Kathy Hochul’s campaign to prove her place in New York

The state’s first female governor has been quietly ‘hard at work’ in Albany, but the Democrat finds herself in a surprisingly tight race in a reliably blue state at a time that rewards big political personalities

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is facing a surprisingly close race for election against Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin. (Anna Watts for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Through the crowd of a Brooklyn farmers market, below the heads of shoppers, passing by a tent selling branches of lavender, a young mother spotted the small, trim frame of Kathy Hochul.

The woman leaned down to her two sons. “Say hi! Say hi!” she told them. The boys looked up, distracted by the noises of a Saturday afternoon in New York, unsure of where to direct their attention.

“She’s gonna be our next …”

Their mother paused. She corrected herself.

“She’s our governor! And she's gonna win. And she’s gonna be the governor … again!”

The boys smiled. The governor smiled.

“Thank you,” Hochul said politely.

Kathleen C. Hochul, who began her career in Democratic politics 30 years ago with a seat on the town board in Hamburg, N.Y., 370 miles northwest of New York City, had been their governor for the past 14 months, sworn in at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 24, 2021, out of view from the public, one minute after the resignation of Andrew M. Cuomo, who left office amid claims of bullying and repeated sexual harassment.

At the Brooklyn farmers market, two young women drinking iced coffee saw the staffers and cameras and campaign leaflets — and the woman at the center of the crush. “Oh,” one of them said to the other. “It’s, like, a famous person.” They kept walking.

Hochul is the first woman to serve as governor of New York. On Tuesday, as she tries to keep the job she inherited, she hopes to become the first woman elected governor of New York.

It should be a historic moment by any measure. But the sell to elect Hochul, to make her “the governor … again,” hasn’t inspired the urgency from voters she now needs in the final days of the midterm election. Suddenly, her Republican opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin, who represents the eastern sweep of Long Island, had a possible, if not quite probable, path to victory. He surged in the polls to within a few percentage points of Hochul, thanks to his near-absolute focus on crime as a campaign issue. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin recently flew in from Florida and Virginia, respectively, to help propel him higher. Upstate, Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking Republican in the House, drew a crowd of more than 3,000 people to rally for him.

Suddenly, anxious Democrats turned their eyes to New York — deep-blue New York — to help push Hochul over the line. Suddenly, Vice President Harris was here. Suddenly, Bill and Hillary Clinton were back on the campaign trail. Suddenly, President Biden was spending his Sunday evening — his valuable final weekend before Election Day, when races in states such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona will decide control of the Senate — at a rally in Westchester County.

Onstage at these events, Democrats praised Hochul as a governor who “gets things done,” signing more than 400 bills into law, tightening gun laws and lobbying for new investment in climate, child care and affordable housing. But Democratic stars descended on New York looking unprepared not only to counter Republican gains in a reliably blue state, but to speak with a single voice in defense of their party.

At a rally Thursday night at Barnard College in Manhattan, Hochul and an all-female lineup of speakers, with the exception of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), tried to rally the women’s college crowd around the history Hochul would make with her election. When Harris took the stage, in one of the vice president’s few appearances as a campaign surrogate this fall, she spoke at length about her own experiences meeting with world leaders and the “nature of democracy.” She mentioned Hochul by name just four times, confusing Democratic campaign aides backstage, one said. Three days later, at a rally in Brooklyn, former president Bill Clinton used part of his remarks to defend his 1994 crime bill — which is deeply unpopular with today’s progressives, many of whom live in Brooklyn, and many of whose votes Hochul needs on Tuesday — before turning back to the topic at hand. “But the point is,” he said of Republican efforts to highlight concern about crime, “Kathy Hochul has tried to do something about it.”

In a state of brutal machine politics and big, strange, beguiling personalities, Kathy Hochul keeps an understated profile, making the governor an unlikely fit for 2022. Across the country this year, candidates rose to the top of the ticket with a modern set of political qualities: pugilistic loyalty, polarizing rhetoric, the skills to command a television camera and commandeer a room. Hochul is a politician carved from a previous era. At the farmers market, she moved with the crowd but did not take it over. She has climbed the ranks of local, state and federal government and, in turn, hoped to be rewarded for competence and diligence. In her television ads in these final days of the race, Hochul presents New Yorkers with the image of the governor’s mansion in Albany, illuminated in the small hours of the morning: “It’s late at night and the light is on in the governor’s office,” a man’s voice says. “Kathy Hochul is hard at work, and it shows.”

Hochul, 64, made it to Albany via the unseen political back roads of regional politics. A lawyer and former legislative assistant to state lawmakers, she moved home to the Buffalo area when she had children, and started attending local civic meetings. When a spot opened on the town board in Hamburg in 1994, Hochul was appointed to fill the seat. She was 35 years old. Hochul served on the board for another 13 years, winning reelection three times and using the small perch to immerse herself in the concerns of the region. In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed her to the vacant role of Erie County clerk. Four years later, in 2011, she ran in a special election to fill an open congressional seat in a Republican-leaning district, New York’s 26th. No one thought she could win. She did, by a margin of five percentage points, and served in Washington for 19 months before losing her reelection bid. A few years after that, in 2014, Cuomo picked Hochul to be his lieutenant governor.

For seven years, as Cuomo bent the state to his will with brute force and a penchant for the spotlight, Hochul assumed the relatively invisible role of his No. 2, working long days in the background of his administration. It was only with his alleged harassment and subsequent resignation that Hochul ended up at the top of the ticket. She had 14 months to govern, and to persuade voters to let her stay in the job. It was not the first time Hochul was asked to prove and keep her place in politics.

