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Kathy Hochul, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s loyal lieutenant, is tested as crisis engulfs him: ‘She’s in a difficult position’

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On the day that embattled Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lost the support of the New York state Senate leader, marking the start of the most perilous week of his career yet, the woman who could succeed him in office was celebrating National Cereal Day.

“Nothing like waking up to the smell of Cheerios in the air,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul wrote on Twitter on March 7, in a parochial nod to the Buffalo-based General Mills plant. “Hope everyone enjoys a bowl of NY-made cereal this morning.”

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With Albany engulfed in controversy, Hochul has sought to exude an attitude of normalcy through her carefully controlled public appearances and statements. In recent days, she has tended to local Chambers of Commerce, addressed events focused on women and deployed a stream of often-chipper, emoji-laden tweets. On Friday, she livestreamed her COVID-19 vaccination.

Yet as Cuomo confronts the greatest political crisis of his decade in power, it is clear that his little-known lieutenant governor has entered a new, challenging and increasingly high-profile phase of her own.

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Hochul, a veteran politician who would be New York’s first woman governor if Cuomo resigns or is removed from office, has earned coverage in Vogue and has seen an explosion of online search interest in her name.

The chairman of the Republican Party of New York inveighed against Hochul at an event last week in her hometown, Buffalo, seeking to tie her to the governor’s challenges. People around her describe bursts of new outreach from clergy members, lobbyists and county chairs.

And some lawmakers across the state are openly discussing their desire to deal with her instead of with Cuomo.

The developments have introduced a daunting new balancing act for Hochul: She is at once navigating her longtime activism on behalf of women, as she deals with complicated politics within her party and options for her future, all under intense new scrutiny.

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Perhaps aware of this, her team — which had entertained the possibility of allowing a reporter to speak to Hochul for much of last week — denied an interview after state lawmakers on Thursday opened an impeachment inquiry into Cuomo.

Hochul has indicated that she supports an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo, who is now facing a chorus of calls to resign from lawmakers in Albany and Washington. But she has otherwise said very little about the governor recently.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul during a news conference in New York, Jan. 24, 2019. Hochul would become New York's first female governor if Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigns or is removed from office amid sexual harassment allegations.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul during a news conference in New York, Jan. 24, 2019. Hochul would become New York's first female governor if Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigns or is removed from office amid sexual harassment allegations. (Benjamin Norman/The New York Times)

“She’s in a difficult position,” said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a onetime boss of Hochul’s, describing her as having been both an “extremely loyal” lieutenant to Cuomo, and typically “one of the most outspoken persons against any type of sexual harassment.”

The governor has strenuously insisted that he never “touched anyone inappropriately,” though he has apologized for other aspects of his conduct. He has also made clear that he has no intention of resigning, and may well seek a fourth term, all real possibilities at an extraordinarily fluid and unpredictable moment in New York politics.

Still, Cuomo’s turf has never been more rocky.

He faces an independent investigation into accusations of sexual harassment, and separately, a federal inquiry into his administration’s handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic. Much of New York’s congressional delegation has called for his resignation. And if impeachment proceedings reached the point of a trial, Hochul would serve as acting governor.

It is against this uncomfortable backdrop that Hochul, 62, is being reintroduced to New Yorkers, and to the nation.

While she has been part of the Cuomo administration as it moved to the left in recent years and has certainly embraced that shift, Hochul has generally been perceived as a relative moderate, and earlier in her career, even as a more conservative Democrat on some matters.

Indeed, as the Erie County clerk, she was a vocal opponent of efforts to offer driver’s licenses to immigrants without legal status. As a member of Congress, she received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, though over the years she has said that her views on both matters have changed, and, her allies note, she has long been supportive of other top Democratic priorities, including abortion rights.

“I would call Kathy a Joe Biden Democrat,” said Len Lenihan, formerly the longtime chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee. “She’s very good with the base of the party but has ability to appeal to people beyond the solid base.”

There are still signs that Cuomo has maintained support in the state: A Siena College poll released Monday suggested that more New Yorkers than not believe that he has committed sexual harassment, but half of those surveyed say that he should not immediately resign.

