How Kathy Hochul went from unexpected governor to undisputed leader

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When Kathy Hochul unexpectedly ascended to the governor’s mansion last August, raised after her predecessor’s sexual harassment scandal, she hardly looked like the kind of political powerhouse New Yorkers were used to — brash, self-aggrandizing , downstate and masculine.

Many members of Gotham’s tight-knit political class immediately gave her name an asterisk and predicted that Ms. Hochul, a Buffalo moderate with a penchant for making friends but not headlines, would struggle in a primary battle. row to keep the position.

Six months later, they could hardly look more fake.

Instead, Ms. Hochul embarked on a swift campaign to corner party leaders and oust potential rivals, which was as ruthlessly effective as it was extremely sympathetic. Harnessing the powers of her office as well as her own self-effacing style, she gave a new face to a state government mired in scandal and built a campaign juggernaut that had amassed $21 million in January, more than any of his rivals combined.

The transformation from accidental governor to undisputed favorite will culminate on Thursday when Ms. Hochul, 63, is poised to win the Democratic Party’s endorsement for a full term ahead of her June primary. In a nod to Ms. Hochul’s historic status as the first woman to lead New York, Hillary Clinton plans to introduce her as the party’s new flag bearer at a convention in Midtown Manhattan.

“The appointment is going to be a crowning achievement for her,” said former Gov. David A. Paterson, who, like Ms. Hochul, took office following the scandal-fueled resignation of a predecessor. “It’s amazing how you could almost think she’s been there for five years.”

This is all the more remarkable given that just a year ago, Ms. Hochul’s political career seemed to be heading for an impasse. Last winter, before Governor Andrew M. Cuomo became mired in sexual harassment allegations, his aides briefly informed Ms. Hochul that he planned to kick her off the ticket as lieutenant governor when he would run for a fourth term in 2022.

Since then, Ms. Hochul has not been unlucky: the rapid loss of Mr. Cuomo; an influx of federal funds that pushed New York into the black; and the decision of her most serious main rival, Attorney General Letitia James, to drop out of her gubernatorial campaign just as it was getting underway.

But the story of Ms. Hochul’s rise goes beyond chance and is just as much about 18-hour days, shrewd political maneuvering, relentless fundraising, careful preparation and relationships forged over the years. quiet march across the state as lieutenant governor, according to interviews with nearly 30 political operatives, lawmakers, labor leaders and campaign advisers who closely followed his trajectory.

She did not win over the political class with a particular ideological program or a new political vision, much to the chagrin of some of her leftist critics, but rather a bet that a state worn down by years of political scandal and a draining pandemic isn’t particularly interested in more drama from Albany.

“What do they say about luck?” Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” said James Featherstonhaugh, a fixture in the Albany lobbying scene. “When she became governor, it’s not like she fell from the moon. She probably understands the New York State government as well as anyone.

Ms. Hochul’s apparent aversion to taking clear ideological positions on some contentious policy disputes, such as new caps on rent increases or whether to roll back recent state changes to bail laws, seems motivated. , at least in part, by the desire not to alienate right or left. But it’s still unclear whether that consensus-driven approach can excite the real-world voters it needs to win.

Although polls show her with a comfortable lead, Ms. Hochul is already facing accusations from her main opponents – Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams – that she obscures issues such as crime and housing, or kowtows to the special interests funding her campaign.

And political strategists say there are signs in the polls and on the ground that Ms. Hochul is not yet generating the kind of enthusiasm among New York’s black, Latino and young voters that she might need to build a winning electoral coalition.

“Enthusiasm means everything,” said Gabby Seay, a Labor strategist who served as Ms James’ campaign manager. “She has to work to build that relationship where people are on fire about her candidacy. The question is, does she have time to do that while she rules?

Ms Hochul, who declined to be interviewed, told reporters on Tuesday that she intended to ‘run like a loser until it’s over’ and would prioritize informing people. New Yorkers on his politics.

