HAMBURG, N.Y. — Kathy Hochul spent a term in Congress bucking her own party. She battled a governor from her perch as a top county official. And she spent the last six years one beat away from New York’s governorship, a job she’ll assume at midnight.
But none of those roles shaped Hochul‘s style quite like her first: Town board member in Hamburg, population 56,000.
Even Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback and eventual 1996 Republican nominee for vice president, said he didn’t have the stomach for the local political scene. Kemp once held an event at the town hall of this suburb on the shore of Lake Erie, where he maintained a residence during his career in Congress.
After hearing something other than the type of praise common in the corridors of Washington, Kemp was exhausted. “You guys do this every week?” he asked one town councilman after the event, former Highway Superintendent James Connolly. “I don’t think I could ever hold a job like that.”
According to Connolly and about a dozen other people who were involved in Hamburg politics in the following decades, there was one town official who particularly thrived at that grassroots level of government: Hochul, a board member from 1994 until 2007.
“We used to call her the Energizer Bunny — she just never stopped working,” Connolly said.
As Hochul prepares to become one of the most powerful public officials in the United States on Tuesday, replacing Gov. Andrew Cuomo two weeks after he announced his resignation, her biographies invariably note that she will be the first female governor in New York history and the first from upstate in nearly a century.
There’s something else that differentiates Hochul from the 56 men who preceded her: She has more experience in local government than any of them. She will be the first governor since former Ithaca Supervisor Alonzo Cornell — who was in Albany from 1880 through 1882 — to have previously held elected office in a town, the fundamental level of democracy in New York.
And that career in town government might help explain what to expect from the incoming administration as much as anything else. Rather than shying away from often-unfriendly interactions with constituents that define much of municipal life, Hochul fully embraced them and turned them into a defining aspect of her political style.
“I’ve never seen anybody happier than her shaking hands in a coffee shop, because she wants to hear from people about how the decisions government is making are affecting their lives,” said former councilman Tom Quatroche.
A call for help
“HELP!!! THE VILLAGE of HAMBURG NEEDS YOU,” read a 1993 ad in The Hamburg Sun from a group called the Village Action Coalition.
“Are you concerned about the loss of local merchants and the appearance of the village shopping district?” it asked. If so, it added, you should call Kathy Hochul to participate in a focus group about Hamburg’s future.
Hochul was then a young mother who had recently moved back to her hometown after stints working in Washington for Rep. John LaFalce and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Hamburg is the most populous of the dozen “Southtowns” located below Buffalo and Lackawanna. The region is home to a combined 156,000 residents, the only NFL stadium in New York, and significantly more snow than even the famously blizzard-prone urban area just a few miles to the north.
“It’s a very unique town,” said Joan Kesner, who managed Hochul’s first campaign for office and was eventually recruited by the future governor to run for office herself since “she wanted another woman on the board.”
“You’re seven minutes to the stadium, seven minutes to the farm, you’re 10-15 minutes to the city“ of Buffalo, Kesner said. “We have our own mall, we have great restaurants, we have our own beach, we have a whole mix of housing stock.”
By the 1990s, there was a “surge” of development with big box stores beginning to move to town, she said. “And Kathy really took that on. She made a concerted effort that we all sit down at the table to start planning where we wanted these developments to be.”
Hochul founded the Village Action Committee group with her mother, Patricia Courtney, and the co-owner of her mother’s floral shop. The goal, according to a column in the Sun written by Courtney, was “restoring Hamburg to its former identity as a quaint small town where residents are proud to walk down Main Street.” They recruited roaming carolers to wander the business district in December, obtained a “4-foot by 6-foot blue sign” encouraging people to shop local, and voiced concern about rushed development plans in town meetings.
All of this helped catch the eye of local Democrats. And when there was an opening on the town board in early 1994, Hochul was appointed to serve the remainder of the year.
She eventually won a race to finish the final year of the term to which she had been appointed. She would go on to be elected to three complete four-year terms. And throughout that career, she developed a reputation as the board member most focused on smart development and making sure the town’s Main Street — which is still one of the most walkable and thriving downtowns of any upstate suburb — wouldn’t suffer as a result.
