- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2021

Incoming New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, is expected to face challengers on the left next year as potential rivals pore over her past opposition to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and other positions that were out of step with the party’s liberal base. She once received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

In a state with ultraliberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ms. Hochul’s political background is far from left-wing. During a brief stint in Congress, she voted with Republicans to hold Obama Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for refusing to cooperate in an investigation of the botched Operation Fast and Furious, in which federal officials lost track of guns that were supposed to be used in a sting of Mexican drug cartel leaders.

“The left is going to perceive a real window of opportunity here,” said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “Their calculation is going to be that they’ll try to portray her as someone who’s not strong enough on the causes. And the assumption will be that there’s no way [Democrats] can lose the general election.”

While preparing to take over for resigning Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Aug. 24, Ms. Hochul announced her intention to run for a full term next year. She will become New York’s first female governor when she takes the oath of office next week.

Among the Democrats who haven’t ruled out a primary challenge to Ms. Hochul are Mr. de Blasio, state Attorney General Letitia James — the first Black woman to hold statewide office — and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx, who served as deputy national operations director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Ms. Hochul made a name for herself in state politics as Erie County clerk in 2007, when she opposed Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to migrants who didn’t have Social Security numbers. She threatened to have any such applicant arrested if they showed up at her office to obtain a license and said Mr. Spitzer was giving “cover” to undocumented migrants.

“I do not support the governor’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” she said to cheers and applause from the audience at a candidate’s debate near Buffalo in 2007. “I have a problem with that, ladies and gentlemen.”

She knew she had hit a hot-button political issue. “It’s all anyone wants to talk about,” she told The New York Times at the time.
The stance helped her get elected to Congress in 2011. But as Mr. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, she reversed her position in 2018 and supported giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants under a plan known as the Green Light initiative.

It was the same year that two far-left Democrats, New York City Council Member Jumaane D. Williams and “Sex and the City” actor Cynthia Nixon, were trying to use the driver’s license issue in their primary challenges of Ms. Hochul and Mr. Cuomo.

“We in government are called upon to be open to new facts and circumstances, and not be stubbornly captive to a position once held,” Ms. Hochul wrote in an op-ed about her change.

When she was a county clerk in the wake of 9/11, she said, she was concerned about the use of a driver’s license as identification “for access to airplanes and secure government installations.” Those concerns no longer existed, she said, because the federal government had mandated the use of a Real ID driver’s license or identification card requiring proof of citizenship to board a plane.

“I had taken a position that has now evolved,” Ms. Hochul said at a press conference last week. “And that evolution coincides with the evolution of many people in the state of New York.”

She said immigrants need the licenses “to be able to get to their jobs, and parents need to take kids to doctor’s appointments.”

Said Mr. Reeher, “People’s positions do evolve. When she was vehemently against it, she was looking at it from the administrative perch of ‘who’s going to be dealing with us.’ And now she’s looking at things in a more statewide fashion. I think that shifting your views as a response to a change in your role and your constituency isn’t necessarily an indication that you’re a chameleon or you don’t have any values.”

Ms. Hochul has said she believes her votes against repealing Obamacare cost her the House seat in the 2012 election.

Guns is another subject on which Ms. Hochul has evolved. When she ran for reelection to the House, she was one of only two New York Democrats whom the NRA endorsed that year.

“As Erie County clerk, she streamlined the government’s permit application process and provided gun shows with the staff and technology needed to ensure that sales went through quickly and safely,” the NRA said at the time. “In Congress, she has fought to strengthen the rights of gun owners traveling from state to state and to open public lands to hunting and fishing.”

Ms. Hochul said at the time, “I am honored to receive the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, an organization that represents thousands of western New York sportsmen. As a county clerk, I was a staunch advocate for sportsmen, and I have carried through on my commitment to protect their rights in Congress.”

She was one of 17 House Democrats who voted with Republicans to declare Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate in an investigation of the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal.

As lieutenant governor, Ms. Hochul has supported the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, known as the NY SAFE Act, which Mr. Cuomo called the toughest gun control law in the nation. Among its many provisions, the law reclassified an estimated 1 million firearms as assault weapons that must be registered with the state police, although noncompliance is widespread.

“Reasonable gun owners that I know would support background checks that have been proposed and getting certain guns off the streets,” Ms. Hochul said in 2014. “But there are extremists who will say that if you support the SAFE Act, you don’t support the Second Amendment. I don’t buy that.”

As governor, Ms. Hochul will undoubtedly be confronted with her political partnership with Mr. Cuomo, who quit rather than face impeachment over reports of sexual harassment of 11 women and a cover-up of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes.

The New York State Assembly said Friday that it would suspend its investigation of Mr. Cuomo once he steps down. Democratic leaders have concluded that they lack the authority to impeach the governor after he leaves office.

Some lawmakers urged the Assembly to move forward with impeachment proceedings, which could have barred Mr. Cuomo from holding state office again.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie said the investigation “did uncover credible evidence in relation to allegations that have been made in reference to the governor.”

Ms. Hochul has said she wasn’t close to the governor and knew nothing about the harassment accusations until they became public.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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