Photo Credit: Courtesy of Agudath Israel of America
Kathy Hochul (right) and Rivkie Feiner in Blue Room at the Capitol during Agudath Israel’s Mission to Albany in March 2018.

In 2008, when Lieutenant Governor David Paterson took over the reins of state government after a disgraced Eliot Spitzer resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal, the Harlem democrat called his wife and said, “I think I’ll kill myself.” Paterson was labeled by the media as the accidental governor for falling into the position instead of being elected in his own right.

Fast forward 13 years and you don’t get the same hesitancy from the current governor-in-waiting, Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo native. Both new governors were poised to be history makers: Paterson, as the first blind, African-American governor and Hochul as the first female governor and the second Buffalo native in 136 years.

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Hochul, 63, will become the 57th governor of New York when she is sworn into office. Only nine lieutenant governors have succeeded a governor who did not finish a full term. Only one other governor hailed from Buffalo, Grover Cleveland, the 28th governor, who served two years and five days in office, from 1883 to 1885 before running for president. Cleveland is the only president in American history to serve two nonconsecutive terms in office. He served as the 22nd and 24th president until 1897 and died in 1908 at age 71.

Just about everyone interviewed for this article seems to think Hochul will succeed as governor in the 16 months of filling out the term of Andrew Cuomo.

Hochul’s connections with the Jewish community seem to be few and far between from Buffalo to New York City. Hochul joined the Jewish community for the first time was at an event in Buffalo, lighting a menorah downtown.

“She came to the menorah lighting five years ago and spoke very nicely about Chabad,” Rabbi Moshe Gurary, the director of the Buffalo Chabad told The Jewish Press. “She’s very friendly to the religious Jewish community. I just remember she was very, very nice and very humble.”

Gurary believes Hochul will be successful in her new role.

“She’s coming from the bottom up. She grew up in a very modest home. She’s not from the well-to-do, well-connected society. She’s not coming from the top-to-bottom and you feel that she connects to regular people. When you talk to her you don’t feel like you’re looking up to someone. She’s like a peer, a friend. I’m very glad that she assumed this position. I think she will be a great governor, understanding the needs of the regular ordinary citizen. She will be looking out for the needs of everybody. She won’t be just a politician but will be someone to really connect to and resonate with the regular, ordinary person. Her humility will take her very far,” Gurary added.

In 2018 Hochul attended a Yeshiva Summit in Queens hosted by Agudath Israel of America.

“Agudath Israel has had the privilege of working closely with incoming governor Hochul,” said Yeruchim Silber, legislative director of Agudath Israel. “She has addressed our 2018 Albany (Advocacy) Day and delivered the keynote address at our 2018 Yeshiva Summit. Particularly gratifying were her remarks at the summit that she believes in “protecting our right to have your children educated where you choose.”

In 2017, Hochul joined Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Holliswood, Queens) in a tour of the Richmond Hill-based AlphaPointe manufacturing plant located in Weprin’s legislative district. AlphaPointe is one of the largest employers of people with visual disabilities in the United States, with more than 400 employees.

In 2020, she joined Weprin on a cherry-picker to light the grand 32-foot-high, gold-colored, 4,000-pound steel holiday menorah across the street from The Plaza hotel near Central Park at Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza as “she talked about her ties to the Buffalo Jewish community. I’ve been at a lot of Jewish events with her as well. I feel confident with her relationships within the Jewish community,” Weprin told The Jewish Press.

Steeped in praise for Hochul is New York City democratic mayoral hopeful Eric Adams who told The Jewish Press, “When the governor steps down we’re going to do everything possible to make sure the state of New York is successful and to assist her. We’re excited about the future of our state. She’s a steady hand, a steady hand.”

“There are approximately 10,000 Jews living in western New York,” Rob Goldberg, the president and CEO of the Getzville-based Buffalo Jewish Federation told The Jewish Press. “We’re flourishing even though we’re very small. We’re a very close-knit, integrated community.”

Even though Goldberg has been at the helm of the major Jewish organization in western New York for six years, he admitted Hochul is not a well-known entity to him.

“I don’t know her well but she is well-connected to the Jewish community in Buffalo through many of our leaders and she has been visible in the community before she became lieutenant governor. She’s come to our campaign kick-off for a couple of years in a row when she’s available or when she’s in town. She’s a very down-to-earth person.”

