BUFFALO, N.Y. – As New York's lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul has spent years on the road as the friendly face of the administration, visiting the far-flung coffee shops and factory floors of each of the state's 62 counties for countless ribbon-cutting ceremonies and civic cheerleading events.
Now, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's resignation over sexual harassment allegations Tuesday, her next stop is the state Capitol in Albany.
Hochul will become the state's first female governor once Cuomo's resignation is effective in two weeks.
“As someone who has served at all levels of government and is next in the line of succession, I am prepared to lead as New York State’s 57th Governor,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
A centrist Democrat from western New York, she has worked deep in Cuomo's shadow for her two terms in office, but last week joined the chorus of politicians denouncing the governor after an independent investigation concluded he had sexually harassed 11 women while in office.
“I believe these brave women,” Hochul wrote, calling Cuomo's behavior “repulsive and unlawful” in a statement last Tuesday.
After Cuomo announced his decision to step down, Hochul called it “the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers.”
A spokesperson tells The Associated Press that New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is set to take on the duties of lieutenant governor. No other state has two women leading — though in Oregon, in the absence of a deputy governor, the next in line in succession of Gov. Kate Brown is Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.
Eight states currently have female governors.
To many New Yorkers, Hochul is an unknown quantity, serving since 2015 in a job that is mostly ceremonial. A typical afternoon in late July had her announcing job training funding in Utica, discussing manufacturing in Rome and touring downtown Cazenovia with the small town’s mayor.
That has been nothing like the attention-demanding appearances of the determinedly high-profile Cuomo, who does most of his business in Albany and New York City and whose daily coronavirus briefings were national events at the height of the coronavirus.
Hochul has not been part of Cuomo's inner circle of aides and allies. Her name wasn't mentioned in the investigative report, released by Attorney General Letitia James, that detailed not only the harassment allegations against Cuomo but also efforts by his staff to discredit some of his accusers.
But at 62, Hochul is an experienced politician, a veteran of 11 campaigns that have taken her from town board to Congress, the latter representing a conservative western New York district after a surprising 2011 win in a special election to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House.
She received votes of confidence from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Charles Schumer on Tuesday in Washington, and from numerous elected officials and others in New York including Attorney General Letitia James, who oversaw the investigation.
“Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will be an extraordinary governor," Gillibrand told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. "She understands the complexities and needs of our state, having been both a congresswoman and having been lieutenant governor for the last several years."
Former Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan, a longtime ally in western New York, called her promotion “a happy ending to a very sad situation” and said few people have been as prepared for the office as she is.
“She’s humble and kind, but also tough. And she is going to do a fabulous job. The people in New York are going to come to really admire her abilities, her strength and her personally,” he said.
“Pragmatic would be a good way to describe her,” said Jacob Neiheisel, an associate political science professor at the University at Buffalo. “Someone who is pretty good at reading the tea leaves and coming around to where her constituency is.”
Hochul's office declined an interview request last week. The Associated Press reached out again Tuesday.
A steelworker's daughter, Hochul, a lawyer, worked in Washington as an aide to former U.S. Rep. John LaFalce and later, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, both from New York, before holding her first public office, on the town board in Hamburg, near Buffalo.
From there, she became Erie County Clerk, where she made some news in 2007 for resistance to a plan by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer to allow unauthorized immigrants to get driver's licenses. Hochul and another western New York clerk explored a plan to have police arrest immigrants who tried to apply.
"It will be a deterrent, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Hochul told The Buffalo News at the time.
Her next move was to Congress, where in 2011 she had a surprising win in a special election in a district that had been in Republican hands for decades. She lost a bid for reelection a year later to Republican Chris Collins, despite an endorsement by the National Rifle Association. Collins later resigned from the U.S. House and pleaded guilty to insider trading.
Hochul moved to the left, politically, when Cuomo tapped her as his running mate in 2014 after his first lieutenant governor, former Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, decided not to run for reelection.
She backed New York’s SAFE Act, one of the nation’s toughest gun control laws, as well as the state’s Green Light Law, which let unauthorized immigrants get driver’s licenses.
Hochul has not publicly expressed whether she would pursue a full term as governor in 2022.
An upstate candidate running for any statewide office in New York faces a daunting challenge, but even more so for the governor’s office, which has historically drawn from New York City.
LaFalce, whom Hochul considers a mentor, said in her frequent travels and while presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor, Hochul has gotten to know the state’s party chairs and elected officials from both parties.
“She will have a tremendous army for the spring primary in 2022,” he said.
LaFalce noted that she won against strong opponents in her two Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor, Columbia University law professorTimothy Wu and Jumaane Williams, now the New York City public advocate.
“No one should dismiss Kathy as a weak candidate. She’s proven her mettle in statewide races," LaFalce said. “And she now has a war chest of about $1.7 million, which as the governor ... she will be able to amass millions more. She will be formidable in any Democratic primary and I think she will prevail.”
Neiheisel said given her record, it is difficult to predict what a “distinctly Hochul agenda” might look like, especially when faced with the state’s still-active pandemic response and a recovery that will involve billions of dollars in federal aid.
“Given how little she’s historically been in the news cycle, I really don’t think she has the kind of name recognition that you would expect of somebody who is suddenly being thrust into a position of maybe being governor,” Neiheisel said “She’s going to have to do an awful lot, really fast, in order for there to be a serious conversation for keeping that job.”
At a news briefing last Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has a famously contentious relationship with Cuomo, said he’s gotten to know Hochul over the last few years and “she strikes me as a very reasonable person.”
“I believe if Kathy Hochul becomes governor, she’ll be an honest broker,” he said then. “We’ll be able to work together.”
In Buffalo, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz worked alongside Hochul when he was county comptroller and she was Erie County Clerk. He said he saw Hochul easily stepping into the governor’s office.
“I know she has the work ethic, determination, and skill set to not only succeed as governor,” he said Tuesday, “but to take the Empire State to new heights.”