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Hochul embraces her role on the campaign trail

AUBURN – If naysayers still think Kathy Hochul could never blend with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s tightly managed politics, they haven’t seen the feisty former congresswoman from Buffalo on the campaign trail.

The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor started her day in Cooperstown earlier this week, addressed a luncheon and visited a diner in Auburn, chatted with senior citizens in Irondequoit, toured Rochester’s new manufacturing facilities, dropped by a hot dog joint in Chili, and then addressed a major Democratic event in Monroe County before her Ford Escape finally returned home to Buffalo late that evening.

It’s a grueling pace – working the secondary campaign targets reserved for the governor’s running mate and often without notice even from the local press. But Hochul is adapting from independent legislator to team player, eagerly embracing her new role as cheerleader-in-chief and looking forward to Jan. 1 should she and Cuomo defeat the Republican ticket of Rob Astorino and Chris Moss on Tuesday.

At almost every stop, Hochul repeats the Cuomo mantra that has characterized his four years in Albany.

“There’s this sense of optimism I didn’t feel in previous years,” she said in an interview at the former Kodak Park in Rochester, now home to a business incubator called Eastman Business Park.

“I thought it would be primarily focused in Buffalo,” she added. “Then I went out to Utica ... and they’re so excited because Nano Utica is going to bring a thousand new jobs. I was with a group of carpenters high-fiving me and wanting me to thank the governor because they now all have jobs.”

Cuomo’s choice of Hochul as his running mate last spring shocked many in the political world. A veteran of the Hamburg Town Council, Erie County Clerk’s Office and a short stint in Congress, the Hamburg native was always viewed as an independent sort who often bucked her own party.

As clerk she fought Albany to lift tolls on the Niagara Thruway and reportedly incensed former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer by opposing his plan to grant driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. And when she won a special election to the House of Representatives in the state’s most Republican district, she walked a fine moderate line that drew an eventual primary challenge this year from the left.

But now Hochul charts a new path as she returns to politics from an executive post at M&T Bank.

She finds herself talking maple sugar and logging in the North Country, wine and dairy in the Finger Lakes, business development on Long Island, and mingling with the Orthodox community in Brooklyn or Chinese residents of Queens.

“The experience has been a life-changer,” she said.

Even if more liberal Democrats attacked some of her positions in the primary, nobody ever faulted her skill at retail politics.

In Auburn this week, she told a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Cayuga Centers facility for youth all about her roots. Only 25 miles from her alma mater, the Syracuse University alumna was quick to underscore her Orange allegiance, while twice mentioning her Irish-American ancestry in the Catholic city.

Local icons William H. Seward (Lincoln’s secretary of state) and Harriet Tubman (hero of the Underground Railroad) find their way into her remarks before she veers back to the task at hand by recognizing new businesses in the Finger Lakes.

“It seemed like we had no hope and all of sudden it turned around,” she told her audience while echoing much of the standard Cuomo stump speech. “All it takes sometimes is people who believe in you. You have a governor who doesn’t just give lip service to upstate.”

She outlines Cuomo’s regional approach to economic development and the $2.5 million in grants flowing to Cayuga County, as well as the reduction in local unemployment to 5.1 percent.

“Gov. Cuomo gets it,” she says.

Over on the east side of town, Hochul plunged into Pavlo’s Restaurant, a local landmark with roots stretching into the early 20th century. Accompanied by Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, Hochul meets Sandy Mestopoolos, who runs the diner with her husband. Mestopoolos said she had never heard of Hochul while she watched the candidate work the lunchtime crowd as if she were a regular.

“But I’m very excited she’s here,” she said, adding she will vote for Cuomo “because he did better for the state than anyone before.”

“Astorino?” she added. “He thinks everything is funny.”

Not everyone thinks Astorino’s positions are funny, nor are they so enamored with Hochul. She got a so-so reception at the Irondequoit Senior Center in suburban Rochester where one man eagerly posed for a photo while a foursome at the card table barely looked up from their hands. She is known in the Rochester area from two congressional campaigns, and that remains one of the strengths Cuomo apparently recognized in his choice of running mate.

Nicholas A. Langworthy, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, acknowledged that Hochul helped Cuomo rack up big numbers in Western New York during the Democratic primary and that she ranks as “one of the best retail politicians we’ve ever seen.”

“Perhaps that’s the value Kathy brought to the ticket,” he said. “Since then, we haven’t heard a lot from her.”

Langworthy added that while Republican sights have aimed more directly at Cuomo during the campaign, it’s been easy to criticize his running mate because “she has remanufactured herself on so many key positions.”

“How do you go from being endorsed by the NRA to 100 percent on the SAFE Act?” he asked. “People keep score.”

But longtime supporters like former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, for whom Hochul once worked, say her natural political talents easily manifest themselves while interacting with people.

“I don’t think Andrew Cuomo could have selected a finer candidate to be his running mate,” he said, pointing to her appeal in Western New York and to women.

LaFalce said Hochul has benefited over the past few years from several campaigns in Western New York, where her appeal will be most judged on Tuesday. In the meantime, he added that her ability to connect with voters looms as her greatest asset.

“She has outstanding political smarts, a great work ethic, and she enjoys campaigning,” he said.

Back at the Eastman Business Park, the man Hochul hopes to succeed – Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy – rode along for her tour of the former Kodak fortress that now hosts 7,000 jobs from Kodak spinoffs and new companies.

He seems to be breaking Hochul in for a job that some say wallows in the governor’s shadow and remains thankless, but which both seem to embrace.

Duffy explains how various state programs have helped launch new firms from the ashes of Kodak’s collapse, and always about the role played by “the governor.”

While some question where she will fit in if Cuomo wins another term, Hochul seems ready and happy to be back in politics.

“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” she said.