New York governor Andrew Cuomo is facing the biggest political crisis of his career following multiple allegations of sexual harassment as well as reports that his administration tried to hide the total number of nursing-home residents who died from COVID-19 last summer. The twin scandals have prompted calls from state lawmakers for Cuomo to resign or be impeached, while the governor has denied any misconduct and defiantly refused to even consider the idea of leaving office. In the meantime, the New York attorney general’s office has launched an independent investigation into the women’s allegations against Cuomo.
Should Cuomo ultimately step or be forced down before his third term ends next year, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul would take over and become the first female governor in the history of the state. Below is an overview of Hochul, 62, her long career in politics, the job she’s done as lieutenant governor, and how she has responded to the allegations against Cuomo.
A teenage politico
Born Kathleen Courtney to Irish Catholic working-class parents in Buffalo, she is the second-oldest of six children. She’s been involved in politics since she was a teenager. In high school, she volunteered at the local Democratic Party headquarters (where, she has said, she was always the youngest and only female person in the room). While pursuing a degree in political science at Syracuse University, Hochul interned at the State Assembly where she met her future husband, Bill Hochul, who went on to serve as the top federal prosecutor in Buffalo.
After earning a law degree from Catholic University in D.C., she served as an aide to Buffalo congressman John LaFalce and later Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Hochul left the workforce to care for her two children in the late 1980s, and first ran for office, at 35, for the Hamburg Town Board, which she served on for 14 years. Hochul then served Erie County as a deputy clerk and later county clerk, before winning an upset special-election victory in 2011 to become the first Democrat to represent New York’s 26th Congressional District in four decades. A year later, after redistricting made her district the reddest in the state, she narrowly lost to Republican Chris Collins.
After leaving Congress, Hochul briefly worked in the private sector doing government relations for M&T Bank. In 2014, Cuomo named Hochul to replace then-Lieutenant-Governor Robert Duffy as his running mate for a second term. In 2018, she fended off a primary challenge from New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams and won reelection.
From upstate moderate to statewide liberal
Before running for lieutenant governor, Hochul had a reputation as a moderate Democrat — which was arguably a political necessity where she had run for office upstate. In local and county races, she regularly ran on the Conservative Party line. In 2007, when she was Erie County clerk, she gained some notoriety downstate for opposing then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s effort to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants — vowing to arrest any immigrant who tried to apply for one at county offices. In 2011, she ran for Congress as an “independent Democrat,” and earned an endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
As with other upstate Democrats, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Hochul’s politics have shifted in statewide office. She reversed her position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and backed the SAFE Act, which is one the toughest gun control laws in the country, for instance, and has been in ideological lockstep with the Cuomo administration ever since she joined it. Hochul has described her evolution, and past positions, as a matter of trying to best represent her constituents and their views.
Former Erie County Democratic chair Len Lenihan told the Associated Press he calls her “a Joe Biden Democrat,” and that she “appeals to the base Democratic voter, but also has the ability to go beyond that.”
What has she done as lieutenant governor and during the pandemic?
Since joining the Cuomo administration, Hochul has been its road warrior, including during the pandemic. Much of that has been fulfilling the traditional duties of any lieutenant governor: being a spokesperson and defender for the governor’s office and its priorities, as well as the state’s chief ribbon-cutter.
The Buffalo News’ editorial board, in its endorsement of Hochul for lieutenant governor in 2018, emphasized her solid record of public service for western New York, her economic-development efforts, and her advocacy for women, noting that she “sees the governor-lieutenant governor relationship as akin to that of Barack Obama and Joe Biden — someone in sync with the chief’s priorities … She is the face of the initiatives, making appearances, leading task forces, and rallying support in the community and with legislators.”
She has famously made a point of visiting every county in the state (by car) each year she has served as lieutenant governor, is reportedly partial to drop-ins at diners to talk with locals, and didn’t let up on her in-person style of politics during the pandemic — often traveling to attend virtual events in various parts of the state rather than logging in for them from Albany. From March to the end of last year, she still made it to every county, gave more than 500 interviews, and was particularly focused on the administration’s pandemic response in western New York.