The Federation, through their Jewish Community Relations Council, is trying to get Hochul to fill a huge void in her resume when claiming serious credentials for understanding the struggles and triumphs of any Jewish community.

“Even though she grew up in a Catholic family, there’s just this strong connection to the Jewish community. I know we had talked to her about going to Israel on a civics trip a couple of years ago and she was very interested,” Goldberg said.

“In 2019 I was just telling her about our 2017 trip to Israel with area interfaith leaders,” Mara Koven-Gelman, director of the Buffalo Jewish Community Relations Council, recalled for The Jewish Press. “Hochul said ‘Mara I would love to go. I have never been to Israel. My father’s been to Israel. I would pay my own way. I would love to be a part of that.’ I was starting to have conversations with her staff and then Covid hit.”

In March of this year, Hochul spoke via Zoom at a Buffalo JCRC-sponsored Pesach Sheini Interfaith Seder with Buffalo area religious leaders in attendance.

“We’ve had our own form of bondage because of this covid pandemic and as we are on the cusp of emerging from this relying on our faith-based communities to help us be the facilitators of bringing this life-saving vaccine to others, we are reminded also of all the many people we lost over this past year. We honor them. We honor their memories and may their memories be a blessing to all of us” said Hochul during her virtual remarks. “That’s what I hope we can all reflect upon. The role that each and every one of us can play to be our own Moses and not just free ourselves from bondage but also how are we going to free others? How are we going to lift others up as we emerge from these dark, dark times? I look at this event as a launching.”

Koven-Gelman said of Hochul, “She’s a very good listener. She really wants to get to know the person she’s talking to. She cares. We are looking forward to working with her. We will work with everyone.

Hochul is “a really good friend of women’s issues, combating hate and anti-Semitism, as well as housing issues and criminal justice reform, voting rights and voting engagement. The Buffalo Jewish Community Relations Council focuses on social justice, combating hate and anti-Semitism and building stronger relationships with all the different communities,” Koven-Gelman added.

One person who is clearly not a Hochul fan is the state Conservative Party chairman.

“I would describe Kathy Hochul as a clubhouse Erie County Democrat out of that whole power block that comes out of there within the Democratic Party. Her husband was the U.S. Attorney, she was the county clerk. Those are the types of positions where you really need to know people within the party to move through. Her year in the Congress was not very successful,” Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Kassar told The Jewish Press. “I see her as really a Democratic western New York powerhouse coming up against the Socialist democratic progressive wing of the downstate Democratic Party that has become more dominant in the state and has their titular governmental leaders as Tish James and AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).”

During next year’s gubernatorial campaign you can be sure the Republican and Conservative parties will tie Hochul to Cuomo’s coattails even if Hochul wants to move away from a Cuomo legacy.

“I do think she went through some changes and phases since working as the governor’s partner in government. I do think that has changed her a bit,” Kassar said. “Much of that advocacy for that nine-month abortion bill, including that gigantic party they threw, had her essentially emceeing it. She can’t find a moment where she doesn’t want to brag about how she can kill fetuses, babies from my perspective, for nine months.”

During her seven years as lieutenant governor, Hochul rarely presided over the Senate session, her one official act provided in law. She ceded the role to Senate democrats to take turns at the Senate rostrum keeping order in the chamber.

While Hochul claims plausible deniability for not knowing what was going on during the two terms of the Cuomo-Hochul administration, she said the day after Cuomo offered his resignation, “I am prepared. I think it’s very clear that the governor and I have not been close, physically or otherwise, so I’ve been traveling the state and do not spend much time in his presence or in the presence of many in the state Capitol but I’m going to stand right here and at the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment. I’m ready. I want people to know that I am ready for this.”

Hochul’s next major move is to choose a successor for her position as lieutenant governor. As of now, white males need not apply.

“The next lieutenant governor will be someone who is no stranger to me but also someone that will carry on the vision of my administration, which is to continue these strongly progressive policies that take this state forward. I am cognizant of the need for diversity and an inclusive ticket. I will name someone who I think the state will be familiar with and will be proud of but the process is still in its early stages,” Hochul said.

The governor’s last official public appearance could be Friday, August 20, when he cuts the ribbon at the 173rd opening of the New York State Fair near Syracuse and spends a few hours touring the 375-acre fairgrounds. His resignation takes effect Tuesday, August 24. Hochul is expected to attend the fair after the governor leaves office.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.