Kathy Hochul needed help. A little more than a year after being elected to Congress, it seemed likely that a new congressional map would shove thousands of Republicans into the district that Hochul, a Democrat, had won in a special election in May 2011.
But one person, maybe, could get the State Legislature to move on an alternate redistricting plan that might just save Hochul’s seat: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
So, at an event in Buffalo in early 2012, she pleaded her case.
“She asked him to engage in the reapportionment process,” said a source who was familiar with the discussion between Hochul and Cuomo. “She was pleasant and assertive. She can fight for herself without being adversarial.”
Cuomo never intervened, though, and a court-drawn congressional remap made Hochul’s congressional district the most Republican in the state.
Hochul lost her bid for re-election to Congress in November 2012.
But now, 18 months later, she is making a sudden political comeback thanks to Cuomo’s decision to make her his running mate.
Cuomo’s decision might seem like a surprise, given their behind-the-scenes disagreement on redistricting and his reputation as a strong executive whom few dare to confront.
Yet somehow, his choice fits neatly into the political narrative of Kathleen C. Hochul’s life. That’s because, from the very start, she has always done what she did that day when she asked Cuomo to help save her seat in Congress.
She has always challenged the status quo with a smile.
In an interview last week, Hochul seemed reluctant to discuss that talk with Cuomo from more than two years ago, although she acknowledged: “I’m sure at some point I asked for his help.”
But that was then and this is now, she said, all the while acknowledging that the governor hadn’t exactly chosen someone known for keeping her opinions to herself.
“I really admire the governor for his willingness to select someone who has a reputation for having an independent streak,” she said. “It shows he’s open to new ideas. I think that’s a very admirable trait, and that’s why we’re going to be a great team.”
Every source interviewed for this story acknowledged that Hochul’s friendly persona tends to balance out her penchant for headline-grabbing independence. Still, some in the political universe wonder how Hochul will fit into a subordinate role serving a governor who is known as a take-charge, top-down leader.
“My jaw dropped when I heard that she accepted this,” said a person who knows both Cuomo and Hochul. “She’s lost the power of independent action and thinking – especially with this governor. You kind of wonder how long she’s going to last.”
Several other sources said, though, that the wellsprings of Hochul’s success – her smarts and her warmth – are more likely to make her an effective lieutenant governor.
“It’s almost impossible not to like her and not to respect her,” said Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of Cuomo’s Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and a friend of Hochul.
While Cuomo is always “in a hurry” to enact his agenda, “I see no problem with Kathy working with him,” Zemsky added. “She’s watching this transformation that we have here in Western New York and she’s very respectful of the job he’s doing.”
At the same time, “she’ll have the opportunity to say what she wants to say” in the administration, Zemsky said.
There’s no doubt that Hochul has been saying what she wants to say for a very long time.
At Syracuse University in the late 1970s, she led an effort to name the Carrier Dome after football legend Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner. In other words, at 19, she picked a fight with Carrier Corp., one of Syracuse’s most prominent companies. She lost that battle, but not before charming her way into a meeting with the company’s top executive.
After law school and a relatively brief tenure as a congressional aide, she returned to Hamburg to raise her family. She then served for more than a decade on the Hamburg Town Board, where she became a strong voice arguing for the removal of the Lackawanna toll plaza on the New York State Thruway.
That served as a springboard to her tenure as Erie County clerk, where she worked to make the office more consumer-friendly while publicly challenging then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer over his plan to offer driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and his successor, Gov. David A. Paterson, on his plan to issue new license plates during the Great Recession.
Hochul won a special election for Congress in May 2011 and focused her brief tenure in Washington on saving jobs at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and bucking the Democratic party line on issues such as the details of Obamacare.
Through it all, there’s been one constant. Hochul has somehow managed to avoid alienating all the people she has challenged.
The key reason, those who know her well say, is her personality.
“Whatever she does, she does it with a smile,” said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Tonawanda, whom Hochul served as a congressional aide.
Leonard Lenihan, a former Erie County Democratic chairman and longtime Hochul booster, agreed that Hochul is “very personable,” but stressed that there’s much more to her than that.
“She’s a dedicated team player, but she’s not afraid to speak her mind,” Lenihan said. “Those things are not mutually exclusive,” he said, adding: “I think that in picking her, the governor knows she’s not going to be someone without a point of view.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said: “She brings an energy and charisma to the ticket that’s very beneficial to it.”
And LaFalce, in an apparent allusion to the governor’s reputation as a politician who is better at will-bending than backslapping, added: “I don’t think it’s going to hurt Andrew to have a running mate who’s innately likable.”