Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul has worked hard to earn her position, having held elected office at the local, county, state and federal levels. Now, she’s the tiebreaking vote in a closely divided state Senate and only ever a heartbeat away from the Executive Mansion. She’s always on the move, spearheading the governor’s economic development initiative and juggling a host of other duties, including chairing the Women’s Suffrage Commission.
City & State’s Frank G. Runyeon sat down with one of the state’s most powerful women for an hour – and “no one gets an hour,” Hochul said – to talk about her political rivals and the challenges facing women in politics.
C&S: How did you injure your wrists?
KH: Lifting a suitcase (on a Delta flight). Well, first of all they were both broken when I did the Adirondack Challenge with the governor my first three months on the job. (Sighs.) I kind of shouldn’t have taken the dare but … I had only skied a handful of times. We were up at Lake Placid, it was part of the Adirondack Challenge, and we were finishing our last run and I was very happy that I had not fallen or had anything bad happen. Then, we start leaving and there’s this jump that the Olympians practice on. You go up in the air and you land on a giant air bag. Someone with me, who will remain nameless forever so he doesn’t lose his job as one of my security detail, just said something like, “Oh, the governor’s daughters do that jump.” He said it’s really easy. I said I wonder if I should try that. I knew in my head it was a dumb idea, but he said something you should never say to me, which is, “Well, if not now, when? When else are you going to be able to do this?” That’s all you need to say to me. If someone will triple-dog-dare me, I’ll do it. (Laughs.) So I, without any knowledge or experience or understanding of what was involved, I did the jump. Went up in the air and I was supposed to hit the airbag, but I missed the airbag. So I went down splat, rolled down the hill. I was pulled down strapped to a sled, broken ribs, broken wrists, first three months on the job.
C&S: Do you have a political nemesis?
KH: The problem with me in this business is that I don’t hold grudges. I move on and try to find common ground. … Now, philosophically? Someone like Chris Collins, I am diametrically opposed to. That’s the seat I lost in my re-election by 1.5 percent in the most Republican district in the state. Some would call that a victory. Clearly it didn’t send me back to Congress, so it’s not really a victory, but it still stunned people after redistricting when it became more Republican. I don’t dislike people; I dislike what they stand for or their policies. I was raised in a family where you have to respect everybody and try to understand where they’re coming from. But when I see the things that he has done to hurt my old district that I loved, I’ve got a problem.
C&S: I was going to ask you who your least favorite member of Congress was … but I guess we covered that.
KH: You just answered it.
C&S: Now, looming on the horizon, there’s the lieutenant governor’s race.
KH: What race? (Smiles.)
C&S: Have you ever met New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams?
KH: Actually, our paths crossed. Yes, we say hello at events. I said hello to him just Friday night (at Somos). … I’m sure he’s a nice guy! (Laughs.) What do I say? I have nothing negative to say.
C&S: Williams has made some critiques of your office. He’s called the lieutenant governor’s position overlooked, that it can and should be used as a bully pulpit, and that he would be the “people’s lieutenant governor.” What would you say to Williams’ implicit criticisms that the position is underutilized and that the lieutenant governor should better represent the voice of the people?
KH: Take note of this big smile. With all due respect to the elected official, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the position and how I’ve conducted myself in that capacity for the last three years, because I’ve already done everything that he proposes to do. I’ve been out there more than any lieutenant governor in history. … I’ve been a loud advocate, if you look at my writings, my social media, my speeches, my advocacy, my tenacity, my unwillingness to give up on issues. I’ll give him a pass and say he just doesn’t understand how I’ve used this position in the last three years and I’ll leave it at that. I have done more to promote issues, particularly for people in underserved communities. I’ve been an advocate for families, children, and I’ve never wavered on issues that are very important to me like women’s right to choose. My support for gay rights, even back to the time I was county clerk, ... it’s very easy to take certain positions if you live in a certain part of the state, but to have the courage to take them elsewhere, to your own detriment, is a strength that I bring to it. So, we’ll leave it at that.
C&S: You won a remarkable congressional special election in 2011, one with a lot of national media attention. After being a congresswoman, do you find this position limiting?
KH: I’ve defined this position in the way that I can be the most effective, not just for the people of one congressional district, but the entire state of New York. That is enormously satisfying for me. When I’m in Washington or I’m in New York City meeting my former colleagues, I think there’s a certain level of respect they have for this office, that it’s in a different place than being a member of Congress.
When I was in Congress, in the minority, we spent time, at least 35 times, maybe 40 debating whether we should repeal the Affordable Care Act. If I voted once to repeal that, I’d still be a member of Congress. Absolutely, that became a defining issue in my narrow loss, as well as my support for the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. That is what I was – and I will use the term – crucified. As a Catholic, I can say that. But when the Catholic Church turned on me in my own district and went on radio, did ads telling people to come to a town hall meeting and I was lambasted in my own community for standing up for keeping the contraception mandate. It was one of the most brutal experiences of my political career. … After a half hour, it turned into a setup. Priests were preaching to come with the pictures, the whole thing. My staff was like, “Get out of here, get out.” But I was not going to turn my back. Probably the smarter side of me would have walked out but that became the issue in my race. Those two: the Affordable Care Act and contraception. That was what I spent my time on.
