Kathy Hochul Is Looking in New York City for a Second-in-Command

ALBANY, N.Y. — Seven years ago, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was given her introduction to statewide politics in New York, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo tapped her as his running mate.

Mr. Cuomo was seeking to balance the Democratic ticket by selecting Ms. Hochul, a woman from Western New York, as lieutenant governor. In doing so, he unwittingly created a path that would eventually lead to Ms. Hochul’s historic ascension next week, when she becomes the state’s first female governor.

Now, as Ms. Hochul contemplates her own second-in-command, politics will once again play a role. She has said she intends to choose a lieutenant governor from New York City, and she has focused on several elected officials who are people of color.

Ms. Hochul, who is expected to announce her selection next week, has a short list of candidates that currently includes State Senator Jamaal Bailey, the chairman of the Democratic Party in the Bronx; State Senator Brian Benjamin of Harlem; Rubén Díaz Jr., the outgoing Bronx borough president; and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Brooklyn, according to five people familiar with the process.

By selecting a lawmaker who is a person of color and from the city, Ms. Hochul — a white moderate Democrat from the Buffalo region — may be aiming to broaden her appeal and ward off some potential primary challengers.

“I agree wholeheartedly with her decision to seek a strong candidate from the New York City area,” said Robert J. Duffy, who served as Mr. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2014, and was replaced by Ms. Hochul. Mr. Duffy said the ideal candidate would “not only be loyal and a supporter, but could bring strengths and assets that will complement her own.”

Ms. Hochul, 62, will be sworn in as governor on Tuesday, following Mr. Cuomo’s resignation after a damaging New York State attorney general report found that he had sexually harassed 11 women.

By focusing on downstate candidates, Ms. Hochul seems intent on choosing someone who will bolster her standing among ever-crucial city voters, which have accounted for more than half of all voters in recent statewide primaries.

“She needs to figure out what a balanced ticket looks like,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “She is a woman, so she might choose a man; she’s from upstate so she might choose someone from downstate; she’s white, so why not choose someone who is not white. If I were a betting woman, I think she might choose a man of color from downstate.”

It is not clear who might emerge as a Democratic primary challenger to Ms. Hochul. Letitia James, the state attorney general, is regarded as a strong potential candidate, though she has given no indication that she intends to enter the race.

Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, is regarded as another possible rival, and he said he was “actively exploring” a run for governor in 2022. Mr. Williams ran a vigorous yet unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor against Ms. Hochul in 2018, losing by 6.6 percentage points.

Mr. Williams said in an interview that he did not want to be appointed lieutenant governor, but said that whoever inherited the position must serve as a check on the governor — something that he suggested did not happen in the Cuomo administration.

“Cuomo couldn’t be who he was without an enabling structure,” Mr. Williams said. “People helped enable that, either explicitly or through silence.”

The lieutenant governor, the second highest-ranking position in the state, steps up in a governor’s absence, death, removal or resignation. Typically, it is a largely ceremonial role with few statutory duties. Many lieutenant governors have been relegated to ribbon-cutting events.

Or, as David A. Paterson, who became governor after Eliot Spitzer abruptly resigned in 2008, has put it: The main responsibility of a lieutenant governor is to wake up, check the news and make sure the governor had survived the night.

Mr. Cuomo and Ms. Hochul had no real working relationship; the two seldom appeared together in private strategy sessions or at public events. Ms. Hochul said she was eager to change that dynamic, envisioning a relationship similar to the one President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have established.

“I’m also looking for someone to be in the room,” Ms. Hochul said last week, “someone that I trust, and has good instincts, but also someone that I enjoy being with.”

Mr. Bailey, 38, is considered a rising star in Bronx politics, and is said to be interested in the position, according to several sources. Mr. Bailey, who was elected chair of the Bronx Democratic Party last year, also has strong relationships in Albany; he counts Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, as a mentor.

Mr. Bailey spoke with members of Ms. Hochul’s team last week who gauged his interest in being appointed lieutenant governor.

Mr. Benjamin, the senior assistant majority leader in the Senate, has represented most of Central Harlem since 2017. He ran for comptroller earlier this year in a citywide Democratic primary, placing fourth.

“I would do whatever I can to help her do what she thought was necessary for the good of the state,” Mr. Benjamin, 44, said in an interview. “In my office, a picture of me and her was the first picture that I had with a statewide elected official. We talk frequently and it’s been a great relationship over the last few years.”

Some of Mr. Bailey and Mr. Benjamin’s progressive credentials, especially on criminal justice reform, could make a ticket led by Ms. Hochul more palatable to left-wing voters, who play a crucial role in primaries.

Ms. Bichotte, 48, could help Ms. Hochul with voters in Brooklyn, a voter-rich borough where Ms. Hochul struggled significantly three years ago, even in neighborhoods where her running mate, Mr. Cuomo, won. Ms. Bichotte has strong connections with the Democratic nominee for mayor, Eric Adams.

Sabrina Lucia Rezzy, a spokeswoman for Ms. Bichotte, said Ms. Hochul and Ms. Bichotte had spoken within 24 hours of Mr. Cuomo’s resignation.

“She’s very excited about a Hochul administration and congratulated Kathy and gave her a warm welcome,” said Ms. Rezzy, who added that she did not know whether the two women had discussed the lieutenant governor job. “But if there were a ticket with two women atop it, that would make history.”

Mr. Díaz, 48, has the highest name recognition and the largest base of support among the candidates Ms. Hochul is known to be considering. An effective campaigner who played an instrumental role in Mr. Adams’s bid for mayor, Mr. Díaz could boost Ms. Hochul’s traction in the Bronx and among Hispanic voters.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Díaz wants to remain in politics at all: He was planning to run for mayor this year, but he bowed out from the race because he said he wanted to spend more time with this family.

Mr. Díaz declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

For Ms. Hochul, just picking a well-rounded lieutenant governor does not ensure an easy path to victory.

Though voters cast one ballot for both governor and lieutenant governor in the general election, the nominees for the positions are chosen separately through primary elections. That means Ms. Hochul’s pick is likely to face a primary challenge next year, and would need to rapidly build a statewide campaign apparatus.

“There’s a little bit of political advantage that she might be able to gain in the short term,” said Matt Rey, a partner at Red Horse Strategies, a political consulting firm. “But unless she’s picking someone that’s actually representing a much broader geography, bringing a key alliance of the county party or a major labor union to the table, it’s really not going to be that determinative in changing how well she’s positioned for 2022.”

Instead, Mr. Rey suggested that much of Ms. Hochul’s viability — and who decides to challenge her — will depend on the policy wins she manages to secure in the next few months.

If Ms. Hochul can conquer the state budget negotiations in Albany next year and manage the New York’s pandemic response, it may help her overcome her historical geographical disadvantage: No governor has hailed from outside New York City or its suburbs since Franklin D. Roosevelt nearly a century ago.

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic consultant, said the notion that “an upstate candidate like Hochul cannot prevail is outdated and plain bad math.”

He added: “If she transforms incumbency into popularity, that old conventional wisdom dismissing upstate candidates in a Democratic primary could and probably would take a hard fall.”

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