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Politics

Hochul Prepares for Spotlight as Cuomo Steps Aside

ALBANY, N.Y. — Kathy Hochul, a western New York Democrat unfamiliar to many people in the state even after six years as its lieutenant governor, was set to begin reintroducing herself to the public Wednesday as she prepared to take the reins of power after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would resign from office.

Hochul, 62, in two weeks will become the state's first female governor, following a remarkable transition period in which Cuomo has said he will stay on and work to ease her into a job that he dominated over his three terms in office.

She stayed out of public sight Tuesday but said in a statement that she was "prepared to lead." Hochul planned to hold her first news conference Wednesday afternoon at the State Capitol.

Cuomo, 63, announced Tuesday that he would step down rather than face a likely impeachment trial over allegations that he sexually harassed several women, including one who accused him of groping her breast.

Cuomo has continued to deny that he touched anyone inappropriately, and said his instinct was to fight back against claims he felt were unfair or fabricated. But he said that with the state still in a pandemic crisis, it was best for him to step aside so the state's leaders could "get back to governing."

That job will fall to Hochul, who served briefly in Congress representing a Buffalo-area district, but purposely kept a modest profile as lieutenant governor in a state where Cuomo commanded — and demanded — the spotlight.

A seasoned veteran of retail politics, Hochul shares some of Cuomo's centrist politics, but is a stylistic contrast with a governor famous for his love of steamrolling opponents and holding grudges. She's well-liked by colleagues, who say voters shouldn't confuse her quiet approach under Cuomo with a lack of confidence or competence.

"Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will be an extraordinary governor," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another upstate political veteran, told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. "She understands the complexities and needs of our state, having been both a congresswoman and having been lieutenant governor for the last several years."

It remains to be seen how involved Cuomo will be in state government over the next two weeks, or how he'll manage handing over authority — something he rarely ceded during his time in office.

His circle of advisers has shrunk, but his closest aide and policymaking partner Melissa DeRosa — who was a familiar face at Cuomo's side during his televised briefings on New York's fight against the coronavirus pandemic — made a surprise return after having announced her resignation from the administration Sunday. The governor's office said she will remain in her job as secretary to the governor until Cuomo departs.

Cuomo's decision to quit came exactly one week after  Attorney General Letitia James released a report concluding he sexually harassed 11 women. 

For days after the report came out, Cuomo insisted to those close to him that he could weather the storm, but even his closest outside advisers told him it would be impossible.

Cuomo was privately frustrated that few people were willing to say anything to defend him publicly and pressed his attorney and his remaining advisers to question the credibility of his accusers, according to a person with direct knowledge of the governor's final days in office. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private, sensitive conversations.

Cuomo decided he would resign after DeRosa quit and began drafting remarks for a resignation address, the person said.

By late Monday night, Cuomo told a small number of his closest advisers that he was planning to resign, the person said. But Cuomo had kept the announcement very close hold, opting to not even tell other senior Democrats in New York.

The governor personally crafted messaging to hit back at the attorney general's report and had a hand in shaping some of the wording some of the statement that his attorney, Rita Glavin, delivered in a virtual press briefing before he resigned, the person said.

Leaders in the state legislature have yet to say whether they plan on dropping an impeachment investigation that has been ongoing since March, and which had been expected to conclude in the coming weeks.

In addition to examining his conduct with women, lawyers hired by the state Assembly had been investigating whether the administration' manipulated data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and whether Cuomo improperly got help from his staff writing a book about the pandemic.

Republicans have urged the Democratic-controlled legislature to go ahead with impeachment, possibly to prevent Cuomo from running for office again.

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