Who is Kathy Hochul? Her Past, Present, and Future
A dive into Hochul's political history and narratives around her evolution, with an examination of her past voter coalitions and potential Lieutenant Governor picks, all while looking ahead to 2022
“Can you hear me now?” asked Kathy Hochul.
An innocent question, Hochul was merely having trouble with her microphone, hosting her first press conference since Andrew Cuomo stunningly announced his resignation. Yet, her words were almost metaphorical, as Hochul is now firmly poised to enter the spotlight as New York’s first female Governor, assuming the most powerful position in the State. She has already declared her plans to seek a full term in next year’s election and purge much of the previous administration. Since Cuomo’s announcement, Hochul’s google searches have skyrocketed, as The New York Times and Politico have already published stories on her. Hochul, a native of Buffalo, is largely unknown to much of downstate, particularly New York City and its suburbs. She has drawn comparisons to Kirsten Gillibrand, while being described as “a Joe Biden Democrat”.
Hochul’s promotion comes from the largely ceremonial position of Lieutenant Governor, the State’s chief “ribbon cutter”, a role that afforded her the opportunity to further build out her networks in Albany and across the State, but did not make her a visible member of the Cuomo administration. By all accounts, Cuomo kept his circle tight, and Hochul was not in it. Cuomo’s decision to select Hochul to be his Lieutenant Governor in 2014 was pure political calculation. Cuomo, a cynical politician, did not care for Hochul, but thought that she, a woman from Western New York, would quell critics by adding both regional and gender balance to the ticket. Four years later, in a duplicitous ploy to remove her, Cuomo urged Hochul to run for her old Congressional seat, as she did not fit in amongst the bullies and sycophants occupying his orbit. She declined him repeatedly, refusing to be pushed out. Since then, she was notably absent from his famous Covid press briefings, completely erased from his narcissistic memoir, and was not named in Attorney General Letitia James’ August 3rd report, which was the death knell for Cuomo and his cronies. Hochul has denied having any knowledge of the toxicity and harassment detailed in James’ report, going to great lengths to underscore the rift between her and Cuomo: “we were not close, physically or otherwise”.
This fractured relationship will now prove to be an asset to Hochul, who can credibly claim a degree of distance from the disgraced ex-Governor. All the while, she can still take credit for some of the administration’s accomplishments, without the stain of a tarnished legacy. Hochul, despite evolving leftward, is in a strong position to retain many of Cuomo’s biggest donors, who will look to her to maintain the previous administration’s friendly stances towards business and real estate, without a reputation for alienation and bullying. To many of the financial interests that bankrolled Cuomo’s reign, Hochul represents the best chance at a continuation of the status quo.
“It’s a whole different era out there”
To understand Kathy Hochul one must examine the economic and political climate of Western New York, which is central to her identity, and thus, her politics. Just like Western New York, oft overshadowed by the wealth and headlines of Downstate, Hochul casts herself as an underdog, in the mold of the region she calls home.
Hochul, an Irish-Catholic from a working class Buffalo family, grew up amidst a period of profound economic transition for Western New York. Starting in the 70’s, Buffalo saw many of its manufacturing jobs outsourced, hollowing out the economic backbone of the region. As production of steel and automobiles declined, the city lost thousands of jobs. Much of the story of Buffalo and the economic hardship experienced by Western NY bears a strong resemblance to the Rust Belt.
While New York City, Westchester, and Long Island were also not exempt from many economic and social problems during the 70’s and 80’s, much of the downstate economy recovered into the 90’s, while cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse lagged behind. That trend has continued to this day, as the region maintains higher unemployment, lower incomes, and greater rates of poverty and crime than the rest of the state. Over a quarter of the people in Buffalo live below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in America with a population over 250K.
In both Upstate and Western New York there is a perennial electoral tug of war between Democrats in smaller urban centers and Republicans in the suburbs. 18 of New York’s 62 counties supported Obama in 2008/2012 but Trump in 2016. These are known as pivot counties, with New York having the 6th highest percentage(29.3%) of any state in 2016, and the 4th most in total. Since New York is not a swing state, much of these voter swings did not get the media attention it deserved, while illustrating that many Upstate and Western NY voters prefer more moderate and centrist candidates for office. Hochul grew up amongst these swing voters and built her political career off their support, which helped mold her ideology and message.
Hochul’s political journey came from humble beginnings. She started by organizing protests at Syracuse University, including helping lead a successful effort to lobby the school to divest from apartheid South Africa. After college, she did legislative assistant work in Congress and the New York State Assembly before being elected to the Hamburg Town Board in 2004, running on both the Democrat and Conservative ballot lines. On the board, Hochul drew praise from her colleagues for helping thwart Walmart’s plans to build a store in the Hamburg Town center, weary of the detrimental effects the corporate giant could have on local small business. Yet, when Walmart returned years later with a plan to build a store farther away, Hochul agreed, evidence of her willingness to compromise and business friendly interests. Hochul quickly gained a name for herself, and in 2003 was appointed to be the Deputy Erie County Clerk. When her boss departed in 2007, Governor Elliot Spitzer appointed Hochul to be the Erie County County Clerk.
Soon after, Spitzer proposed allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license without producing a social security number, in what later became known as the “Green Light Law”. Hochul bluntly stated that if the proposal became law, she would arrest anyone who applied. Spitzer’s proposal was ahead of its time, and died in the state legislature, so Hochul never had her hand forced. She has recently expressed regret for her stance, saying her position evolved like many of her constituents.
New York State’s Green Light Law was passed in 2019
Nevertheless, Hochul easily won re-election as County Clerk, this time running with the support of the Democratic, Conservative and Working Families parties. She won with 80% of the vote, indicating her staunch support even amongst local Republicans.
An inflection point in Hochul’s career came in 2011, when Republican Congressman Chris Lee resigned abruptly after being caught soliciting a woman on Craigslist. Lee’s unanticipated resignation created a May 2011 special election to fill his seat for New York’s 26th Congressional Seat, where only three Democrats had been elected in the last century. Hochul, despite living slightly outside the Republican leaning district, launched an underdog bid for the seat.
Hochul championed a narrative that she was an “Independent Democrat”, willing to buck her own party because “people don’t like the hyperpartisan, us-versus-them mentality,” hoping to maintain a moderate/centrist coalition while appealing to voters on a nonpartisan message: I am an underdog who will fight for the middle class and small businesses. Hochul’s allure rested in her strong reputation of competence and compromise, which was enticing to voters across the ideological spectrum. Hochul proudly boasted that her donor list included: “Republican businessmen, small business people, Democrats, Republicans, independents, people who’ve seen me in the past and know me.”
Hochul's opponent was State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, who was a heavy favorite to win the seat, and was well financed from outside conservative groups. However, Hochul proved adept at stitching together coalitions and savvy with her messaging, which included focusing heavily on Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget plan to overhaul Medicare:
“Hochul portrayed Corwin, a multimillionaire, as a Republican insider who would help end Medicare. In a district where the elderly make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the population, the message carried weight.” (ABC News)
Additionally, in an off-year special election for an open house seat, the Democratic Party apparatus went all in for Hochul, with Senior Congressional leadership boosting her campaign. Even Bill Clinton recorded a robo-call for her. Hochul was endorsed by Democrat and Chronicle and The Buffalo News, the two most prominent newspapers in the area.
On election night, Hochul pulled off the stunning upset, winning 47% to Corwin’s 43%.
While Hochul’s triumph was impressive, the final result does not tell the full story.
Hochul benefited heavily from Tea Party candidate Jack Davis’ presence in the race, as he siphoned off 9% of the vote that likely would have gone to Corwin. 2011 was the height of the Tea Party movement, and Davis likely cost the Republicans a Congressional Seat.
Corwin herself was a very weak candidate, as she appeared out of touch to many of the district’s working class voters. She was easily outmaneuvered by Hochul, who many felt was more trustworthy, and failed to connect with GOP voters despite the millions that were poured in to save her.
In Congress, Hochul proved to be an inconsistent ally for Democrats and President Obama.
She supported raising taxes on the wealthy (>500K), incentivizing green energy production, ending tax breaks for oil companies and retaining the current structure of Medicare. Hochul was vocally opposed to free trade, noting the devastation that NAFTA had wrought on communities like Western New York. However, she supported the GOP sponsored balanced budget amendments and was willing to cut Medicaid and other parts of the social safety net.
Hochul’s largest break from the Democratic Party came when she was one of 17 House Democrats to vote in favor of holding US Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate during the “Fast and Furious” scandal, where “certain Department of Justice offices deliberately allowed gun dealers to sell firearms to [drug] traffickers, in the hopes of tracking the weapons to drug cartels,” also known as “gun walking”. This operation became publicized after the murder of US border agent Brian Terry in 2010, as guns being tracked by the ATF were found at the scene, as well as many other gruesome, high body count scenes in Mexico. Much of the vote around finding Holder in contempt for withholding documents was along party lines. Most notably, the NRA promised to score lawmakers for their vote, and as a result, endorsed Hochul in her 2012 re-election campaign. She happily accepted the endorsement and frequently touted it on the campaign trail.
After the 2010 census, Hochul was redistricted to the 27th Congressional District for her 2012 re-election campaign, which was drawn to include even more Republican voters than the unfavorable lines she won with a year prior. Despite the backing of the NRA, and the retention of her previous endorsements, Hochul lost narrowly to Republican Chris Collins, 51% to 49% (Collins later resigned for insider trading, but was pardoned by Donald Trump). The new district lines, a stronger opponent, and the lack of a third party to siphon away Republican votes proved to be too much for Hochul to overcome. After just 1.5 years, Hochul was out of Congress.
A year later, Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy retired, and Governor Cuomo called Hochul about replacing him. The rest is history.
As Lieutenant Governor, Hochul, who now represented the entirety of the state, expressed regret for some of her past conservative positions. Hochul’s narrative is that she was constricted by the area’s that she represented, that her views, on the Town Board, in the County Clerk’s office, and in Congress - were influenced by the political environment around her.
Her political evolution has been compared to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand, who represented an Upstate New York House seat, and was a Blue Dog Democrat. Gillibrand earned a 100% rating from the NRA, believed same-sex couples should only be granted civil unions, supported English only education and withholding funds from sanctuary cities, while opposing the same bill to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses that Hochul did. When Gillibrand was appointed by Governor David Paterson to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat in 2010, her constituency widened, and as such her politics “evolved”. Over the last decade, Gillibrand has become a prominent liberal figure, and, while no one would confuse her for a Socialist, she has undoubtedly migrated leftward since her start in Congress.
Hochul’s evolution fits a similar timeline and trajectory, and it will undoubtedly become the narrative she puts forth in an effort to endear herself to more downstate liberal voters, which she must win in order to achieve re-election in 2022.
Should people in the broader progressive movement be skeptical of politicians who migrate leftward at the behest of political convenience or only once it’s safe electorally? Absolutely.
But this phenomenon is not going away.
Hochul has already announced she will seek a full term as Governor in 2022. To get a better sense of her electoral prospects next year and examine her voter coalitions, it is imperative to examine her 2018 race for Lieutenant Governor.
Specifically, I will focus on New York City, as that was Hochul’s biggest weakness in 2018, and also the home of many of her likely rivals in next year’s election. Hochul, who shared a ticket with Governor Andrew Cuomo, largely underperformed him across the board. Cuomo defeated activist/actress Cynthia Nixon 65.6% to 34.4%, whereas Hochul only defeated New York City Council member Jumaane Williams 53.3% to 46.7%. In New York City, Cuomo beat Nixon in every borough, whereas Williams crushed Hochul in Brooklyn and won convincingly in Manhattan.
Williams, despite meeting with Hochul yesterday, looks poised to announce a run for Governor in the coming months, which could lead to an intriguing rematch. Williams, respected by much of the City’s Progressive establishment ran firmly to the Left of Hochul. Williams ran up huge margins in the gentrifying leftist hotbeds of Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint, North Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Red Hook, Sunset Park and the East Village - which was to be expected. Williams, buoyed by The New York Times endorsement, consolidated support amongst wealthier white liberals, winning neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope, the Upper West Side, and the West Village. Hochul was routed in many of these precincts.
Cynthia Nixon did well here too, and, while it’s easy to say that she underperformed Williams throughout the City and State, the reality is that she was facing an incumbent Governor, who is also the son of a former Governor, with longstanding ties to the City, and decades of name recognition and the campaign coffers to spend her into oblivion. Williams had a much easier task, as Hochul lacked any ties to the City or much name recognition from its voters.
Hochul benefitted from the many financial advantages shared by both her and the Governor, as well as Cuomo’s considerable strength with the City’s outer borough Black, Latino, and Asian voters. Cuomo won huge margins in Black neighborhoods like Central Harlem, Southeast Queens, Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, East Flatbush, Williamsbridge, Wakefield, Baychester, and Co-op City, Latino neighborhoods like East Elmhurst, and the South/Central Bronx, and Asian neighborhoods like Flushing, Bayside and the South Side of Elmhurst.
However, not all of this support translated to Hochul, who particularly struggled with the City’s Black voters. Williams outperformed Hochul in Black neighborhoods Cuomo had won, like East New York, Canarsie, and Central Harlem, while crushing her in other Black strongholds, like Bedford-Stuyvescant, Crown Heights and Flatbush. Hochul only retained significant support from the City’s black voters in Southeast Queens and the Northeast Bronx.
Hochul’s support with Latino and Asian voters faired better, as she hedged less support to Williams in the aforementioned Latino and Asian neighborhoods, which helped her outpace him in both Queens (86,861 to 74,658) and the Bronx (64,291 to 44,496) allowing her to finish within a respectable distance in the Citywide vote, with 354,024 votes to Williams’ 414,228.
