Q&A: Kathy Hochul
Here’s the thing about winning when you’re not supposed to: nothing else in life seems improbable. Democrat Kathy Hochul has turned her May 2011 election victory in the heavily Republican 26th Congressional District into a challenge-meeting mantra. The day after she suddenly and surprisingly landed in Washington, having secured hastily arranged lodging in the home of a fellow representative, Hochul was asked if she could play softball. The Congressional Women’s Softball Team was short a few players, and their annual charity game was looming. Though she’d never considered herself athletic and really didn’t know the game, she said yes. “I just won an election, which I wasn’t supposed to do. I remember thinking, ‘I can do anything!’ ” It turns out the former Erie County clerk and Southtowns native is a pretty good centerfielder, the perfect spot for someone who considers herself not too far left, and not too far right.
So, the former Kathy Courtney of Woodlawn, New York, do you pinch yourself every morning? Is this where you thought you’d end up one day?
Kathy Hochul: When I walk to my office in Washington and see the Capitol dome against the sky, well, I do feel it is a tremendous privilege to hold this job. But my career goal was to be a staff person for a member of the Senate. I got interested in politics at Hamburg High, where I had an internship working for Tim Russert at Erie County Democratic Headquarters. I worked on Senator Pat Moynihan’s first race. I learned so much, especially how powerful public service could be a force for good.
Was the Courtney family very political? You were born around the corner from the Woodlawn Diner, the Southtowns political mecca.
No, my family is all business. But I was born in Woodlawn, in a one-bedroom flat, the second of six children. My dad was working at Bethlehem Steel while earning his college degree. When I was in early grade school, we moved to Long Avenue in the Village of Hamburg, where I spent my childhood. In high school I worked at Ski’s Takeout, a pizzeria, waitressing and cooking. I never had time for sports—my brothers were the superstar athletes. I went on to Syracuse University for political science. I met my husband, Bill [William J. Hochul, Jr. is U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York State], a Cheektowaga native who was studying at Notre Dame, when we both had internships with the New York State Assembly in the Donovan Building in Buffalo. It was the summer of 1980. That was one of the last times we were in the same place together for a while—when he came back to go to UB Law School, I went on to study law at Catholic University in Washington D.C. In the summer of 1984, two weeks after Bill took the bar exam, we were married. We lived in Washington for a while, as he was a federal prosecutor and I was in Moynihan’s office, and then I worked for Congressman John LaFalce. We had two children by then, and when Bill was offered a job working for Dennis Vacco [former New York State Attorney General who also served as U.S. Attorney and an Erie County Assistant District Attorney], well, the kids were three and one, and our priorities had shifted back home.
You became a stay-at-home mom. But you didn’t stay out of politics.
My mom had opened a florist shop, Expressions Flowers & Gifts, and I helped her out. We all pitched in at busy holiday times, even my dad, who was by now in a new profession, where he’d worked his way up to the presidency of Computer Task Group. We all helped deliver flowers all over town. At the time in Hamburg, a Walmart was opening. My mom and I started the Village Action Coalition to help small business owners adapt to the changes that were coming. I starting going to Hamburg Town Board meetings and advocating for retaining the quality of life in our community. With Jack Quinn’s departure for Congress, an opening occurred, and I ran for the board. I ended up serving for thirteen years.
Are your kids interested in politics?
I don’t know yet! Our son, Billy, is a Geneseo graduate and a third-year law student at Notre Dame. He will be working for a firm in D.C. next summer. Katie graduated from the University of Mary Washington and is with a recruiting firm in Northern Virginia. She has worked in community service projects in Central America during school vacations for several years. I think my kids are much better citizens because they’ve been exposed to my philosophy to use public service opportunities to do good for your community. I feel a real need to teach the next generation of women, in particular, to think bigger than I did, so I speak to a lot of women’s groups. You need to reach your hand back and help bring up the next generation, I believe.
You have moved beyond what were modest career ambitions. In view of recent turns of events, have you revised your plans for the future?
Look, I am very pragmatic. Life has been good to me. I have a level of contentment, and I am not always looking for the next rung up. I see now that public service through political office is more like a calling for the women in Congress, and not just some kind of ego-gratification. Women endure a lot, we are tough and resilient, and we can handle anything that is thrown our way. We need to hear more women’s voices, and we need more of their collaborative, problem-solving approaches. Women have stepped back from opportunities [in politics] not because they can’t take it, but because they don’t want to expose their families to the negativity. What’s been the hardest part of this job for me is the hyper-partisanship that is really paralyzing congress. When I worked for Moynihan, it was a different era. Members of congress acted like statesmen, and bipartisan cooperation was encouraged. It’s about treating one another with respect. My challenge is to deal with an institution I know could be better. Neither side has a monopoly on all the right answers. We can do better—we really can! I love this job, and I feel like I am in a position to really help this community for which I care so much.
The New York Times noted you were one of the more prominent Democratic members of Congress who stayed away from your party’s national convention last month. What were you thinking?
That I had work to do at home. One of the things I like best about this job is talking to all kinds of people, to see what’s going on in their lives. I put on my jeans and walk through the field with the farmer whose crops have been severely damaged by infestation and drought. I stop at the local diner in small towns and have coffee with workers who tell me I am the first Democrat they’ve ever voted for. I go back to work and fight to keep our jobs from being shipped overseas, to keep the Niagara Falls airbase open. I will never become cynical—it is my honor to be here in this office.
You must need downtime. What do you do for fun? Read, relax?
I am usually reading briefing papers until midnight, and then up at five for the day. I do bike with my husband every morning—sometimes that’s the only time we get to see one another. But listen, I do get energized by my work. I’ll relax when I’m retired. I just take each day as it comes. My parents, in their mid-seventies, are still my advisors. I’ve had a loving husband for twenty-eight years. We have two great kids. It does not get any better than that!
Maria Scrivani writes on WNY history and culture and about people who make a difference.