Amid Democratic Outcry Over LaSalle, Hochul Turned to Republicans

The governor’s team coordinated meetings between her failed chief judge nominee and Senate Republicans in the days before a key committee vote, emails show.

Sam Mellins   ·   June 2, 2023
Kathy Hochul, Robert Ortt, Hector LaSalle, and Anthony Palumbo superimposed over the New York Court of Appeals building.
During the nomination fight over Hector LaSalle, Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt complained that Hochul “refused to reach out to me or to engage in a conversation.” A few days later, that changed. | Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

Just days before Senate Democrats rejected Hector LaSalle, Governor Kathy Hochul’s first nominee for New York’s chief judge, Hochul’s team facilitated meetings between LaSalle and top Senate Republicans in an apparent attempt to build support for his doomed nomination, New York Focus has learned.

That’s not unusual in itself: Hochul’s three other nominees to the court also met with senators on both sides of the aisle, spokespeople for the governor and the Republican Senate conference noted. Court system spokesperson Lucian Chalfen called them “courtesy meetings.”

But the stakes were a lot higher than courtesy. Unlike with the other nominees, LaSalle’s only path to confirmation relied on Republican votes. His nomination had provoked an unprecedented open revolt from Senate Democrats, many of whom viewed his judicial record as evidence that he’d continue the court’s recent conservative turn. A week earlier, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had told Gotham Gazette that “the realities are that in my conference, the numbers are not there.”

So Hochul tried getting the numbers elsewhere, emails obtained by New York Focus through a public records request suggest.

Democratic legislative leaders, who wield supermajorities in both chambers, generally don’t allow anything that relies on Republican votes to pass. Hochul had initially been reluctant to break that precedent and work around her party: Senator Robert Ortt, the Republican minority leader, complained that Hochul had “refused to reach out to me or to engage in a conversation” about the nomination.

Just a few days later, that changed. On January 13 and 16, the emails show, the governor’s team arranged a Zoom meeting between LaSalle and Ortt, and another between LaSalle and Senator Anthony Palumbo, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Vincent Bonventre, professor at Albany Law School and an expert on the Court of Appeals, said the governor’s outreach to Republicans was striking, though not inappropriate.

“You have a Democratic chief executive, and instead of ensuring that there’s support for her nominee from her own party, she had to go seeking support from the opposite side of the aisle,” Bonventre told New York Focus. “How often do you see that, if at all?”

On January 18, two days after the meeting with Palumbo, LaSalle had his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many Democrats harshly critiqued his record, while Republicans mostly praised him. “His reputation clearly speaks for itself,” Palumbo said. When the committee rejected his nomination in a 10–9 vote, most Democrats opposed it and all Republicans were in favor.

Senate Democrats argued that this meant the nomination was dead — but Hochul pushed to bring it to the floor of the Senate, where observers speculated it would have at least a chance of passing if supporters could cobble enough Democratic and Republican votes. In February, Palumbo filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force a full vote, arguing it was required by the state constitution. Hochul declined to take a position on the lawsuit, saying that she would let the courts decide the matter.

On February 15, the full Senate shot down LaSalle’s nomination, mooting the lawsuit. It was a nearly party-line vote: All but one Democrat voted against him, and all but one Republican voted for him.

It’s not known whether the Hochul administration made other overtures to Republican senators while the nomination was pending. Her allies did attempt to boost bipartisan support: When Hochul held a rally in the Bronx in support of LaSalle on January 14, political consultant Luis Miranda, who co-organized the group Latinos for LaSalle, urged both Democrats and Republicans to support the embattled nominee. “We’re going to stick by him, and we are going to elect him with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate,” he said.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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