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Hochul Vows a Change in Tone as the Cuomo Era Nears an End in Albany

In her first remarks since Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned, the lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, distanced herself from the governor and promised her office would not be “toxic.”

ALBANY, N.Y. — In her first remarks since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced his resignation, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, the state’s governor-in-waiting, distanced herself from the embattled governor, while declaring she was prepared to lead New York through economic turmoil and an enduring pandemic.

Ms. Hochul stressed she had “not been close” to the governor, saying she was unaware of the conduct outlined in a state attorney general report that found Mr. Cuomo had sexually harassed nearly a dozen women. Ms. Hochul said she would oust Cuomo staffers who acted unethically, signaling she would transform the workplace culture in the governor’s office, which the report had described as hostile and vindictive.

“At the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” Ms. Hochul said in a news conference held at the State Capitol. She is set to be sworn into office on Aug. 24, when Mr. Cuomo’s resignation takes effect.

Over the next two weeks, Ms. Hochul will have to prepare to take the helm of a state confronting daunting challenges: the resurgence of the coronavirus, lagging vaccination rates, struggling small businesses and tens of thousands of tenants still waiting for rent relief.

Ms. Hochul, a former congresswoman who had played a largely ceremonial role in the Cuomo administration, will take over a state with a $200 billion budget and sprawling work force while at the same time ushering out some top officials who had been loyal to Mr. Cuomo. She must assemble a team of senior staff, pick a lieutenant governor — “a lot of people have reached out to me,” she said with a laugh on Wednesday — and craft her own policy agenda, after years of largely promoting someone else’s. And she has to introduce herself to most New Yorkers.

As she navigates one of the most seismic moments in New York political history, Ms. Hochul, who will become the first woman to lead the state, declared that she was ready to go.

“I want people to know that I’m ready for this,” said Ms. Hochul, a Democrat from Buffalo. “It’s not something that we expected or asked for, but I am fully prepared to assume the responsibility as the 57th governor of the State of New York.”

Lawmakers in Albany were still grappling with Mr. Cuomo’s rapid and ignominious fall after he announced on Tuesday that he would step down, ending his more than 10 years in power. Mr. Cuomo, who was facing the threat of impeachment, said he took “full responsibility” for his actions as he denied ever touching anyone inappropriately and sought to frame the allegations as stemming from generational differences.

Ms. Hochul’s genial demeanor could mark a sharp departure of tone and atmosphere in Albany, where Mr. Cuomo exerted outsize power with a bellicose style. The governor’s tactics rankled and alienated many lawmakers from both parties, whose relationships with him were mostly transactional.

“I think it will be less stressful for everyone involved,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan. “His existence and the way he liked to function was to establish extreme levels of stress and tension. Almost anyone else would not be the same zeitgeist for the city.”

Still, power struggles and competing agendas could soon surface. Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat from a conservative-leaning district, could, like Mr. Cuomo, end up clashing with the ascendant progressive wing of the party. She will have to navigate high-profile policy issues such as the implementation of a recently approved $2.1 billion fund to provide cash payments to undocumented immigrants, who were not eligible for federal stimulus checks.

And just one week after she takes office, New York’s moratorium on evictions will end, meaning that tens of thousands of people who fell behind on their rent during the pandemic may be at risk of losing their homes. A number of state lawmakers are calling for an extension of the moratorium, while building owners say they, too, are struggling with unpaid bills.

Even so, Democratic lawmakers, almost all of whom had called on Mr. Cuomo to resign, said the prospects of working with an incoming governor who appears to be universally liked was better than governing under a cloud of scandals.

“The whole specter of going back and forth with Gov. Cuomo and his potential impeachment will have really distracted in many ways from the very important work at hand,” State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader, who spoke with Ms. Hochul on Tuesday, said in an interview.

It remained unclear whether the State Assembly would continue to move toward impeaching Mr. Cuomo even when he is out of office. If he were convicted, Mr. Cuomo could be barred from running for statewide office again. On Wednesday, the Republican members of the Assembly judiciary committee pushed for the impeachment investigation to continue, but Democrats, who have control of the body, appeared less interested in pursuing what some see as a costly and perhaps damaging distraction.

