Low-Profile NY Lt. Gov. Is No Stranger To Politics | WAMC

Low-Profile NY Lt. Gov. Is No Stranger To Politics

Mar 16, 2021

The growing calls for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a nursing home scandal, has focused attention on the state’s number two in command, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul.  

Hochul is not exactly a household name around New York. The lieutenant governor, in her sixth year in office, has stayed in the shadows, compared to the attention seeking Andrew Cuomo.  

Until recently her most notable public appearances have been to introduce the governor at the annual State of the State speech, and talk up his agenda.

“For nearly a decade, Governor Cuomo has demonstrated time and again, what skills, experience and bold leadership can deliver,” she said at the governor’s address in January 2020.  

But Hochul, known for her warm and upbeat personality, is a successful elected official in her own right. In 2011, the Democrat won a special election for a Congressional seat, and held it for eighteen months until her defeat to the now-disgraced Chris Collins. She has a solid core base of supporters in Western New York.

Hochul’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland. Her father was a former steelworker in Lackawanna, who rose to head his own information technology company. Her mother stayed at home to raise Hochul and her five brothers and sisters.  

Hochul attended Syracuse University and received her law degree from Catholic University. Her husband Bill, also a lawyer, is the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York. 

After law school, she worked in Washington for New York elected officials, including former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But she had to quit when she found the hours conflicted with looking after her small child. She shared the experience in an interview with public radio and TV last August. 

“I loved my job, but the hours were crazy,” Hochul said. “We literally pulled all-nighters, when they were in session. You have a child, nobody to watch the kids.”    

She moved back to Buffalo, had another child and eventually ran for town council in the suburb of Hamburg, and 14 years later, in 2007, was elected as Erie County Clerk.

Hochul, a lifelong Democrat, at the time, was more conservative than liberal. She vocally opposed then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s efforts to grant drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, saying that if they tried to apply, she’d call the sheriff to bring them in for questioning.

And when she ran for Congress in 2011, the National Rifle Association endorsed her.

Hochul has since changed her view on the driver’s licenses, she supported a law backed by Governor Cuomo to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for them. And she split with the NRA over the issue of school shootings.

In 2014, the state’s then-Lieutenant Governor, former Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy declined to seek reelection, saying back problems prevented him from continuing a busy travel schedule. Cuomo chose Hochul as a replacement.   

She picked up the travel duties with enthusiasm, often attending five or six events a day from Buffalo to New York City in one day. They ranged from promoting Cuomo’s state budget plan at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, to a commemoration for Black history month.

Hochul’s also been an avid participant in a series of sporting contests Cuomo has held to promote tourism, including the Adirondack Winter Challenge, where she broke her wrist and several ribs while attempting a ski jump. She recounted the experience at a meeting of the Common Ground Alliance in Long Lake, recorded by North Country Public Radio.

“I just missed the airbag completely,” Hochul said, to laughter. “I want to tell you that the quality of health care in the North Country is really good.”  

Despite the injuries, the years of campaign-style appearances earned her a wide array of allies in every corner of the state.       

When Cuomo in 2018 indicated that he might want Hochul off of the ticket, suggesting that she might want to try again for her former Congressional seat, Hochul asserted herself.  

She called a series of journalists into her private offices outside the Senate chamber to signal her intentions, and then made clear that she intended to run for a second term as lieutenant governor.

“The governor and I are running together,” she said. “And when we are sworn-in on January 1, 2019, you’ll look back and say ‘This was the biggest non-story of the year.’”

Hochul has held a slim portfolio during her years under Cuomo, although she did notably, lead the governor’s “Enough is Enough” campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses. 

For the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hochul has continued her presence at political and community events across the state, virtually. But Cuomo has kept her at arms-length from his management of the crisis. She has attended only a handful of the over 200 public briefings the governor had held on the virus, and she is not one of his inner circle of decision makers.

Hochul, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has tried not to be drawn in to the scandals surrounding the governor.

She has issued just two brief statements on the sexual harassment allegations, saying that while the women’s complaints need to be heard and taken seriously, she wants to wait for the ongoing investigation by the state’s Attorney General to play out. 

If Hochul were to replace Cuomo, she would become the state’s first female governor.