A governor from upstate

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Kathy Hochul is scheduled to assume the governorship on Aug. 24.

More than a decade ago, when Judith Hunter first met Kathy Hochul at an auto workers endorsement meeting, she wasn’t expecting the candidate in the Erie County clerk’s race to be interested in a rural campaign.

“Here she is, from Erie County, and my candidate and I are from the rural counties,” recalls Hunter, chair of the Livingston County Democratic Party and the Democratic Rural Conference of New York State. “And, you know, she stopped (and) she introduced herself, wanted to know all about our race, and was interested and personable and charming.”

Last November, four hours before the polls closed, Hochul was in Brighton campaigning for Jeremy Cooney, boosting his final push to win the state Senate seat in the 56th District. Cooney, who calls Hochul a great supporter, says she came to town again a few weeks ago to talk about gun violence.

“She’s a highly competent public servant,” he says. “And something that I think is really more important than my relationship with her is her relationship with Rochester.”

Anecdotes like these abound among local Democrats. Hochul’s eagerness to connect and stay connected, along with her knowledge of upstate communities like Rochester, bodes well for the region, they say. It also holds promise for Hochul’s new role as the first female governor of New York and the first governor with upstate roots since Nathan Miller a century ago. 

Whether these strengths will translate into a general election win next year, however, remains to be seen. 

Getting the job

Hochul, 62, is scheduled to assume the governorship on Aug. 24, following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation announcement on Aug. 10. Cuomo decided to step down amid calls for his impeachment after a damning 165-page report from state Attorney General Letitia James concluded that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, including current and former state government workers. Local Democrats agreed with the three-term governor’s decision.

“I am happy that the governor decided to resign and now we can start moving forward,” says Zach King, chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. “As a Democrat, I feel happy with that. I’m excited that we can move forward and that we are also breaking a glass ceiling in the process of doing that. I think it opens up a lot of things for us down the line.”

As lieutenant governor, Hochul has crisscrossed the state, pushing Cuomo’s agenda. It is a job that she did for seven years, after former Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy opted against seeking reelection and became CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

“(Now) she goes from a role—and believe me, I understand this—where you have no statutory authority,” Duffy says. “Everything you do as lieutenant governor you do because it’s what the governor gave you to do. You are there by state law to fill in when the governor goes down. In this case, the governor is leaving, so this is where the lieutenant governor has the (responsibility) to step in for that transfer of power. She’ll step in (as) the CEO of probably the largest business in New York State, the state government.”

Hochul is assembling a team as she prepares to take office. In her first remarks after Cuomo’s announcement, Hochul said she is prepared to become governor.

“I’ll do what I’ve always done. I will travel the state to meet New Yorkers to listen to them, to assure them that I’ve got their backs,” Hochul said. “And I will take their concerns and bring them back to the state Capitol and work with our partners at every level of government to come to solutions.”

She added: “People will soon learn that my style is to listen first and then take decisive action.”

That approach would be much different from Cuomo’s aggressive style. As Dave Garretson, former chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, reflects on what Hochul’s move into the governor’s office means for the region, he says time will tell if that approach works.

“We don’t know what she’ll be able to accomplish,” he says. “She will not be as strong a governor as Andrew Cuomo because she doesn’t elbow people out of the way and twist arms in the same way that he does. However, she is going to bring with her, certainly, in her bones an appreciation of who we are and where we come from and what we want.”

A solid foundation in politics

Kathy Hochul with President Barack Obama in 2011. (Photo: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons)

An attorney, Hochul has an extensive background in politics and government. She served as legal counsel and legislative assistant to Rep. John LaFalce and Sen. Daniel Moynihan, and for the state Assembly. She began her political career in 1994, when she was elected to the Hamburg Town Board, a position she held until 2007. 

That year, when Erie County Clerk David Swarts left office, Hochul, who had served as Swarts’ deputy, was appointed by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer to take Swarts’ place. She garnered 80 percent of the vote when she ran for reelection in 2010. These positions, local Democrats say, gave her a deep understanding of local government.

In 2011, Hochul ran in a special congressional election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Chris Lee in a district that had elected GOP candidates repeatedly. She won that race, defeating Jane Corwin, the Republican and Conservative Party candidate with more than 47 percent of the vote, running on Democratic and Working Party lines. Garretson recalls meeting Hochul for the first time during that race.

“When she was running for Congress, it was a long shot. There was absolutely no hope,” he says. “She was very personable, charming and tenacious. And even though there was no hope—her campaign had no money—and there was absolutely no way she could be elected, she was a tireless, she was irrepressible. She kept going like the Energizer Bunny. And she kept grinding away and, eventually, she got a lucky break.”

The break was her Republican opponent’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal, which involved an extensive overhaul, cutting direct payments for medical care provided by the federal government. It didn’t sit well with the district’s voters.

“Money poured in, things turned around, and Kathy’s optimism and tenacity was rewarded,” he says.

Hochul was well-prepared for that race, Hunter says.

“That race was so important in our rural counties, because we saw what a well-funded candidate and a professional campaign team could do,” she says. “And, you know, that’s been an important lesson for us. That that’s carried through.”

Hochul seized the opening created by the Medicare proposal controversy.

