She obtained local government posts in her native Erie County, which encompasses the Rust Belt city and adjoining communities, by running not only on the Democratic line but that of the state’s Conservative Party. Appointed Erie County Clerk in 2007 by then-Gov Eliot Spitzer—a Democratic favorite at the time—she shot to statewide prominence by going after the Buffalo area’s undocumented immigrant population: when Spitzer that same year proposed granting drivers licenses to migrants without a social security number, she not only fought to block the policy but threatened to have any such applicant who turned up at her office arrested.
It was largely this record and reputation that she ran on when GOP Rep. Chris Lee resigned his seat in the House in 2011 over a lewd photo scandal, although she did support the Affordable Care Act. Her victory in a four-way race, in a strongly Republican district and at the height of the Tea Party wave, seemed like a coup for the Democrats and then-President Barack Obama.
But the Obama administration soon learned Hochul was anything but a reliable ally. While she endorsed increasing taxes on high income earners, she reiterated her campaign-era openness to cutting entitlements such as Medicaid, supported stripping out portions of the Affordable Care Act, and voted for the GOP-sponsored balanced budget amendment.
Most notably, she was one of 17 House Democrats who voted with Republicans to declare Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for declining to cooperate in an investigation into the “Fast and Furious” scandal, in which certain Department of Justice offices deliberately allowed gun dealers to sell firearms to traffickers, in the hopes of tracking the weapons to drug cartels.
The National Rifle Association had promised to reward those who voted in favor of the measure, and it followed through: its campaign arm supported Hochul for a full term in 2012, an endorsement she aggressively promoted in her re-election campaign. She also boasted that she had “become very conservative in my voting record.”
But it was not enough. Hochul lost her seat to Republican businessman Chris Collins, who would later have to resign himself after copping to insider trading charges.
Hochul left politics to take a job in banking. When she returned in 2014, as Cuomo’s handpicked running mate, she’d metamorphosed into a different sort of Democrat. She now applauded the governor’s signature piece of gun control legislation, anathema to gun rights groups, and even said she was open to supporting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants—and fully endorsed the proposal by the time she ran for a second term as lieutenant governor in 2018.
She also boosted the governor’s new Women’s Equality Party line, which became an object of irony and ire after multiple female staffers alleged Cuomo had sexually harassed them this year.
But her earlier conservative incarnation always loomed in the background. During the 2014 campaign, her opponent in the primary, Columbia University Professor Tim Wu, drew attention to her earlier conservative incarnation. And even after she’d won the Democratic nomination for the state’s second slot, it emerged she had once donated money to the ministry of an anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion preacher from Texas.
Hochul, who had long received support from pro-choice groups such as EMILY’s List, claimed she had had no knowledge of the evangelical pastor’s social stances.
Even as Cuomo glided through Democratic primaries against high-profile but low-power progressive opponents like actress Cynthia Nixon, Hochul still struggled a bit, topping her 2018 opponent by fewer than 100,000 votes.
Hochul’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But such evolutions are far from unheard of in New York, given the schism between its fiercely conservative rural regions and deep-blue Democratic cities, and the nation’s increasingly polarized politics. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) served a term-and-a-half in the House of Representatives as a pro-gun, anti-sanctuary city, pro-English-only education Democrat, only to morph into a liberal paragon after former Gov. David Paterson appointed her to the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.