ALBANY — Kathy Hochul is not exactly a social media influencer, but she can work her angles with the best of today’s TikTok and Instagram stars.
After at least 80 political events over Zoom in recent months, New York’s 62-year-old lieutenant governor knows exactly how high to stack books under her iPad to get the image she wants on screen. And she has passed along this newly vital skill to the dozens of candidates she’s supporting. She does, however, have a bone to pick with Apple about camera placement on the left side of the device.
“To me, that seems to be a design flaw,” Hochul said during an interview at a nearly empty downtown Albany restaurant last week, during a day that began in Buffalo and would end in Syracuse. “I’m always having to position the books so I’m not looking the wrong way. But I tell women this: make sure you look good on the Zoom. If someone’s taking a picture, they might use it on some piece of literature. You don’t know.”
Hochul was briefly sidelined from her breakneck travel schedule during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, but she has now resumed a version of it — zipping around the state for economic development events and small business (re) openings. She’s maintained a newfound radio presence, conducting upwards of 400 media interviews since the start of the pandemic.
In recent months, a separate but equally loaded campaign schedule shows up alongside her daily events, though she is not running for anything in 2020. As her boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, remains close to home and focused on public health issues, the nation’s longest serving female lieutenant governor is the highest elected official rallying New York’s Democrats for November’s elections.
State Democratic Chair Jay Jacobs said that’s part of the pair’s yin and yang, especially as Cuomo’s energy remains focused on maintaining control over the virus that ravaged the state earlier this spring and may yet do so again.
“The governor wants this,” Jacobs said. “He is very much about winning these down ballot races — while he has to take care of the matters of the government right now, he certainly wants Kathy Hochul out there flying the flag.”
Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, described Hochul as a “force of nature,” adding that “she has been essential to building a deep bench of strong Democratic leaders in New York State and across the country.”
Jacobs said the lieutenant governor “understands the need to do the politics, not just when she’s up for reelection. You see a lot of politicians out and about when their name is on the ballot. She is out and about when anyone’s name is on the ballot, as long as there’s a ‘D’ after it.”
Take, for example, September 17, when she started the day calling into a KISS 98.5FM Buffalo Radio, then spoke at a mental health addictions clinic opening at noon and spent her evening trying to fire up five separate Democratic clubs virtually from 7 p.m. to 8:05 p.m.
“I try to get them excited and to tell them that, despite the fact you can’t go knocking on doors, or be at a rally, you can all reach out to people,” Hochul said. “And I also want to lay a little ‘mom guilt’ on everybody. Do you really want to wake up after the election, and not have Joe Biden as your winner? So I lay it on real hard.”
She has encouraged Democrats in New York City, where the party is assured of its usual domination on election day, to make calls on behalf of candidates upstate, on Long Island … or in, say, the battleground state of Michigan. She recently asked her niece, a freshman at Penn State, to join the cause. “As long as you’re sitting there in a room, sweetheart” she said, “would you make a few calls for Joe Biden?”
Cuomo has formally endorsed three candidates, all incumbent Democratic state senators from Long Island, in the general election. Hochul has endorsed 33 candidates, including 12 congressional candidates, more than a dozen in the state Legislature, and a handful of other local and national candidates.
Hochul and her aides make endorsement decisions based on whether she has the time to actually show up for on their behalf, rather than simply put out a news release, she said. She also works closely with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to find out where her presence can be most helpful.
Samra Brouk, who is attempting to be the first Black woman to win an open state Senate seat in Rochester, said the first thing she noticed about Hochul, a Buffalo native, was that “she is such an upstate New Yorker.”
“You know that you’re dealing with a figurative giant, even though she’s a small lady,” Brouk said. “You’re dealing with this political giant, but she’s just down to earth and down to business, which I really appreciate, because we got to talk through a lot of stuff.”
Democrats are hoping to flip the Rochester seat, from which incumbent Republican Richard Funke is retiring. Hochul headlined an event for Brouk on Sept. 10.
