As a college graduate surveying a potential map of her career, Kathy Hochul’s ultimate goal was to be a top political staffer, not a politician.
“It’s all I thought she could shoot (for),” Hochul said in a recent speech. Women then, she added, were more likely to be “behind the scenes, work for somebody else (and) make them look good.”
The tide would turn, at least somewhat for the centrist Democrat from western New York. Hochul would defy her expectations and amass an impressive political career, including working as a top aide for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in her 20s and winning and losing a congressional seat in one of the state’s more Republican districts.
And now as lieutenant governor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, she’s on the precipice of becoming the first female governor in the history of the state of New York. Cuomo announced Tuesday he will resign effective in 14 days amid the sexual harassment scandal that has derailed his three-term governorship.
Hochul agreed with Cuomo’s decision to step down and said she was ready to become the next governor of New York.
“As someone who has served at all levels of government and is next in the line of succession, I am prepared to lead as New York State’s 57th Governor,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
Throughout her career, she faced criticism over once opposing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants — a position she has since reversed on.
Still, she has supported issues facing women such as health care and child care. And she has been outspoken when those issues have intersected in her life.
More: Who is Kathy Hochul? What to know about Cuomo’s lieutenant governor
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul makes an announcement about summer camping and recreation while visiting the Tentrr campsites at Lake Sebago May. 4, 2021.
But her rise to the governorship comes after her predecessor, Cuomo, was found to have sexually harassed 11 women, according to a damning report by Attorney General Letitia James’s office.
Several of the women were his aides.
In response, Hochul said she believed the women and called Cuomo’s behavior outlined in the report “repulsive.”
“Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any workplace, and certainly not in public service,” said Hochul, who has spent most of her career in politics and showed a fondness for it early on.
Buffalo-area native valued parents’ responsibility to their community
Born in Buffalo, Hochul was the second of six children. Her parents, Patricia and Jack Courtney, were active in the civil rights movement and protested the Vietnam War.
The young couple lived in a trailer in Lackawanna while they started their family, and they did not have much means.
“But they had that in their DNA, that sense of responsibility to the community,” Hochul said in a speech given in April. “And that was imparted to me as a kid.”
Her mother founded a neighborhood association in Buffalo, brought children of migrant workers from Puerto Rico for stays at the family’s home, and employed displaced homemakers at a flower shop she ran for 15 years.
Meanwhile, her father worked at Bethlehem Steel in Buffalo while attending Canisius College at night. He would move to the technology field and eventually become president and CEO of the Computer Task Group.
During high school summers, Hochul would take a bus to downtown Buffalo and volunteer at Democratic Party headquarters, where she was often the only female in the room
Hochul attended Syracuse University, where she pushed for the school to divest in South African investments to protest apartheid in the country.
She would also try to get the university to name the Carrier Dome after Ernie Davis, an alumnus of the school and the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy.
And during the summer, while interning at the state Assembly, she would make key connections.
While there, she met her husband Bill Hochul, who was also an intern. Former President Barack Obama later nominated him to serve as U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York.
‘She’s a detailed person’
David Swarts, a former Erie County clerk, also met Hochul around that time while he was a special assistant to the speaker of the state Assembly. Decades later, in 2003, Swarts would name Hochul as his deputy when he was Erie County clerk.
Swarts described Hochul as one of the “hardest working individuals” he has met.
“She’s extremely knowledgeable and studies the issues,” he said. “She’s a detailed person when it comes to that, almost to the point where, ‘O.K. Kathy, you can settle down a little here.’”
From left center, Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul and Congressman Anthony Brindisi talk with Al Zennamo while taking a tour through Genesis Disposables LLC on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in Frankfort, NY.
Hochul went on to attend law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and worked as a legal counsel to the Buffalo-area U.S. Rep. John LeFalce, then in Moynihan’s office as a legislative assistant and legal counsel.
But her political career would be temporarily halted. In the late 1980s, she stepped away to care for her two children.
“I didn’t have any good child-care options and I had to forgo my career for a while,” she said in a 2018 profile with The Journal News.
She would eventually return to Buffalo with her husband with her two young children after her husband took a job there as a federal prosecutor.
