Kathy Hochul
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul Credit: Lev Radin / Shutterstock
TERRY COWGILL

Scheduled to officially take place today, the resignation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came as no surprise to most of us who had been following his rise during the pandemic and his dramatic decline in fortune over the last few months.

From deliberately underreporting nursing home deaths attributable to the coronavirus, to the recently released investigation by the state attorney general into allegations of sexual harassment and assault, the embattled Cuomo was on his last legs and very much deserved his ultimate fate.

Cuomo’s resignation follows that of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008. Despite taking a tough stance against prostitution when he was attorney general, Spitzer was consorting with $1,000-an-hour call girls, a federal wiretap revealed.

In both cases, their relatively abrupt resignations left politicians and pundits scrambling to learn more about their would-be successors. That’s because typically lieutenant governors are politicians of lesser significance whose obscurity is seen as a virtue by incumbent governors who don’t want to be upstaged by someone of equal celebrity.

That’s precisely what’s playing out in New York, where Kathy Hochul, a previously obscure one-term congresswoman and county clerk from Buffalo, will be sworn in this morning.

For Nutmeggers such as ourselves, we are reminded of our most recent brush with gubernatorial quitting. To wit, Gov. John G. Rowland resigned during his third term in a plea deal worked out with federal prosecutors who had caught him with his hand in the cookie jar. Rowland was later sent off to a federal prison and became Inmate 15623-014.

On July 1, 2004, observers were left wondering exactly who Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell was. Something of a backbencher in the state House of Representatives, the Brookfield resident was hardly a well known figure when Rowland named her his running mate in 1994. It was hard to assess her performance as lieutenant governor since it’s such a nothing job that should, in my estimation, be eliminated.

Suffice it to say that, like Hochul, Rell was put on the ribbon-cutting circuit. That can cause the new governor to continue some bad habits. During virtually her entire governorship, Rell struggled to transition out of LG mode. Even after becoming the state’s chief executive, Rell was forever schlepping around to ribbon cuttings and giving interviews to 500-watt radio stations.

Rell likes to tell the story of when she was campaigning as Rowland’s running mate in 1994. She came home to Brookfield one night after spending the day on the campaign trail and noticed that no one in her household had emptied the garbage can.

”I’m running for lieutenant governor,” she recalled, scolding family members upon returning. ”The least you could have done is taken out the trash.”

”So, does that make you someone important?” her son Michael asked.

As did Spitzer’s successor David Paterson, Gov. Rell struggled with the budget and with management, having never run anything of size as a state legislator. Still, voters liked her. She became known as Connecticut’s Grandmother. As I’ve written before, her popularity has always puzzled me. Five years after leaving office, Rell and her husband Lou fled Connecticut for Florida.

Now harken back to 47 years ago. Connecticut had just broken the gender barrier and voted former congresswoman Ella T. Grasso into office as the nation’s first female governor elected in her own right. About halfway into her second term, Grasso was tragically stricken with ovarian cancer, resigned and died about six weeks later

Nutmeggers promptly scrambled to find out who Lt. Gov. Bill O’Neill was. O’Neill had a better go of it as chief executive than Rell did. He was a Trumanesque figure — a man of limited education, a tavern owner and an Air Force pilot combat veteran who had served two terms as majority leader in the state House of Representatives. O’Neill, as former state Democratic Party head John Droney said, “projected the image of an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things.”

O’Neill also benefited from the economic boom of the 1980s, as the state regularly ran surpluses and Democrats solidified their majorities in the General Assembly. O’Neill may not have had a college degree but he was smart enough to see an ugly recession on the horizon and declined to run for a third complete term in 1990. 

The former governor was such a decent man that even then-Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy wrote of O’Neill on learning of his death in 2007, “Republicans from across the state mourn the loss of a good and decent man who served his state and country with distinction.”

This brings us back to Hochul, the LG thrust into the highest office in one of the five most important states in the nation. Will New York’s first female governor be a Bill O’Neill or a David Paterson — or a Jodi Rell, for that matter? 

Hochul has already announced that she will run for election next year but, like Gerald Ford, she’s an accidental chief executive who ascended to the throne through a scandal that undid her boss. Hochul, therefore, is likely to face plenty of challengers in a Democratic primary. I hear there is a long list of failed New York City mayoral candidates looking for work.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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