Mr. Cuomo’s relationship with Democrats in the State Legislature began to break down after 2012, when Mr. Cuomo allowed Republicans to redraw district lines, giving that party a competitive edge statewide and breaking his previous vow to not accept gerrymandered lines. Mr. Cuomo was later seen as supportive of a group of breakaway Democrats who collaborated with Senate Republicans, effectively allowing Republicans to maintain control of the State Senate for years until Democrats retook it in 2018.

Ms. Hochul appears intent on rebuilding that relationship. State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and the deputy majority leader, said Ms. Hochul visited him in Astoria, Queens, for drinks last month to get his thoughts on a potential transition.

“Kathy Hochul’s open hand will be more effective than Andrew Cuomo’s clenched fist was,” Mr. Gianaris said.

Mr. Cuomo and Ms. Hochul’s staff have spoken in the last day, with Mr. Cuomo promising a smooth transition. The governor has also instructed state agencies to draft transition memos for Ms. Hochul and her staff. Ms. Hochul said that the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker had been in contact with her team about the state’s coronavirus response and that she had received “regular briefings up to the minute.”

Her existing relationships with many of the commissioners will play a crucial role, her team believes, as she takes over the operations of one of the nation’s largest state governments. Even so, Ms. Hochul could ask all agency commissioners to submit their resignation — just like David Paterson did the day he took office after Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 — but only ask a few to actually resign.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Paterson described his own transition as an unruly ordeal that brought out the worst in Albany politics.

Mr. Paterson recalled a state leader who claimed that Mr. Spitzer had been about to appoint him head of the state’s university system. It was, Mr. Paterson said, “a total lie, basically.”

“It was that kind of reckless, shameless activity that really scared me,” Mr. Paterson said. He also described a gathering with staffers, including one who was dating a lobbyist, that was continuously disrupted by calls from the lobbyist insisting on meeting with him, Mr. Paterson said.

On Wednesday, Ms. Hochul walked the line between embracing the Cuomo administration’s “strong legacy of accomplishment” — citing measures such as the $15 minimum wage and paid family leaves — and signaling she planned to shift the culture.

When asked about the attempts by Mr. Cuomo’s officials to obscure the full extent of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, Ms. Hochul said, “My administration will be fully transparent when I am governor.”

And when asked about the women, mostly current and former government employees, who accused Mr. Cuomo of a range of troubling behavior, from inappropriate comments to unwanted hugs, kisses and touching, Ms. Hochul said she had never witnessed it herself.

“I think it’s very clear that the governor and I have not been close, physically or otherwise, in terms of much time,” said Ms. Hochul. “I’ve been traveling the state and do not spend much time in his presence or in the presence of many in the state capital.”

Ms. Hochul, 62, joined Mr. Cuomo’s ticket during his 2014 re-election campaign, as he was courting western New York. A Buffalo-area native, Ms. Hochul spent her formative years in the town of Hamburg, before attending college at Syracuse University and law school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

After briefly working in private practice, she worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill, first for Representative John J. LaFalce and then U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

She ultimately returned to western New York and joined the local political fray, serving 14 years on the Hamburg town board and then serving as Erie County clerk, where she earned headlines for her staunch opposition to Mr. Spitzer’s plan to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

In 2011, she ran in a special election to replace Representative Christopher Lee, a Republican who resigned after a shirtless photo he had sent to a woman ended up on the internet.

The district was one of the most conservative in the state, and became even more so after redistricting. The next year, Ms. Hochul lost her re-election bid to Chris Collins, a Republican and early supporter of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Collins would himself ultimately resign in disgrace, and plead guilty to lying to the F.B.I. and conspiring to commit securities fraud.

Ms. Hochul said on Wednesday that President Biden had tried to reach her while she was on a plane and that she had spoken with Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as Hillary Clinton.

Ms. Hochul said she would put together her agenda over the next two weeks by traveling the state to hear from voters and stakeholders, much the same way she had spent the past six years as lieutenant governor.

“People will soon learn that my style is to listen first and then take decisive action,” she said. “I will fight like hell for you every single day like I always have and always will.”