The once-thriving downtown was filled with boarded-up stores after the closure of the Bethlehem Steel plant in the 1980s.
How Hochul found the confidence to run for office
While working to revive her mother’s floral shop, she would find herself at many town meetings, fighting for many quality of life issues in her hometown. Still, she didn’t think she could run for the town board.
After seeing a 22-year-old man who had less political experience run, Hochul would soon find the confidence and throw her hat into the ring.
“That was the ‘ah-ha moment.’ What does he have that I don’t have other than confidence?” she said. “I decided to run.”
Since there were two open seats, they were both able to serve on the board. Hochul served on the board for more than a decade.
It was during her time on the board where she would meet Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.
In 1998, Peoples-Stokes was a candidate for Congress for a seat in the town of Hamburg, a mostly white suburb of Buffalo.
Hochul was one of the few elected officials who supported her campaign, she said.
Hochul knocked on doors, introduced her constituents to the then-candidate and told them Peoples-Stokes valued the same important issues such as health care and education.
“As an African American woman, that was huge because it was clearly not an African American community that I was walking in, but she nevertheless introduced me to her community,” Peoples-Stokes said.
‘Be grateful that she’s more than prepared’
Peoples-Stokes added that she didn’t think that it was ironic that Hochul was elected as the state’s first female governor after Cuomo’s alleged sexual harassment.
“I think there’s a divine order to everything — and I think New Yorkers should be grateful that she’s more than prepared,” she said.
That preparation has meant that she has worked in all levels of the government, from Erie County Clerk to lieutenant governor. Still, she has faced criticism along the way.
Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed Hochul to be clerk after Swarts resigned to become state motor vehicle commissioner.
Hochul faced criticism for opposing allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses without producing a Social Security card. Cuomo later supported the measure.
Hochul later said the issue was not supported locally, particularly in the Hispanic community in Western New York.
“They didn’t envision anyone who was undocumented walking into a government office to have a license issued to them,” Hochul said. “This was a local issue for us. We were on a border with Canada, and border documentation and identification issues were important to us.”
“Fast forward to today, I realize that this is something that fits in with my earlier work to ensure that rights of citizenship to everyone who is here,” she said.
Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul is seen during a 2015 visit to Victor, when she visited small businesses and met with town and village officials.
“It’s a different time now,” she said.
In 2011, a special election would land Hochul a Buffalo-area congressional seat in an area held by Republicans for 40 years, garnering her national attention.
But the following year she would lose her re-election bid in a tight race.
Hochul believes her refusal to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act lost key votes in church and conservative portions of his district.
At a speech for the New York State Political Science Association Keynote in April, Hochul said that “it was a very painful moral dilemma for me.”
“But I’ll tell you, I voted 43 times for health care and against my district. And subsequently, they all voted once, against me, and I lost my seat in Congress,” she said, according to a transcript of the speech.
Since 2014 race, Hochul has served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor
In 2014, Cuomo tapped Hochul to be his running mate. As lieutenant governor, Cuomo appointed her to co-chair the Heroin and Opioid Abuse Task Force.
She has also crisscrossed the state, touring local businesses and focusing on issues such as access to child care. And as of lately, gun violence.
In the next election in 2018, she would win against Jumaane Williams, a former council member in New York City and the city’s current public advocate.
Candidates running for either governor or lieutenant governor run separately in New York. For the general election, they come on the same ticket.
At the time, Williams said Hochul didn’t pressure officials to create change. Instead, he said, she served in a ceremonial role.
But now she’s stepping out of that role and into the governor’s seat.
Is she ready?
State Sen. Shelley Mayer, who has known Hochul for more than a decade, says yes.
Mayer said Hochul “understands the government has tremendous power if we harness it to do good things for people’s lives.”
Mayer has said she has seen her relate to people from all walks of life, from making sandwiches with women at a community center to presiding over the state Senate.
“She’s just extremely capable and qualified to be governor. And I think she could step in and get us back into focusing on the problems that we face,” Mayer said.
Contributing: Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy of USA TODAY.
Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and justice for the USA TODAY Network of New York. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Kathy Hochul’s political views: What NY’s next governor stands for