Why Is Governor Kathy Hochul Waging War on Her Own Party?

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Early 20th-century popular writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs loved writing about lost worlds: strange hidden kingdoms tucked away in the concealed and uncharted folds of the earth where antediluvian monsters like dinosaurs still stomped around or where the breakaway remnants of ancient Egyptian or Roman civilization continued unaware of the passage of the ensuing centuries.

The idea of a lost world might seem fantastic, but one truly exists. This lost world even has a precise address: in the governor’s mansion in Albany, New York. That is the home of Governor Kathleen Hochul. Though physically she resides in 2023, Hochul’s mental universe is a lost kingdom where the 1990s never ended, where the smart politics for a Democratic executive is to triangulate between her party and the Republicans—and where bashing the left is the way to establish political credibility. In this lost kingdom, Bill Clinton and Hochul’s disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo are still models of smart politics.

The proof that Hochul resides in some mental Shangri-la can be seen in the political debacle of her nomination of Hector LaSalle to the New York Court of Appeals. The nomination was bizarre on a number of counts. Hochul had underperformed in her 2022 gubernatorial race, winning by a margin of a little over 6 percent—in a very Democratic state where her predecessor Andrew Cuomo won by more than 23 percent just four years ago. Before the election, the polls were so close that a Hochul defeat was discussed as a possibility. To save her campaign, Hochul recruited last-minute organizing help from progressives, including the Working Families Party and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The left saved Hochul’s political career, yet earned no gratitude. Quite the reverse, because after the election the governor decided to elevate a singularly conservative justice, Hector LaSalle. Writing in Slate, Alexander Sammon noted that LaSalle was

the most conservative judge of the options recommended by the state Commission on Judicial Nomination, one with a particularly noxious record on two of the most important issues in Democratic politics today: abortion and labor. To boot, in the 2014 case People v. Bridgeforth, the judge, LaSalle, signed off on the dismissal of jurors based on skin color, claiming that “dark-colored” was not a “constitutionally cognizable class protected under the Equal Protection Clause.” That decision was quickly overturned.

Describing the LaSalle nomination, my colleague Elie Mystal noted: “Governor Hochul has made the classic New York Democrat mistake of promoting a conservative judicial candidate who is supported by Republicans over the strong objections of her base.”

Nominating a conservative like LaSalle is the type of thing Hochul’s predecessor Andrew Cuomo did all the time. But Cuomo should serve as a cautionary tale for Hochul, not a role model. Cuomo resigned in disgrace in 2021 after more than 10 sexual harassment accusations. Beyond his personal conduct, Cuomo’s centrist approach to governance was already under stress thanks to the rising strength of the left in New York politics, and also the fact that even more moderate Democrats have, thanks to the pressures of Trumpism, become more partisan.

Hochul’s mistake was to try to govern in the high-handed Cuomo manner in a political world that no longer has any room for Andrew Cuomo. Her myopia is apparently shared by the mainstream press, which doesn’t realize how much the base of the Democratic Party has changed.

On January 18, The New York Times reported, “Hochul’s embattled nominee to become New York State’s top judge was rejected on Wednesday, an unprecedented repudiation that underscored a deep division among Democrats on the direction of the state’s judicial system.” The newspaper added, “After a combative hourslong hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-9 against the nomination of Justice Hector D. LaSalle, whose nomination was strongly opposed by progressives who saw him as too moderate.” The Times later changed the wording so “too moderate” became “too conservative.”

The initial Times frame of this story as a battle between progressives and moderates was echoed by others in the paper like reporter Nick Confessore, who complained about “the left-liberal railroading of a Democratic NY court nominee.”

But it wasn’t just progressives or left-liberals who derailed LaSalle. As Alexander Sammon noted in Slate,

Not surprisingly, LaSalle was met with swift condemnation from progressives. But the opposition has been much broader: A number of typically moderate labor unions have come out strongly against the pick, as has the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Many of the 14 state senators who have already said they won’t support LaSalle are far from being Democratic Socialists of America types. And in perhaps the most stunning example of coordinated pushback, mainstream women’s groups across the country have called for LaSalle to be voted down. It’s very uncommon for these groups to publicly defy a sitting Democratic governor, especially one they just helped elect.

The real mystery is why the newly elected Hochul, fresh from a too-close race, is expending so much political capital to push a nominee her own party opposes. Hochul has not only persisted with the nomination and campaigned on behalf of LaSalle—including an embarrassing evocation of Martin Luther King Jr. at a church service. She has also brought in the big gun of the national party, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries. She’s now even threatening to sue to allow LaSalle a full vote in the Senate, one that he is not certain to win. The sales pitch of identity politics, casting LaSalle as a pioneer Latino, failed in the Judiciary Committee and might not even work in the full Senate.

This strategy of “LaSalle or Bust” is all the more puzzling because there is a real risk of going bust. Hochul could easily face a primary challenge in the next election cycle. If the left of the party could unify around a candidate, it’s not hard to imagine Hochul losing the primary.

The best explanation was provided by the novelist Joseph O’Neill, who in a Twitter thread noted,

There’s something fatally anachronistic about Hochul. Machine politics have so deeply insulated her from ordinary Ds (moderates & progs) that she has no conception of the extraordinary personal investments of time, emotion, money they’ve made since 2017 to defeat the GOP. In Hochul world, the Albany carousel still whirls as if it’s 2012. Wall Street donors, machine hacks, and “deal-making” Republicans are her chief collaborators. ActBlue doesn’t exist. Indivisible never happened. Trump is guy you can do deals with.

O’Neill’s phrase “fatally anachronistic” is a direct hit. It describes not just Hochul but the entire leadership of the New York State Democratic Party, which hurt the whole national party by underperforming in the midterms. Locked into a permanent battle with the left, the bigwigs of the New York State party don’t realize that the world has changed. They are trapped in a lost world of Clinton/Cuomo centrism, one that exists only in their mind.

The tragedy for Democrats all over America is that, thanks to their ties to Hakeem Jeffries, this anachronistic faction has outsize national power. Hochul and her cronies might inhabit a lost world, but they can still do damage in the reality we all inhabit.