Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul handled the attorney general's report on sexual harassment in the governor's office just the same way she's handled such allegations against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from the start: with caution.
But that's not how the Buffalo-based lieutenant governor is handling her own future, which she's preparing for – boldly.
Those parallel storylines come clear through the juxtaposition of two documents: Hochul's statement berating Cuomo's "repulsive and unlawful behavior" while stopping short of calling for his resignation, and her July campaign finance filing, which showed her with more campaign cash than any potential 2022 Democratic gubernatorial candidate not named Cuomo.
None of this came as a surprise to New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
"It's based on her political acumen," Sheinkopf said. "She's always been a good fundraiser," and Sheinkopf said that if Hochul runs for governor, her fundraising prowess could help her overcome the disadvantage a candidate from upstate always has in a statewide race.
"It would be a mistake to count her out," Sheinkopf added.
While Hochul refused to comment beyond her statement, those close to her expect that if Cuomo were to resign – making Hochul governor – she would almost certainly run for reelection next year.
For now, though, Hochul continues to do the delicate dance she's been doing since the Cuomo scandal exploded in March. She's traveling the state to push the Democratic agenda while treading lightly around the issue of Cuomo's future.
"Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any workplace, and certainly not in public service," Hochul said in a statement released several hours after Attorney General Letitia James issued a scathing report documenting charges by 11 women that Cuomo had sexually harassed them. "The Attorney General’s investigation has documented repulsive and unlawful behavior by the governor towards multiple women. I believe these brave women and admire their courage coming forward."
Hochul's statement, which was released about two hours after Cuomo denied James' allegations, also alluded to his possible impeachment by the New York State Assembly.
"No one is above the law," Hochul said. "Under the New York Constitution, the Assembly will now determine the next steps."
Hochul has maintained her usual schedule of public appearances across the state in recent months as the accusations against Cuomo lingered and as James worked on her report. She made an appearance in Buffalo Monday for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting on a new apartment complex on Jefferson Avenue and was in Albany for an event Tuesday before moving on to a series of appearances in New York City.
All through that time, she has been reluctant to comment on the governor's future – and she remained reluctant to do so on Tuesday.
"Because lieutenant governors stand next in the line of succession, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the process at this moment," she said.
At the same time, though, Hochul has been busy working to secure her place in the line of succession, or to actually succeed Cuomo.
Hochul raised $525,267 in the first half of the year, according to her July report to the state Board of Elections. That left her with a campaign war chest of $1.7 million. That's nearly $100,000 more than James, who is widely viewed as the most formidable Democratic candidate for governor in the absence of Cuomo. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, another potential candidate for governor, had about $1.2 million on hand as of June 30.
James had to go on a fundraising spree just to come close to Hochul. James – whose campaign fund was more than a half a million dollars smaller than Hochul's at the start of the year – raised more than $1 million during the first half of 2021.
"Letitia will be able to increase that exponentially, I would think, if she wants to run," said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat and a longtime mentor to Hochul. "But Kathy will not be a slouch, either. A lot depends on whether Kathy will be governor from this time forward to the election, and that depends on whether Andrew will resign."
Cuomo vowed on Tuesday to remain in office, but he faced pressure to quit from every level of Democratic politics, from county party chairs in New York to the state's House members and U.S. senators all the way up to President Joe Biden.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat and close Hochul ally, said he thinks Hochul has been raising money in anticipation of Cuomo's eventual resignation.
And once she becomes governor, "Kathy, with a much higher profile, would greatly, greatly enhance her viability as a candidate next year," Higgins said. "She's very professional. She's very smart. She's very telegenic. You know, it could really be an opportunity for her."
And while Hochul isn't talking about it, it's clear she's planning on some sort of political opportunity. Political players across the state said she continues to fundraise aggressively – and one of them proved it by forwarding an invitation to a "private cocktail hour" at Hochul's Buffalo home in honor of her birthday in August.
The cost for those cocktails? It's $5,000 for "host" couples and $2,500 for "supporters."