That being said, Cuomo has reportedly never really included Hochul in his inner circle, including during the pandemic. (She was only ever at one of all those daily press conferences Cuomo held, and he notably neglected to even mention her in his mid-pandemic memoir.) But those who have worked with her during the pandemic have been speaking out in her favor. Here’s what Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz recently said to Politico:
Kathy and I talked a lot during the last year about getting resources, what we need in county government, especially early on when it was difficult to get testing kits and the like. So she’s been pretty involved … in discussing what we need in county government and how she can help[.] She’s ready for any role that she may have in state government. I know she’s more than capable to handle any role in New York state government, including governor.
Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan also recently praised Hochul to the Wall Street Journal, calling her a “consummate public servant.”
“She works hard, she listens to people, she cares,” Sheehan continued. “In any state, you want for your lieutenant governor somebody who can do the job of governor. It doesn’t always happen, but in Kathy Hochul’s case she has the ability to do the job if it comes to it.”
Is she like Cuomo?
No. Hochul seems to be widely respected — and liked — by Democratic officials and lawmakers statewide, as she is constantly on the front lines meeting with them, and bends over backward to help out on campaigns small and large, sometimes even for Democrats outside the state. As the Buffalo News explains in a look at her potential post-Cuomo coalition:
[I]t is clear that Gov. Kathy Hochul would be the temperamental opposite of the temperamental Cuomo, who has kept Hochul at a bit of a distance. Hochul’s personal warmth serves as her political fuel, an asset that’s allowed her to forge deep political ties across the state while pushing the governor’s message.
The governor hasn’t been a great ally, either, the News points out:
Cuomo hasn’t always been equally supportive of Hochul. With Hochul facing a tough primary against Williams, Cuomo’s forces tried to push her off the Democratic ticket and into a race for her old congressional seat in 2018, but she refused to budge and ended up winning her primary. But that episode illustrates a well-known fact in Albany. Hochul isn’t exactly Cuomo’s right-hand woman.
Being an outsider could also help, politically and pragmatically, since some of what’s been going on inside the Cuomo brain trust have been scandal-creating mistakes like the alleged nursing-home data cover-up and, as many former Cuomo aides allege, the fostering of a toxic workplace.
And as Cuomo has gotten more and more isolated amid his political crisis, more and more state Democrats have been talking up Hochul, with many endorsing her as a worthy replacement in their calls for the governor to resign. On March 6, the New York Times reported that “a person close to [Hochul] described an uptick in outreach to her office from political figures around the state — an unmistakable sign of uncertainty around Mr. Cuomo.”
Speaking with the AP, Republican Assembly member Angelo Morinello described Hochul as “a very accomplished individual” who “has experience and wherewithal and a staff that would be able to keep things going.” Former Democratic congressman John LaFalce called Hochul “tenacious” and emphasized that, “The most important thing in politics is likability. And everybody loves Kathy.”
How has Hochul responded to the allegations against Cuomo?
On February 27, after a second former aide came forward to accuse Governor Cuomo of sexual harassment, the lieutenant governor said in a brief statement that “everyone deserves to have their voice heard and taken seriously” and that she supported “an independent review” of the claims.
On March 9, one day after Attorney General Letitia James announced the appointment of former federal prosecutor Joon Kim and employment attorney Anne Clark to conduct an investigation into the allegations against Cuomo, Hochul released another statement expressing her faith in the effort. “I am confident everyone’s voice will be heard and taken seriously,” she said. “I trust the inquiry to be completed as thoroughly and expeditiously as possible. New Yorkers should be confident that through this process they will soon learn the facts.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Hochul seems unlikely to change her cautious approach toward Cuomo’s crisis, at least for the foreseeable future:
Even in private conversations, Ms. Hochul is treading lightly on Mr. Cuomo’s situation, according to state and local officials familiar with her thinking including several people who have spoken to her in the past week. One person who spoke to her said the lieutenant governor didn’t feel it would be her place to weigh in. “She basically is saying that she’s the last person who should offer an opinion on this because she would appear to be self-interested,” the person said.