As Mr. Cuomo’s career crumbled in slow motion last spring and summer, Ms. Hochul carefully concealed her aspirations for higher office. But privately, she spent the first half of 2021 diligently preparing to take matters into her own hands, should the time be right. “She wasn’t naive,” said Congresswoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

When the time came, Ms. Hochul acted quickly.

Within weeks, she had reshuffled the executive chamber, installing seasoned women in the top positions, ousting Cuomo loyalists and choosing Brian A. Benjamin, a black Harlem state senator with deep citywide ties. , as Lieutenant Governor.

She signed progressive bills that Mr. Cuomo had rejected; appeared alongside his longtime nemesis, then Mayor Bill de Blasio; union organizers invited to private dinners; and impressed business leaders with talk of reopening offices and keeping tax rates steady.

“You feel like you’re talking to someone who’s actually listening to you, not just following the moves,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of the city’s largest public union, District Council 37.

In Albany, lawmakers were nearly stunned. After years of being insulted, humiliated and belittled by Mr. Cuomo, they watched in near disbelief in January as Ms. Hochul offered a record $216 billion. state budget that not only funded their priorities, but set aside $2 billion for pandemic initiatives that lawmakers can help allocate.

“Before Governor Hochul, I used to say I served with eight governors, and they all seemed to use the same training manual,” said Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat in his 52nd year in the Assembly. . “Of the 35 budgets I’ve seen as health care president, this is by far the best.”

Ms. Hochul’s job has been made much easier by a flood of one-time federal investments. Where her predecessors struggled with deficits, Ms. Hochul was able to propose generous spending for major capital projects, schools and health care workers. Each proposal won her plaudits from key constituencies and helped her attract campaign contributions.

At the same time, Ms. Hochul used every tool at her disposal to woo endorsers and campaign donations, one fundraiser of $250,000 at a time. Lawmakers and union leaders, some of whom had known her for years, described repeated phone calls asking for support, which left them wondering whether they should bet against a sitting governor who had the power to include or circumvent their priorities in the budget.

Early endorsements by Hazel N. Dukes, head of the New York State chapter of the NAACP, and Emily’s List, a national fundraising powerhouse for female candidates who support abortion rights, helped build momentum that built into the fall, with its campaign announcing new mentions almost daily.

“She’s relentless,” said Emily Giske, a prominent Albany lobbyist. “You have 24 hours in the day. She is 48.

Ms. Hochul’s strategy has not been without its hitches.

Amid a high-profile crime spree in New York, Mr Suozzi and Republicans criticized the policies of Alvin Bragg, the new progressive district attorney, in Manhattan and pointedly attacked Ms Hochul for failing to do so. licensed. But some black leaders felt the governor had gone too far in the other direction, appearing too sympathetic to those targeting Mr Bragg, the first black elected to the post, at a time when they felt he was being unfairly goat. emissary.

“She has work to do,” Reverend Al Sharpton said. “She looks like she’s going to try to do it. But she needs to make sure she doesn’t stray too far from the core of what the Democratic Party is.

Progressives are sounding the alarm over Ms Hochul’s reliance on mega-rich donors, fearing they will shape her policies and her relationship with them could expose her to pay-for-gambling charges.

And there are other questions about the sustainability of Ms. Hochul’s approach over time in such a turbulent state. Dennis Mehiel, a major Democratic donor and former lieutenant governor candidate who backed Ms. Hochul, said ruling by force, while unsavory, had been key to his predecessor’s successes.

“Kathy’s approach is one of collaboration and reconciliation, which I applaud,” said Mehiel. “What we don’t know yet is whether we can govern New York State for the long haul without using masses.”

But Ms Hochul cautioned against underestimating her ability to lead decisively. She hasn’t been shy about battling with healthcare workers and local Republican leaders furious at her Covid-related mandates.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a longtime ally who also hails from well outside New York City, said the governor’s “hard-as-nails” resilience would show. But she said it’s no surprise that many in New York, a state that has never elected a woman to lead it, are still trying to understand the source of Ms Hochul’s power.

“A lot of women govern differently,” Ms Gillibrand said. “It’s much more about empathy and understanding, listening, reducing divides, healing wounds.”

Katie Glueck contributed report.

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