WASHINGTON – They are the second fiddles, the ladies (and gentlemen) in waiting, perhaps forever. Often they disappear from the big screen for years at a time, like Joe Pesci.
They are the nation's lieutenant governors – and now, Buffalo's Kathy Hochul is their Democratic leader.
Hochul, the former congresswoman and Erie County clerk now in her second term as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's second-in-charge, has been chosen as the 2020 chairwoman of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association, the group announced Monday.
And in an interview before the announcement, Hochul made clear that she plans to bring to the new group the same energy that's made her a constant presence at political and community events in every corner of the state for five years.
"We plan to take this opportunity to a whole new level," Hochul said.
Created only last year, the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association has two central roles: to elect more Democrats to lieutenant governorships around the country, and to help those in the office get better at the job.
The group got off to a successful start in 2018, flipping nine seats from red to blue from coast to coast. That means Hochul now heads a group with 24 members, up from 14 when she became New York's lieutenant governor in January 2015.
To hear Hochul tell it, though, there's more to be done on the political side.
"We have to get more elected, and that's what our focus is," she said.
That means helping raise money and maybe even campaigning for Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor in other states. Hochul said she also plans to push her colleagues to campaign for Democratic state legislative and local candidates in their states, all in the hopes of building a strong Democratic Party at every level of government.
Hochul is perfectly suited for that effort, said Thomas E. Perez, the Buffalo-born chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"If you want a job done right, give it to a Buffalonian," Perez said. "Kathy Hochul is a tireless champion of working families and a brilliant campaigner who knows how to compete in tough races, engage voters and, above all, win. I'm thrilled to have her in this fight. With her leadership, we're going to send Democratic lieutenant governors to statehouses in every corner of the country."
Hochul made clear, though, that her role won't begin and end with electoral politics.
"I also think that it's a great opportunity for us to talk about areas where the states have had to step up and lead, because Washington has been an abject failure since Donald Trump got elected," she said.
Doing so involves helping individual lieutenant governors carve out a niche for themselves, which isn't easy for them to do given the fact that in most states, their roles aren't clearly defined.
But Hochul sees lieutenant governors as the eyes and ears of each state's governor, traveling the state and talking issues and listening to the people far more than any governor would have the time to do.
"At the end of the day, the lieutenant governor has a great opportunity to use their position as a platform to talk about things that matter to people and to bring back ideas to the state capitals, and to the governors, to their legislatures, and say: 'Listen, here is what they're saying out here in Peoria,' " Hochul said.
That can be a tiring approach to the job, which is one key reason why Hochul's predecessor, Bob Duffy, left after one term of serving under Cuomo.
Duffy said, though, that he enjoyed every moment he spent as Cuomo's second-in-command – and that he's glad Hochul will be able to show new Democratic lieutenant governors how to do the job.
"Kathy can bring a lot to the position and talk about her experiences and what she has done, and I think that could be helpful to other lieutenant governors," he said.
Duffy conceded, though, that lieutenant governors are "the butt of many jokes." The New York Times, for example, once called them "ribbon-cutting versions of the appendix, prominently situated but without any discernible function."
Hochul isn't having any of that. In her five years in Albany, she's taking a leading role in the Cuomo administration's economic development efforts while building a statewide network of political connections that can be helpful not just to her, but to the governor.
"Again, it's what you make it," she said of the lieutenant governorship. "I'll take on any fight, and if that's how people view their role – whether they're a town board member all the way up to lieutenant governor – if you say: 'I've got this finite opportunity to serve ... and within that time frame I have to make a difference,' then you can do whatever you want to do."