Former Rep. Kathy Hochul causally stepped out of the Elite Cafe at 72-28 Main St. in Kew Gardens Hills into the drizzly Friday afternoon. As her shoes hit the sidewalk, she suddenly stopped, her wide eyes opened wider by something happening in front of her — a traffic enforcement officer standing in front of a minivan writing a ticket for an expired meter.
“Oh my goodness, whose car is that?” she asked in her thick Western New York accent.
“Is it yours?” somebody asked the Buffalo native.
“No, no, no,” she said as she began walking down the busy commercial strip.
If not for the entourage of local officials — Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), Assembly members Nily Rozic (D-Fresh Meadows) and Mike Simanowitz (D-Kew Gardens Hills) — she might have passed for a local.
But Hochul is no local.
Barring a campaign shakeup — and depending on the trajectory of an ongoing scandal that may not be so far-fetched — she is favored to occupy the second-highest office in the state next year.
It’s safe to say practically no one she met walking along Main Street last Friday knew who Hochul is, but she was not offended.
“I’m running for lieutenant governor,” she told one woman in Elizee clothing shop who asked who she was. “I’m running with Andrew Cuomo. The current lieutenant governor is retiring and the governor asked me to run with him and I accepted.”
“Well good luck to you,” the woman responded. “It was great to meet you.”
On the sidewalk outside the clothing store, a woman stopped her.
“I saw you in the paper,” the woman said. “You’re that lady from upstate.”
Hochul laughed and nodded.
“Yes, I’m from Buffalo,” she said before explaining who she is, and what she is campaigning for.
Hochul is running on a ticket with Gov. Cuomo this year, replacing current Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy, the former Rochester mayor, who is retiring. Her presence on the ticket may surprise some, but a look at her political resume provides a hint about why Cuomo picked her.
Before May 2011, Hochul was a political unknown outside Buffalo. She was then the county clerk of Erie County, which includes New York’s second largest city. Democrats nominated her to run in a special election in the 26th Congressional District, which included the easternmost suburbs of Buffalo, the westernmost suburbs of Rochester and the conservative rural areas in between. The seat, then New York State’s most Republican district, had been left open by a Republican who resigned amid allegations he solicited a woman on Craigslist.
Hochul was originally considered an underdog, but thanks to the presence of a third-party Tea Party candidate, voter angst over a GOP proposal for Medicare, and what was widely considered to be a brilliant campaign by Hochul, she narrowly won.
Her victory breathed new life into the Democratic Party, just six months after it had suffered the biggest Congressional defeat in over half a century.
Redistricting made the district more Republican and she was narrowly defeated in 2012 by former Erie County Executive Chris Collins. Hochul won 49 percent of the vote, outpacing President Obama in the district by more than 5 percent.
Her popularity in Western New York — an area Cuomo lost in 2010 — made her an attractive running mate for the governor, as did her reputation as a political moderate. Being a woman doesn’t hurt, as besides Cuomo’s longshot primary challenger, Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout, every other major party candidate for statewide officer this year is male.
Hochul is fiercely defensive of her running mate. Meeting the press outside the Main Sweet candy store Friday, she downplayed the ongoing controversy over Cuomo’s decision to disband the Moreland Commission, which he set up in 2013 to fight corruption, and whether his office interfered with its work when it investigated groups with close ties to Cuomo, as has been reported in The New York Times.
“Based on what I’ve seen, they were fully independent,” Hochul said. “The public record is clear.”
She was quick to note that the Republican district attorney of upstate Onondaga County, a member of the commission, has defended the governor.
The controversy did not deter the Flushing officials who walked with Hochul, introducing her as “New York’s next lieutenant governor.”
Hochul said she didn’t hear about Moreland when she spoke with voters. Instead she said they were more concerned with bread-and-butter issues.
“They’re concerned mostly about jobs and affordable housing,” she said, adding that the issues in Queens are similar to those she hears back home in Buffalo.
Unsurprisingly, the candidate heard a lot about the ongoing war in the Middle East while talking to voters on Main Street in the heart of heavily Jewish Kew Gardens Hills, where some residents were spotted wearing Israeli Defense Forces T-shirts. She called the situation “heartbreaking” for Israel and offered voters her strong support for the Jewish state.
“They’re our greatest ally,” she said. “We must stand with them.”
Though she’s running on a ticket with Cuomo, under New York law she faces her own primary on Sept. 9. She reminded voters that they must also cast a vote for lieutenant governor. Her opponent is Teachout’s running mate, Tim Wu.
It is not out of the realm of possibility that one half of the ticket could lose. It happened in 2010, when Republican nominee Carl Paladino’s running mate, former Middle Village Councilman Tom Ognibene, lost to Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards, the running mate of former Rep. Rick Lazio, whom Paladino defeated.
If she does win, Hochul will be the fourth woman to serve as New York’s lieutenant governor, after Mary Ann Krupsak, who served under Gov. Hugh Carey in the 1970s, and both former Gov. George Pataki’s running mates, Betsy McCaughey Ross and Mary Donohue.