Who Is Kathy Hochul, the Politician Who Could Become the First Female Governor of New York?

·5 min read

Andrew Cuomo’s grip on the New York governorship may soon come to an end. After a damning report on Tuesday corroborated multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him, the calls for his resignation—including from President Biden—reached a fever pitch. The report, which details Cuomo’s unwanted touching and inappropriate comments targeting 11 women (including nine current and former female state employees), is the result of a five-month independent investigation from New York State Attorney General Letitia James. It includes previously unreported accusations (including one from a state trooper assigned to Cuomo’s security detail) as well as evidence that Cuomo and members of his staff attempted to retaliate against one of his accusers.

Cuomo continues to deny these allegations, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and the governors of neighboring New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania have all echoed Biden in urging Cuomo to step down. With his days now seeming numbered, attention is turning toward his would-be replacement, New York’s Lt. Gov Kathy Hochul, who is poised to make history as the state’s first female governor—and one who has advocated for women’s health and safety.

Hochul condemned Cuomo’s behavior in a statement this week. “The attorney general’s investigation has documented repulsive and unlawful behavior by the governor towards multiple women,” she said. “I believe these brave women and admire their courage coming forward.”

Who is the woman on the brink of succeeding Cuomo? To say that Hochul has kept a low profile during her six-plus years as Cuomo's deputy is an understatement. The 62-year-old Buffalo native is rarely quoted in the press, was a quiet presence on the 2018 campaign trail, and when the New York Times proclaimed on November 6 of that year that Cuomo had been easily elected to his third term as governor, Kirsten Gillibrand to her second full term as U.S. senator, and Letitia James to her first as attorney general, the fact that Hochul had been reelected as the state’s lieutenant governor went completely unmentioned.

An early start in politics

After earning her B.A. from Syracuse University in 1980 and a J.D. from Catholic University four years later, Hochul began her political career as a legal counsel and legislative assistant to New York Representative John LaFalce, and then as a senatorial aide to the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a powerful force in New York politics for more than four decades. In 1994, she was elected to the Hamburg Town Board, in New York’s Erie County, just south of Buffalo, where she served until she was appointed the Erie County Clerk in 2007.

A win, followed by a loss

In 2011, Hochul won a special election for Congress, flipping a traditionally Republican seat in upstate New York and raising her political profile among fellow Democrats, including then vice president Joe Biden, who called to offer his congratulations. (The seat became vacant when Representative Christopher Lee resigned after he e-mailed a shirtless photo of himself to a woman and it was published on the internet, per the Times.) But that prominence was short-lived. In the 2012 general election, running in a redrawn district that became even more conservative, she lost her seat in the House of Representatives to Chris Collins, the former Erie County executive. (In 2019, Collins pleaded guilty to insider trading and ultimately resigned.)

Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul, running mates in 2014.
Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul, running mates in 2014.
Photo: AP

Bringing diversity to the Cuomo ticket

In 2014, when Lieutenant Governor Robert J. Duffy, a former mayor of Rochester, decided to retire and not seek a second term, Cuomo tapped Hochul as his running mate. Facing a potentially tough reelection race against Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, Cuomo seemed eager to shore up his base in western New York—and despite her loss two years later, Hochul seemed like the best candidate to help him. Plus, with the rest of the Democratic statewide slate (governor, attorney general, and comptroller), all being filled by white men from New York City, Cuomo was likely aware of the diversity, in both gender and geography, that Hochul would bring to the ticket. The two won that November with 54% of the vote.

In 2018, a challenge from the left

Four years later, Hochul’s bid for reelection was challenged by a progressive candidate in the Democratic primary, Jumaane Williams, a three-term New York City councilman. Hochul beat back the challenge from Williams, now the public advocate for New York City, but not before the New York Times floated the rumor that Cuomo had tried to “nudge” Hochul off the ticket by encouraging her to run for her old congressional seat. (Meanwhile, Cuomo was fending off his own primary challenge from the left: a spirited run by the actor Cynthia Nixon.) In the end, Hochul stayed on the ticket, and the two won handily in November, with almost a two-to-one margin over their Republican opponents.

Support for the “Enough Is Enough” law

As lieutenant governor, Hochul has been a proponent for women’s health and safety, including the state’s “Enough Is Enough” legislation, aimed at fighting sexual assault on college campuses and requiring colleges in the state “to adopt a uniform definition of affirmative consent, defined as knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity.” (In 2006, Hochul, along with her mother and aunt, established the Kathleen Mary House, a transitional home in suburban Buffalo for victims of domestic violence.) After the second allegation against Governor Cuomo surfaced, Hochul released a brief statement, saying, “Everyone deserves to have their voice heard and taken seriously. I support an independent review.”

Waiting in the wings?

Reports out of Albany these past six years seem to make clear that Hochul is not part of Cuomo’s inner circle and may not have much legislative sway. But, as the Times noted in that 2018 article about Hochul’s victory over Williams, the lieutenant governor’s position, while largely ceremonial, is not without some consequence. As the paper noted, the role “does put Ms. Hochul next in line to the governor. In 2008, David Paterson, the lieutenant governor, took over when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal.” Paterson’s ascension was a historic moment; he became the first Black governor of New York. Now, another scandal in the governor’s office could create a similarly groundbreaking moment.

Originally Appeared on Vogue

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