Corrected 2:20 p.m. |New York’s next governor, former Rep. Kathy Hochul, has had a political career defined by scandal — of her political adversaries and allies.
Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who would later resign in shame, in 2007 appointed Hochul the Erie County clerk, a position she’d go on to win for herself the same year. She became the first Democrat to represent New York’s 26th Congressional District in decades after Republican Rep. Chris Lee was caught sending shirtless selfies to a woman he met through Craigslist. Hochul lost her reelection bid for the redistricted seat to Republican Chris Collins, who would end up in prison.
But by then, she had rebounded into the lieutenant governor’s office in 2014, running alongside Andrew Cuomo, who announced he would resign after the state attorney general’s reporting finding allegations of sexual harassment made against him credible.
Cuomo promised a “seamless” transition Tuesday in his surprise announcement, which takes effect in two weeks.
“Kathy Hochul, my lieutenant governor, is smart and competent,” Cuomo said. “This transition must be seamless. We have a lot going on. I’m very worried about the delta variant, and so should you be. But she can come up to speed quickly.”
Hochul will be New York’s first female governor, and the first from Buffalo since Grover Cleveland in 1882. On her way to that point, she managed to develop a reputation far afield from that of the man she’s replacing. Where Cuomo was feared, Hochul is beloved; where Cuomo had judged, Hochul has empathized; while Cuomo mostly kept to Albany and New York City, Hochul has repeatedly toured the entire state.
Hochul got her start in politics before she graduated high school, taking the bus to downtown Buffalo to volunteer at the Democratic Party headquarters, where, as she frequently notes in speeches, she was the youngest person and only female in the room. She was an activist and student government leader at Syracuse University, and it was during a college internship in the state Assembly that she met fellow intern Bill Hochul, her future husband.
After getting a law degree from Catholic University, she worked briefly for a law firm before moving over to Capitol Hill, working first for Buffalo Rep. John LaFalce and later for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. After moving back to the Buffalo area, she stopped working for a bit to raise her two children before winning a seat on the Hamburg Town Board. After 17 years in a few local and county government positions, where she sometimes ran on the Conservative Party line as well as the Democratic Party’s, she won the special election to replace Lee in May 2011.
Hochul ran as a moderate, “independent” Democrat in 2011, attacking Republican plans to turn Medicare into a voucher system. She won 48 percent of the vote in what was arguably New York’s most conservative district, thanks in part to Republicans splitting their vote between an establishment candidate and an upstart from the tea party.
Despite an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, Hochul narrowly lost her reelection bid 51 to 49 percent in 2012.
During her time in Congress, she occasionally voted with Republicans to reduce regulations and supported a balanced budget amendment but otherwise stuck to mostly liberal positions. While Erie County clerk, she opposed Spitzer’s proposal to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants — a position she later abandoned as lieutenant governor. She also moved left on guns while in Albany, backing New York’s SAFE Act, one of the strongest gun control laws in the nation.
During her many years in local, state and federal government, Hochul has charmed her way across New York. She’s made a habit of visiting all 62 of New York’s counties by car every year of her lieutenant governorship, building connections with local politicians from both parties all across the state. She's developed a reputation as an energetic campaigner, skilled at retail politics.
There is one way that Hochul and Cuomo are more alike than not: Cuomo fought to the bitter end to keep the office he’s held since 2011; Hochul has said she’ll only leave the political arena in a pine box. “I’m going to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Louise Slaughter,” she told Politico in 2020, naming two women who died in office. “I’m going to be late 80s when I say goodbye to this business, and only because ‘somebody’ comes knocking.”
Cuomo’s scandals likely won’t mar Hochul’s reputation. Throughout her career, Hochul has been a champion for women. Along with her mother and aunt, she founded a transitional home for domestic violence survivors in 2006, naming it after her namesake grandmother, who left an abusive husband in the 1940s at a time when that simply wasn’t done — especially not by a Catholic woman in rural New York.
Hochul could face a crowded primary field in 2022 if she runs for a full term as governor. Despite her constant travels across the Empire State, Hochul isn’t as well known as some of her potential rivals. An August poll from Slingshot Strategies of likely primary rivals found Democratic voters preferring Attorney General Letitia James over Hochul, 36 to 19 percent, with 25 percent unsure and 21 percent choosing others.
GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin, who decided not to seek a fifth term and instead run for governor next year, issued a statement condemning both Cuomo and Hochul, saying she “has been silent scandal after scandal.”
“We need new leadership in New York to end the attacks on our freedoms, our wallets and our safety,” Zeldin said. “Albany corruption is systemic, fundamental and real. One-party Democrat rule enables this type of malign behavior.”
This report was corrected to accurately reflect Hochul's special election to the House.