NEW YORK – There was a time when Kathy Hochul worried only about Hamburg, the small town where she grew up and first entered politics.
But everything changed after she rose to lieutenant governor of New York. Now the one-time Town Council member finds herself in bustling places like Brooklyn, working overtime to convince big city voters that someone from a suburb on the other side of the state can address homelessness, fair housing, income inequality and deteriorating subways.
It’s also a matter of political survival for Hochul, who at 60 faces yet another daunting challenge in a career spanning 11 elections. In a race nobody labels a sure thing, New York City Council Member Jumaane D. Williams is challenging her in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
That’s why a few days ago she ventured into Williams’ home turf of Brooklyn, stopping by senior centers in Boerum Hill and Park Slope before meeting with Orthodox rabbis in Crown Heights.
Later in Manhattan, she would make campaign stops stretching past 9 p.m.
It is here in Brooklyn, where 985,897 citizens register as Democrats and are eligible to vote in the Sept. 13 primary, that Hochul knows she must at least hold her own. Last week, she recorded her 111th visit to New York City’s most populous borough since joining in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s second term. She has also made hundreds of appearances in the other four boroughs and metropolitan suburbs – not to mention the vast stretches of upstate.
Hochul recognizes Williams’ serious threat. A late July Siena College poll shows Hochul leading Williams 30 to 21 percent, with half of voters still undecided.
So Hochul continues raising money and running downstate television ads, relying on the power of the Democratic Party and her association with Cuomo to woo the skeptical. All the while, she even seems to surpass her “indefatigable campaigner” label as she races among the five boroughs and around the state.
“New York City is very important, no doubt about it,” she said during a stop in Park Slope. “There are a lot of votes here; a lot of support.
“People who have written me off saying it can’t be done because I’m from Buffalo will be proven wrong,” she added. “I’m working with an underdog mentality, but I’ve done that with all 11 of my elections.”
Campaigning in Brooklyn
At the RAICES Times Plaza Neighborhood Senior Center on busy Atlantic Avenue, Hochul arrived in the Boerum Hill neighborhood a few days ago with a security detail of burly state troopers piloting a muscular SUV. Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon greeted her before speaking to the lunchtime program for local senior citizens in what staffers labeled an “official” event.
Hochul attempted to connect with her mostly Latino audience in a “Me llamo Katalina Hochul” greeting, but her rudimentary Spanish fell flat. So Hochul reverted to what she does best – grabbing a microphone, emphasizing what she views as Cuomo administration accomplishments, recalling her long career as a working mother and then working the crowd.
Hochul has polished her style over the years, connecting one-on-one in Brooklyn as well as she did as a Council member in Hamburg, county clerk in Amherst and congresswoman in Batavia.
“I’m no stranger to Brooklyn,” she began following Simon’s glowing introduction, telling her audience how “important you are to the governor and me.”
Here in downtown Brooklyn she recited a litany of liberal accomplishments that mark the Cuomo-Hochul primary campaign in the face of their left wing challenges – she from Williams and he from actress-activist Cynthia Nixon. She cited free college tuition at state universities, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, family leave for childbirth and a defense of Obamacare.
She even underscored her 2012 congressional loss to Republican Chris Collins, who hammered her support of Obama and his policies and who went on to become one of President Trump's earliest and most vocal supporters in Congress.
“There were too many issues where I was too closely aligned with the Democratic Party and that sent me packing,” she said, wearing her loss in an overwhelmingly Republican district as a badge of honor in uber-blue Brooklyn.
Most of those in the audience liked what they see in Hochul.
“I believe Kathy has more to offer because of her experience – and her heart,” said Roy Holloway, who described himself as a “chaplain” from East New York. “I believe she will win, though it will be tough.”
After the SUV wound to the Park Slope Center for Successful Aging on Seventh Street, Hochul found herself among the graceful brownstones of one of America’s trendiest neighborhoods. Again, she proudly touted her 2012 loss to Collins.
“I stood up for President Obama because I felt it was the right thing to do,” she said regarding her defense of Medicare, “even though I knew there would be political consequences.”
She ticked off the same progressive bullet points she and Cuomo have echoed across the campaign trail this primary season as they battle opponents who claim neither are “progressive enough.”
“We are changing peoples’ lives with policies that are progressive,” she said, launching into a speech on state efforts allowing people in gentrifying neighborhoods like Park Slope to stay in their homes.
“That is so true,” said a woman preparing the counter for the senior lunch to follow.