“A lot of the younger women entering politics right now, we among ourselves talk a lot about [the fact that] we might have to bang open the door or storm the door open, because it’s never been open for us before,” Brouk said. “But we’re committed to leaving it open for the next generation of women. And so I think when you’re able to identify women who come before you, who’ve already tried to open that door, and just wedge it a little bit wider to get more of us in, it means everything.”
Hochul’s also ready for almost anything, said state Sen. Anna Kaplan of Nassau County, with whom Hochul is hosting a virtual cocktail party on Wednesday night in support of Kaplan’s reelection. Participants will receive cocktail recipes to make at home because, as Kaplan put it, “everybody’s a little bit Zoomed out.”
“When I called her up and I asked her for help, she said ‘Absolutely let’s do it.’ So she does not shy away,” Kaplan said. “And I’m not a drinker but I thought it might be a fun thing for the audience, and for people to come and sort of make it fun and light.”
(The drinks themselves might not be as light: The “Kaplan Cosmo” calls for vodka, white cranberry juice, Aperol, Triple Sec and lime juice, and “Hochul’s Harvest Highball” is a version of Long Island Iced Tea with Triple Sec, white rum, gin, vodka, apple cider, and lemon lime soda.)
Kaplan got to know Hochul while serving as a North Hempstead Town Councilmember, when the lieutenant governor called to see how she could be helpful in workforce and small business development. Kaplan said Hochul treats local campaigns and races with the same intensity as national ones. And, to be sure, Hochul has had a glimpse of the national stage from several angles.
She represented New York Democrats during the national roll call vote during last month’s virtual convention. During that week she also hosted an online panel with colleagues from Illinois and Nevada, was slammed by Sean Hannity of Fox News after she tweeted that President Donald Trump should take back his pardon of Susan B. Anthony, and spoke at a Women’s Leadership Breakfast sponsored by the State Democratic Committee. She headlined New York for Biden’s September Unity Rally.
Hochul also is serving as chair of the newly organized Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association, which has jumped from 14 to 24 members in the past two years. She spent a long evening recently on a call with Yvonne Lewis Holley, who is looking to pick up the lieutenant governor spot in North Carolina, and in July she hosted a fundraiser for Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney’s gubernatorial run.
She’s trying to grow a class of seconds-in-command who aren’t treating the role as the twilight of their careers, said Roshan Patel, the group’s executive director and former finance director of the Democratic Governors Association. They are younger — Wisconsin’s Mandela Barnes is 33 and Michigan’s Garlin Gilchrist is 38 — and some are holding statewide office for the first time, he said.
Hochul has been adamant about fundraising and recruiting, but has also transformed the organization into a political network. In March, as New York was staring down the worst of the pandemic, Hochul organized biweekly calls among her Democratic counterparts in the group.
“She took what is a political organization — we care about the scoreboard and how much money we can raise — and essentially turned it into a war room for the states around the country to handle Covid,” he said.
One of the reasons the DLGA organized in 2018 was to keep up with Republican counterparts who were using the lieutenant governor position to vault into higher office — especially after the Trump administration began to take shape in 2016. The current class of lieutenant governors would anticipate a similar shift if there’s a new White House occupant in 2021. If Joe Biden were to win, he would recruit Democratic governors who have been on the front lines of the Covid response, as well as those with experience in both emergency preparedness and balancing difficult budgets, Patel predicted.
Many have pointed out that description fits New York’s governor like a glove, and remains a logical path for Cuomo, a longtime Biden ally, despite his insistence that he won’t abandon his current role.
“A Biden administration would be smart to pluck some governors from the states and take that expertise to the administration,” Patel said. “What happens with that is these lieutenant governors all of the sudden become governor, and if they haven’t been building toward that, or at least, doing the things that prepare you for other offices, they wouldn’t be prepared and that’s what Lt. Gov. Hochul and the organization has been able to do: make sure our LG’s are prepared for whatever may happen down the road.”
Hochul has always been discreet about her future plans, but she’s certainly not looking toward retirement. She can’t even imagine sitting down long enough to write a book, like some of her predecessors, she says.
“I’m going to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Louise Slaughter,” Hochul said. “I’m going to be late 80s when I say goodbye to this business and only because ‘somebody’ comes knocking.”