It seemed like Washington just couldn’t get enough of Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul when she first arrived 18 months ago.
The former Erie County clerk had just won a special congressional election the pundits said she would lose, and she qualified as an official Democratic darling by constantly chanting the “save Medicare” party line.
She was photographed with President Obama at the White House, shook his hand at the State of the Union speech and was chosen by House Democrats on several occasions as official spokeswoman.
But the realities of New York politics eventually trumped it all. When reapportionment map makers early last year drew her the most Republican district in the state, Hochul knew from the start that she faced a daunting challenge.
Now Hochul prepares to pack up and return home following her oh-so-close loss to Republican Chris Collins in November. She politely smiles when it’s mentioned that Collins triumphed by a mere 4,000 votes while Obama lost the district by a double-digit percentage. But it’s obvious that the razor-thin plurality only deepens the hurt, even if she shrugs her shoulders and pledges to carry on.
“I was at one of the diners in Canandaigua the other day that I went to so often during the campaign,” she said. “The owner came over and told me he had voted only twice in his life, and this time he voted for me. That keeps you going.”
If Hochul’s political career ends with the expiration of her term Dec. 31 – and not all political observers are convinced it will – she probably will be remembered as a natural politician with the skills to be elected to almost anything. Except, that is, to a district in which Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 35,000 voters.
So, for now, she chalks up her “close but no cigar” effort almost as a victory. She said her campaign mantra of bipartisan cooperation and her refusal to adhere to every Democratic talking point registered with voters.
“I think it did fly, or else it wouldn’t have been so close,” she said of her message.
Even in her last days in the House, Hochul sticks to her contention that rabid partisanship lies at the root of government dysfunction. She hopes to vote for compromise addressing the “fiscal cliff” before Dec. 31, resurrecting the “independence” theme she emphasized on the campaign trail.
“It’s part of who I am,” she said. “I don’t believe any party has all the right answers. And I represented a very conservative area, so I tried to represent them.”
The congresswoman said she reflects her experience as a one-time staffer for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who earned a similar reputation in Washington for reaching across the aisle. Issues such as the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff now worry corporate leaders, who delay expansion and investment, she said, in turn paralyzing the economy.
She still prefers the Moynihan way.
“I came back to Washington believing that’s how it has to be done,” she said. “There’s been a lot of changes since then.”
Collins criticized Hochul during the campaign for notching few legislative accomplishments. Hochul instead points to her Clothe a Homeless Hero Act that directs the Transportation Security Administration to partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs and local charities to distribute to needy veterans unclaimed clothing left at airport security checkpoints.
But she mostly emphasizes other ways a member of Congress can note accomplishments – especially, helping to preserve the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base. Upon arrival in Washington, she said, she was told the base would be “gone.” But she said she pressed the case with everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, eventually persuading him to visit the facility.
“All I can say is that we got a good result,” she said.
Ditto, she said, for helping to electronically streamline the process used by farmers to employ migrant workers.
“I was astounded a year ago to find that process was very, very cumbersome; it literally took 18 pounds of paper,” she said. “That’s an example of using the office to pressure for reforms.”
In reviewing her campaign against Collins, she said the melding of candidate and super PAC ads now misleads voters.
“We have no say over the message,” she said of super PAC ads. “It has to be reformed. It causes people to have such a disdain for the process.”
But some political observers wonder if her own “Buffalo China” ad may have backfired – even costing her her re-election. The ad, which claimed a Collins investment group fired Buffalo China workers after buying the company’s assets, was judged false by a host of media outlets, including The Buffalo News.
She abruptly cut off discussion on the ad during a recent interview, however, declaring it “factual,” adding that she had “no answer” on questions about it and that the “campaign is over.”
“The facts were on our side, even if it was perceived differently by the media,” she said. “That’s fine.”
For the moment, the outgoing congresswoman seems to entertain only a return to Hamburg. At 54, she said she has had discussions with some in the community about her future, and she said it is “appealing” to consider working in the private sector.
She also looks forward to spending time and traveling with her parents and husband, U.S. Attorney William C. Hochul Jr.“I owe him big time,” she cracked.
As she did throughout the campaign when assessing her underdog chances, Hochul said she feels grateful for the opportunity to serve in the House of Representatives – even if for less than a full term.
“It will always be a terrific source of pride in my life, and I’m thankful people were able to put their faith in me.”