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Hochul has history of political, social consciousness Savvy Democrat has reputation for being a fighter

Even now, three decades later, it's one of those memories seared into Kathy Hochul's brain.

Huge desk. Even bigger office. The chairman and CEO of the world's largest air conditioning company looking down on her, wondering why she was sitting in front of him, wasting his valuable time.

"I was this little 19-year-old kid," Hochul said. "What was I doing out there fighting these corporate guys?"

But fight she did, becoming the face of a student campaign to name a new domed football stadium at Syracuse University after Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis.

The effort fell short -- the dome was named after the Carrier air conditioning company -- but Hochul's leadership role left a mark with her fellow student activists.

"She was the engine, the top student strategist," said Jim Naughton, a former New York Times and Washington Post reporter who helped organize the campaign as a Syracuse student.

The initiative grew out of the student body's growing belief that the SU administration had lost touch with the school's identity and ideals, Naughton said.

In Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman and the force behind their only national championship in football, they saw an opportunity for SU to regain its moral footing by honoring one of its true legends.

It was the late 1970s and SU was chock-full of students raised in the '60s, eager to change the world, even if they had no clue how to do it.

Hochul, who's now running for a seat in Congress, was different, Naughton recalled. She knew how.

"She was not interested in looking too cool for school," he said of the activist he remembers as Kathy Courtney. "She was interested in working hard and getting things done."

Talk to anyone who knows Hochul and chances are good you'll hear the same profile -- smart, savvy and, yes, even tenacious.

"She's got a boatload of integrity," said Howard Zemsky, a local businessman who has known Hochul for 10 years and serves as her campaign finance chairman. "She doesn't shy away from any challenge or opportunity."

If there's a criticism of Hochul, it's her penchant for publicity. Even Democrats admit privately that she's viewed as a self-promoter, a politician who cultivates the media and the spotlight it provides.

Republicans, not surprisingly, have been quick to adopt the suggestion that Hochul is overly ambitious.

"She looks for opportunities to continually insert herself into news stories," said County GOP Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. "She's very ambitious and it's clear Erie County clerk is simply the latest rung up the ladder for her."

Hochul acknowledges her use of the media as county clerk but says her motivation is service to the public, not politics. She pointed to recent changes in cross-border travel regulations and the need to educate the public about enhanced driver's licenses.

"I'm in a public service job," she said. "It's important that the public know about the operations of my office."

Hochul's reputation as an aggressive politician may have its roots in her upbringing in Hamburg, where she was one of six kids in a family of "Type-A personalities."

Her mom and dad, Patricia and Jack Courtney, were politically and socially conscious and the message to each and every one of their kids was clear: Work hard and when you succeed, give back.

At the Courtney home, it wasn't unusual to find a foreign exchange student, a kid from the inner city or a resident of the West Seneca Developmental Center visiting or living with the family.

"She was exposed to a lot of different people," Patricia Courtney said of her daughter. "She saw a lot of needs, seemed to feel those needs and often tried them on for size."

No one preached the obligation to give back more than her mother, a community leader who celebrated her 70th birthday by announcing plans for the Kathleen Mary House, a new home for domestic violence victims.

"Compassion," Hochul says of the trait she acquired from her mother. "The ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel for them."

She's quick to note that her father was just as active in social causes, at least when time permitted.

As a young man, he worked at Bethlehem Steel but left after completing his education to join a fledgling technology company that later became Computer Task Group. He rose through the ranks and eventually became company president.

"I spent a lot of Saturday mornings with my dad," Hochul said. "He worked long hours and, if you wanted to spend time with your dad, you went to work with him."

Unlike her father and most of her siblings, Hochul chose public service, not business, as a career.

Her sister, Sheila Heinz, said she spent years trying to get Hochul to join her and her other siblings at Heinz's consulting firm in Maryland. "I kept telling her, 'Kathy, money, money, money,' " Heinz said. "She said, 'I know, I know,' " but she never did it. She was the only one in the family I couldn't get."

Heinz said her sister got the public service bug at home and in Peter James' eighth-grade social studies class at Hamburg Junior High School and carried it on to Syracuse, where she jumped headfirst into student government.

Even now, years later, students who were there remember Hochul as the brains behind the Ernie Davis campaign and later on, a successful boycott of the SU Bookstore.

"I don't think people know how tough she is," said her mother. "She's like a dog with a bone. She doesn't let go. She doesn't take no for an answer."

Even as Erie County clerk, she has taken on issues with a sense of activism, most notably the removal of the Niagara Thruway toll booths.

Hochul helped start a campaign to remove the toll barriers in 1998, when she was still a Hamburg Town Board member. The state took them down nine years later.

"People said, 'You're taking on the Thruway Authority. Yeah, good luck with that,' " Hochul said of the skepticism she faced. "To me, that was again, OK, tell me I can't do it."

Two years after the toll booths came down, Hochul embarked on a new protest, this one directed at then-Gov. David A. Paterson and his plan to raise revenue by requiring new license plates. Hochul says she was the first county clerk in the state to ask Paterson to scrap the plan and helped organize clerks against it.

Again, she won. Paterson withdrew his plan, and one of the first calls he made was to Hochul, congratulating her on her victory.

Family members say her tenacity and competitiveness are the products of growing up in a big family, where no one got everything they wanted.

They also claim there's another Kathy Hochul.

There's the niece who always remembers when Aunt Sophie is sick and the mother and wife quick to boast about her two kids -- William, 23, and Caitlin, 21 -- and her husband, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., being good people.

And then there's the aunt who rolls around on the floor with her nieces and nephews and is known throughout the family for her killer John Belushi impersonation.

"She still does that," said Sheila, her sister. "She can be very silly. She's just as comfortable being in her sweats and being a goofball."

More than anything, though, she's driven, say her friends and family. Driven to help others. Driven to succeed at whatever she does.

Even Naughton, who hasn't talked to Hochul in decades, laughed when asked if he was surprised his former college friend had made a career of politics and public service.

"Not at all," he said. "I can't imagine her doing anything else."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com