As New York’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul spent the past six years smiling her way across the state, working every hamlet as if it were her own political precinct.
But now she finds herself playing politics on New York’s toughest turf: the state capital, where she will become governor in 14 days.
She will be the first female governor in the state’s history, and the first governor from Buffalo since Grover Cleveland became president in 1885.
Hochul wouldn’t be here but for her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who chose her to be his running mate in 2014 and who announced Tuesday he would resign in the wake of a damning report from the office of Attorney General Letitia James, which found that the governor sexually harassed multiple women.
Cuomo ruled like a bulldozer for a decade, but his successor could not be any more different. Over a decadeslong career in Democratic politics that stretches back to her high school days in Hamburg, Hochul has used charm, not fear, to tackle one daunting challenge after another. It hasn’t always worked, but it leaves many with the same conclusion as she takes office as the first governor from upstate in a century.
“She’s every bit qualified," said Dennis C. Vacco, a former state attorney general and a Republican. "There is no question about her credentials or ability.”
‘The political bug’
Political biographies often begin in unlikely places, and Hochul’s began in a trailer in Lackawanna. That’s where her family lived in the months before she was born, to Jack and Patricia Courtney, at Our Lady of Victory Hospital some 62 years ago.
Her dad was working at Bethlehem Steel and working his way through college at the time. Eventually Jack and Pat Courtney would have six children. And as Jack moved up the corporate ladder at Buffalo’s Computer Task Group, his daughter Kathy took a keen interest in politics.
She volunteered at Erie County Democratic headquarters as a teenager and, after her freshman year at Syracuse University, paid a visit to Washington and had lunch with a friend she’d met back in Buffalo: Tim Russert, then a top aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
"He gave me the political bug," Hochul said in 2008 regarding Russert, who went on to become the famed host of NBC’s "Meet the Press." "First of all, he made it so much fun. And he always left you with the impression that politics is a way to do good for people."
Back at Syracuse, Hochul quickly rose to be vice president of the student government. Already at that point, she had developed a taste for the audacious.
Syracuse was building a domed stadium at the time – and she decided it ought to be named after a campus hero, the late Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. Carrier Corp. had already bought the naming rights, but that didn’t stop her from leading a public pressure campaign that eventually won her a meeting with Carrier’s CEO.
She also learned a hard political lesson at the time. You don’t always win. Carrier refused to budge, and the stadium still bears the company’s name.
Still, those who saw her in action back then were impressed.
"She was the engine, the top student strategist," Jim Naughton, a former editor of the Daily Orange newspaper, told The Buffalo News in 2011. "She was interested in working hard and getting things done."
A future leader?
Hochul went on from Syracuse to law school at Catholic University in Washington D.C. She would stay in the nation’s capital for nearly a decade, working for a corporate law firm and then for Rep. John J. LaFalce and Moynihan.
But in 1991, she and her husband – William J. Hochul Jr., who eventually became U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York – were starting a family. So they returned to Western New York, and soon Hochul did what she seemed destined to do: run for public office.
She won a seat on the Hamburg Town Board in 1994 and quickly won a reputation for taking on big fights. In 1998, for example, she started a battle with the State Thruway Authority, insisting that it remove toll barriers in the town.
"People said, ‘You’re taking on the Thruway Authority. Yeah, good luck with that,’ " Hochul said in 2011. "To me, that was again, OK, tell me I can’t do it."
It took nine years for Hochul to win that battle, and by that time she was working as Erie County clerk. Appointed to that job in 2007, she won election to the seat a year later.
Her four years in county hall are remembered mostly for her fight against then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses — a move she has since renounced, and one that could become an issue if she runs for re-election as governor.
"I think Kathy will have to develop a message to explain that growth, and that change, and no doubt she’s going to receive some criticism for those earlier positions," said David Swarts, who preceded Hochul as county clerk.
Hochul developed a penchant for making headlines as county clerk, and it helped her win an upset victory in a special congressional election in 2011. Three months after Rep. Chris Lee, a Clarence Republican, resigned after the discovery of his shirtless pictures on CraigsList, Hochul defeated then-Assemblywoman Jane Corwin.
So after nearly 20 years away, Hochul returned to D.C. She quickly became a favorite of top House Democrats even though she sometimes veered far from the party line to represent her largely conservative, rural district. Most notably, she opposed gun control – and has since reversed gears on that issue, too.
Despite their occasional differences, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, now the Democratic majority leader and then the party whip, said in 2011 that he saw Hochul a future party leader.
"To know Kathy Hochul is to like Kathy Hochul," Hoyer said.
Defeat – and a comeback
Hochul’s congressional career turned out to be short-lived. A court-drawn reapportionment plan loaded up her district with Republicans, and she narrowly lost her 2012 bid for re-election to former Erie County Executive Chris Collins.
She retreated to a government relations job at M&T Bank, but that ended abruptly in 2014 when Cuomo asked her to be his second-term running mate.
Hochul has been running across and up and down New York State ever since, selling Cuomo’s agenda wherever he needed to sell it – and making connections while she’s at it.
"They say half of life is showing up, but I think most of life is showing up," she said in a December interview. "I’ve really been able to cement relationships so that people know that with me, it’s not just a one-off."
Amid her travels, Hochul won a devoted following among party activists and elected officials. Some came to her aid when Cuomo, fearing she might lose a primary to a popular candidate from Brooklyn, Jumaane Williams, in 2018, tried to replace her as his lieutenant governor candidate.
“I’m very supportive of her because she is smart, committed and very progressive,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan, part of a group of female legislators that rallied around Hochul at the time.
People who have worked with Hochul over the years tend to say the same things about her – that she’s hard-working, competent and unusually kind for someone in a profession never really known for kindness.
Hochul has succeeded in politics largely because of her innate ability to connect with others, said LaFalce, the former congressman.
“That’s such an important quality in politics,” he said. “With her, it comes naturally.”
Could she succeed as governor of such a large and diverse state?
“Kathy has been able to handle any job she’s ever had,” LaFalce said, “and with excellence.”
And while Hochul hasn’t said so herself, people who are close to her expect her to not only be an activist governor, but to run for reelection in 2022.
Ambitious downstate politicians such as James and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli may well challenge Hochul in a Democratic primary, but Hochul’s allies – such as Rep. Brian Higgins – don’t expect her to give up the fight.
"If she develops a reputation of just being smart, practical, and a good manager, given the circumstances, people may say: ‘Hey, wait – why would we want to get rid of her?’" said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat.