A political moderate and former Congressperson and bank executive, Hochul stands to make history as New York’s first woman governor, but may face fierce challengers in next year’s election.
When Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, announced this morning, becomes effective on August 24, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will become New York’s first woman executive, and its first governor from upstate New York in a century.
Hochul, 62, has a record of public service dating back to the 1980s, but little of it has been spent as an executive. Since she first ran with Cuomo in 2014, she has appeared in public largely as a Cuomo surrogate, leaving how she will wield the tremendous powers of the governorship as something of an open question.
“She doesn’t have a long record of governing to judge her by or make predictions about how she will govern,” Rob Galbraith, a Buffalo-based policy researcher with the corporate and government watchdog LittleSis, told New York Focus.
In recent years, her most significant financial support has been drawn from similar sources to Governor Cuomo, whose support from real estate, finance, organized labor, and other industries and interest groups made possible his 11-year reign.
Hochul’s campaign account—which last month reported having raised $1.9 million towards the 2022 election with $1.7 million in the bank, shows five-figure support from real estate developers, finance executives, the natural gas industry, organized labor, and charter school advocacy groups.
Hochul’s 2020 Financial Disclosure Statement, which shows significant investment in a wide array of major companies and funds, also shows that she has not personally divested from fossil fuels. New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced in December 2020 that the state’s pension fund would do so.
“The special interests that have supported her politically as Lieutenant Governor show that she has drawn so far from the same base of support that kept Cuomo in power for so long,” Galbraith said.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who has a longstanding relationship with Hochul, praised her in a statement issued this afternoon. “I have known Kathy for decades, having worked with her closely on many issues, and I can confirm that she has the work ethic, determination, and skill set to not only succeed as governor but to take the Empire State to new heights,” he said.
Hochul first came to statewide attention in 2007, after being appointed by Governor Eliot Spitzer to the post of Erie County Clerk, a largely administrative post responsible for managing the county Department of Motor Vehicles, among other duties. When Spitzer announced in September 2007 that he was issuing an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for and obtain driver’s licenses, she became one of the most prominent voices in the state opposing the decision.
“I do not support the governor’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” she said at a 2007 campaign event to “whooping cheers and applause,” The New York Times reported at the time.
She also told a local news station that she would call the sheriff on any undocumented immigrants who attempted to apply for licenses. The issue became a moot point when Spitzer withdrew the plan in November 2007. When running for reelection as Lieutenant Governor in 2018, she changed course and professed support for granting licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“That was 11 years ago, and there were very few people saying that was the right policy at the time,” she said.
A Brief Stint in Congress, and as a Bank Executive
In 2011, Hochul won a special election for the congressional seat left open when Rep. Chris Lee, a Republican, resigned after soliciting sex on Craigslist. Hochul ran as a moderate Democrat and won the seat, which had been held by Republicans since the 1960s.
During her congressional campaigns, she touted her past opposition to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and, in 2012, her endorsement from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
In Congress, she mostly followed the Democratic line, voting for and supporting Obamacare, but was one of 17 Democrats to vote with Republicans on an NRA-supported resolution holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over non-cooperation surrounding a gun-sting investigation. Hochul also advocated for deficit reduction, and expressed openness to cuts to Medicaid.
In 2012, she was defeated by Republican Chris Collins in the general election.
After leaving Congress, Hochul was hired by M&T Bank as a Vice President of Government Relations in 2013. During her 2014 campaign for Lieutenant Governor, Robert G. Wilmers, billionaire CEO of M&T bank at the time, contributed $19,000 toward Hochul’s election.
In May 2014, Cuomo named Hochul as his running mate after his previous Lieutenant, Bob Duffy, chose not to seek re-election.
Hochul’s political experience and background in Buffalo combined to make her a strong choice for Cuomo’s particular needs, Galbraith said. In 2012, Cuomo had announced the “Buffalo Billion” project, a proposal to spend $1 billion to revitalize Buffalo’s flagging economy.
“His signature push is what is supposed to be a transformational injection of money into Buffalo. He wants to show that he’s the governor of the whole state of New York, he doesn’t just represent elite interests from New York City,” Galbraith said.
The Buffalo Billion project became a locus of corruption, bid rigging, and bribery, triggering federal and state investigations that led to the convictions of multiple state officials and contractors.
During her 2014 campaign, Hochul raised $35,000 from individuals and corporations who were investigated as part of the Buffalo Billion scandal, including some who were later convicted during the federal investigation, LittleSis reported in 2016.
Hochul’s relatively moderate politics may have also recommended her for the Lieutenant Governor spot. “Cuomo’s not going to pick somebody who is a left-wing firebrand. A bank executive who’s been in politics for a long, long time […] makes a lot of sense,” Galbraith said.
Hochul received a surprisingly fierce challenge during the 2018 Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor, which is separate from the primary for Governor. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, then the Deputy Leader of the New York City Council, ran to Hochul’s left, criticizing her for adhering too closely to Cuomo’s agenda and not doing enough to rein in corruption. Hochul defeated Williams with 53.4% of the vote, substantially less than the 65.6% won by Cuomo in the primary.
At the one debate held during the 2018 campaign for Lieutenant Governor before the Democratic Primary, Hochul declined to name any instances where her policy positions had differed from Cuomo’s during her tenure. “This state is better served when you have the two executive officials, the governor and lieutenant governor, working in partnership,” she told reporters after the debate.
During the campaign, Hochul surprised New York politicos by claiming that she had been “very much involved” with recently-passed measures aimed at combatting workplace sexual harassment, despite no indication during the legislative process that she had taken any role, Gotham Gazette reported at the time. The negotiations leading to the laws’ passage had been criticized for lacking input from women and victims, such as then-Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first woman to lead a legislative conference in New York’s history, who said she was not included in the legislative process.
In her time as Lieutenant Governor, Hochul has served as one of Cuomo’s most active surrogates, making a point of visiting all of New York’s 62 counties every year. Despite this, the two are not reported to be especially close. American Crisis, Cuomo’s bestselling book on how he and his administration managed the COVID-19 pandemic, did not mention Hochul once.
Looking Ahead to 2022
Even as scandal swirled around Cuomo this spring and summer, he was still considered a strong candidate for reelection in 2022, in no small part due to his near-$20 million campaign war chest.
With Hochul, things are less certain.
“There will be institutional groups and powers that are probably interested in backing her, since she’ll be the sitting governor, but there’s going to be a lot up for grabs,” Matt Koos, a veteran of several congressional and municipal campaigns across New York State, told New York Focus.
Koos pointed to the Transport Workers Union as an example: major backers of Cuomo until last month, they have also supported New York Attorney General and potential gubernatorial candidate Letitia James in past years.
“Nothing is solidified like it was under Cuomo,” Koos said.
While many of Cuomo’s financial supporters will likely migrate to Hochul, the voters who thrice elected him are less certain to back his successor, progressive organizer Cea Weaver told New York Focus.
“Kathy Hochul is going to have the support of the real estate and business elite. But there are going to be other candidates who are going to be able to line up the support of Black voters and liberals who made up Cuomo’s base,” she said, pointing to James, Jumaane Williams, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as possibilities.
In the meantime, some New York political operatives are looking forward to a Cuomoless future.
“Cuomo is a unique politician in the amount of power he was able to hold over the legislature, state, and New York City government,” Monica Klein, founder of the progressive political consultancy Seneca Strategies, told New York Focus. “Hopefully we will see a more equal division of governmental power and a restoration of checks and balances.”
This story was updated with a statement from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.