That dynamic was on display even on Hochul’s home turf. Outside a prominent local pub, where a Democratic councilman was hosting a fish fry fundraiser, Lori Marranca, 51, said she liked Hochul more than Cuomo — “I think she seems more fair.” But, she said, “I don’t know if he needs to be impeached.”

Troy Brahaspat, 38, added, “I don’t think it’s fair to rush any decision. He’s been the only levelheaded thing that helped us get through to where we are today, through the pandemic.”

As for Hochul, he said, while her office has been helpful, “I don’t really have opinions.”

Polls show that Hochul is not well-known to voters around New York despite twice winning statewide office after a steady rise in politics, beginning as a Capitol Hill aide to LaFalce and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In 2011, she made national headlines for winning a special election for a congressional seat that favored Republicans, after the Republican incumbent, Christopher Lee, resigned after a shirtless picture of himself that he sent to a woman surfaced online. Hochul ran as an energetic campaigner who skillfully turned the race into a referendum on Republican plans for Medicare.

But after a redistricting process that made hers the most Republican district in the state — and after, according to The Buffalo News, Cuomo did not act on her entreaty to intervene in the reapportionment process — she was out at the end of 2012.

Two years later, Cuomo named her to his ticket.

She was seen as adding a measure of diversity to the team, because of both her gender and her geographic ties to western and upstate New York. Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor, said he gave Hochul some advice.

“I told her that Andrew had a big ego and that the best thing she could do would be to avoid anything he would consider to be threatening,” Ravitch said.

She embraced the Cuomo administration’s record, so much so that in one reelection debate in 2018, she declined to specify an area of disagreement with Cuomo, or an area where she had changed his mind.

Yet the two have rarely appeared together. And, generally left out of Cuomo’s day-to-day decision-making, Hochul has spent much of her time away from Albany, making a habit of visiting the state’s 62 counties each year and reveling in retail politicking. She has also been engaged around a number of policy priorities, including promoting gender equality and economic development and combating the opioid epidemic.

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Many who know Hochul describe her as accessible, sharp and easy to deal with, and while the term “likable” is often a fraught one when used to assess female politicians, LaFalce couldn’t help it: “I’ve never met anybody as likable as Kathy,” he said. Taken together, her personality cuts a sharp contrast with Cuomo’s infamously domineering approach.

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At one point, Cuomo publicly suggested that she would be a strong candidate for a deeply Republican Buffalo-area congressional seat in 2018, which was perceived by many as a barely veiled effort to coax her off the ticket. At the time, there were initial internal discussions about whether he needed a more progressive running mate or a person of color, with ties to downstate, people familiar with the conversations said.

A spokesman for Cuomo declined to comment.

Hochul decided to stay put, and won more counties in the 2018 Democratic primary than Cuomo did — though he won his primary contest by around 30 percentage points. The lieutenant governor defeated Jumaane Williams, now the New York City public advocate, by just under 7 percentage points in her primary contest.

If Hochul becomes governor, people close to her say, she will seek election for a full term next year. But short of that, any number of scenarios are possible, with or without Cuomo.

“I don’t know anybody who’s ever become lieutenant governor anywhere that didn’t someday want to be governor,” said Lenihan, who has known Hochul for years. But, he went on, “She is not an ambitious person to the point where she’s going to step on the turf of the incumbent governor to benefit herself. She’s not made that way.”

An open seat would undoubtedly draw a large pool of contenders, and it is clear that any future bid by Hochul would be met by skepticism from many progressives, some of whom believe she should be more vocal about Cuomo now.

“I haven’t heard her say much,” Williams said. “I do hope she’ll say a little bit more soon.”

Williams, who has weighed another run for higher office himself, said he expected that Hochul would face a challenge from the left if she is a candidate again.

But Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor, said there was little Hochul could accomplish by speaking out further against Cuomo right now, advising that she stay the course of saying little and watching how the developments unfold.

Asked how she should navigate this moment, he replied, “She doesn’t.”

c.2021 The New York Times Company

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