Opinion | What Kathy Hochul, New York’s Governor, Has to Prove

“I have to succeed,” Ms. Hochul told me. “There is no choice.”

Ms. Hochul’s ascension might look like an accident, a fluke of political turmoil and timing. But that’s not quite right. She herself is actually more like the opposite. Not an accident of the political culture but a product of it — and all the little things that still make being a female politician different.

Kathleen Courtney Hochul grew up in Hamburg, N.Y., near Buffalo, the second-eldest of six children of working-class Irish Catholic parents. Her parents were activists who fought for civil rights and protested the war in Vietnam, who taught their children that “you don’t just think about yourselves,” said her sister, Sheila Heinze. Ms. Hochul’s father worked nights at a steel mill while attending college in the day. Her mother founded a domestic violence shelter she named for her own mother, who’d left an abusive marriage, and ran a flower shop in town, where she employed “displaced homemakers.”

When she wasn’t in school, Ms. Hochul — who is described, repeatedly, by colleagues as “normal” and “very down to earth” — could be found babysitting, volunteering at the local Democratic headquarters or working at a pizza shop. At Syracuse University, where she served in student government, she was known as a consensus-builder. “Some of the guys she worked with were pretty charismatic speakers and knew how to hold a room,” said Jim Naughton, her co-vice president. “She didn’t have that gift, but she compensated for it extremely successfully with a kind of self-effacing earnestness that won people to her side.”

She met her husband of 38 years, William Hochul Jr., while interning with the New York State Assembly. Then an aspiring lawyer — he would go on to become the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York under President Barack Obama — Mr. Hochul moved to Washington to be with her as she completed law school at Catholic University and then worked on Capitol Hill. When she got pregnant with their children — William and Caitlin, now in their 30s — she and Mr. Hochul decided to move back to Hamburg, where, for the next few years, she shuttled the kids and helped her mother in the flower shop.

Ms. Hochul said she never saw herself as an elected official; she always planned to be behind the scenes. But when she learned of an election for her town board — and a 22-year-old man, barely out of college, still living with his parents, who was campaigning for it — she changed her mind. “Kathy at the time was already a lawyer from the District of Columbia, who had worked for the Congress, who had worked for the Senate, who had frankly worked in a really sophisticated law firm before she even went on the Hill,” Mr. Hochul recalled, “and one of the things that was going through her mind was, ‘Gee, am I even qualified to run for town board?’ When she saw this young man running, that was finally, ‘Hey, I might as well go for it.’”

There were two open seats, and both of them won. Ms. Hochul served for more than a decade, before being appointed Erie County clerk by Mr. Spitzer (yes, that Eliot Spitzer). It was the first, but far from the last, time Ms. Hochul’s career would be shaped by men in trouble.

In 2011, she ran for Congress in a special election in a heavily Republican district previously represented by Christopher Lee, who had resigned over shirtless selfies sent to a woman he met on Craigslist. She won that race but soon lost the seat, by 1.4 percentage points, to a man who would end up in prison for securities fraud. (“I’m over it!” she joked in a recent speech.)

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