“Kathy knew that this was the issue for the race, and (had) incredible message discipline,” Hunter says. “And I’ll tell you, I have never done canvassing that was so easy (as it was) for that race. I mean, you would knock on somebody’s door in Batavia or wherever, and you would say ‘Medicare’ and they’d talk to you. You didn’t have to give your canned spiel.”

Hochul’s indefatigable spirit was evident as she spoke with community members. If a diner’s parking lot had more than four cars in it, Hochul would ask her team to pull in so that she could talk with the patrons.

“She has amazing energy,” Hunter says. “I’ve never seen anybody with the level of energy she has. And she really does seem to be almost energized by going out and meeting people. You know, by talking to them and listening to them.”

In the 2012 general election, however, Hochul lost to Rep. Chris Collins in a redrawn, even more conservative district. But Hunter notes that Hochul carried Livingston County—typically a Republican stronghold—by more than 500 votes. 

“If you know anything about the registration numbers in Livingston County, that’s a miracle,” she says. “It was because she showed up, because people had run into her on their main streets, they knew that she actually took an interest in Livingston County and made the effort to get to know the small-business owners and everyone that she could manage to meet, and Livingston County responded to that … quite dramatically. 

“And then, of course, Chris Collins won and we’re back in the same mess where our representative couldn’t find his way to Livingston County with a map.”

A regional understanding

Hochul’s upstate knowledge was cited among the reasons for Cuomo’s decision to place her on the ticket in 2014. Cuomo, who hails from Queens, made a cold calculation in appointing Hochul, Garretson observes, just as when he picked Duffy.

“Kathy is very well known and beloved in Buffalo,” Garretson says.

He and others believe Hochul’s familiarity with the Finger Lakes region—and other parts of the state—will be an advantage in her role as governor. 

“I don’t know that there has ever been an incoming governor who knows the entire state as well as Kathy does because she is on the road constantly,” Hunter says. “I set up a Google alert for her back when we were doing a special election, and I just never got rid of it. And it’s just exhausting to keep up with it. She’s everywhere.”

Cooney says Hochul knows the issues at hand—from the difficulty in finding well-paying jobs in Buffalo and Rochester and crumbling infrastructure to childhood poverty.

“We don’t have to tell our story the same way that we have for every other governor from Manhattan. … We can skip that get-to-know-you process and get right to work.”

King, who worked in the Cuomo administration as a Finger Lakes regional representative, says Hochul as governor will be much different than having a downstate politician in the office. 

“Oftentimes we’re kind of relegated as those folks upstate who, for anybody from New York City, they often think of us all as country bumpkins,” he observes. “Whereas there’s a lot of hardworking … Democrats upstate that, unfortunately, sometimes don’t get recognized in state politics as much as we would like. So, having somebody in the governor’s mansion in Albany (who) understands the difficulties that upstate faces, I think that’s something that we can definitely count on, to have somebody in our corner.”

But first, Hochul must confront COVID-19. As infection rates rise across the state, the pandemic will be Hochul’s top priority. Getting vaccines to underserved communities, persuading the unvaccinated to get shots, navigating the reopening of schools, ensuring that businesses remain open to keep the economy going—all will be key.

“I think that the lieutenant governor is very well suited to step in and drive the bus on a lot of that. I think that’s where we really need to focus first,” King says.

Kathy Hochul opens New York State COVID-19 Vaccination site at the Rochester Dome Arena in January.
(Photo: Governor’s office)

Future on the ballot

Malik Evans, who won the Democratic primary for Rochester mayor and is expected to move into City Hall after the general election, echoes others who believe Hochul’s understanding of upstate can only make things better.

“Kathy Hochul understands upstate,” Evans says. “She’s a Buffalonian and she knows Rochester. You don’t have to explain things to her; she spends time here.”

Duffy also envisions a bright future. While he expects the Legislature to play a stronger role in economic development as it has in the past, Hochul, a regular visitor at Regional Economic Development Council meetings, is likely to forge her path.

“My sense is that Gov. Hochul is a team player, a collaborator,” Duffy says. “I think that will work out to the benefit of all of us across the state.”

Will her understanding and tenure in various levels of government be enough to get votes in a general election? Political pros say it hinges on Hochul’s achievements in the next six months and on the candidates who plan to enter the race. She might need to prevail in a tough Democratic primary contest—her rivals could include Letitia James—before facing a GOP opponent next November.

“A lot of the next six months is definitely going to set the tone for that potential race, not only from what the soon-to-be Gov. Hochul will be doing from the second floor in Albany, but also just who else comes out on the race,” King says. “I’ve always said that about 80 percent of an election is decided by the time people’s names end up on the ballot.”

There is a lot of interest in the 2022 gubernatorial race, Cooney says, and he expects many potential candidates to give it a shot. 

“(Hochul) does have political capital, because she has developed those relationships over the years with leaders in every county of New York State,” he says. “That said, we know where the population is in the state of New York, right? … It’s highly concentrated in downstate. So, she would have to work very hard to build goodwill and relationships in and around the five boroughs of New York City.

“But I know her personally,” he adds. “She’s a worker, she’s fierce, she’s authentic. She can build those relationships, and she will. She’ll work very hard to do so.”

Says Evans: “I don’t count anybody out. I think it’s crazy to think if you’re from upstate, you can’t run for governor.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. Senior writer Will Astor contributed to this article.

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