Daniel Meyer, a former editor for the Sun, noted that Hochul’s original involvement in development came “when they were trying to build the first Walmart in Hamburg.” The megastore planned to build a new and larger location a little over a decade later and “she was very instrumental in making sure it fit the neighborhood.” The store was built, but rather than looking like the cookie-cutter blue and gray design familiar in most of the country, it featured reddish brick and a dozen white columns.
“She just did a really good job of balancing the growth that was occurring with the need of the residents, and developers knew they kind of needed to go through Kathy to make sure that the projects were taking everything into consideration, whether that be traffic or noise or whatever the case may be,” Quatroche said. “She specifically made a couple of projects look a lot better.”
No issue too local
Like planning and zoning, most of the issues that town government deals with have always been very granular and directed toward basic constituent services. At a meeting of Hamburg’s planning board last week, for example, members deliberated over whether one man was allowed to put his house on Airbnb for a few months of the year and if a local brewery could add some more toilets.
The entirety of Town Hall isn’t much bigger than the corridor of the state Capitol where the governor’s top staff have their offices, and the halls were filled with examples of the types of issues that are dealt with at this level of government — there was information about signing up for defensive driving classes, a dropbox for traffic ticket pleas, and a flyer promoting a fundraiser to paint a water tower to look like a hamburger.
None of this is terribly different from the types of issues that Hochul focused on for nearly half of her career. (The hamburger water tower debate, notably, predates her public life. The town is one of many that claims to be where the ubiquitous sandwich was invented.)
Hochul played a key role in efforts like the creation of a town visitor center, the expansion of the town golf course from nine to 18 holes, and an increase in the fine for leaving a junk car on a lawn from $25 to $50. She was the “go-to person” for a town referendum on garbage and recycling collection, Meyer said.
She organized a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’77, which dumped up to 100 inches of snow on the region. She sold sunsets, which resulted in at least 15 people paying $25 for commemorative pictures as a fundraiser for the Lake Erie Seaway Trail Visitors Center.
At the first annual “Blast on the Beach” event in 2000, “she spearheaded the time capsule,” according to Laura Hahn, who now helps run a town cleanup committee that Hochul founded in the 1990s. At the second Blast on the Beach the following year, the incoming governor had to apologize to the crowd when the fireworks delivery man accidentally drove the expected pyrotechnics to Hamburg, Pa.
Articles from her time in town government reference her involvement in well more than a dozen community groups. That included the founding of a transitional house for domestic violence victims.
“Her and her mother saw a need for a haven house in the Southtowns,” Kesner said, “because the victims of domestic violence didn’t want to go into the city for help. So they took it upon themselves to buy a home and convert it into a place where the victims and children could safely live.”
While many of these tasks had little to do with party or ideology, Hochul was not shy about getting involved in some partisan efforts. She served as the vice chair of the county Democratic Committee, and she was a local spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign for U.S. Senate.
When Buffalo’s Crystal Peoples-Stokes launched a longshot bid to oust Republican Rep. Jack Quinn in 1988, Hochul “was the only one that embraced me in that community and made sure I was aware of all the community events that were going on,” said Peoples-Stokes, who is now the second highest ranking member of the state Assembly.
But politicking rarely seems to have dominated her time.
“Party label means nothing to me when it comes to delivering service,” she said while running in her first campaign. “At the local level of government, someone please tell me the difference between Democrats and Republicans.”
Jack Quinn III, the son of Peoples-Stokes’ opponent and Hamburg’s representative in the Assembly for three terms, agreed. He noted that most of his interactions with Hochul involved “funding issues for the town. … It was nothing really political, because on the town level, there’s not much political stuff you can work on.”
Throughout all of this, Hochul was a regular at the types of events that increase interactions with constituents that scared Kemp away from local government. Notably, the first issue she took on when joining the board was establishing a “Councilman’s Night In,” setting up regular times where people could meet with their elected officials.
“She was everywhere, all the time, at every parade, every chicken barbecue, every ribbon cutting,” Quinn said. “She sees a real importance in getting feedback to how government can help everyday people.”
Hochul has had a similar reputation as lieutenant governor, regularly undertaking grueling travel schedules to visit these sorts of events in every corner in the state. It might be easy to view those assignments as her simply playing the role that her predecessor characterized as being the governor’s “cheerleader in chief.” But it’s clear from looking at her early career that she genuinely thrives at this sort of activity, and when she says she’ll “travel the state to meet New Yorkers, to listen to them,” as she did in her first public appearance following Cuomo’s resignation announcement, it’s a safe bet she means it.
