Kathy Hochul has been traveling the state since 2015 as New York’s lieutenant governor without a lot of attention, as happens with lieutenant governors everywhere.
But now intense scrutiny focuses upon Albany’s second-in-command as she assumes the new and unofficial title of governor-in-waiting.
While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo attempts to survive sexual harassment charges and subsequent calls for his resignation or impeachment, photos of the Buffalo-based lieutenant governor aboard the subway grace New York City tabloids. Publications across the state and nation, meanwhile, feature stories headlined "Who is Kathy Hochul?"
In the midst of all this, Hochul walks a fine line between her duties as lieutenant governor and potentially replacing Cuomo. Those around her say she is preparing for what lies ahead. They also say she is ready.
"The nature of the job of lieutenant governor is to be ready for a time like this," said one source close to Hochul.
Another person familiar with her thinking said Hochul’s entire career has involved preparing for such a situation.
"She is acutely ready for this," said the source. "She has prepared thoughtfully and carefully – and those two words aren’t commonly used with a political candidate."
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner says he is besieged by questions from reporters around the nation already asking about plans for hiring and firing, as well as her plans for governing.
"That’s all splitting hairs," he said. "I don’t know what she will do. But the job of the lieutenant governor is to be prepared if this should happen. I know Kathy and her work ethic and I know she will be prepared if she is called."
Various reports indicate that the lieutenant governor is readying herself for whatever may happen. Her office declined comment, but a source close to her who is familiar with the situation said her phone is constantly ringing.
"State officials, legislators, agency heads, colleagues and friends are all reaching out to offer advice," the source said. "And I can say she is listening."
Other sources tell The Buffalo News that her political consultants are providing the kind of advice and inside information she will need to assume the reins of government if Cuomo – as is widely expected – eventually leaves office.
Hochul’s most daunting challenge may lie in balancing her need for loyalty to Cuomo with the reality of what he faces. Virtually all of the state’s political and governmental hierarchy has called for him to step down after Attorney General Letitia James last week issued a scathing report outlining the sexual harassment allegations of 11 women. The Albany County sheriff said over the weekend that he has opened a criminal investigation of the governor’s alleged transgressions.
Hochul joined the chorus – sort of. She labeled Cuomo’s behavior "repulsive and unlawful," but held off in repeating resignation demands. She noted her constitutional position as successor should the governor leave office as her reason. And she has continued her behind the scenes position in the aftermath of the James report.
"She’s had to walk a fine line in being loyal to the governor and being her own person," said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, for whom she once worked in Washington. "I think she has done it exceedingly well."
It all represents a far different approach to the job that each day brought her to far flung corners of the state, throughout New York City and upstate urban centers to represent the Cuomo agenda. During those trips, Hochul perfected into an art form joining local radio broadcasts each morning, as well as evening television news programs.
While she has appeared at public events in recent weeks, Cuomo’s Executive Chamber no longer posts her daily schedule. Her last public event was Aug. 2 in Buffalo to help celebrate the opening of a low-income senior apartment building on Jefferson Avenue. A day later, the attorney general’s report was released and Hochul issued the statement calling Cuomo’s behavior "repulsive."
Still, Hochul’s annual forays to each of the state’s 62 counties has already allowed her to meet and develop relationships with government and party officials. In addition to Capitol duties requiring her to preside over the Senate, most observers say Hochul does not have to start from scratch in running the government of a major state like New York.
"Her next big phase is decision making, and as governor you have to make decisions," said former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, now an Albany lobbyist. "But she has prepared herself as county clerk, as a congresswoman and as lieutenant governor. As long as she surrounds herself with great people and remains true to her Western New York roots, she’ll be fine.
"I’m in the lobbying business, and know there are a lot of really good people in state government," he added. "I’ve got to believe she will tap into that."