Is Kathy Hochul Ready for This Mess?

A political survivor prepares to succeed Cuomo.

After 400 years, will the state get a woman governor? Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock
After 400 years, will the state get a woman governor? Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

Update: On August 10, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he will resign from office.

Kathy Hochul had been handpicked by the governor for an important post. Then she turned on him.

A longtime staffer in state and federal politics, Hochul was chosen by Governor Eliot Spitzer in 2007 to be the clerk of Erie County after her predecessor was appointed to a position in state government. Almost immediately, Hochul picked a fight with Spitzer, a fellow Democrat, over his plan to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. “I feel very strongly that the Erie County Auto Bureau should not facilitate violations of immigration law,” she said at the time. In doing so, Hochul helped stoke a national furor over the Spitzer proposal, but also sealed her election victory to win the county clerkship in her own right, setting her up to pull off a shock special election win for Congress four years later.

It was a moment that reflected a certain ability for Hochul to pay attention to the political winds and take advantage of them.

With Cuomo ​​resigning over sexual-harassment allegations, Hochul will become the Empire State’s only female governor in its 400-year history. The lieutenant governor had kept a low profile since the allegations against Cuomo first surfaced in the winter, saving her harshest criticism of him for a statement following the report. “Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any workplace, and certainly not in public service,” she said. “The AG’s investigation has documented repulsive & unlawful behavior by the Governor towards multiple women. I believe these brave women & admire their courage coming forward.” Following Cuomo’s announcement on Tuesday that he would step down, she said: “I am prepared to lead as New York State’s 57th Governor.”

Despite the fact that she has been “a continuous campaigner,” in the words of Dave Swarts, her predecessor as Erie County clerk, repeatedly stumping from small towns to the five boroughs, she has not left much of an impression among the New York City–based political class. But that is also a function of her upstate background: The last governor from north of Westchester County was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, as Buffalonians will mention without prompting, Western New York has not produced a governor since Grover Cleveland.

In Buffalo, Hochul is a well-liked figure deeply tied to the city’s power structure. She previously  served as vice-president for government relations at M&T Bank, one of the biggest employers in the metro area. Her husband was the U.S. Attorney in Buffalo for six years during the Obama administration and is currently general counsel to Delaware North, the global food-service behemoth.

A few years after her clash with Spitzer, Hochul ran for Congress in a special election in a rock-ribbed Republican district that included both Buffalo and Rochester suburbs. It looked like a long shot for the Democrat, coming at the nadir of Barack Obama’s political fortunes after the party’s midterm wipeout of 2010. But she ran a disciplined campaign focused on protecting Medicare and attacking Paul Ryan’s austerity budget. Josh Schwerin, a national Democratic operative who worked with her at the time, said “she knew what she was doing, she was happy to listen and seek advice and was trying to get better.” Hochul won in an upset, giving a huge boost to national Democrats who saw proof that such a message could work for the rest of the cycle that saw Barack Obama win reelection.

“I will never forget the dignity and grace with which she accepted” her win, said Len Lenihan, then the chair of the Erie County Democratic Party. “She didn’t pump her fist in the air, she didn’t make a declaration that we know what the people want.” Instead, Lenihan said, “she was just pleased to listen to the people.”

Hochul lost her bid for reelection in 2012 after redistricting made her district even more Republican. Then, in 2014, Cuomo added her to his ticket to help boost his support in the more conservative western part of the state. After winning the post, she faded into the background, carrying little influence in Cuomo’s administration. (The New York Times reported Sunday that the two have not spoken since February, around the same time the sexual-harassment allegations first came to light.) Instead, Hochul spent her time crisscrossing the state, promoting economic development while trying to build a national profile leading the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association. During the pandemic, Hochul has served as a public face for efforts to fight COVID in Western New York.

When Hochul becomes governor, the most immediate challenge she will face is taking the reins of state government. Although she has been preparing in recent days for a transition, she faces the task of succeeding an incumbent who has not just kept her out of his inner circle but one who has also controlled Albany for his own political ends and dominated state politics for the better part of a decade.

“She’s been in the eye of the storm for a lot of different reasons and this hurricane she’ll survive,” said Tony Masiello, the former mayor of Buffalo, who said she would not be pushed around as governor and would be “a formidable voice and opponent” in a 2022 bid to win a term in governor’s mansion outright. Lenihan described Hochul as “humble but tough.”

Politically, Hochul is a moderate Democrat who, as Swarts said, has shown she can be “flexible in whatever position she has” as the party has shifted to the left in recent years. Case in point is when she moved the left in recent years, particularly when she faced a primary challenge in 2018 from Jumaane Williams, the current New York City public advocate who was then part of an anti-Cuomo slate. Although Hochul won, she ran behind both Cuomo and Attorney General Tish James on the ticket — a possible gubernatorial candidate herself. One key political shift she made in that race? She promptly came out in support of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Is Kathy Hochul Ready for This Mess?