National News

Hochul Takes Helm of State Senate, to GOP Rancor

Posted June 5, 2018 8:08 p.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — For the last week, Kathy Hochul has been waiting to take her place as presiding officer of the state Senate, a position she rightfully holds as the state’s lieutenant governor and the chamber’s president.

On Tuesday, she did exactly that, hoping to help her fellow Democrats — a vote shy of the majority — wrench legislative concessions and potentially damaging votes out of the majority Republicans. But the greeting she got was far from affectionate.

For the third time in a week, the Senate lurched into a morass of parliamentary and political posturing, as Republicans engineered a rare veto override, and Democrats countered with a renewed push for consideration of bills on reproductive rights, leading to several Republican senators to sharply criticize Hochul’s handling of the chamber.

The Senate’s recent dysfunction is rooted in simple math and base emotion: The 63-seat chamber is missing a senator, Thomas Croci, R-Long Island, who has left to return to military service in the Navy.

The chamber’s 31 Democrats, long in the minority, want to take control. The chamber’s 30 Republicans, helped along by a rogue Democrat, have desperately tried to fend off Democratic attempts to assert their power. Both sides are now a vote short of the 32 needed to pass bills.

Last Wednesday, for example, Republicans set aside the calendar for the day rather than consider the reproductive rights bills as Hochul stood in the wings. A day after that, they adjourned as Hochul appeared in the chamber, perhaps fearing her power to cast a tiebreaking vote, something the state constitution suggests she can do but which Republicans dispute.

And on Tuesday, they used a barrage of parliamentary objections — sometimes angrily articulated — to try to correct Hochul, who was coached through her appearance on the rostrum by a nearby lawyer, and to confound Democratic attempts to again pass their bills.

All of which created some unusual, and often ungainly, scenes in the Senate chamber.

The Republicans’ floor leader, state Sen. John DeFrancisco, managed to successfully offer up a motion to override a recent veto by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of a Democrat-sponsored bill to expand kindergarten programs; the maneuver seemed calculated to force Hochul to oversee a legislative rebuke of her boss. The veto override, the first by the Senate in Cuomo’s seven-plus years in office, passed unanimously but will not be taken up by the Democrat-dominated Assembly. (The Assembly and Cuomo’s office noted that such an expansion had been addressed in the state budget completed in March.)

That minor drama was followed by another attempt by Democrats to attach the reproductive rights bills to unrelated legislation, pushing for a vote on a political wedge issue in an election year in which some moderate suburban Republicans may be imperiled. The amendments were initially allowed, but Republican leaders then grew agitated as a Democratic sponsor, Sen. Liz Krueger, rose to speak on the bill, recognized by Hochul.

The Republican leader, Sen. John Flanagan of Long Island, objected, telling Hochul that Krueger’s comments were out of order, after asking the lieutenant governor to adjust her microphone.

Krueger attempted to speak again, and DeFrancisco interjected. “This is inappropriate to start a discussion about the bill, which has already been amended,” the senator said, after mentioning rules of the chamber that “have been here a lot longer than we have been.”

Hochul said she disagreed, saying that as presiding officer, she had recognized Krueger and would hear her speak. “Then we can finish the business of the people, which is what everyone in the state would like to see occur,” she said.

DeFrancisco persisted, his voice becoming pinched, saying he was giving her “one last opportunity to do what you’re supposed to do.”

Moments later, Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Long Island, who often serves as presiding officer, also criticized Hochul. “You can’t pick and choose rules that you want to enforce,” the senator said, pointing at Senate rules.

Finally, DeFrancisco rescinded his majority’s acceptance of the amendment, as Democrats questioned the Republicans treatment of Hochul.

“To speak so disrespectfully — and, to me, in a demeaning tone — to the lieutenant governor, who happened to be the presiding officer, who happens to be a woman, really took my breath away,” said Sen. Shelley Mayer, one of two newly elected Democrats who have left that party just shy of the majority. She said that she and other female legislators felt that Republicans were trying to intimidate Hochul.

Republicans, however, did not see the exchanges in that light.

“Today’s not the first day that anybody’s voice has been raised,” said Flanagan, after the chamber adjourned late Tuesday. “And let’s be really crystal clear: A fifth-grade reading of the rules demonstrates that every point that was raised was a valid point of order.” He added, “And if I need to raise my voice to make the point we have rules for a reason, I’m going to do so, and I’m not going to apologize for it.”

Moments after that, Hochul also said that she was not backing down, saying she was fighting for women’s rights, and her own, although it was not clear if she would preside when the Senate convened again on Wednesday. “This is not something new to me,” she said, adding it was not about her. “I can handle anything.”