When Kathy Hochul unexpectedly ascended to the governor’s mansion last August, elevated after her predecessor’s sexual harassment scandal, she hardly resembled the kind of political powerhouse New Yorkers were accustomed to — brash, self-aggrandizing, male and from downstate.
Many in Gotham’s tight-knit political class immediately assigned an asterisk to her name and predicted that Ms. Hochul, a moderate from Buffalo with a penchant for making friends but not headlines, would struggle in a pitched primary battle to hold onto the job.
Six months later, they could scarcely look more wrong.
Instead, Ms. Hochul set out on a brisk campaign to corner party leaders and crowd out potential rivals that was as ruthlessly efficient as it was exceedingly congenial. Leveraging the powers of her office as well as her own self-effacing style, she put a new face on a state government mired in scandal and built a campaign juggernaut that had amassed $21 million by January, more than any of her rivals combined.
The transformation from accidental governor to unquestioned front-runner will culminate on Thursday when Ms. Hochul, 63, is poised to win the Democratic Party’s endorsement for a full term ahead of its June primary. In a nod to Ms. Hochul’s history-making status as the first woman to lead New York, Hillary Clinton plans to introduce her as the party’s new standard-bearer at a convention in Midtown Manhattan.
“The nomination is going to be a coronation for her,” said former Gov. David A. Paterson, who, like Ms. Hochul, took office in the wake of a predecessor’s scandal-fueled resignation. “It’s astonishing how you would almost think she’s been there for five years.”
It is all the more remarkable given that just a year ago, Ms. Hochul’s political career appeared headed toward a dead end. Last winter, before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo became mired in sexual harassment allegations, his aides had curtly informed Ms. Hochul that he planned to boot her from the ticket as his lieutenant governor when he ran for a fourth term in 2022.
Since then, Ms. Hochul has benefited from no shortage of good fortune: Mr. Cuomo’s swift undoing; an influx of federal funds that pushed New York into the black; and the decision by her most serious primary rival, the attorney general Letitia James, to abandon her campaign for governor just as it got off the ground.
But the story of Ms. Hochul’s ascent goes beyond chance, and is built just as much on 18-hour days, shrewd political maneuvering, dogged fund-raising, careful preparation and relationships forged over years of quietly trudging across the state as lieutenant governor, according to interviews with close to 30 political operatives, lawmakers, union leaders and campaign advisers who have closely watched her trajectory.
She has not won over the political class with a particular ideological agenda or new policy vision, to the chagrin of some of her left-leaning critics, but rather a bet that a state exhausted from years of political scandal and a draining pandemic is not particularly interested in more drama from Albany.
“What is it they say about luck? Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” said James Featherstonhaugh, a fixture of Albany’s lobbying scene. “When she became governor, it’s not like she dropped in from the moon. She understands New York state government probably as thoroughly as anybody.”
Ms. Hochul’s seeming aversion to taking clear ideological stances on certain contentious policy disputes, like new caps on rent increases or whether to scale back the state’s recent changes to bail laws, appears motivated, at least in part, by a desire not to alienate the right or left. But it remains unclear whether that consensus-oriented approach can excite the real-world voters she needs to win.
Though polls show her with a comfortable lead, Ms. Hochul already faces accusations from her primary opponents — Representative Tom Suozzi and the New York City public advocate, Jumaane D. Williams — that she is obfuscating on issues like crime and housing, or kowtowing to the special interests funding her campaign.
And political strategists say there are signs in polls and on the ground that Ms. Hochul is not yet generating the kind of enthusiasm among the Black, Latino and young voters around New York City that she may need to assemble a winning general election coalition.
“Enthusiasm means everything,” said Gabby Seay, a labor strategist who served as Ms. James’s campaign manager. “She has to work in order to build that relationship where folks are on fire about her candidacy. The question is, does she have time to do that while she is governing?”
Ms. Hochul, who declined to be interviewed, told reporters on Tuesday that she intended to “run like an underdog until it’s over” and would prioritize informing New Yorkers about her policies.
