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Twenty Years After Becoming MA’s First Female Governor, Swift Reflects On Hochul’s Ascension In N.Y.

 A white woman with silver hair, a black dress and a turquoise necklace smiles in a selfie.
Jane Swift
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Jane Swift.

An interview with former Mass. Gov. Jane Swift.

With the resignation of Andrew Cuomo later this month, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul is preparing to become the 57th and first female governor of New York. Her historic ascent mirrors that of Jane Swift, the former Republican Massachusetts governor who stepped in and became the first woman to serve in the role when Paul Cellucci was appointed Ambassador to Canada in 2001. Like Buffalo-born Hochul, North Adams native Swift also hailed from a region traditionally underrepresented in state politics – Berkshire County. WAMC spoke with Swift about Hochul’s sudden elevation to governor, and what advice she has for another woman making history in a major Northeast state.

SWIFT: I think that one of the things that is going to be helpful to Governor Hochul is that she's had some indications that this was coming. I think a lot of folks have believed since the release of the reports that the governor was going to have to resign. And so that's given her some lead time to prepare. We are in the midst of historic crisis, and oftentimes, it is taking over the leadership of an unexpected crisis that can make it very difficult for governors who take over a partial term. She has the advantage of having right in front of her knowing what that crisis will be. It will be COVID, and she'll have a number of things she'll have to handle, but at least she has a good idea of what those are.

WAMC: Have you had an opportunity to speak with Hochul?

I have not. I think she's probably got lots of people who are giving her great advice. I'm happy to take a call from any woman leader out there. I will say that, one of the things I noted to the press person who called me last night, she will be surprised that as the governor, as opposed to being the lieutenant governor, how many additional people will take her call and will want to speak with her. And she should take advantage of that to get the best advice to take on this very big job.

What's something that you wish you had known before becoming governor twenty years ago, back in 2001?

So, one of the really good things that I can reassure her is, over the last several years, I've had this wonderful opportunity to have young women who were impacted by my ascension into office, let me know just how much that meant to them. And I think I wore the weight of that being first a little too heavily at the moment, and thought it meant I also had to think about and do everything just exactly the right way. And it turns out, what meant the most to girls and young women at the time was just being there. And so what I would offer to the new governor is, your presence as a first female leader, as governor of New York, means so much to so many women. But wear that lightly, because that has been achieved. Now just go do the best job you can.

There's obviously a lot of controversy around this transition, with Governor Cuomo exiting under a cloud of extreme disgrace and a lot of frustration from his supporters. How will that impact Hochul’s ability to govern, being a part of that administration for as long as she has been?

So I actually think this is an advantage for Governor Hochul. I think succeeding someone who leaves in disgrace, in some ways, is easier than taking over for a popular governor, which was my experience where I had a very popular governor who left of his own volition as opposed to being forced out. Being unelected and without a mandate, you can often feel like you have to tread carefully in putting together your own team. I think that there will be many folks who will want the governor to establish her own team and make her own way, because the overwhelming public sentiment is that Governor Cuomo needed to resign. And so she has, I think, will have a lot of goodwill. And I hope that she'll be able to capitalize on that.

Looking back on your time as the first female governor of Massachusetts, do you feel like there were greater impediments to you being accepted in that role being a woman than Hochul will face today, two decades later?

I definitely know it was hard to be first. And I believe we have made enormous progress, although not enough. I think it's unfortunate that we had to wait until 2021 for New York to have its first female governor. But having said that, she will have other female governors around the country and other members of her own congressional and legislative delegation in Washington that she'll be able to lean on for advice. And also, there are just a lot more women leaders in other sectors of society. And I think that does make it easier, although I don't underestimate just how hard it can be to be first.

You actually doubled up on historic qualities to your governorship by being the first sitting U.S. governor to give birth while in office. Looking back on that, that was such a historic moment- What are your thoughts on what that was like?

Well, so it's been almost exactly twenty years. I know because my twins just turned twenty years old. That was a wonderful moment for me personally. But again, I think, as a woman leader, and as the mother of three daughters, I think I will be happy, as will many other women leaders, when these things are not quite so out of the ordinary, and women's leadership is just taken in stride, and we can celebrate the accomplishments of women for what they're achieving in the public policy realm as opposed to the anomaly of their ascension.

Now, like Hochul, you came into the governorship representing a traditionally marginalized part of Massachusetts, being from North Adams out here in Berkshire County. Hochul hails from Buffalo, New York herself. Was that a challenge to you in carrying out the role of Governor, again, coming from a place that traditionally is not exactly in the mainstream of political conversation in the state?

Well, I'm glad that New York has a governor's mansion, and that the travel, and an ability and a well-established ability for governors to travel around the state. I think that what Governor Hochul will find is enormous excitement in her hometown and region of Buffalo. And frankly, there are a lot of needs still in that part of Upstate New York. And so of all the challenges, representing a traditionally underrepresented part of the state who doesn't send governors to the statehouse and the capitol all that often, I think will actually be one of the really celebratory and wonderful aspects and I hope she enjoys every minute of representing Buffalo in that part of the state. I hope it, however, does not bring any additional wind in the sails of the Buffalo Bills this season.

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