Opinion | Don’t Underestimate New York’s Next Governor

Kathy Hochul, on the cusp of becoming New York’s first woman governor, has been consigned to a strange limbo for the next 12 days because of Andrew Cuomo’s time-delayed resignation — a lag she has made clear is not her preference.

But Mr. Cuomo’s slow goodbye may be a blessing in disguise for Ms. Hochul, and not just because it gives her time to put together a trusted team and get her arms around the many significant challenges facing the state.

It also gives New Yorkers time to figure out who the heck she is — and to learn that she is not someone to be underestimated, as some of us who have long watched her know. Ms. Hochul has made a whole career out of biding her time, seizing opportunities, and cannily remolding herself to address shifting constituencies.

What’s critical to understand about Ms. Hochul — and it may sound like a small thing, but it’s not — is that she finds ways to make the most of her position.

Her most recent one, the lieutenant governor’s job, is largely ceremonial in New York, with no official policy portfolio and little opportunity to establish an agenda. And until this month, she has been far from a household name: Even some seasoned TV anchors and reporters covering the governor’s downfall and resignation struggled to pronounce “Hochul” (it’s a hard “c,” like “cool,” not the soft “ch” of “church”).

But Ms. Hochul is seemingly indefatigable, known to pack her day full of public events — sometimes beginning and ending at opposite ends of the state. In the process, she has established strong ties with a wide array of political stakeholders and power brokers.

In doing so she has created a profile for herself well beyond her political base in Buffalo, which has always been viewed as something of a backwater by the downstate-dominated political class. The last true upstate governor was a Cortland County native, Nathan Miller, elected in 1920. George Pataki claimed the upstate mantle, but he hailed from Westchester County, which is really a New York City suburb.

Her experience in western New York is also revealing. Her unlikely 2011 special election victory in a Republican-dominated congressional district briefly captured media attention outside the Empire State. She was the first Democrat to hold the seat in 40 years. But less than two years later, her district redrawn to become even more G.O.P.-dominant, Hochul lost a tight race to the Republican Chris Collins.

While running for Congress as an “independent Democrat,” Ms. Hochul was endorsed by the N.R.A. She regularly accepted the Conservative Party line in local races, and while serving as Erie County clerk, she took on Gov. Eliot Spitzer — who had appointed her to the role — when she opposed his plan to let undocumented immigrants obtain driver’s licenses.

That played well in western New York, which leans right, but made Ms. Hochul a lightning rod for the left. Eleven years later, in a different position with a broader constituency, Ms. Hochul vociferously supported Mr. Cuomo’s push for the same immigration policy Mr. Spitzer had failed to realize and cheered when the so-called Green Light bill became law.

New York elected officials have a tradition of shifting positions as they move up the political food chain. Kirsten Gillibrand’s transformation from a Blue Dog congresswoman to an outspoken progressive senator is Exhibit A. But some on the left remain skeptical about Ms. Hochul. She has work to do to unite the notoriously fractious Democratic Party.

That may prove to be an impossible task, given the growing schism between the party’s liberal wing and its more moderate members. Difficult debates are looming in Albany next year, particularly around single-payer health care — a top priority for Democratic Socialists, who are growing their number in the New York State Legislature.

But Ms. Hochul will be up for the challenge. Her folksy mannerisms and kill-them-with-kindness approach belie a steely and savvy operator.

That prowess was on display in 2018 when Ms. Hochul outmaneuvered Mr. Cuomo as he sought to dump her from his third-term re-election ticket while facing a primary challenge from the progressive activist and actress Cynthia Nixon. Ms. Hochul herself was fending off a primary opponent: Jumaane Williams, who is now the New York City public advocate but was then a Brooklyn councilman.

Ms. Hochul rejected the governor’s public suggestion that she run for her old House seat, calling his bluff. She knew he could not afford to force out his loyal lieutenant and alienate upstate voters, or, for that matter, women — especially not as he faced a female challenger. He was stuck with her.

She won the primary and cruised to a general election victory at Mr. Cuomo’s side: She had beaten Albany’s political chess master at his own game.

Now that she plans to seek a full term in 2022 for the office she is about to inherit, Ms. Hochul has just over 14 months to convince New York voters, as well as Democratic leaders and allies, of her competence and progressive credibility. She is already seeking to separate herself from her predecessor and quell accusations that she stood silently by while he created a toxic work environment and harassed multiple women. (Ms. Hochul insists she had no knowledge of that, but Mr. Cuomo’s bullying and strong-arm tactics have long been well known).

Ms. Hochul faces many challenges: the surging Delta variant, an uptick of urban violent crime, annual budget battles and the growing list of 2022 wannabes. But she starts with a well of good will and a reputation for being tough but not abusive. “No one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” she told reporters on Wednesday. For the time being, that should be more than enough.

Liz Benjamin is a former reporter who covered New York politics and government for two decades. She’s now the managing director for Albany at Marathon Strategies, a communications and strategic consulting firm.

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