As Mr. Cuomo’s career collapsed in slow motion last spring and summer, Ms. Hochul carefully concealed her aspirations for higher office. But privately, she spent the first half of 2021 diligently preparing to take charge, should the moment come. “She was not naïve,” said Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
When the moment arrived, Ms. Hochul moved swiftly.
Within weeks, she had overhauled the executive chamber, installing seasoned women in top posts, ousting Cuomo loyalists, and picking Brian A. Benjamin, a Black state senator from Harlem with deep ties throughout the city, as her lieutenant governor.
She signed progressive bills Mr. Cuomo had spurned; appeared alongside his longtime enemy, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio; invited labor organizers to private dinners; and impressed business leaders with talk of reopening offices and holding tax rates steady.
“You get the sense you are speaking to somebody who is actually listening to you, not just going through the motions,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of the city’s largest public union, District Council 37.
In Albany, legislators have been almost giddy. After years of being insulted, humiliated and belittled by Mr. Cuomo, they watched in near disbelief in January as Ms. Hochul proposed a record $216 billion state budget that not only funded their priorities but set aside $2 billion for pandemic initiatives for lawmakers to help allocate.
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“Before Gov. Hochul, I used to say that I served with eight governors, and they all seemed to use the same training manual,” said Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat in his 52nd year in the Assembly. “Of the 35 budgets that I’ve seen as health chair, this is by far the best.”
Ms. Hochul’s task was made far easier by a flood of one-time federal investments. Where her predecessors battled with deficits, Ms. Hochul has been able to propose spending liberally on major capital projects, schools and health care workers. Each proposal won her plaudits with key constituencies — and helped her attract campaign contributions.
At the same time, Ms. Hochul used every tool she had to court endorsers and campaign donations, one $250,000 fund-raiser at a time. Lawmakers and union leaders, some of whom had known her for years, described repeated phone calls asking for support, which left them calculating whether to bet against a sitting governor who had the power to include or bypass their priorities in the budget.
Early endorsements by Hazel N. Dukes, the head of the New York State chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., and Emily’s List, a national fund-raising powerhouse for female candidates who support abortion rights, helped lend a sense of momentum that grew though the fall, with her campaign announcing fresh endorsements almost daily.
“She is relentless,” said Emily Giske, a prominent Albany lobbyist. “You have 24 hours in the day. She has 48.”
Ms. Hochul’s strategy has not been without stumbles.
Amid a rash of high-profile crimes in New York City, Mr. Suozzi and Republicans criticized the policies of Alvin Bragg, the progressive new district attorney, in Manhattan and pointedly attacked Ms. Hochul for not firing him. But some Black leaders felt the governor had gone too far in the other direction, appearing too sympathetic to those targeting Mr. Bragg, the first Black person elected to the position, at a time when they felt he was being unfairly scapegoated.
“She has work to do,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “She seems like she’s going to try to do it. But she’s got to make sure that she does not go too far away from the base of what is the Democratic Party.”
Progressives are sounding alarms about Ms. Hochul’s reliance on mega-rich donors, fearing that they could shape her policies and that her relationship with them could expose her to pay-to-play accusations.
And there are other questions about the durability of Ms. Hochul’s approach over time in such a fractious state. Dennis Mehiel, a major Democratic donor and former candidate for lieutenant governor who has backed Ms. Hochul, said that governing by force, while unsavory, had been key to her predecessor’s successes.
“Kathy’s approach is one of collaboration and conciliation, which I applaud,” Mr. Mehiel said. “What we don’t yet know is whether one can govern New York State over the long term without using a sledgehammer.”
But Ms. Hochul has warned against underestimating her ability to lead decisively. She has not flinched from fights with health care workers and local Republican leaders furious over her Covid-related mandates.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a longtime ally who also hails from well outside New York City, said that the governor’s “tough-as-nails” resilience would reveal itself. But she said it was unsurprising that many in New York, a state that has never elected a woman to lead it, would still be grasping to understand the source of Ms. Hochul’s power.
“Many women govern differently,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “It’s much more about empathy and understanding, listening, closing divides, healing wounds.”
Katie Glueck contributed reporting.