For a while after her special election victory last May 24, Rep. Kathy Hochul found herself the toast of the political world.
The hard-charging Erie County clerk had just defeated a Republican who enjoyed every financial and enrollment advantage. Hochul won the 26th District because she waged a better campaign, and the powers that be took notice.
Suddenly, the onetime Hamburg councilwoman was being photographed with President Obama at the White House. She shook his hand at the State of the Union speech, and served as the poster child for congressional Democrats eager to regain control.
None of that has changed. The congresswoman remains a bundle of energy, plunging into major issues like preserving the Niagara Falls Air Base, and aided by natural political abilities given to only the luckiest of area pols.
But reality is also sneaking up on Hochul. Two weeks ago, she encountered a beehive of angry protesters in Lancaster questioning her support of Obama's birth control mandate that stirred up Catholics and others. And when she stumbled while responding to her detractors (note to Hochul: avoid the word "Constitution" while taking on these folks), she was handed a powerful reminder that she remains a Democrat in predominantly Republican turf.
"It's an insult to the Catholics in this country to even listen to that gibberish," one man shouted.
The congresswoman is a practicing Catholic. Comments like that have to hit home.
On top of all that, she had to answer more questions about a mess left in the County Clerk's Office first reported by Denise Jewell Gee in The Buffalo News back in January.
Now Hochul has been handed another reminder. A new reapportionment plan advanced by a federal magistrate judge makes her district even more Republican, while strengthening the Democratic base of the neighboring district now represented by Democrat Brian Higgins. Several factors could combine to alter the district lines even more in coming days, but Hochul might have to choose between challenging Higgins in a primary or facing a GOP enrollment advantage in her current territory every election for the next decade.
Whether she stays put or not, top Republicans are already targeting her current district. State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told Tom Precious of The News last week that the Hochul district is one of four in New York that could fall to the GOP if the judicial lines remain (though a deal between the Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate could still be reached this week).
Even some Democrats agreed with Skelos' predictions, pointing to Hochul's new district as the hardest for the party to retain this fall if the judge's proposed maps are made final.
Indeed, big Republican names like former Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, Iraq War veteran David Bellavia, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua, State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, former County Executive Chris Collins and Erie County Legislature Minority Leader John J. Mills were all making inquiries.
As a result, Democrats and Republicans will have many talks in the State Capitol over the next days to work out the deal that so often results. Hochul will be aided by the Bolton St. John's lobbyists she signed up last fall, while Higgins has long retained the Albany firm headed by Patricia Lynch, a former top aide to Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver.
Higgins could use every bit of influence possible with Silver, who just might recall the former assemblyman's role in a coup attempt against him back in 2000. Still, the spotlight remains on Hochul, this time for different reasons. She has proven a political pro so far. Now her hardest tests lie before her.