Do not underestimate Kathy Hochul

Do not underestimate Kathy Hochul
© Greg Nash

As summer winds down, the most frequently asked questions in New York are:

  1. What happened to the Mets? 
  2. Mask or no mask? 
  3. Will Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoLetitia James holding private talks on running for New York governor: report Governors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Tucker Carlson says he lies when 'I'm really cornered or something' MORE ever run for office again? 
  4. What should I know about Kathy HochulKathy HochulNY governor orders immediate release of 191 inmates from Rikers Island Letitia James holding private talks on running for New York governor: report Governors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight MORE, New York’s incoming governor? 

The first three engender hot debate. The fourth requires an understanding of New York politics to answer. It also takes patience, because as Lt. governor, Hochul wasn’t particularly well known. She labored under the dark and ominous shadow of Andrew Cuomo, who was actually my state’s own garish sun. 

It’s not that Cuomo eclipsed her, it’s that he often tried to bury her. Maybe he was convinced to do so by the weird behavior of former Lt. Governor Betsy McCaughey. Presiding at then-Gov. George Pataki’s State of the State address in 1996, McCaughey refused to sit down behind him. She stood awkwardly for the entire 56-minute delivery, distracting everyone’s attention from her boss. It wasn’t a photo bomb so much as a photo squatting.

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But Kathy Hochul has a way of breaking out of relative obscurity on her own terms. Combine that with a tenacious, almost relentless, work ethic and you begin to understand her. I gained that understanding in 2011, when I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). There’s a backstory that accurately reveals her approach to politics. 

It begins with a selfie. The congressman in New York’s 26th district at the time was Chris Lee, a conservative Republican. Lee, who was married, had a sex scandal that seems almost trite by today’s standards: He emailed a woman a shirtless photo taken with his Blackberry. His immediate resignation left my team at the DCCC with a decision on whether to compete in the special election.

Initially we leaned against. New York 26 hadn’t elected a Democrat in over four decades. It was comfortably, almost solidly, Republican. Really, no one believed that a Democrat could win. No one, that is, but Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, who came to meet with me after Lee’s resignation.

I remember sharing with her a rather cold-blooded assessment: DCCC needed 25 seats to win the majority in the House of Representatives, and this one was not on the path. We had to target our limited resources — first protect our vulnerable incumbents then defeat Republicans in swing districts. We’d watch NY-26, I told her, but probably not commit resources.

“Let me prove myself,” she said. And I thought, “why not?” At the very least her candidacy might force the Republicans to spend money defending a safe district, and all we had to do is watch Hochul compete.

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In the next few weeks, Hochul not only proved herself; she demonstrated all-star talent. She built a competent staff, raised money and hammered tenaciously at the message that Republicans were trying to end Medicare as we knew it. The message worked. I saw one early poll that had her significantly behind and a subsequent poll that had her within striking distance. She justified DCCC’s investment on the air and ground and won a special election that stunned the political world. 

Two years later the Republicans exacted their revenge by redistricting her into an even tougher Republican district, turning ruby red into fiery, molten red. She lost but came within two points — a tribute to her congressional service and raw campaign skills. 

Then, in 2014, Andrew Cuomo announced Hochul as his choice for Lt. governor. Once again, the pundits lapsed into the mistake of underestimating her. People said that the perfect Lt. governor to Cuomo required three skills: staying out of the press, staying out of his way and staying below 20 percent in statewide name recognition. You would come no closer to formulating policy than a ribbon cutting. 

Hochul disproved them immediately. Her travel schedule was relentless, almost punishing. She regularly visited and returned to each of New York’s 62 counties. She chaired the 10 regional economic development councils (full disclosure, my wife runs one of them) and dove into mastering economic dynamics in places as diverse as the southern tier (which votes more like Ohio or Pennsylvania) and the Upper East Side.

Hochul now faces unprecedented challenges in policy and politics. If she can win what was NY-26, she can win anywhere in the state. But progressives will demand that she forsake pragmatism and show ideological purity, while Trumpian upstate voters will reject her simply for being a Democrat. Meanwhile, the state still recovers from COVID-19, faces an uncertain economy and confronts historic long-term budget challenges that were only temporarily relieved by the infusion of federal COVID assistance. 

Hochul is up to it. And let’s not lose sight of the almost poetic irony that will put her in the governor’s office. Recently she said of Cuomo, “I think its’s very clear that the governor and I have not been close, physically or otherwise, in terms of much time.” Staying out of Cuomo’s way became the smartest thing she could have done. 

What do you need to know about Kathy Hochul? Don’t underestimate her. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.