Albany will soon have a governor who’s more obsessed with hearing from everyday New Yorkers than any chief executive in modern history. It’s a stark difference from the outgoing governor, who spent his formative political years as a political enforcer for his father and does not exactly appear enthused on the rare occasions when he has unscripted interactions with the masses.
That’s not a guarantee she’ll be a good governor — the ability to remember the name of a voter met at a fair is not proof that one can manage a $200 billion budget — but it’s certainly something different, and lawmakers of both parties are optimistic her style will result in a better climate in the state Capitol.
“She listened to people, she was open-minded, and where we had the ability to work together on things, we did,” said state Sen. Pat Gallivan, a Republican from nearby Elma who was county sheriff for much of Hochul’s time in local government. “That is clearly something that has been lacking between the legislative branch and the executive branch.”
Hochul’s rise from the sort of local politician who’s well-known in civic circles to one whose name was widely bandied about any time there was an opening in higher office was due in part to a massive number of pennies.
Most of the upstate portions of the state Thruway system primarily used by daily commuters are toll-free. But that wasn’t true for much of Western New York.
Hochul was the first elected official to call for removing two of the toll barriers in her district.
“The citizens of Buffalo and its first- and second-ring suburbs should not be penalized every time they leave their boundaries by paying tolls to drive to work, go to the mall, visit downtown attractions or take the kids to play hockey,” she wrote in a 1998 op-ed in The Buffalo News. “At a minimum, the extra expense of commuting from Hamburg through the Lackawanna tolls to downtown or Amherst is between $100 and $200 annually.”
When the question of tolls became a populist rallying cry the following decade, she was well-positioned to become the government official most at the forefront of the issue. That included an alliance with the radio hosts of Shredd & Ragan, the morning show on Buffalo’s alternative rock station, who dove into the issue when one toll in South Buffalo was hiked from 50 cents to 75 cents. They attempted to organize their listeners to throw the Thruway system into disarray by paying in pennies.
“We had everybody line up with pennies, tying up traffic,” the hosts reminisced on a show the morning after Cuomo announced his resignation. “And Kathy … just came out of nowhere — I don’t think we specifically invited her, Kathy just showed up, said ‘I brought you guys some coffee and some donuts.’”
The protest eventually led to the complete removal of the toll barrier in question.
By that point, Hochul was spending much of her time working as Erie County deputy clerk, a position to which she was appointed in 2003. And she soon gained a brighter spotlight when the office of clerk itself became available in 2007 when then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer chose the incumbent to be his DMV commissioner, and Spitzer appointed Hochul to leave town office and finish the term. She won a special election to Congress in 2011, but was ousted when the district was redrawn to be more Republican-friendly the following year. After Hochul spent two years working for a bank, Cuomo chose her to be his running mate in 2014.
Those who’ve known her throughout that rise say there’s never been a point where she’s abandoned her focus on individual interactions.
Dave Sherman, a retired newspaper editor, first met Hochul when she had him participate in a meeting she organized in an attempt to settle a territorial dispute between the fire departments in Hamburg and nearby Orchard Park.
He reached out to her years later following the death of Cliff Preisigke, the official photographer for the Buffalo Fire Department. Preisigke was widely respected among first responders and the news media, and was well tenured enough to have a New York Press license plate with the number “7.”
“I didn’t want some kid from Staten Island to get those plates” following Preisigke’s passing, Sherman said, since their legacy “was a big part of the Fire Department and photojournalism.”
He called Clerk Hochul to seek her help in obtaining the plate number for himself.
“Just a few weeks later … she gave me the name and number of a guy at the DMV in Albany and said ‘Call this guy right away, he’s waiting to hear from you,’” Sherman said. “When I retired [earlier this year], she sent me a handwritten note with a smiley face that she drew, asking, ‘Do you still have those plates?’”
This emphasis on “sidewalk government” distinguishes Hochul from so many of the “cold and aloof” people who have occupied the Executive Mansion, Sherman said. “I can’t imagine having a conversation with Andrew Cuomo about my license plates.”