Judging Hochul’s strength against her own party

Human nature and this world being what they are, inevitably there are small stories that command outsized attention and big ones that are mostly overlooked.

Outside the chambers of power, not many New Yorkers have been captivated by, or are even aware of, the unprecedented and humiliating rejection by the state Senate judiciary committee of newly-elected Gov. Hochul’s nominee to be the state’s top judge.

Hochul and her allies have talked about a lawsuit to force a floor vote on her pick, one that would rope the third branch of the government into a separation-of-powers fight between the other two, but it’s hard to see her following through when state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is credibly saying that enough members of her Democratic conference would vote “no” that even a court win would only be a prelude to another embarrassing and costly loss for the Democratic governor — one she can barely afford just ahead of critical budget negotiations with the Legislature in the so-called Big Ugly where most of Albany’s lawmaking actually gets done.

In between Hochul the accidental governor introducing herself by appointing a lieutenant governor to replace her in that role who was promptly arrested and Hochul the newly elected governor nominating a chief judge who was promptly rejected, Hochul preemptively surrendered her political leverage on New Year’s Eve when she signed off on the big raises lawmakers voted to gift themselves days before Christmas without extracting any concessions in return.

New York, which spends by far the most of any state on education per pupil with no measurable return on that spending, now has a Legislature to match — one that’s eager to test its strength against a weak governor and set the Empire State’s agenda.

That’s why the judiciary committee’s vote is a big story. It appears to be a crucial turning point in the shifting balance of political power in a state, and a city, where Democrats remain wholly in control and the fights that matter are happening inside of the party rather than between two competing parties.

Increasingly, those fights pit ever more assertive and left-leaning lawmakers, who want the government to do more, against relatively centrist executives legally bound to balance their budgets each year.

Even setting aside the role of the courts, and who is appointed to serve on them, in settling some of these fights over time and establishing the precedents that define the rules for future fights, Hochul’s latest big L matters because it comes ahead of the high-stakes bout over New York State’s and New York City’s budgets in a year when revenue has been higher than expected but the looming out-year gaps are massive as federal pandemic aid that papered over big holes gets pulled away.

In New York City, brutally difficult choices are looming as the state’s economic engine is still sputtering in 2023 to try and catch up to where it was before 2020 and as the mayor and a City Council increasingly following the lead of its own Progressive Caucus and eager to challenge him have competing visions of where the city should be going from here and of how to get there.

With the city being a creation and in practice often a hostage of the state, what happens in Albany, even as it’s mostly ignored here by people busy with their own lives and concerns, matters immensely for the increasingly uncertain future of the Big Apple still struggling to establish a “new normal” nearly three years after its traumatic pandemic shutdown.

The city is still 300,000 jobs short of where it was before then, even as the nation as a whole has long since recovered its losses. Crime numbers, even those that went down in the last year, are still up significantly from their 2019 levels.

Notably, Mayor Adams has often pointed to bail reform and other new criminal justice reform laws passed by the state as a reason it’s been difficult for “his” NYPD, as he likes to refer to it and as he’s largely exempted the police from his belt-tightening plans for the rest of the city, to restore that “old normal.”

Adams keeps insisting lately that he did pretty well in Albany in his first year in office, but he knows that’s not true and he knows that, if he wants the center to hold here, he needs it to also hold in that tiny city 150 miles to the north whose backroom battles count here as its very well paid lawmakers intend to set the rules for what happens in the streets and classrooms and buildings of America’s biggest (and best) city.

Siegel (harrysiegel@gmail.com) is an editor at The City and a columnist for the Daily News.