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Hochul sworn in as N.Y.’s first female governor after Cuomo exit

Kathy Hochul was sworn in Tuesday as New York’s first female governor shortly after the clock struck midnight as the state prepares to move on from the decade-long tenure of the embattled Andrew Cuomo.

After Cuomo’s resignation became official at 11:59 p.m., Hochul was sworn in by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore, at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday in the State Capitol in Albany.

A more formal ceremonial swearing-in will take place Tuesday at 10 a.m., with Hochul’s family members and the state’s two other top politicians, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in attendance.

The trio of top politicians in Albany has for decades been known as the “three men in a room,” famous for cutting closed-door deals on legislative and budget matters. With Hochul joining Stewart-Cousins in top posts, the dynamic now becomes two women and a man.

Hochul, 62, is scheduled to make her first formal address as governor Tuesday afternoon, when she is expected to lay out her priorities. She has refrained from going into detail about her plans since Cuomo announced he was stepping down this month, saying the state can have only one governor at a time, but she has strongly indicated that one of her first orders of business would be a mask mandate for the impending school year.

“I’ve done the due diligence to determine the authority that is vested in the Department of Health, and I expect to be making an announcement on that very shortly on Tuesday. But people should be ready,” Hochul told reporters Friday.

Other pressing issues include the state’s eviction moratorium, which is set to expire at the end of the month, as well as reforming the state’s slow-moving $2.7 billion rental relief fund and its $2.1 billion worker relief fund. State Sen. Jessica Ramos told The City website that she had already met with Hochul about the worker fund. “There are issues of transparency and accessibility that we’ve already begun discussing,” Ramos said.

Hochul, a former member of Congress from Buffalo who has been lieutenant governor since 2015, has promised a more transparent and less abrasive tenure than that of the often-combative Cuomo.

“No one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” she told reporters after Cuomo announced his resignation after a scathing report by the state attorney general’s office found that he sexually harassed 11 women and that his office was a hostile work environment.

Cuomo has denied the harassment allegations but acknowledged that working in his office could be “tough” because it is a high-pressure environment.

Hochul has used the two weeks since Cuomo’s announcement to meet with elected officials around the state and to build up her administration. Hochul will serve the rest of Cuomo’s term, and she has said she plans to run for the job next year.

Hochul announced two key appointments to her administration Monday, naming Karen Persichilli Keogh as her secretary — effectively the governor’s No. 2 — and Elizabeth Fine as counsel to the governor.

Hochul said the pair “bring the depth of knowledge, leadership and experience that it will take to meet the challenges New Yorkers face.”

Keogh has worked for Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and Clinton voiced her support in a tweet Monday.

“She was a trusted advisor when I had the honor of serving NY in the Senate. She has a steady hand & knows every corner of the state. @KathyHochul has made a great choice in appointing her,” Clinton tweeted.

More appointments are expected soon. Hochul said Monday, “As governor, I will assemble a strong team to turn the corner on the pandemic and serve the best interests of New York, whether it’s defeating Covid, getting more people vaccinated or strengthening our economy.”

Hochul will also have to contend with fallout from Cuomo’s time in office.

While his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, said in a statement Monday that he has no intention of running for office again, the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee is pushing ahead with its impeachment inquiry. After it announced that it was scuttling the investigation of allegations of sexual harassment, misuse of state resources and covering up coronavirus deaths because of Cuomo’s resignation, the committee is now expected to release a report with its findings in the coming weeks. Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing.

In a resignation address Monday, Cuomo said the state faces numerous challenges, some of them from the delta variant of the coronavirus, and said he thought Hochul was up to the task.

“I believe she will step up to the challenge. We all wish her success,” Cuomo said.

As he often did as governor, Cuomo also took a not-so-veiled shot at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio while praising his expected successor, the heavily favored Democratic nominee Eric Adams.

“I think he’ll bring a new philosophy and competence to the position,” Cuomo said.

De Blasio met with Hochul for about an hour last week.

“It was just a good, healthy, sane — emphasize the word ‘sane’ — conversation, which I truly appreciate,” de Blasio told reporters.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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