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As the gubernatorial primary approaches, Gov. Kathy Hochul is fighting to unite the state's Democratic constituency behind her election bid.
But she's facing headwinds in some communities of color, where residents combatting rising crime, racism and myriad social issues say they want to see action and results, not political rhetoric.
Some diverse voters see Hochul directing state funds toward worthy initiatives and building relationships in their communities. Hochul flew to Buffalo in the hours following Saturday's racially-motivated mass shooting that left 10 dead in a historically Black neighborhood.
She appeared at multiple church services and media briefings in the following days, her voice crackling with anger as she spoke of the damage wrought by the suspected gunman, who officials say armed himself with an illegally modified firearm and whose racist ideals were allowed to fester on the internet.
"I will use all of the power I have as governor to protect you — justice is part of who we are," she said Sunday at Buffalo's True Bethel Baptist Church.
But looking at her overall track record, some say her policies don’t reflect their values and her vow to be more transparent than the prior administration has fallen flat.
“I think a lot of people feel it’s same old, same old,” said Ivette Alfonso, 71, an Albany resident who works with Citizen Action New York to champion housing rights for underserved communities.
“There’s a certain amount of cynicism," she said, speaking to the USA Today Network New York last week. "We’ve had promises made and not kept, and some of the priorities are not in the right place.”
Hochul, the first woman to hold the governorship in New York, took office in August with a conversational, down-to-earth style, promising to bring a steady hand to state government after the abrupt fall of her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, amid sexual harassment allegations. She championed public health measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and pledged to support healthcare workers and the economy.
“What I can do is govern with strength and compassion and heart and vision. And I believe that the voters will reward that on Election Day,” she said last October.
But the road got rockier for Hochul as the year went on. She faced a budget process plagued by last-minute infighting over changes to the state’s bail reform laws and an $850 million infusion of public money for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
As Hochul touted the stadium deal as an investment in the Bills' future in New York, advocacy groups like Citizen Action watched other agenda issues, like good cause eviction legislation to protect tenants from unreasonable evictions and rent hikes, fail to muster enthusiasm in Albany.
“Certain issues like this don’t get put on the front burner,” Alfonso said.
Then came a scandal involving Hochul's former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who was arrested on bribery charges related to a past campaign. She brought on Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Hudson Valley congressman who is Black, as Benjamin’s successor, a development widely seen as a strategic move to relate to diverse voters.
This month, a leaked draft opinion showing the Supreme Court was poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision gave Hochul the lift she needed. She became a prominent Democratic voice on abortion rights, promising to welcome those from around the country needing abortion care.
"We're not playing defense — we're playing offense," she said at a news conference earlier this month. "My message to those who will deny this fundamental right, this basic right — You don't want to mess with the state of New York."
Meeting voters where they are
A March Siena poll showed Hochul’s commanding lead among Democratic voters, with 52% saying they’d vote for her in a primary over Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
But if Cuomo were to enter the primary race, Hochul’s support among voters of color was shaky. Cuomo outpaced Hochul with a two-to-one lead among Black Democrats, with Suozzi and Williams trailing behind. Latinx voters were closely divided between the two hypothetical front runners.
Without Cuomo in the picture, Hochul led Black Democrats by 39%, with Williams taking 17%, poll data show.
Since then, Hochul's overall approval rating plunged to 36%, down seven percentage points within a month, as reported in an April Siena poll. Her rating among Democrats also decreased during that period, though 55% still said she's doing a good job.
That means she has to continue working to connect with Democrats, particularly in downstate areas, if she hopes to handily win the primary.
Roughly half of the state’s six million active Democratic voters live in New York City. Add in Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley counties of Rockland and Westchester, and that’s 4.3 million Democratic voters living downstate — or nearly 73% of potential Democratic voters in a statewide election.
“New York City is the lifeline to electability in a governor’s race,” said Charlie King, a Democratic consultant who ran for lieutenant governor in 2002. “Without a strong showing you cannot win a primary and you cannot win the general.”
Making inroads in minority communities in the five boroughs and beyond becomes crucial.
King, 61, says that will mean making traditional election-year visits to churches, which serve as de facto meeting halls in African American communities.
“In communities of color, we like to see our candidates,” said King, who is Black. “So it’s being seen and heard in the churches. It’s in the union halls. It’s getting to those rallies. It’s getting that enthusiasm out, the old traditional way.”
But it will also mean connecting to younger Black voters through social media and digital spaces where state politics are being discussed, he added.
“The result of all this hard work has to reveal itself over the next two months and, frankly, that’s not just on her,” King said. “It’s going to be incumbent on all of us to get that vote out and to generate that enthusiasm for the governor and her policies. She’s tilled the soil and now it has to bear fruit.”
Black voters break down into three categories, as Jon McFarlane, of Queens, sees it — the seniors, the working people and the college students. And they vote very differently from each other.
