Incoming New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, is expected to face challengers on the left in 2022 as potential rivals pore over her past opposition to driver licenses for illegal immigrants and her other previous positions that were out of step with the party’s liberal base.
She once received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
In a state Democratic Party that’s home to ultra-liberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ms. Hochul’s political background is far from progressive. During a brief stint in Congress, she voted with the GOP to hold Obama Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to cooperate in an investigation of the botched “Fast and Furious Operation” in which the feds lost track of guns that were supposed to be used in a string of Mexican drug cartel leaders.
“The Left is going to perceive a real window of opportunity here,” said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “Their calculation is going to be that they’ll try to portray her as someone who’s not strong enough on the causes. And the assumption will be that there’s no way they [Democrats] can lose the general election.”
As she prepares to take over for resigning Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Aug. 24, Ms. Hochul has already announced her intention to run for a full term next year. She’ll become New York’s first female governor when she takes the oath of office next week.
Among the Democrats who haven’t ruled out a primary challenge to Ms. Hochul are Mr. de Blasio, state Attorney General Letitia James — the first Black woman to hold statewide office — and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx, who served as deputy national operations director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Ms. Hochul made a name for herself in state politics as Erie County clerk in 2007, when she opposed then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give driver licenses to migrants who didn’t have Social Security numbers. She threatened to have any such applicant arrested if they showed up at her office to obtain a license, and she complained that Mr. Spitzer was giving “cover” to undocumented migrants.
“I do not support the governor’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” she said to cheers and applause from the audience at a candidate’s debate near Buffalo in 2007. “I have a problem with that, ladies and gentlemen.”
She knew she had hit upon a hot-button political issue. “It’s all anyone wants to talk about,” she told The New York Times back then.
Her stance helped Ms. Hochul get elected to Congress in 2011. But in 2018, as Mr. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, she reversed her position and supported giving driver licenses to illegal immigrants in a plan known as the “Green Light” initiative.
It was the same year that two far-left Democrats, New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams and “Sex and the City” actor Cynthia Nixon, were trying to use the driver-license issue in their primary challenges against Ms. Hochul and Mr. Cuomo.
She said when she was a county clerk, in the wake of 9/11, she was concerned about the use of a driver’s license as identification “for access to airplanes and secure government installations.” Those concerns no longer existed, she argued, because the federal government had since mandated that passengers use a REAL ID license or identification card to board a plane, requiring proof of citizenship.
“I had taken a position that has now evolved,” Ms. Hochul said at a press conference last week. “And that evolution coincides with the evolution of many people in the state of New York.”
She said immigrants need the licenses “to be able to get to their jobs, and parents need to take kids to doctor’s appointments.”
Said Mr. Reeher, “People’s positions do evolve. When she was vehemently against it, she was looking at it from the administrative perch of ‘who’s going to be dealing with us.’ And now she’s looking at things in a more statewide fashion. I think that shifting your views as a response to a change in your role and your constituency isn’t necessarily an indication that you’re a chameleon or you don’t have any values.”
“As Erie County clerk, she streamlined the government’s permit application process and provided gun shows with the staff and technology needed to ensure that sales went through quickly and safely,” the NRA said at the time. “In Congress, she has fought to strengthen the rights of gun owners traveling from state to state and to open public lands to hunting and fishing.”
Ms. Hochul said at the time, “I am honored to receive the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, an organization that represents thousands of Western New York sportsmen. As a county clerk, I was a staunch advocate for sportsmen, and I have carried through on my commitment to protect their rights in Congress.”
As lieutenant governor, Ms. Hochul has supported the state’s SAFE Act, which Mr. Cuomo called the toughest gun-control law in the nation. Among its many provisions, the law reclassified an estimated 1 million firearms in the state as assault weapons that must be registered with the state police, although non-compliance is widespread.
“Reasonable gun owners that I know would support background checks that have been proposed and getting certain guns off the streets,” Ms. Hochul said in 2014 of the law. “But there are extremists who will say that, if you support the SAFE Act, you don’t support the Second Amendment. I don’t buy that.”
As governor, Ms. Hochul will undoubtedly be confronted with her political partnership with Mr. Cuomo, who quit rather than face impeachment over his sexual harassment of 11 women and covering up COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes.
The New York State Assembly said Friday it is suspending its investigation of Mr. Cuomo once he steps down, with Democratic leaders concluding they lacked the authority to impeach him after he leaves office.
Some lawmakers had urged the Assembly to move forward with impeachment proceedings, which could have barred Mr. Cuomo from holding state office again.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the probe “did uncover credible evidence in relation to allegations that have been made in reference to the governor.”