Despite losing many predominantly white neighborhoods, struggling with DSA-aligned young leftists and New York Times reading higher income liberals, Hochul retained white support from other areas of the City. Hochul won more conservative whites in Maspeth, Middle Village, Marine Park and Staten Island while doing well with white ethnics in Bensonhurst, Brighton Beach, Midwood, and Sheepshead Bay. Hochul even made inroads in some higher earning white communities, winning multiple election districts in Riverdale, Bay Ridge, and on the Upper East Side.
Outside the City, Hochul did well in New York City’s neighboring counties(Rockland, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk), outpacing Williams’ 153,527 to 98,324. Hochul was buoyed by a larger share of white voters, fewer black voters, a lack of name recognition for Nixon/Williams, coupled with a significantly more moderate voting populace, especially on Long Island.
Hochul won ALL of New York’s 16 pivot counties
Outside of New York City, Hochul only lost 2 counties - Cuomo lost 13
Hochul’s electoral strength is with suburban white voters, many of whom are cautious, incrementally focused moderates, who value competency and look kindly on Hochul’s history of bipartisanship and compromise. These voters are wary of defunding the police and a runaway social safety net, and value that Hochul is not a member of the out of touch downstate political class. It is here, where Hochul’s identity as a Western New York underdog, shines through and helps define her appeal.
Map kindly provided by Steven Romalewski
However, if Hochul seeks to win a full term as Governor, she must perform better in New York City, which accounted for 57% of the vote in the 2018 Governor Election. To win, Hochul must make inroads with the City’s working class communities, specifically Black and Latino voters, which have been the backbone of Bill de Blasio, Andrew Cuomo, and Eric Adams’ electoral triumphs.
Jumaane Williams, now Public Advocate, seems eager to declare his candidacy for Governor, as he bypassed entering the Mayor’s race entirely, despite having an strong shot of winning. Attorney General Letitia James, despite her cautious reputation, would be the most formidable candidate in the race if she were to declare, as her profile has only risen following the release of her office’s investigation into Cuomo. Williams and James, who have both won Citywide before, and ran Statewide(James won, Williams lost), would pose trouble for Hochul, especially downstate. In a 1v1 matchup at the top of the ticket, Hochul would be vulnerable given her weakness with Black voters. Yet, if both ran, Williams and James could potentially undercut one another, leaving Hochul to sweep up white voters and win with a plurality. Of the two, Hochul would prefer to face Williams, who has a lower profile statewide, less fundraising capability, and is not as strong with moderate voters. If James runs, Hochul would face an uphill climb, even as the incumbent.
Hochul has already pledged to appoint a Lieutenant Governor from New York City, hoping to gain more traction with Downstate voters. Who she picks could help define next year’s election, as well as one day succeed her as Governor. Hochul will want to pick a known commodity whom she has worked with in the past and has a strong relationship. This person will likely be Black or Latino and have strong ties to the City’s working class communities, particularly Brooklyn. She will look to ally herself with someone who shares her politics, and will likely pick a moderate with ties to the New York City political establishment (sadly, she will not pick Charles Barron). There are four candidates that stand out to me who are among those being considered, which Hochul hopes will help shore up her biggest electoral weaknesses:
State Senator Jamaal Bailey
Bailey is Chair of the Bronx Democratic Party and recently demonstrated his influence with an impressive slate of County-backed City Council victories. Bailey has strong ties to State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, which could help Hochul make inroads amongst members of the legislature. Bailey is well respected by many New York City politicos, and has been one of the architects of the “rebranding” of the Bronx County Party to support more progressive candidates. However, Bailey represents the Northeast Bronx, an area which was one of Hochul’s few bright spots amongst Black voters, and the Bronx is New York City’s fourth largest county, so she might be wise to look for more votes elsewhere. Additionally, Bailey is only 38, and he could be reluctant to give up his Senate Seat and Party chairmanship, for a largely ceremonial role. Bailey, who is helping build something in the Bronx, might want to stay put.
Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr.
Rubén Díaz Jr. will be out of a job come January, termed out of the Borough Presidency and looking for his next opportunity. While Díaz Jr. has said he intends to leave politics, this is the only life he knows. Elected to the State Assembly at 23(!!), he has served the Bronx for the last 25 years, and was integral in helping Eric Adams dominate throughout his borough in the Mayor’s race. Díaz Jr.’s boroughwide influence, wealth of contacts, strong relationship with Adams, and clout with Latino voters would make him a strong choice to be Hochul’s running mate, especially considering that New York state is now 19% Hispanic. The role of Borough President resembles Lieutenant Governor, just statewide, as much of it is ceremonial. The transition would be smooth for Díaz Jr. and he should strongly consider taking the job if he is offered it.