Hochul spoke of her Irish immigrant grandparents, of a trailer park childhood before her father became a successful information technology pioneer, and of her and Cuomo’s resolve to blunt President Trump’s agenda. Like Cuomo, she constantly attacked the president – at least in this liberal Brooklyn enclave – and especially on his policies separating children from the parents of illegal immigrants.
And she continually emphasized her record on women’s issues. For a time, she dedicated a good chunk of her public appearances to college campuses in support of the state’s new policies against sexual assault. It has become a signature issue for Hochul, as is her defense of abortion and LGBT rights.
“I will continue to fight for women’s reproductive health issues,” she said. “If the Supreme Court changes, God only knows what will happen next.”
Marvin Lieberman, who is 89 and retired from the New York Academy of Medicine, said he will vote for Hochul even though he harbors “reservations about our governor.”
He labeled her Albany post “a very awkward role without the power and prestige” of the governor. But he knows little about Williams, and as a “liberal Democrat,” likes what Hochul has presented.
But Robin Elkman, a lifelong Brooklynite and government worker, approves of the points Nixon emphasized in the recent primary debate with Cuomo at Hofstra University but remains undecided. Like Nixon, she thinks public employees should be allowed to strike, seeks a single payer health insurance program, and brings it all back to Cuomo.
“He’s a career politician and that has some drawbacks,” she said. “I know he has to work through the system, but that’s not to the benefit of the citizens of New York.”
Facing Jumaane Williams' challenge
Everywhere Hochul campaigns this election year, she repeats her “governor and I” mantra. A lieutenant governor opposing the state’s chief executive (as Williams proposes) defies logic, she says, and fails to serve the state’s citizens.
But Williams’ threat to Hochul, fueled by the power of millions of New York City voters more familiar with a city officeholder than the lieutenant governor, was deemed real by Cuomo’s political operation in the spring. The Buffalo News reported in April that forces close to the governor were attempting to ease her off the ticket and replace Democrat Nathan D. McMurray against Collins, citing the real possibility that Williams could win a primary.
Cuomo offered only half-hearted support for his running mate during his last visit to Western New York in April, saying continuing on the ticket was “up to Kathy.”
“Many, many people say she will be a stronger candidate than Nate McMurray,” Cuomo said then. “If Kathy were willing to run, I think that would be the best chance the Democrats have. There’s no doubt about that. But she’s not willing to run.”
Williams, meanwhile, is carving out his own campaign rationale. He sees the post as “the people's’” representative.
“I never discount the power of a bully pulpit,” he told The News during a June stop in Buffalo, “of having a voice to push these issues. It is incredibly powerful in the right hands, and I don’t think it has been for quite some time.”
Williams is supporting Nixon for governor and she wants him as her second-in-command. Both appear on the influential Working Families line.
Along with a host of local officials around the state, three state legislators in New York City endorse Williams’ candidacy, including Assemblyman Harvey Epstein of Manhattan’s East Side. He said he has supported the Council member for years because of a long record on police issues and tenant advocacy.
“He’s been a leader in the city and he’s someone I believe in,” Epstein said. “It was an easy decision on my part.”
The assemblyman does not believe Hochul has distinguished herself.
“Ribbon cuttings are important, but what policies are you pushing to benefit our city and state?” he asked. “She has not answered that question for me.”
Indeed, Hochul confounds even some supporters with different views from her days as county clerk or even congresswoman now that she occupies a statewide stage in liberal New York. As clerk, for example, she opposed Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer’s idea to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
“The driver’s license issue popped at that time and was reflecting the interests of that community at that time,” she says now. “But it’s important to know that I’ve been committed to helping immigrants integrate into society my entire life. One issue does not take away from that.”
“I have always held dear to my heart Democratic values,” she adds. “I also believe society evolves.”
Indeed, Hochul’s ads running on downstate airwaves emphasize her liberal views, criticizing Williams for saying at one time that he viewed marriage only as between a man and a woman and emphasizing her progressive credentials. And in another example of her downstate focus during the primary, the ads run only in the New York City area at this point.
She says they are working.
“So when I walk into senior centers now compared to a few months ago, people say: ‘There’s Kathy Hochul,’ ” she said.
If New York City voters reject her candidacy on Sept. 13, she says, it will not be from lack of trying.
She looked around her Park Slope audience and pronounced it “only a small sampling of the support I’ve received” in vote-rich New York City. She “shows up” when asked, she says, and insists city voters will remember on Primary Day.
“I’m not a stranger to these communities,” she says. “Women’s rights groups. LGBT causes. They all know me. That is what has really propelled me to be in a better position. I’ve invested the time.
I know their issues. I’ve walked their street and they know me.
“I’ve never thought it would be easy,” she adds. “I knew it would be a challenge, but I’ve embraced it.”