Kathy Hochul's Got Seven Months
New York magazine|November 22 - December 5, 2021
To govern. To campaign. And to tell New Yorkers what, if anything, she believes in.
By Laura Nahmias

THE FIRST FEMALE GOVERNOR of New York was sitting in the back of the Apollo Family Restaurant in Buffalo one recent Wednesday afternoon when an older man in a VFW baseball hat approached. The governor, wearing a light-brown suit and a gold nameplate necklace that read vaxed, looked up from her rice pudding.

“I hate to interrupt, but I need to ask a burning question. Did you ever go out with a guy named Jim Wilson?”

Kathleen Courtney Hochul, age 63, married for 37 years, thought for a beat. Then she asked, “Jim Wilson who played football with my brother?”

“Yeah.”

“I did not go out with him.”

“Aww, that lying son of a—”

“Is he saying I went out with him?

“Yeah, he said he dated you.”

“Nah, tell him, ‘In his dreams.’”

She laughed. The man laughed. The governor considered the possibility again.

“I didn’t date that many guys,” she said after a moment of reflection. “I’d remember. I was kind of a nerd.”

It had taken ten minutes for Hochul to get from the diner’s entrance to a booth in the far back corner—stopping to shake hands and take selfies with servers, the manager, an older couple who had just moved here from Texas, a college student. She compared notes on waitressing with the waitress, assessed the Bills with a lady who had a cat tattoo on her arm, and reacted in no discernible way when a patron told her, “You’re a lot prettier than the last governor.”

Folksy to the max, unrushed, gaffe free: It was as capable a diner-working as I’d ever seen a political actor execute. In the booth, Hochul looked at me with manifest eagerness. “I am almost like a psychologist,” she said. “I really want to understand people where they are—their frustrations and pressures. I always want to be very inquisitive.”

Hochul is a little over five feet tall, with shoulder-length brown hair and huge, round blue eyes. She talks plainly in an alto register and a rapid cadence with a distinctive Buffalo accent, drawing out her a’s (habits is three syllables) and dropping her terminal g’s. “You’ve always got to touch people,” she continued. “See how they’re doing, and make sure they know you’re not better than anybody else. No matter what their title is, everybody has value.” I’ve been covering Hochul’s rise in government for a decade, a span in which she has often played the role of an accidental ascendant, stepping into positions abandoned by others and disclaiming any interest in actively seeking higher office herself. It was interesting now to observe her describing the basic unit of interacting with voters. Three months into her governorship, and seven months before a primary that will help determine if she gets to keep the job, Hochul is still introducing herself to the electorate, and the easiest way to do that is through an implicit rebuke of her predecessor and former running mate. It wasn’t just the bromides about our common humanity—the fact that she had agreed to be interviewed at all, in a public space where she couldn’t regulate the environment or avoid awkward strangers asking about her teenage dating life, was a scenario unthinkable during the 11-year reign of Andrew Cuomo, an obsessively controlling person with uncanny political intuition whose deficits in the area of human decency proved his undoing.

“We might not agree on things, but it’ll never be visceral and won’t be personal,” Hochul said. “I’m going to take all that out of state government because it doesn’t have to be there. The biggest applause line I get when I go to any event is—I’ve got your headline—‘Newsflash! Governor of New York Works With Mayor of New York City.’ It’s so simple!”

Nice, empathetic, and collegial may top the list of the least Cuomo-like attributes, but they don’t tend to describe people who win knife fights in New York politics. Hochul is so unintimidating that she’s already facing five likely challengers in the Democratic contest set for June—the state’s first competitive primary for governor in 40 years and a once-in-a-generation opportunity for an outsider to seize power. Her most formidable opponent is State Attorney General Letitia James, whose investigation into Cuomo’s alleged sexual misconduct and abuse of power drove him from Albany and who, if victorious, would become the first Black female governor in America. Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate and progressive darling, officially entered the race on November 16. On Hochul’s moderate flank, Long Island representative Tom Suozzi and Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone are reportedly considering runs, and so, insanely, is Mayor Bill de Blasio. Some began plotting before Hochul was even sworn in. They’re betting she is so benign, bland, and unknown that she’ll be unable to leverage the power of incumbency to overcome her conspicuous disadvantages— chief among them her years of subservience to Cuomo and her base of voters upstate, which hasn’t produced a governor in nearly a century.

And yet Hochul isn’t hopeless. Much of the political Establishment figured that after a career as a provincial technocrat and then seven years of wandering the state in search of ribbons to cut, Hochul would be a directionless executive. Instead, she has governed with surprising urgency—enacting progressive legislation, lavishing funds on constituencies from hotel workers to Orthodox Jewish groups, and haunting New York City. The five boroughs account for more than half the votes in a typical primary; she has done 35 public events here in her first 65 days, plus more in private.

“Tell everybody at the VFW I need them,” Hochul told the man in Buffalo who interrupted her rice pudding. “I hope I didn’t date Jim Wilson,” she said after he’d gone. “He might have liked me, but I don’t think I dated him. I was not a popular kid in high school.”

IN LACKAWANNA, a working-class suburb just south of Buffalo, Hochul took me to the Shamrock Mobile Home Park, where her parents once lived. A giant Confederate flag hung in the window of the trailer nearest the entrance. A burly, bearded man emerged, crossed his arms, and stared at us suspiciously. It started to rain, and we didn’t linger.

Hochul was born in 1958 to Jack and Pat Courtney; she was the second of six kids in a big Irish Catholic family living in what had once been the tenth-largest city in America. Her grandfather, father, and uncle all worked at the once-mighty Bethlehem Steel plant, but by Hochul’s early childhood, Buffalo was entering an economic decline. “The only escape out of here was generally an education,” Hochul told me. Her father started taking night classes at nearby Canisius College and got a job with a small company in the nascent field of computing. In the early 1960s, the Courtneys moved to Hamburg—an affluent and nearly all-white suburb farther outside Buffalo.

To judge by clippings I found in the local newspaper archive, Hochul grew up in an extraordinarily political household, heavily informed by the Courtneys’ involvement in their church and the activist Christian Family Movement. They organized grocery and clothing drives for poor migrants in Erie County, and by 1964, Jack Courtney was chairing committees in the local chapter of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a group “dedicated to the belief that every person has the right to build, buy, or rent a home anywhere without restrictions which are based on race, religion, or national origin.” Buffalo’s Black population had soared after World War II and was concentrated on the city’s poor East Side; by 1967, there were riots in response to police brutality and the destruction caused by urban “renewal” programs. That spring, the Courtneys were among the members of an “open housing” campaign asking Hamburg residents to add their names to a pledge “welcoming neighbors regardless of race.” Hochul recalls her parents sitting with a Black family after a cross was burned in their yard, and a time when someone spit on her mother in church as she handed out integration literature.

Some of the family’s most fervent activism came in opposing the Vietnam War. In May 1971, 12-year-old Kathy’s name appeared in a half-page ad in the Hamburg Sun, alongside her parents’, seeking volunteers for a fast for peace. “We Must End This Shameful War Now,” the ad read, asking for a 24-hour commitment “to show the intensity of your opposition to the war, and as a gesture of personal penance for supporting it through your taxes.”

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