On the night Eric Adams was elected mayor, a wide array of city and state politicos packed the ballroom of the Brooklyn Marriott for his victory party. They were there to pay tribute to a man whose win was inevitable: Since the summer, Adams had been a mayor-in-waiting, and the city’s power elite were hungry for their face time with the brash Brooklyn borough president. Among those on the stage ready to hail Adams was Kathy Hochul, in only her fourth month on the job as governor. “We will fight for you,” Hochul told the crowd, “not fight each other anymore.”
Her words were a clear nod to another inevitability. Mayors and governors usually do not get along. For the last eight years, New Yorkers had looked on as Andrew Cuomo, the most powerful governor in at least a half-century, waged war against his feckless underling, Bill de Blasio. Now both men are gone. A shocking sexual-harassment scandal drove Cuomo from office in August, just before he had planned to seek a fourth term. De Blasio was term limited. It is, in every sense, a new era, and an entire political world must adjust to what may be at the outset a period of unprecedented comity. “The good news is we have nowhere to go but up,” said Rebecca Katz, a former City Hall staffer who now serves as a Democratic consultant.
New York, in modern times at least, has not seen a pairing like Hochul and Adams. Each is new to their perches, and they boast entirely different political bases. Adams is a Black Democrat from Brooklyn, a former state senator and police captain who has been in the mix of city politics, one way or another, since the 1990s. Hochul is a white Democrat from Buffalo seeking election for a full term as governor after serving as lieutenant governor and spending a similar amount of time as Adams in politics, but mostly confined to western New York. “I would argue a lot of historical bad blood was a lot of personal animus, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” said a source close to Hochul. “They have virtually no overlap of political bases or geography, and in their differences there might be the seeds of constructive engagement.”
This particular mayor-governor dynamic is naturally fraught because there is nothing quite like it in America. New York City has such an outsize presence in the state, serving as its economic engine and overwhelming population center. But Albany — the governor and the state legislature — determines much of what happens in the five boroughs. The city is a creature of the state. State lawmakers decide how high the income tax goes, the maintenance and expansion of the subway system, the shape of the city’s public schools, the tenant laws, and even the speed limit on city streets.
With near-sociopathic aggression, Cuomo had sought, from de Blasio’s very first months in office, to undercut the fellow Democrat by punishing the city. A struggle over funding in 2014 for de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program led to an unprecedented state requirement, still in effect, that the city’s education department pay the rent of privately run charter schools. Later on, Cuomo shut down the entire subway system ahead of a snowstorm while giving de Blasio just one minute’s notice. Cuomo’s resentment of de Blasio’s early call for a minimum wage hike delayed a $15 wage for the city by several years at least.
“They don’t need to be in the same lanes in the way Cuomo always felt de Blasio was encroaching upon his lane,” said Neal Kwatra, a veteran Democratic operative, of the Adams-Hochul pairing. “She is the governor and has vast powers. He’s the mayor of the most important city in the world.”
Those close to Adams and Hochul hope for meaningful collaboration. So far they’ve had it, with their respective offices speaking regularly about pandemic response and press events. (Hochul’s staff briefed Adams City Hall about her plans for the city ahead of her first State of the State address. Cuomo preferred not to give any advance notice at all.) Top Hochul officials, such as Kathryn Garcia, Jackie Bray, and Amit Bagga, are veterans of the de Blasio administration, as are those running City Hall, including Lorraine Grillo, Adams’s first deputy mayor. “They don’t collide very much,” said the source close to Hochul. “Some analysis might suggest politically Adams has more to give Hochul than Hochul has to give Adams. Governmentally, Hochul has more to give Adams than Adams has to give Hochul.”
The leverage question looms large in any political relationship. Hochul, in theory, is vulnerable in an election year as a first-time gubernatorial candidate, but her top rival, Attorney General Letitia James, has left the race. Another Black Democrat from Brooklyn, Jumaane Williams, is running against her, and de Blasio himself might enter the fray. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island congressman, is also competing for white moderates.
But Hochul is sitting on as much as $11 million in campaign cash and has enjoyed growing name recognition since the summer. She has maintained a densely packed schedule, appearing across the state. The major labor unions are likely to back her. At this point, it is hard to see her losing the Democratic nomination. “Endorsing Hochul is an easy thing for him to do,” said a source close to Adams. “She’s a juggernaut.”
For now, there is evident mutual respect between the two executives. Adams and Hochul each are known for their retail politicking and relative hustle. “You won’t see the personal, toxic stuff,” the Adams source said. “A lot of the stuff they care about, we care about,” said the Hochul source.
Both are instinctually wary of their party’s left flank. Adams railed against the “defund the police” movement during the mayoral race, and Hochul promised upon becoming governor that it would have no place in her administration. Adams is a former Republican who has openly embraced real-estate developers and billionaire financiers. Hochul was a centrist congresswoman who drew close to the NRA and, before entering the House in 2011, led a campaign against a plan to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Both are capable of tacking left, and progressives in Albany are thankful to have Hochul in power instead of Cuomo. Adams initially expressed interest in weakening the sweeping bail-reform laws passed in the state legislature in 2019, an ambition Hochul could support politically, though the new mayor recently retreated from the demand.
There will inevitably be clashes. Adams will seek a renewal of the city’s control of public schools this year, and some members of the Democrat-run legislature, uneasy with the centralization of authority in the Department of Education, could try, with Hochul’s backing, to pare it back. There is also the question of the renewal of a controversial tax break for real-estate developers known as 421-a. In addition, Adams reportedly wants a $1 billion expansion of the earned-income tax credit.
Money, in the end, could divide the new executives. The state is flush with federal cash and unexpectedly high tax returns. City Hall may demand more than Hochul’s circle is willing to surrender in the executive budget.
“With the relationship, it’s too soon to tell,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, the body’s deputy leader. “Everyone wants to prognosticate. I remind you Cuomo and de Blasio pretended to get along for a couple of days before things went south.”
One major difference from the Cuomo–de Blasio years is the composition of the state legislature. De Blasio, a left-leaning Democrat, had to run up against a Republican-controlled body for most of his time in office. The split control made the legislature much weaker overall, unable to effectively oppose Cuomo.
Democrats now hold supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate, and progressives in the upper chamber are especially emboldened. With two new executives, they may be further motivated to pursue their own agenda, as they did in 2019 when Democrats in both chambers teamed up to largely cut Cuomo out of negotiations on laws that dramatically strengthened tenant protections statewide.
If state lawmakers force ambitious left-leaning bills to Hochul’s desk, Adams won’t be able to stop them. And Hochul, in an election year, might be pressured to sign them.
“Right now, it looks promising that the mayor and governor have a functioning relationship,” said State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat. “This is a totally a new experience for us.”