MELVILLE – Looking to shore up support among women and upstate voters, especially those from Western New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday tapped Kathleen C. Hochul, a former member of Congress from Erie County, as his running mate to take on the Republican Party’s ticket this fall.
Hochul, 55, who will be formally introduced today to delegates at the Democratic Party’s convention here on Long Island, has a long career of public service.
She is the first female on a statewide Democratic ticket in two generations, at a time when some women’s groups are not happy that Cuomo has not been able to push Senate Republicans to support a so-called “women’s agenda” package, including expansion of abortion rights.
In an interview with The Buffalo News, Cuomo said he was impressed by Hochul’s knowledge of federal affairs, her business background, local government experience and expertise on the complexities of what he said he is trying to do to restore the Western New York economy.
“She was always on the short list,” Cuomo said of Democrats being considered for the No. 2 spot on the ticket. “There was a lot of talent to choose from,” he said, but Hochul’s experience and the fact that he did not want to have an all-male ticket helped make the decision for him.
Asked when he decided, he said he did not have the final conversation with Hochul until Wednesday.
Besides geographic ticket balancing for an otherwise all-downstate slate for the party’s three other statewide campaigns, Hochul offers some cover for Cuomo on a still-burning issue in many upstate communities: gun control.
In her 2012 congressional race, she was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, whose leaders have been highly critical of Cuomo’s SAFE Act gun control bill passed last year.
“I think she helps with his support upstate and in Western New York where he was damaged a lot by the SAFE Act,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who on Wednesday was named as the co-chairwoman of Cuomo’s 2014 campaign with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
“That’s probably a factor in all of this,” Rep. Brian Higgins, an Erie County Democrat, said of Hochul’s cordial relations with gun groups that continue to fight the SAFE Act. “She’s an upstate voice, including on this issue.”
Cuomo dismissed that theory. “She supports the SAFE Act,” he said. “I’m not opposed to guns. I’m a gun owner … I hunt. I shoot.”
Democrats on Wednesday did not shy away from the SAFE Act issue, with speakers at the convention including the father of a 7-year-old boy killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre.
Cuomo introduced Hochul to delegates via a taped video message in advance of speeches the two will make at the convention today.
Cuomo also was also looking for a running mate he could trust – the bottom-line demand of anyone who serves in senior posts in his administration.
“I think there’s a chemistry between us,” Cuomo said of Hochul, whom he said he did not know very well – as was the case with his outgoing lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy, before he was tapped four years ago. “Part of this is personal. I spend a lot of time with this person,” Cuomo said of the lieutenant governor.
“I have a good feel for her and feel a natural connection with her, so I feel good about that,” he said.
He noted the desire to bring more gender balance to the statewide Democratic ticket. “Obviously, she’s a woman and she brings that perspective to a ticket,” he said.
The governor said he also was impressed by what Hochul should be able to do for him on the campaign trail. “I think she’s a great politician … She understands the business and how to connect with people and people connect with her,” he said.
“I think he already has the women’s vote,” she said.
The job of lieutenant governor, long associated with mere ceremonial duties, took on renewed attention in New York when David Paterson was elevated from second-in-command to governor in 2008 following the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, who became embroiled in a prostitution scandal.
Under the State Constitution, the powers of the lieutenant governor are severely limited. The occupant does automatically assume the governor’s office if the governor is removed from office or dies or resigns. The only specified job is serving as president of the State Senate, which means opening and closing sessions and picking who will speak on the floor – a job so mundane most lieutenant governors skip it.
The lieutenant governor traditionally has three basic assignments: don’t get into political trouble, serve as cheerleader-in-chief for the governor and stand in for the governor at public events deemed less newsworthy compared to ones a governor might attend. The travel workload in such a big state is relentless, so much so that Duffy cited the long car rides – which helped worsen the pain in his ailing back – as one of the reasons for not running again.
“As a lifelong upstate (resident) and someone who has lobbied for upstate in my previous career as mayor (of Rochester), I know how important it is to get upstate’s needs in the forefront of Albany,” Duffy told The Buffalo News at the convention. “Having the next lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, coming from Western New York means a great deal because she understands the issues facing upstate, she’s served in Congress, she’s been in the business community, and she’s been elected to local office in Erie County.”
Cuomo and Hochul will face Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, and his running mate, Chemung County Sheriff Chris Moss, who is the first African-American on a statewide GOP ticket in New York.
The Astorino campaign was unimpressed by the selection of Hochul, who is currently head of government affairs for M&T Bank. “It’s quite fitting that Andrew Cuomo would select a special interest lobbyist with a history of outsourcing jobs as his running mate. Mr. Albany now has a partner in crime,” said Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for Astorino.
In her brief remarks on the video shown to delegates, in which she was seated next to a smiling Cuomo, Hochul said she had wanted to rejoin public service. “I don’t want to be on the sidelines,” said Hochul. “New York is on the move, but our work is far from finished,” she added.
Democratic insiders for weeks have been dismissing the prospects of Hochul as lieutenant governor, with a number of them saying that she could be “too independent” to be Cuomo’s top aide.
But Peoples-Stokes said Hochul, during her brief time in Congress from the middle of 2011 through 2012, learned about political team play and working within a government structure where she is not the decision-maker. “She has a level of independence that bodes well for her,” the lawmaker said.
That Cuomo wants to win Western New York, after losing all eight counties in the region to Carl Paladino in 2010, is hardly a secret. He has expended enormous government energy on the area, traveling often to Buffalo and other local towns promoting what he says is a new focus by the state on helping to restore the area’s economy.
“Western New York is a priority,” Cuomo said, pushing back against those who say his intentions are political. “And Western New York should have been a priority for prior administrations going back decades.”
If the Cuomo ticket wins, Hochul, the former Erie County clerk and Hamburg town councilwoman, would join an administration that is like a tiny island with room for only a handful of people, led by Cuomo, who make the major decisions. And while her reputation in Washington was as a hard-charging lawmaker, she will find her workday grow sharply longer than working for a Buffalo bank.
Still, the long-term benefits are potentially there for her. Should Hillary Clinton not run for president in 2016 and Cuomo makes a chase for the White House, Hochul – legally – would be in charge while Cuomo is out of the state. Short of that, Cuomo loyalists have floated for more than a year that he is interested in serving as only two terms as governor. If he is re-elected and if that theory is true, Hochul could be in a position to get some exposure for higher office.
Delegates on Wednesday, to no one’s surprise, backed incumbents Thomas DiNapoli, the comptroller, and Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general, to the statewide ticket.