Kathy Hochul Is the Un-Cuomo

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What a celebration this is!” Kathy Hochul kvelled in mid-February as she accepted the New York State Democratic Party’s nomination for governor, a job she’d been doing ably for six months. A parade of powerful New York women preceded her at the podium: US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, state Attorney General Letitia James, state Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, US Representative Carolyn Maloney, and, finally, the woman who introduced Hochul, former US senator (and so much more) Hillary Clinton. The message: While the state has never elected a woman governor, it has nonetheless elevated some badass female leadership. The steely, diminutive Hochul stepped up to the microphone beaming.

But soon the thrill was gone. After her introductory remarks, Hochul faced hecklers demanding support for tenant protections and the state’s expiring Excluded Workers Fund, a program extending Covid aid to undocumented laborers. “Excluded workers kept this city running!” they yelled. It was hard to hear them; Hochul supporters drowned them out by chanting “Kathy, Kathy, Kathy!” as the governor soldiered on with her speech.

It was the first time I’d seen Hochul rattled. She attempted to press on, then tried to joke: “It wouldn’t be the same without a lot of ruckus—this is who we are!” She didn’t acknowledge the protesters’ concerns.

It was just a moment, and it passed—but it was a moment.

For six months, Hochul had soothed as the un-Cuomo, earning praise largely for what she wasn’t: mean, arrogant, abusive to women (and some men), and often neglectful of state business. Advocates and legislators alike described working in Cuomo’s Capitol as akin to surviving PTSD; one used the term “Stockholm syndrome.” Hochul is almost universally praised as warm, collegial, and supremely competent. But the absence of bullying and fear has also made room for a new spirit of rebellion. “Cuomo would have punched us out personally,” said one individual who helped plan the February demonstration.

While New York’s surging progressive movement pulled even the former governor to the left over his not quite three terms in office, Andrew Cuomo also liked to remind them who was boss. The convention fracas signaled to the new governor that the left wouldn’t be placated by symbolism or lovely meetings with her staff. It wanted results.

A few days later in her office in Albany, Hochul admitted that she’d been flustered during her convention speech. “I was looking at my dad, who was in the front row, and talking about my family,” she told me. “I’m getting choked up here… I really wanted to make sure that was heard. That was the most important part to me: to thank my family. I felt a little bit off that that wasn’t being delivered the way I wanted it to.”

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It was a rare moment of vulnerability for a woman who, in a 28-minute conversation with me, used a variety of expressions to describe her toughness—“tough as nails,” “steel,” “battle-tested”—17 times. In the context of the convention, she explained, “I also know that people are watching my reaction. I gotta show: ‘I got this!’”

But does she? Obviously, she meant that in the colloquial sense—that she wouldn’t fold under pressure. But what would it mean to say “I got this” to refer to the near-crushing job of being New York governor? Her supporters say it means that she knows how the state runs and that she has an uncommon empathy for the less fortunate. Her detractors retort that what she’s “got” is support from some of Cuomo’s most powerful donors—in real estate, development, and finance—and that they’ve “got” her. If Hochul is the un-Cuomo, how did she raise an astonishing $21.9 million in her first six months as governor, with a roster of donors remarkably similar to those of her predecessor?

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