“If our clergy and our elected leaders say vote for Hochul, that’s what the older generation will do,” said McFarlane, who volunteers with VOCAL-NY, a statewide nonprofit advocating for low-income people. “With the college students, you’re talking about voting for candidates with interests that align with what they want and what they need.”
To bolster support, Hochul tapped relationships in diverse communities she developed while crisscrossing the state as lieutenant governor. In recent weeks, she visited a number of New York City churches in her capacity as governor, while attending endorsement events in Queens and Manhattan.
During the pandemic, before taking her current role, Hochul toured Manhattan’s Chinatown, talking to business owners struggling to keep stores and restaurants open while tourists stayed away.
Her presence was an indication that she cared about the Lower East Side community, according to Chung Seto, president of the United Democratic Organization, a Manhattan political club with mostly Asian Americans and Latino members. Seto has known Hochul for two decades, as the former executive director of the state’s Democratic party.
“Chinatown’s been neglected for a very long time,” Seto said. “We did not get the kind of aid after 9/11. And we certainly didn’t see if after Sandy. And so when COVID hit it was just extraordinary. Our community, we really suffered. And the recovery is still difficult… We’re just glad to have a partner in Albany in the governor.”
This year’s budget includes some $20 million in funding for nonprofits and community organizations that work with Asian Americans. The funding grew out of conversations Hochul had with Seto’s group and others in the community.
“And that’s why we call it a partnership,” Seto said. “And not just having someone who comes in and just dumps talking points and goes.”
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Doubt around shared values
But in other areas of the state, Black voters say Hochul’s been offering lip service, or pandering to their communities, when she could have been making real change in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
This was happening long before the sorrow of the Buffalo shooting, which means that Hochul's current attempts to mourn with the community and her promises to address white supremacy feel like they're coming too late, said Jim Anderson, a native Buffalonian who serves as vice president at large on the board of Citizen Action of New York.
"To come along now and act like they’re going to do something to really help communities is hard to believe," he said. "What we’re seeing is that the politicians have not done their job. What they never address is the points at which they missed, and the policies they didn't push."
Hochul on Wednesday announced a slate of executive orders and proposed legislation, meant to curtail domestic terrorism and white supremacy inside New York's borders and tighten the state's existing gun laws, which are some of the toughest in the nation.
Anderson expressed his further distaste for Hochul in that he believes she comes from "the same fabric" as other "corporate interest Democrats," he said.
He saw the Bills stadium deal as an opportunity for economic growth in downtown Buffalo, only to watch the final deal settle on a new stadium in Orchard Park, a suburb 20 minutes outside of the city.
In response to outcry on the stadium’s hefty price tag, Hochul said she’d cover most of the public cost with a multi-million dollar payment from the Seneca Nation in Western New York — an exchange Anderson saw as “strong-arming the Senecas” to pay up after a revenue sharing dispute.
Progressive energy has coalesced around Williams, who is running a campaign against Hochul that champions housing, fair policing and other social justice issues, positioning himself as a grassroots advocate who understands voters’ everyday needs.
“There is a movement building in New York, a courageous, progressive movement that challenges the powerful and helps restore that power to the people,” Williams booms in a campaign ad on his website.
His platform speaks to “the pain of what you hear people complaining about,” like safety and education, said Anderson, adding that Williams has a proven track record after a decade in city government.
In contrast, Hochul hasn’t spent enough time working on those critical issues to disadvantaged communities, such as food insecurity and housing, said Chris Thompson, 44, a Rochester electrical engineer who spent time in recent years campaigning for progressive Democratic city council candidates.
“She has the political power to help people through policy,” Thompson said. “But we’re giving the money to places where we don’t need it.”
Hochul has championed initiatives around childcare subsidies, investing $7 billion over four years in the state's budget; and affordable housing, passing a $25 billion housing plan in the budget that would create or preserve 100,000 affordable homes over five years.
"Creating and maintaining affordable, safe, secure homes for New York’s families, seniors, veterans, adults with special needs, and individuals experiencing homelessness is a cornerstone of my administration," Hochul said in an April statement.
Hochul is taking steps to raise up disadvantaged communities by listening to constituents, said Preston Baker, who heads the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club in southeast Queens, one of the largest African-American political clubs in New York City.
Founded in 1959, the club was once led by Baker’s stepfather, Archie Spigner, a Queens power broker who served on the New York City Council for nearly three decades.
“Housing is a big issue,” Baker said. “(Hochul’s) dealing with the property tax issues. She’s putting money into education. She has a jobs initiative that she’s launching, which I think will reduce the recidivism rate, getting people working. She’s taking the steps needed to help our community in the long term.”
Sarah Taddeo is the New York State Team Editor for the USA Today Network. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Will Kathy Hochul win election? New Yorkers split over her track record