“The recollection is that I’m always underestimated,” Hochul told reporters outside the farmers market, reflecting on her tenure in elected office.

“True story. Always.”

Those voices, the governor said, have been rattling around her head for 30 years: “ ‘Well, she’s gonna lose the primary.’ … ‘She’s not gonna make that.’ … ‘She’s not gonna win that.’ They don’t understand me.”

“I think a lot of women feel that,” she added.

It was only in the past few weeks that Hochul started adding more retail stops to her schedule — events that put her face-to-face with voters, asking for their support. For months, her race was considered a lock. New York hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 2002, when, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, voters kept moderate George E. Pataki in office. As she started to govern, Hochul also started to run a campaign in the style of an incumbent: She raised $45 million. She ran television ads. She kept a light campaign schedule, preferring to hold official events in her capacity as governor instead — even as Zeldin inched closer in the polls and Republicans, eager to seize a victory that would generate a national shock, raised alarm about inflation and several high-profile crimes, including the shooting on a Q train traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan that left one subway rider dead in the spring.

“In New York, you have to be vicious. You have to be ruthless,” said Garrett Ventry, a Republican consultant who advises Stefanik. “She’s not a powerful, strong candidate. She only just started campaigning.”

Democrats in the state looked at Hochul and her operation with concern and confusion, wondering why she wasn’t a more visible presence in neighborhoods still unfamiliar with the new governor, particularly in New York City, which has about 2 in 5 registered voters in the state.

“They ran the ‘Rose Garden’ strategy of an incumbent, except for the fact that she was never elected governor,” said Melissa DeRosa, a Democratic strategist and longtime Cuomo aide who exited Albany entangled in his administration’s scandals. “After the Dobbs decision came out, she followed the path of a lot of Democratic campaigns and leaned into making the race about abortion and Trump and ignored the very real problems on the ground.”

New York hasn’t elected a governor from Upstate New York since Nathan Miller, from Cortland County, in 1920.

When Hochul is in the city, she lives out of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. It is not unusual to encounter people in the city who mispronounce her name. (The correct pronunciation is HO-kul.)

“The model that people are accustomed to is male, it’s New York City — of which I am neither,” Hochul said in an interview over the weekend. “So those are just some of the inherent challenges. But I’ve never let them be a deterrent. I don’t focus on them. I always break through that — every single time.”

As governor, Hochul has appointed a record number of women to senior leadership positions. When she started her career on the town board in Hamburg, she was “the only woman, until I made sure the next opening went to a women — over a lot of objection,” she said. When she made her way to Erie County, she found herself yet again alone in rooms full of men. “So I’ve been trying to infiltrate the male-dominated world of politics since 1994,” Hochul said. “People are not accustomed to seeing women in executive positions.”

At the farmers market, Hochul carried a large tote bag bearing the names of the different regions of New York: NYC, Adirondacks, Utica, Syracuse, Long Island, Binghamton, Hudson Valley. She said she wanted to fill it up “with a lot of snacks,” though she never managed to buy any. As she greeted passersby, New York State Assembly member Jo Anne Simon (D) stepped in to help take photos. “See,” said a campaign supporter hovering nearby, “that’s a good Assembly member when she takes a picture, right?”

“I’m a former staffer, too,” Hochul said. “I’m usually takin’ the photo.”

Her husband, William J. Hochul Jr., stood silently on the edge of the crowd, eating from a plastic foam to-go tray. In the crowded market, the first gentleman of New York was an anonymous figure to most of the voters passing by. When approached by a reporter to talk about his wife, he ducked away to the other side of a produce stand, pointing to her. “She’s the person you need to talk to,” he said. “I think you need to speak to the governor, right? So, why don’t you go talk to her?”

Hochul kept moving through the crowd. She met a man concerned about a crackdown on crime, and the governor said she is open to tightening bail laws, but he acknowledged that he thought Zeldin’s policies would be even harsher.

“We’re not going back to the old days,” he said. Hochul nodded.

She met a woman who chastised her for not making more time for progressive activists. Hochul held the woman’s hand and nodded. “I think you can understand the intensity of having to start up a government and at the same time run a campaign statewide,” she said.

Hochul kept moving, past a stand for dog treats, past a stand for succulent plants. Often, voters didn’t recognize the woman running their state. Staffers and surrogates corralled passersby in the crowd, facilitating a photo here, and a brief exchange there.

“Let’s run up the score,” Hochul said to one voter.

“Get your friends and family out, too!” she said to another.

On the outskirts of the Brooklyn crowd, Kathryn Garcia, Hochul’s director of state operations, handed out campaign leaflets on the sidewalk. Garcia ran for mayor of New York and lost to Eric Adams by 7,000 votes in the final round of the Democratic primary. When you run as a woman in New York, she said, “the question isn’t can you do the job — it’s like, ‘Can you do the job and then how are you actually gonna get people to vote for you?’ ”

“That doesn’t happen with men,” she added.

Did national politics still have a place for people like Hochul?

Garcia phrased the question differently: “For people who do the work?”

Hochul left the farmers market and stepped into the back seat of her black Chevrolet Suburban, on to the next event a few blocks away. When she took the stage at the rally, she had an applause line for the crowd.

“You know what I love the most?” she asked. “I love being underestimated.”

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