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Hochul looks to establish her identity in State of the State address

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Governor Kathy Hochul (copy)

Gov. Kathy Hochul will deliver her first State of the State address Wednesday at the New York State Capitol.

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Now it's Kathy Hochul's turn.

New York's rookie governor, after unexpectedly assuming Albany's top job last August, takes the state's biggest stage Wednesday with her first State of the State address, getting the chance to face her critics and spell out an agenda aimed at winning a full term in November. Already she is proposing populist ideas rooted in reform, and already her potential rivals in the Democratic and Republican parties are taking aim.

She has avoided outright politicking, and will likewise Wednesday while conducting one of Albany's time-honored rituals, but she is expected to hone a theme to be examined and dissected by supporters and opponents alike. Amid the pomp and ceremony of the State of the State, the message Hochul delivers from the Assembly rostrum will mirror the one she will spread this fall along the campaign trail.

"First and foremost, she's doing a tremendous job," said Jeremy J. Zellner, Erie County Democratic chairman and a Hochul supporter. "That proves her credibility."

Earlier this week she proposed reforms like term limits for statewide officials, and Zellner said he expects even more from the governor's 1 p.m. speech. Zellner noted her promise to restore "confidence" in state government when she took office on Aug. 24, following Andrew M. Cuomo's scandal-induced resignation, and the county party leader thinks she will build on that theme.

"She will project that government is changing and that people should have confidence in government," he said. "And there's no better person to do that than Kathy."

As far as her opponents are concerned, the campaign is very much underway. Democrats who have declared their candidacy for governor, like Rep. Thomas R. Suozzi of Nassau County and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, are carving out their campaign platforms, with Suozzi mounting a sharp early attack.

Suozzi on Tuesday outlined to reporters statewide a detailed agenda to fight crime, pointing to worrisome homicide rates in New York City and also upstate cities like Buffalo and Rochester. He proposed granting judges more discretion when setting bail while remaining cognizant of the need for reform, providing more technical assistance to smaller police departments, encouraging gun buy back programs, promoting more community policing programs, and integrating social services into schools to head off problems related to drugs, alcohol and mental health.

Suozzi, who has emerged as Hochul's most vocal intraparty rival and whom he calls the state's "interim governor," continued his criticism of the sitting governor's approach to crime.

"I'm shocked to see the governor has been in office as long as she has and hasn't made this a priority," the congressman said.

Suozzi has also criticized Hochul's approach to Covid-19 concerns, accusing her of failing to adequately plan for anticipated virus spreads over the holidays.

"She has delayed and mismanaged the response to Covid," he said. "There is no comprehensive plan."  

And he continues to hammer her on other fronts.

"When Hochul came into office, she promised a new era of transparency, but that was a lie," he tweeted Tuesday, citing a recent Daily News story. "She has raised $100,000 per day, everyday, since she has been in office, and the money has been raised by lobbyists. We deserve better."

Suozzi concentrates his barbs on the sitting governor because, at the moment, she occupies a position of strength. Just about all polls show her basking in strong approval numbers as she successfully raises campaign funds and enjoys the advantage of incumbency. State Democratic Chairman Jay S. Jacobs has announced his support for her, as have many upstate committees and unions.

All of this has also fueled an aggressive Republican attack on the new governor, providing a hint of how the party expects to confront her this fall. State Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy has consistently accused of Hochul of being "in over head" while handling the state's response to Covid-19. 

"First, she comes out with a ridiculous mask mandate that will crush New York small businesses," Langworthy said in a December letter to supporters. "Then after counties pushed back, she immediately folded and said she wouldn't force them to comply. She is weak, not ready to lead, and doesn't have the experience or competence to be the Chief Executive of the Empire State."

Rep. Lee Zeldin of Suffolk County, considered the front runner for this year's Republican nomination for governor, is slated to offer his response to Hochul's speech Wednesday afternoon. He has been relentless in his criticism, such as his Tuesday ridicule of her new term limits proposal.

"During the reign of three-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Yorkers witnessed firsthand the rampant abuse and corruption that is born out of a system of limitless power," Zeldin said. "Yet, Cuomo’s Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul stood idly by in pathetic silence. When it was politically expedient to ride Andrew Cuomo’s coattails to a third term as his lieutenant governor, she was mum on term limits."

But Zellner thinks Hochul is setting exactly the right tone as she lays out her priorities and charts a course for her campaign. Her likability, Zellner predicted, will highlight her initial State of the State. That stands in stark contrast to her predecessor, he added.

"She understands it's not just ruling with an iron fist," he said. "It takes building confidence among her colleagues in government and the public to work together to get things done. That's night and day from what it was with Gov. Cuomo."

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