C&S: I’ve read that your Catholic faith and your Catholic upbringing continue to be important to you. Is that right?
KH: My Catholic upbringing taught me to live the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of caring about people who are poor, in prison and homeless. I live by that. I don’t follow the rest.
C&S: So, there was quite a personal impact from what happened at that town hall. Have those wounds healed for you?
KH: No. (Pause.) No.
C&S: Do you feel there’s a division between you and Catholic leaders?
KH: No, I believe there are many Catholic leaders that believe in the issues I care about. Catholic Charities and many organizations are doing wonderful philanthropic work and I don’t turn my back on that. I just wrestle with the fact that the focus for many leaders has been so narrow on one aspect, and that is taking away a woman’s right to choose. I don’t subscribe to that. Or how gays are treated.
C&S: You’ve had a long career in public office, and in politics. Is there anything that you can speak to in terms of your personal experience with the #MeToo movement?
KH: I’ve endured comments. People getting far too close, inappropriately close, but nothing of the caliber that ... I can’t think of anything of the magnitude of the individuals who have come forward. Never. And that’s why I admire their strength. And I feel fortunate that was nothing that rises to the magnitude of what they endured.
C&S: You called the #MeToo movement a “seismic cultural shift” that’s needed to shift the balance of power to keep women from being vulnerable in the workplace. If you could change one thing to shift that balance of power in favor of women, what would that be?
KH: How could I change men’s attitude towards women? How can I get inside a man’s head and say how can you possibly treat your coworker in such a degrading way? She’s an equal to you. She does not deserve to be commented on. Physically touched. Propositioned in the workplace. That’s not a policy, that’s a request and a hope that we can change male attitudes, and if they don’t change then there will have to be consequences.
C&S: Do you think there is a policy solution to the problem?
KH: Well, we focus on the government side. Saying there will be no more secret settlements, no more taxpayer dollars, no more nondisclosure agreements. That’s one path to go. … I think shining the light of day on it is the best way to eradicate it. I can’t really imagine a man wants to be on the cover of The New York Times for weeks as happened to one former Buffalo native.
C&S: Given what you know now, do you think anything should have been done differently regarding the appointment of Sam Hoyt to a leadership role in the Empire State Development Corp.?
KH: Hindsight’s always 20/20. I had known him a long time and had no reason to think that there was something in his past behavior that would lead us to know what we know now. I don’t know why anyone else would have known that. I don’t know how we would have known differently as far as what just happened.
KH: That is certainly something that should be looked at.
C&S: What do you think is the most important lesson that you can pass on to women who are aspiring to political office?
KH: Don’t hold yourself back. I tell them my personal story. What I do is use my life example as what not to do.
C&S: How so?
KH: I volunteered when I was in high school. Took an hour bus ride down to help elect the first female lieutenant governor (Mary Anne Krupsak) and in Sen. Pat Moynihan’s first run for office. So then I go law school, I work on the Hill, I start some businesses, I work for a senator, congressmen, come back, raise my family. I’m now the most common face seen in town board meetings. I’m the one showing up with petitions. I’m opposing Thruway tolls; I’m opposing everything under the sun. So I’m an activist. I’m involved. I’ve got a family. I’m paying taxes. I’m a homeowner. I helped start some family businesses. I had been involved in my local party helping people for years. An opening came for town board, which is really your entry-level position. I didn’t have enough confidence to run for it, despite that record of doing everything I did. I knew that job more than anybody and I still didn’t think I was qualified enough. So what got me to run? I’m 35 with all this background. A 21-year-old young man, right out of college, decides he’s going to run for town board in my hometown. Now he doesn’t have a house. Not paying a mortgage, not paying taxes, lives at home with his parents. Does not have any contribution to speak of. He decides he’s qualified enough to run. So I look at this and I say, you know what, I guess I can do this. I guess I can do this.
C&S: So you wouldn’t have waited so long?
KH: I’m the one who said, as a woman, “Well, I need more experience.” I don’t know if I can take it. People are so negative. It’s hard on the family. I had all the reasons not to. And I say, I want to know where the 21-year-old girl is who has enough confidence in her abilities that she runs. I said, I was not the 21-year-old, you are the 21-year-olds. You are the ones who realize. Men are 18 years old and they have a pulse? They want to run for president. So, it’s women’s own lack of confidence. You can break that down. That is in your own head. You can change your mindset about what you can do running for office.
C&S: Where do you see the broader narrative of female political leadership in the U.S.? What is this moment that we are in?
KH: It is finally the realization among women themselves that they have more power and they need to start using it. That people are hungry for a different kind of leadership that they offer. I will never, ever criticize male leadership. I’ve worked with wonderful men, but what’s missing is a counterbalance, a different voice. I say you have a responsibility.
C&S: Thank you very much for your time. Anything else I didn’t ask you that you want to get off your chest?
KH: Who do I predict for the NCAA?
C&S: How about the U.S. midterm elections? Who do you think, for governor?
KH: I like our chances.
C&S: How about the balance of power in the New York state congressional delegation?
KH: Oh, we got it.
C&S: Oh, yeah? How many seats?
KH: I’m not playing a numbers game. (Pause.) I predict Syracuse men and women will win the NCAA.