Who Is Kathy Hochul?

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With everyone declaring Democrats’ victory in NY-26 a simple indictment of Republicans’ Medicare plans (with the requisite special election caveats), it’s worth remembering that by most accounts, victor Kathy Hochul was the better all-around candidate. So, who is the congresswoman-elect?

Hochul has solid roots in the Democratic party. After earning an undergraduate degree from Syracuse and a juris doctorate from Catholic University, she spent time as a congressional legal aide, serving the iconic late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former Rep. John LaFalce. Hochul’s husband, William J. Hochul Jr., whom she married in 1984, was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York by President Obama in 2009. But her real asset in this year’s congressional race was her own public service record.

A veteran local politician, Hochul served on the Hamburg Town Board in the ’90s before ascending to Erie’s deputy county clerkship and then county clerkship in the aughts. She had a reputation as a relentless campaigner and savvy self-promoter, and was reportedly eying a run for higher office even before Chris “The Craigslist Congressman” Lee resigned his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in February.

“If there’s a way to grab media attention — any media attention — she succeeds,” the Buffalo News wrote in 2010, speculating that she might be trying to make the jump from clerk to county executive. Back in 2007, she was profiled in the New York Times for waging an intraparty fight against then-governor Elliot Spitzer, the man who appointed her, over driver licenses for illegal immigrants. She also bucked his successor, David Paterson, on license plate fees. That might help explain why Hochul was prepared — and relentlessly on message — when the high-profile issue of federal health care entitlements consumed her congressional race.

Jane Corwin, Hochul’s Republican rival, was relatively new to politics, only emerging from the private sector in 2008 to win a seat in the state assembly. Corwin’s personal wealth allowed her to self-fund her campaign, but the deluge of outside money sparked by the proxy war over Medicare largely wiped out that advantage and her opponents sought to cast her as out-of-touch with the blue-collar district.  She also appeared ill-prepared for the entitlement fight. “I probably would have addressed the Medicare message — coming out at my opponents — quicker,” she said when asked if, given another shot, she would have done anything different.

The personalities and histories of candidates tend to have a greater impact under the heightened scrutiny of a special election, especially ones that are nationalized in the way Tuesday’s was. Hochul, for her part, will be tested again next year when she must defend her newly won seat in what remains a conservative-leaning district (assuming it’s not lost to redistricting).