her own when voters chose the opposite?

Could it simply be that, with her first full term ahead of her, Kathy Hochul is simply trying to pass the policies she wants to pass?

If a politician spends the most of their political capital trying to pass policies identical to those of Republicans, is supported by Republicans and has a long history connected to Republicans… then how much more evidence is it going to take before we can just just admit that the politician that describes is, in fact, a Republican?

With this, the cloud of confusion suddenly clears. Why is she filibustering the whole state budget to remove civil rights protections? Why did she appoint an anti-abortion and anti-union judge — and when that didn’t work, sneak through an anti-climate one? Why is she trying to sabotage the Build Public Renewables Act, whose support includes the New York’s Democrats in Congress, New York unions representing over one million members, an environmental justice movement stretching from the Bronx to Buffalo and 68% of New York voters?

Because Kathy Hochul is a Republican. Or at the very least, she’s governing like one.

Daniel Atonna is the Political Coordinator of For The Many and a Steering Committee member of Mid-Hudson Valley DSA.

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