BUFFALO — As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo confronts the greatest political crisis of his career, amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment and growing demands for his resignation, New Yorkers are growing more curious about Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who would replace him if he were no longer in office.
Mr. Cuomo has strenuously denied that he behaved inappropriately and has repeatedly ignored calls to step down, but he is losing the support of more leaders in his party by the day, and state lawmakers have opened an impeachment inquiry. If Mr. Cuomo were to resign or be removed from office, Ms. Hochul would become the first woman in history to serve as governor of New York.
Ms. Hochul, of the Buffalo area, is a lawyer by training and served briefly as a member of Congress. Mr. Cuomo chose her as his running mate in 2014, and she has won two statewide elections for that role. She thrives on retail campaigning and has spent much of her time as lieutenant governor away from Albany, traveling the state.
If she were to assume the governorship anytime soon, she would face a series of urgent legislative deliberations and responsibilities, including negotiating budgets, leading New York through its vaccination program and managing its economic recovery.
The controversies around Mr. Cuomo have so far left Democrats bitterly divided, and Ms. Hochul, 62, would also be called upon to help the state heal.
Here is what you need to know about Ms. Hochul.
She is no stranger to politics …
Ms. Hochul, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in western New York that faced economic hardships, graduated from Syracuse University and received a law degree at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After a stint at a law firm, Ms. Hochul turned to government, serving as an aide to then-Representative John J. LaFalce and then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
“I realized, especially at that time, what great political skills she had when she’d travel with me,” Mr. LaFalce recalled. “She’s a people person.”
When she returned to New York after her time on Capitol Hill, she rose through a series of local posts, including a position on the town board in Hamburg, a western New York enclave, and later to the role of Erie County clerk.
In 2011, Ms. Hochul won a special congressional election in a relatively conservative district that spanned Buffalo to Rochester, successfully making the race a referendum on Republican plans to overhaul Medicare at the time and demonstrating skill as a campaigner. But after redistricting made that terrain tilt even more Republican, she lost her re-election bid in 2012.
Ms. Hochul went on to serve as vice president of government relations at M&T Bank Corporation, and in 2014, Mr. Cuomo tapped her as his running mate during his first re-election campaign. She replaced Robert J. Duffy, who served as lieutenant governor to Mr. Cuomo during his first term.
Ms. Hochul won re-election to that position in 2018, defeating Jumaane D. Williams, now New York City’s public advocate, by less than seven percentage points. New Yorkers vote for governor and lieutenant governor separately, rather than as part of a ticket, and Ms. Hochul won more counties across the state than Mr. Cuomo did, though he won his own primary by around 30 percentage points.
… but she is hardly an Albany fixture.
If vice presidents have historically complained about being marginalized in Washington, lieutenant governors tend to have it worse.
And Mr. Cuomo, who once declared, “I am the government,” is not thought to have a particularly close personal or working relationship with Ms. Hochul.
The lieutenant governor has spent much of her time on the road, highlighting the administration’s agenda and engaging in extensive on-the-ground politicking.
“She has made her entire time in the lieutenant governor’s seat sort of like a statewide campaign opportunity,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.
Through that process and her efforts to promote women running for office in particular, Ms. Hochul has built something of a statewide network of her own that was important in her re-election campaign and will be vital in any future bids for office. If she becomes the incumbent governor, people close to her say, she will seek re-election next year.
She has roots as a political moderate.
Ms. Hochul has embraced the Cuomo administration’s agenda, which has moved further to the left in recent years, and she has emphasized a number of policy priorities, including economic development and matters of gender equality.
But as Erie County Clerk, Ms. Hochul made a name for herself in part by vigorously opposing efforts to offer drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. She later changed her view, but it is one of several past positions that illustrate her roots as a fairly conservative Democrat.
She undeniably ran as a moderate Democrat in her special election.
“She was a right-of-center candidate in a far-right-of-center district,” said former Representative Steve Israel of New York, who at the time chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“She presented as an independent, not willing to toe the party line, but she also had a way of connecting with progressive voters on fundamental issues like choice and the environment,” Mr. Israel said. “She was able to weave the two in a district that very much looks like America today.”
On a personal level, Ms. Hochul appears to be well liked by lawmakers across the ideological spectrum, and she has made a point to build a wide range of relationships. But she would be likely to face skepticism from the left both if she became governor and if she chose to run for office again.
She is a product of Western New York, and her ascendance would make history.
Ms. Hochul grew up in the Buffalo area, former President Barack Obama nominated her husband to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, and her friendly, accessible demeanor and Buffalo accent conjure a style that is more Midwest than it is Manhattan. When Mr. Cuomo named her to the ticket, she was seen as adding a measure of both geographic and gender diversity.
On the ground in her hometown, there is significant respect for Ms. Hochul, at least among those who are familiar with her work.
“She’s a very hard worker — I think she’s one of the hardest-working elected officials in New York state,” said Sean Mulligan, 47, a local government official who stood outside a restaurant near the water with his young daughter on Thursday. “She’d be a good fit to step into the role. And to have a female governor? We’re overdue for that.”
Many states have never had a female governor — and while Ms. Hochul could ascend to that role under uncomfortable circumstances, a female chief executive of one of the largest states in the country would most likely feel significant to many New Yorkers.
What happens next?
In a news conference on Friday, Mr. Cuomo indicated that he had no intention of resigning, even as he faced mounting pressure to do so from a congressional delegation that had previously remained largely quiet. The Assembly has approved the beginning of an impeachment inquiry, though many steps would need to unfold even if Mr. Cuomo were impeached, including a State Senate trial and a vote to convict, before his removal.
If Mr. Cuomo is removed or resigns, Ms. Hochul would become the governor. She would also serve as acting governor during an impeachment trial.
Ms. Hochul, for her part, has said little about the accusations against Mr. Cuomo other than that she supported the independent investigation underway into the claims of sexual harassment.
Instead, she spent her Friday out of public view, with one exception: She livestreamed her Covid-19 vaccination.