Inside NY Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ‘catastrophic’ meltdown over a judge

Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Late last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul sought input from New York’s most powerful unions as she weighed a critical decision: who to appoint as chief justice of the Empire State’s highest court.

That newly elected Democrat offered a list of potential candidates for her labor allies to consider. According to three sources familiar with the discussions, there was only one name on the list that bothered them.

That name ended up being the one Hochul announced as her nominee: Hector LaSalle.

From labor unions to abortion rights groups, key Democratic constituencies came out of the woodwork to oppose LaSalle, who is currently a high-ranking state judge, as Hochul promoted his nomination.

The concerns centered on what critics described as LaSalle’s conservative bias on issues like abortion access and workers’ rights — leaving Democrats to wonder why Hochul would install him at the top of a court that had a conservative majority for much of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

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Despite the backlash, Hochul plowed ahead with LaSalle’s nomination. She used the “Cuomo playbook without the Cuomo power,” as one former New York lawmaker put it.

Now Hochul is on the brink of all-out war with his own party’s supermajority in the state Senate. On Wednesday, the state Senate Judiciary Committee held the long-awaited hearing on LaSalle’s nomination: When it was over, the panel voted against confirming him by a vote of 10 to 9.

Seemingly undeterred, Hochul has only dug in further. She took the remarkable step of preserving one chief litigator in preparations to potentially sue the Senate if they don’t bring LaSalle’s nomination to the floor of the full House — where he could lose a vote anyway.

Even LaSalle supporters have been left speechless by how the nomination process has turned out.

“This is a shit show,” one sitting judge told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the controversial nomination. “There are lower court judges far less qualified and in positions to have a greater effect on everyday New Yorkers, as has been routinely confirmed by the people who complain about LaSalle.”

“This would be like if [President Joe] Biden before introducing justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson, did not speak [Sens.] Sinema and Manchin to get them on board,” a New York Democratic strategist told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about behind-the-scenes allegations about the debacle.

The drama has thrown New York’s Democratic Party even deeper into chaos. Notably, the fight has defied the typical progressive-versus-establishment paradigm of party battles: Hochul’s moves have rankled nearly every corner of the Democratic “big tent.”

Across New York, Democrats marveled not only at Hochul’s apparent miscalculations so far, but her apparent willingness to add fuel to the fire by suing the state Senate.

“She’s the governor, she has incredible amounts of power, and she’s going to file a lawsuit against the legislature?” the strategist said at another point with an audible sigh. “Come on. It’s just pathetic and looks so weak.”

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Capturing the mood among Democrats in Albany, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins ​​released a scathing statement Friday afternoon, warning Hochul that the Senate will not “just act as a rubber stamp” for her wishes.

“This is a dangerous violation of the separation of powers,” Stewart-Cousins ​​said of a potential lawsuit.

A sitting Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the fallout candidly, was blunt with The Daily Beast about the implications of Hochul taking them to court.

“This case is settled,” the senator said. “Any further litigation would do great harm to the governor.”

A spokesman for Hochul said the governor chose from a list of seven qualified candidates drawn up by the Judicial Nominating Commission, as required by the New York Constitution.

“The Commission, which includes a Senate appointee, Robin Bikkal, released a list of seven and stated ‘Hon. Hector D. LaSalle, President of the Appellate Division, Second Department, was found by the Commission to be well qualified for the position of Chief Justice based on his character , temperament, professional aptitude, experience, qualifications and suitability for office. He was interviewed by the Commission for the vacancy of Chief Justice on 22 November 2022.” Hazel Crampton-Hays, Hochul’s press secretary, said in a statement.

“The governor, as required by the constitution, selected from this list,” she added.

After a lackluster performance in what should have been a blowout victory against Republican challenger Lee Zeldin in November, Hochul had already taken heat for his political strategy and faced charges she was a move for Democrats down the ballot. While Hochul won, New York Democrats ended up suffering unusual losses in congressional, state legislative and local races amid an intense GOP focus on crime.

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After weeks of post-election finger-pointing, New York Democrats might have been in the mood to patch things up — at least before LaSalle came into focus as Hochul’s pick to lead the state’s highest court.

Despite Senate Democrats wanting it avoid a fightHochul has escalated what started as an ideological debate about the judiciary’s partisan balance into a power struggle between branches of state government.

The struggle between the executive and legislative branches can be “existential” for the Legislature, as former Assemblyman Yuh-Line Niou, a Manhattan progressive, has described it.

“This is called checks and balances,” the progressive tweeted former Republican Gov. George Pataki after he announced his support for Hochul’s call for a floor-wide vote. “The legislature is a co-equal branch of government, Governor. We learned that in social studies.”

LaSalle’s defenders have argued that the entire debate is the result of New York’s Democratic Party drifting too far to the left and that the Senate Judiciary Committee has previously confirmed judges with less progressive bona fides. Case and Point: The Senate Hearing for Outgoing New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore lasted only an hour— despite her conservative record and past affiliation with the GOP.

But the LaSalle debacle has also raised eyebrows among Empire State Democrats on two other fronts.

First, there are what multiple sources described as “investigative issues” plaguing the Hochul administration dating back to her first run as lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who lasted only seven months on the job before he was indicted on federal bribery charges and subsequently resigned.

“She obviously has issues with control,” the former lawmaker said.

“Comparison to any other deal is also absurd,” Hochul’s spokesman, Crampton-Hays, responded regarding the Benjamin comparison. She again cited the constitutional requirement that the governor choose from the Commission’s list.

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For other Democrats, the situation has reflected broader managerial and strategic issues within the Hochul administration.

“This has been handled disastrously from the beginning from a communications standpoint and a political standpoint,” the Democratic strategist said. “They didn’t have any Senate validators, most of them were federal elected officials and Senate Republicans.”

The other conundrum for Democrats dismayed by the Hochul administration is why she continued with the nomination when it appeared to be dead in the water even before the new year.

LaSalle’s past rulings against organized labor drew much of the backlash to his nomination, but abortion rights groups and other key components of the Democratic coalition opposed him.

Multiple sources relayed private conversations over concerns that the LaSalle nomination may have been overly influenced by big corporate donors and New York power players like Luis Miranda Jr., father of award-winning playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who championed LaSalle from the start .

“It’s all part of the same thing, he’s using his son’s fame to gain entry and access for horrible and predatory businesses against our community,” the former lawmaker said of Miranda, whose firm, the MirRam Group, lobbied on behalf of Cablevision, a company LaSalle championed in his legal battle against the Communications Workers of America union.

Crampton-Hays said any consequence of a deal struck with big business is “absurd.”

MirRam Group did not return a request for comment.

Less than a year and a half after Hochul entered office with goodwill and some political capital following Cuomo’s death, she is now approaching a point of no return with Senate Democrats if her administration pursues the lawsuit.

“It’s just bloody stupid and sad and pathetic,” the Democratic strategist said. “It just looks so stupid.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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