State Senator Brian Benjamin
Benjamin recently sought the Comptroller’s office, indicating he might be looking for greener pastures outside of his Central Harlem State Senate seat. However, Benjamin was crushed in the Comptroller primary, winning only 7.7% of the citywide vote. Benjamin struggled with Brooklyn Black voters, Hochul’s biggest weakness, as he finished sixth boroughwide, doing especially poorly in East New York, Brownsville, Canarsie, Flatbush, Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. It is unclear if Benjamin on the ticket would even help Hochul in his own district, where he finished third in the Comptroller primary. Benjamin, despite being a sitting elected official, lacked a substantial base and was unable to consolidate votes. If Hochul offers Benjamin the job, he will likely take it, but I don’t foresee it boosting her electoral prospects, especially if she faces James or Williams.
State Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte
Bichotte, the controversial Chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and State Assemblywoman for the 42nd district (Flatbush/East Flatbush, Midwood,Ditmas Park), is the wildcard of the group. She is closely aligned with Eric Adams and Hakeem Jeffries, and boasts longstanding ties to Brooklyn’s Afro-Caribbean communities. Bichotte became County Leader just last year, as the Brooklyn Democratic machine is increasingly stretched thin, worn out by the many competing political factions throughout the borough. As County Leader, she has not shown a willingness to depart from the machine status quo, backing establishment candidates like Walter Mosley, Diane Savino, and Darma Diaz. Progressive groups, like New Kings Democrats, are skeptical of her and the role of the County Party, especially concerning the lack of transparency surrounding her appointment. However, for Kathy Hochul, these progressive voters will likely not support her anyway, and Bichotte, despite alienating leftists throughout the borough, could prove to be an asset to her ticket. Bichotte boasts strong connections to influential power brokers, deep ties to Brooklyn’s Black and Hasidic voters, and compelling campaign experience: chairing Jumaane Williams’ Public Advocate campaign and helping Farah Louis win amongst a crowded City Council field. She runs an organization that oversees Democratic operations in the County with the highest vote share in the State, while having the experience of serving in Albany, indicating she is comfortable with both terrains. Having inherited a mess when she became County Leader, Bichotte, only 48, might be willing to pivot to a lower stress job, while raising her profile in the process and setting herself up for greater electoral success in the future. If Hochul selected Bichotte, she would be going on the offensive, signaling to both Williams and James that she intends to compete for Brooklyn’s Black voters by nabbing a strong candidate right from their electoral backyard. Bichotte is by no means the safest pick, but she is the selection with the highest ceiling.
Currently, both Bailey and Benjamin have emerged as frontrunners and appear to have the inside track to the position. Bailey would be the superior choice to Benjamin, as his upside is comparable to Díaz Jr. while being more amenable to the City’s progressive voters than Bichotte would. However, if Hochul does not pick someone with deep ties to Brooklyn, she can expect to be routed there once more, by either Williams, James or both.
In six days, once Cuomo is banished from the Capital, Kathy Hochul is set to make history and enter office with momentum. Cuomo’s epic collapse will translate to much goodwill for the new Governor. Hochul will be contrasted with her predecessor at every turn, allowing her to score volumes of positive media coverage upon entering office. This contrast between Hochul and Cuomo will present a tremendous opportunity for her to brand herself however she fits, allowing her to exhibit leadership and competency while endearing herself to the general public. She can capitalize on this moment, as many Democrats throughout the State are eager to unite behind her. Hochul seems eager to introduce herself to the State and restore dignity back to the Governor’s office. The news cycles will soon belong to her. The honeymoon phase, given all the state has been through the last year, might be longer than normal.
For many, moving on from Andrew Cuomo will be accelerated through the embrace of Kathy Hochul.
As the stench of Cuomo fades, Hochul will be faced with a difficult budget negotiation and an emboldened State Legislature eager to enact progressive policies Cuomo had long stymied, like increased taxes on the rich, single payer healthcare, and stronger tenant protections. How Hochul responds to the legislature, and the burgeoning leftist movement downstate, could ultimately determine her fate in next year’s primary election as well as the future course of New York State.
But right now, with the Mayoral primary completed, a lack of fall congressional elections, and newly electeds not taking office until January, Hochul is poised to enjoy her moment. Hochul, the underdog from Buffalo, has big plans:
“I’m going to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Louise Slaughter. I’m going to be late 80s when I say goodbye to this business and only because ‘somebody’ comes knocking.”
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