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Can Hochul become a Gillibrand? Only if the governor lets her

It sounds like Kathy Hochul will be busy.

Nine regional economic development councils need managing. She wants to help the state’s veterans and promote Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s women’s equality agenda. And then there’s the lieutenant governor’s one constitutional responsibility: presiding over the State Senate, a time-consuming task with all the daily excitement of watching a broken clock.

But in and amongst all the ribbon cuttings and goodwill visits and whatever else Cuomo could ask her to do, you might think New York’s incoming lieutenant governor would want to pull off a political coup that’s eluded more than one politician from upstate New York: winning recognition and respect statewide, and then keeping it.

A handful of upstaters – most recently and most notably, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat from Hudson – has pulled it off. Many others have not.

All of which raises the question: Can Hochul, a former Buffalo-area congresswoman who has long been regarded as one of the region’s most talented campaigners, become a Gillibrand?

People familiar with both of them say Hochul has the political talent to do it, but that one thing may stand in her way: the inherent limits of the lieutenant governorship, particularly under a strong governor such as Cuomo.

Even Hochul acknowledged those limits when asked about the idea of building her statewide credentials.

“Building a reputation independent of the governor is not going to happen,” Hochul said in a recent interview. “I am here as his partner in governing the state of New York. And I’m looking forward to that.”

From the sound of things, the governor has given Hochul a lot to look forward to.

“We have major issues going on with the federal government, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reforms, Medicaid … so she is going to be able to help on that level and plus, she is the first female Democratic lieutenant governor in something like 35 years,” Cuomo said at a cabinet meeting earlier this month. “So she just brings a perspective to government that we haven’t had at a very high level. So we’re very excited about her.”

Like her predecessor, former Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy, she will be in charge of the state’s nine economic development councils – but at a time when one, in Buffalo, is looked on with some envy in other parts of the state.

“We’ll have conversations with people, and they’ll say: ‘What about the Syracuse billion or the Rochester billion?’ ” Hochul acknowledged.

Hochul has no problem defending the largesse Cuomo sent to her hometown. She noted that Buffalo was the third-poorest city in the nation at the time Cuomo announced his plans for the city, which, she said, have succeeded beyond expectations.

But she said her travels since her election and her research into the performance of other economic development councils shows that intense redevelopment efforts are needed elsewhere, too, particularly in the North Country and the Southern Tier.

Rattling off laundry lists of possible efforts that could help both regions, Hochul acknowledged that the Cuomo administration also faces a perceptual challenge in the Southern Tier, where public officials have been hugely critical of the state’s decisions to ban fracking and to locate casinos in other parts of the state.

“The governor and his administration, and I by extension, will be extremely focused on trying to alleviate the concerns in that area,” she said. “We get it. We really get it.”

Hochul knows that because she’s been traveling extensively in the Southern Tier and elsewhere as she gets ready to assume office Jan. 1.

“It’s theoretically a downtime,” she said. “To me, it’s preparation time.”

Other parts of that preparation time include finding ways to work on the veterans issues that she said were personally important to her, as well as getting ready to serve as a federal liaison for Cuomo, a role she said she’s suited to after serving in Congress in 2011 and 2012.

Past relationships to rely on

But the biggest part of the prep work remains relationship-building, particularly downstate, where she endured a brutal primary campaign in which the New York Times dismissed her as a “conservative woman from upstate New York” and her opponent, Tim Wu, trashed her for her early-career stances on immigration and guns.

Despite the din of the primary race, Hochul said she had many long-standing relationships downstate stemming from her time in Congress as well as the campaign, relationships that she vowed to continue to build.

“It’s important,” she said. “I never wanted to be viewed as the upstate lieutenant governor. I’m proud to represent the entire state.”

Doing so can be a challenge – particularly in light of the hyper-critical downstate media – said some who have done it, or tried to.

“It was difficult to build that relationship, as much as I tried,” said Dennis C. Vacco of Buffalo, a Republican who served a term as attorney general in the 1990s before losing his re-election bid. “There’s still, I believe, a geographic prejudice that anything that’s not Manhattan is not of the same caliber. … Down there, it will be more of a blood sport for her.”

Former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Democrat who counted Hochul among his congressional employees, agreed, recalling what happened to him when he ran a brief race for lieutenant governor in 1974.

“This reporter for the Village Voice did a job on me, saying I was not up to the job intellectually,” recalled LaFalce, whom Congressional Quarterly later labeled “one of the smartest members of the House.”

For her part, Hochul seems mostly uninterested in the media reception she’ll get downstate.

“I’m not going to worry about the New York City media,” she said. “Whether they’re with you or not is not relevant to me, so far as doing my job goes. If I don’t get coverage, that’s okay.”

Of course, no politician with an eye for higher office would ever say that, and that’s just one sign that Hochul is keeping her sights small.

“I’m not trying to build my reputation,” she said. “I am in a role where I am here to work with and support Gov. Cuomo’s priorities and agenda for the state of New York. I understand that more than most people think I understand that.”

A step away from governing

Still, it’s inevitable that political people will see a lieutenant governor as a potential governor; after all, history has shown that for the second-in-command, the governorship is only a heartbeat, or a presidential election, or a prostitute away.

Judging by Hochul’s performance in the primary, where she gamely answered the media’s persistently tough questions while smiling her way through the five boroughs, downstate political pros liked what they saw in Hochul.

“I think she was really good,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.

“She’s very adept, very fast on her feet,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

That same skill was particularly important to Gillibrand, who similarly endured a hazing from the downstate media for her middle-of-the-road House record when she was appointed to the Senate in 2009.

“She just stood in the pocket and took the heat,” Vacco said of Gillibrand. “Doing that, you earn a lot of respect.”

Vacco said he has no doubt Hochul will continue to do the same. And Gillibrand said voters will come to respect Hochul as soon as they come to know her.

“Kathy’s greatest strength is that she’s a smart, genuine and compassionate person who is in public service for all the right reasons,” Gillibrand said. “I think it takes time for people around the state to really get to know you and what you’re fighting for. I have seen her in action and have zero doubt that when people around the state get to know her like I do, they are going to know she fights for them.”

A more challenging position

Yet there’s one critical difference between Gillibrand and Hochul.

Gillibrand, as a senator, “has more tools in her toolbox,” Vacco said.

More specifically, she has the independence to take on any issue and call a news conference anywhere in the state, all of which can help to bolster a politician’s reputation.

In contrast, Hochul works for a governor who has earned a reputation as a hands-on executive who often relegated Duffy to the most ceremonial of duties. That prompted the exhausted Duffy to retire as lieutenant governor after four years of driving to far-flung ribbon-cuttings.

Despite all the promises of a heavy and substantive workload, it’s possible the same thing will happen to Hochul.

“She’s totally a creature of the governor,” Muzzio said. “She’ll do what the governor tells her to do.”

Sheinkopf agreed, saying: “Now the question is: What will she do, and what will she be allowed to do?”

For her part, Hochul said she’s happy to do the governor’s bidding and is absolutely unworried that, unlike Gillibrand, she’s only a second-in-command.

“I appreciate the difference” between her own role and the governor’s role, Hochul said, “and I embrace the difference.”