Even as the meteor that is Andrew Cuomo’s political career crashed and burned amidst charges of sexual harassment, another star is on the rise in the form of Kathy Hochul, New York’s Lieutenant Governor, who has replaced Cuomo, making her the first female governor of New York. A careful analysis of Hochul shows she is a shrewd stateswoman with a keen sense of the political landscape and an appreciation of the shifting sands of social mores and values.
Born Kathleen Courtney in Buffalo, New York, Hochul’s family background epitomizes the American dream. Initially, her family was decidedly blue-collar and traditional Irish Catholic, “her father working worked nights at Bethlehem Steel, and her mother raised their six children.” While her family initially struggled to make ends meet, her father eventually went on to head up an information technology company.
Hochul’s parents provided the moral foundation she needed to become a political activist. In a recent interview, Hochul recalls the role her mother played in shaping her worldview, saying, “My mother was an activist in many causes, despite the fact that she was raised in a big Irish Catholic family — and my father supported her. Every social cause of our day was embraced as a family. My parents weren’t politically active, but they were very socially conscious.”
This sense of social consciousness fueled her passion for public service as a teenager, where she volunteered with the Democratic party during her summer breaks. After earning a B.A. from Syracuse University in political science, and a J.D. from The Catholic” University of America in Washington, D.C., she stayed on Capitol Hill, working as an aide to New York Democratic legislators Rep. John LaFalce and, later, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Interestingly, Hochul, at least early on, preferred to take a tangential approach to politics. As Hochul puts it, “I wanted to be a staffer for a senator. That was my goal. I always wanted to be the brains behind other people.”
But for Hochul, this understated dynamic was less about her essence as a person, and more about the social milieu of the times, which was dominated by the proverbial “good ol boy” network. And while the atmosphere of politics is often an ugly cocktail of raw power mixed with a dose of absurd ideology that is difficult for most men to stomach, it is a particularly toxic pill for women to swallow.
Hochul recalls this atmosphere, saying, “Lack of confidence. It’s something that women of my generation and some of other generations still experience. I didn’t have any role models. We were just women behind the scenes making the guys look good. I wanted to write speeches, work on developing legislation and policy.”
However, Hochul was blessed to meet a few female role models, among them Geraldine Ferraro, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress and in 1972, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. And though there were not many other women that influenced Hochul, she is grateful for these formative relationships, recalling, ”I’ve been touched by many of them, and I’ve really benefited from that.”
In 1994, Hochul was elected as the Democratic and Conservative Party candidate to the Hamburg Town Board and served on the town board until 2007. While on the board, she led a push to remove toll booths on parts of the New York State Thruway system in an effort to reduce congestion, which later culminated in the major deconstruction at 52 toll plazas on the Thruway’s ticketed system.
Ever mindful of the need to build a positive, progressive image to bolster her political career, Hochul stated:
As a native Western New Yorker, I have experienced firsthand the traffic backups the Williamsville and Lackawanna toll barriers can cause, especially following Bills games. When I started my career in public service on my local town board, I advocated for the toll barriers to be removed due to negative impacts including increased costs, the hassle of having to stop and pay tolls, and discouraging people from outside the area to travel and visit.
Those days are quickly coming to an end with cashless tolling, which is already improving traffic flow, allowing motorists to get to their destinations without having to stop to pay a toll, reducing pollution to help combat climate change, and enhancing quality of life for Western New Yorkers and all New Yorkers across the state.
After serving as Erie County’s Deputy Clerk, Hochul eventually became county clerk in 2007. Ironically, Hochul was appointed to the clerk post by Governor Eliot Spitzer, who also resigned his governorship as information surfaced tying him to a prostitution ring. As a Buffalo New article frames it, “Spitzer’s fall thus became the teeter-totter impetus for Cuomo’s rise.”
Hochul did not leave the office, however, without some controversy. After leaving the County Clerk’s Office, it was discovered by her successor, Chris Jacob, that there was $792,571 in checks from backlogged mail. And while Jacob stopped short of directly accusing Hochul of mismanagement, he did warn, “When you make a decision on paper and you go to implementation, you have to manage that because things don’t always go as planned. And you may have to make adjustments as you go along.”
Hochul has also championed some causes that have gotten her in hot water in progressive circles. When Spitzer proposed allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, Hochul said that while she would observe the law, she would not oppose these immigrants being arrested by local law enforcement.
To be fair, Hochul reversed her stance in 2018, saying, “What I would say today with respect to the driver’s licenses: It is a whole different era out there. That was 11 years ago, and there were very few people saying that was the right policy at the time. But I have been fighting for immigration reform since I was a staffer for Sen. [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan. I believe this has to come at the federal level — this would make it a lot easier if they would step up and handle the responsibility they have to make sure that … people who are in this country have the right to continue living here and they should have all the rights of citizenship.”
Hochul does seem to have a penchant for being in the right place at the right time in the world of New York politics. In 2011, Hochul won a special election to fill the seat in New York’s 26th congressional district. In 2012, however, Hochul’s district was renumbered the 27th district and she eventually lost her reelection bid to Chris Collin. Oddly enough, Hochul was endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). who gave her an “A” rating, and then in strange sort of appeasement, gave her an “F” to calm criticisms from more liberal quarters.
In response to the liberal outcry, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association President Tom King offered, “There’s a reason not a single candidate in New York is sucking up to the gun prohibitionist groups. They’re nothing but astroturf. They have never been able to turn out voters on their issue. Nevertheless, if it makes her happy, we’ll give Hochul an ‘F’ rating and tell everyone to support Tim Wu instead.”
Hochul was then chosen by Cuomo in 2014, replacing former Lieutenant-Governor Robert Duff, and was re-elected along with Cuomo in 2018. Throughout her political tenure, Hochul has developed a reputation as an advocate for women’s rights.
According to her official state biography: “Hochul spearheaded Governor Cuomo’s Enough is Enough campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses, hosting and attending more than 25 events. As the highest-ranking female elected official in New York State, she continues to be a champion for women and families across the State. In March 2016, she was elected as chair of the New York State Women’s Suffrage 100th Anniversary Commemoration Commission.”
Beyond her political achievements, Hochul is known as warm, personable, and approachable. Assemblywoman Karen McMahon, whose district encompasses the Town of Amherst in Erie County upstate, told Politico recently, “She’s gone to great heights in government, yet one-to-one, she is so accessible and so warm and just a very generous person. She’s always able to help — particularly women, too.”
And Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan also recently praised Hochul, calling her a “consummate public servant,” adding, “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.”
As Hochul assumes the crown of New York, perhaps she hears the words of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who once said, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
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