What Does The Lieutenant Governor Of New York Do?

At the start of 2021, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul was not even close to a household name. Now, she has succeeded Andrew Cuomo as the 57th governor of New York.

Hochul, who became Cuomo’s second lieutenant governor after joining the ticket for the 2014 election, has made history by becoming the state’s first woman governor. She is the ninth lieutenant governor in New York’s history to become governor, and the second to take over mid-term from a disgraced governor, after David Paterson succeeded Eliot Spitzer when he resigned in 2008 amidst a prostitution scandal.

Hochul has declared that her pick for lieutenant governor will be from New York City. While we wait for her to announce who that person may be, you might be wondering: What has Hochul been doing for the last six years? What exactly does a lieutenant governor even do? As with our earlier gubernatorial explainer piece, we spoke to historian Dr. Gerald Benjamin, one of the foremost experts on state government in New York, to offer a brief rundown of what a lieutenant governor actually does.

Presiding Over The Senate

The lieutenant governor has one constitutional responsibility: to serve as president of the State Senate in a “largely ceremonial capacity,” as the Senate website states. They do have the power to cast a vote to break a tie if there is one (which is rare).

However, even in this role, the lieutenant governor has limited power. “It’s essentially ceremonially, because the real power resides in the majority leader,” said Benjamin. “It’s minimally important in the operation of government.”

In addition, the lieutenant governor has a few duties including serving on the New York Court for the Trial of Impeachments, the State Defense Council, and on the board of trustees of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Under Cuomo, Hochul chaired a handful of Regional Economic Development Councils, co-chaired the Heroin and Opioid Abuse Task Force, and spearheaded the Enough is Enough campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

Wait…Is That It?

The role and responsibilities of lieutenant governor are at the discretion of the governor. In the case of Hochul, Cuomo did not include her among his inner circle—for example, she was not part of his very public daily COVID-19 update meetings during the pandemic. Hochul still maintained a relatively busy public schedule, visiting all 62 counties and conducting hundreds of local media interviews—but her appearances were decidedly overshadowed by Cuomo’s media scrums, and were routinely announced after the governor announced his own.

“Lieutenant governors travel the state representing the governor,” said Benjamin. “They are high-status potential speakers or participants in public events, they’re a surrogate for the governor. Cuomo used lots of his commissioners to announce his budget every year, which was an innovation. The lieutenant governor would go to a particular county or city or region, and advanced the goals of the administration in the budget process, or alternatively, the legislative agenda.”

There have been lieutenant governors who have been critically important and involved in running the government, including Malcolm Wilson, who served under Nelson Rockefeller, and Stan Lundine, who was under Mario Cuomo for his second and third terms. But in most cases, Benjamin says that the marginalization of the lieutenant governor is common.

“Of course, nobody becomes lieutenant governor wanting to be lieutenant governor—they become lieutenant governor to become governor,” Benjamin said. “There is a benefit because you get around the state and build relationships.”

The Most Important Role Of The Lieutenant Governor

Ultimately, Benjamin says “there really isn’t a job…the point [of lieutenant governor] is that certain jobs can brook no transition. If the governor god forbid dies or is killed or resigns, the office become vacant, and that’s intolerable. It’s not a legislative office where you can wait until the next election or establish local process—here you have to have automatic succession.”

Despite being the second-highest-ranking official in state government, when it comes down to it, the most important role of the lieutenant governor is to be a warm body ready and able to take over if the governor is not able to do their job any longer. No one knows that better than Paterson, who recently reflected on his own political career.

“So becoming lieutenant governor, I went from, you know, a pretty prominent person in Albany to lieutenant governor, which the only job lieutenant governor has to call and make sure the governor is still alive in the morning and your work is done for the day,” he said.

So Who Will Become The Next Lieutenant Governor?

Hochul is in a unique position in this respect: Normally, the governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primaries and then go on to run together in the general election, so not every governor gets their preferred lieutenant governor. Hochul will be only the second lieutenant governor (after Paterson) who gets to appoint her own hand-picked successor.

As Benjamin wrote in a piece for the Gotham Gazette, her choice will be dissected for indications of “her ideas about government structure and reform, her approach to decision-making and her early thinking about the nature of the coalition she envisions she will need to win the full term she has said she will seek in 2022.”

And considering that Hochul has already pledged to run for governor in 2022, it may drive away a few big names from the job.

“Why would I include this person in my administration and build them up to challenge me?” Benjamin said. “I imagine Hochul will extract a commitment from the person she chooses not to run against her, or to be part of her ticket, if she chooses to have them.”

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