The list of Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul's biggest campaign donors includes a Rockefeller. There's also lots of money from big labor and business – and far more money from downstate than from Hochul's hometown of Buffalo.
In other words, in that list of big donors, you'll find the building blocks of a statewide donor network that could come in very handy for Hochul if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigns or is removed from office, making Hochul a governor running for reelection next year.
Since 2019, Hochul didn't just outraise Attorney General Letitia James, who's widely regarded as the most formidable Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Cuomo's absence. Hochul's two predecessors as lieutenant governor never raised more than $500,000 for a campaign – but Hochul raised more than that in the first six months of this year alone, and nearly four times that much since her 2018 reelection.
She's done that largely by tapping the same network of donors as Cuomo, as well as from entities that could want something from a Gov. Hochul someday. And those facts could end up as ammunition for any Democrat challenging Hochul from the left.
But Hochul's campaign finance reports also indicate that she's built support statewide.
"She's done very well with raising money and I've helped her raise money," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner. "She's been not shy about saying she's running for reelection next year one way or another and gearing up for it."
A statewide network of support
Seven individuals gave Hochul $22,600, the legal maximum, between January 2019 and this June 30. None are from Buffalo.
It's a diverse list, featuring Lucy R. Waletzky, a downstate philanthropist and the daughter of the late financier Laurance Rockefeller, and Morgan McDole, a Syracuse firefighter who gave tens of thousands to Cuomo while fighting for a bigger pension. Richard L. Ostroff, an Albany lobbyist who represents Pegula Sports and Entertainment – owner of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres – is a top Hochul donor, too.
Some 24 other people gave Hochul at least $10,000. Daniel R. Wegman, chairman of the supermarket chain that bears his family name, gave $17,500. Developer Douglas Jemal gave $16,000. Buffalo developer Samuel J. Savarino gave $22,500.
"I just think that Kathy is a paragon of what a public servant should be, in how she handles her job and her responsibility," Savarino said.
Hochul raised more than $1 million from individuals since January 2019, along with $932,089 from political action committees. Her biggest PAC contributors included not just those representing unions like the Teamsters and the Operating Engineers and the Carpenters, but also groups representing dentists, auto dealers and real estate agents.
Asked about Hochul's aggressive fundraising, Hochul campaign spokeswoman Abby Erwin said: "As the highest-ranking woman elected official in New York State, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul's tremendous outpouring of support is a reflection of her strong record fighting on the frontlines for all New Yorkers, and her vision to create a brighter and more inclusive future for all."
Donor list includes 'the usual suspects'
Reviewing a list of Hochul's big donors, Robert Galbraith sees both a lot of greenbacks and a few red flags. Galbraith, senior research analyst at the Public Accountability Initiative, studies how corporate power influences politics. He finds some concerning connections between Hochul's campaign donors and issues she could face as governor.
Most notably, there's that $22,600 donation from Ostroff, the Albany lobbyist representing the Pegulas, and an extra $10,000 from Ostroff's wife, Diana. Galbraith noted that Hochul got a lot of money from a lobbyist representing the Buffalo Bills owner just as the team sets off on its quest for a publicly financed $1.1 billion stadium.
Ostroff did not return a call seeking comment, but Hochul has made clear the state will be involved in talks regarding the Bills' new stadium.
"We are committed to keeping the Bills in the Buffalo. Stop. Period," she said earlier this week, according to a WGRZ report.
A Gov. Hochul would also have to face the annual battle over funding for public education. Yet Galbraith noted that she got five-figure donations from two PACs that push for charter schools: the Great Public Schools PAC and New Yorkers for Putting Students First.
Many of Hochul's donors also gave to Cuomo over the years.
"I have to imagine that she is going to have to demonstrate somehow that she is isn't just Cuomo's lackey, or, that she doesn't represent the exact same style of governance," Galbraith said.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said Hochul's donors consist of "the usual suspects" – the same sort of moneyed interests that typically fund New York campaigns in absence of a public financing system.
"The problem is with our campaign finance system, not with Kathy Hochul," Lerner said.
Supporters cite 'cost of politicking'
Hochul's donors say they're not giving to her because they're looking for something. They're donating because they think highly of her.
"In every position she's had – from county clerk to Congress to lieutenant governor – she has taken it all very seriously and distinguished herself," said Buffalo attorney Francis Letro, who gave Hochul $12,000.
Albany lobbyist Jerry Weiss, who gave Hochul $20,000, said: "I like her. She's a very lovely person."
Then again, Weiss personifies the challenge Hochul will face if she becomes governor. He said he's also contributed to James, the attorney general, and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli – two other possible candidates for governor.
"I like all of them and I want to be supportive," Weiss said.
Asked why Hochul raised so much more money than her predecessors as lieutenant governor, Weiss noted that politics has changed – and that the nearly $2 million Hochul has raised may be just the start.
"Today's cost of politicking is enormous," he said. "I wish the candidates well, but I don't know how they do it. To run statewide today, you're going to need maybe nine or 10 times that."