Meanwhile, Politico reports that Hochul appears to have stopped using Cuomo’s name in recent public appearances:
[S]everal long-time Hochul observers said they view the lieutenant governor as far too eloquent to have made such a rhetorical shift by accident. Whether the shift is out of frustration with the accusations or simply an attempt to develop some distance from a governor who might be a liability for her own ambitions, it’s extremely apparent, especially when comparing her language to speeches she has given in past years.
When Hochul held an event in Buffalo on March 12 to livestream her getting the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, her press office sent out the details, instead of them coming from the governor’s office.
It’s also worth noting, as the Buffalo News recently highlighted, that Hochul has long been a staunch advocate for women and of the Me Too movement:
[She] has had plenty to say about sexual harassment and assault over the years, with most of it revolving around the theme: “Enough is enough.” That’s the name of landmark 2015 legislation that the Cuomo administration pushed to try to end sexual assaults on college campuses. Hochul has been the law’s chief evangelist for years, traveling to college campuses across the state to spread the word that New York has the nation’s strongest law on the issue …
“There is still a culture that is pervasive and that is why women in a workplace — whether they’re in technology in Silicon Valley or in Hollywood or in the corridors of our legislatures and Congress — they’re still being subjected to unwanted advances, sexual harassment and sometimes assault,” Hochul said in an interview with WBFO in November 2017. “And this is the year — this should be part of our legacy going forward for the next 100 years, that this is the day it’s over. Hashtag, it’s over. We’re not putting up with this anymore.”
Hochul has also spoken out about how her grandmother was a survivor of domestic abuse, and has reportedly been a tireless advocate for women’s organizations and causes as lieutenant governor. “Kathy has the difficulty of being loyal to the governor, as she always has been unflinchingly, but also remaining steadfast in her leadership to ensure that there’s no sexual harassment anyplace, anywhere, anytime,” former congressman John LaFalce, who Hochul once worked for early in her career, told the Associated Press.
If Hochul becomes governor, it would be an uncommon feat in more ways than one
First and foremost, Hochul would become the first woman to ever run New York — the state where the U.S. women’s suffrage movement began in 1848. She would also become the first governor who isn’t from New York City or its suburbs since Franklin Delano Rosevelt left Albany for the White House in 1932; the first governor from Buffalo since Grover Cleveland left for the White House in 1885; and the first governor from anywhere in upstate New York since Republican Nathan L. Miller completed his two-year term in 1922.
What wouldn’t be novel, however, would be Hochul remaining standing after an adjacent male lawmaker self-destructed amid scandal. Representative Chris Lee, whose term in Congress Hochul took over in 2011, resigned after he was caught soliciting women for an extramarital affair on Craigslist. The congressman who defeated Hochul in 2012, Chris Collins, resigned after he was charged with securities fraud. (He pleaded guilty but was later pardoned by President Trump.)
Meanwhile, Albany continues to be one of the most scandal-prone state capitals. Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson, abandoned his reelection plans in 2010 amid a pair of scandals, including one involving allegations of witness tampering regarding a domestic-abuse case against a top staffer. Patterson had replaced Eliot Spitzer in 2008 after Spitzer resigned following revelations he was involved with a prostitute. Cuomo’s successor as New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, resigned in 2018 after several women accused him of abuse. Before former State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was expelled from office in 2015 and convicted on federal corruption charges, he was twice sued over failing to investigate sexual harassment allegations. Former State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos was expelled from office in 2015 after he, too, was convicted on federal corruption charges.
Hochul has never been linked to any scandals (unless this real-estate mail backlog at the Erie County clerk’s office after she left counts).
Does Hochul have any plans for seeking higher office?
If so, she’s kept them to herself. The only plan she’s revealed publicly is her intent to keep working in politics for as long as she’s on this earth, telling Politico last fall that “I’m going to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Louise Slaughter. I’m going to be late 80s when I say goodbye to this business and only because ‘somebody’ comes knocking.”
On the other hand, the New York Times also reports that:
Ms. Hochul has built something of a statewide network of her own that was important in her re-election campaign and will be vital in any future bids for office. If she becomes the incumbent governor, people close to her say, she will seek re-election next year.
This post has been updated throughout to include additional reporting.